Category Archives: Plotless

Achievement Anxiety, The Model Minority, and Raving Asians: On Substance (Ab)use and Asian American Identity

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Stories of marijuana legalization, e-cigarette bans, and DUI accidents proliferate throughout media, from newspapers to newsfeeds: and it has always been this way for decades. You hear about drugs in school, in church, and in pop music. It’s undeniable that drugs and institutional forces surrounding them play a large role in individual and national psyches.

I wish to investigate a very specific subset of the discussion of drugs, one often overlooked: What is the relationship between Asian-American identity and the use of drugs?

As most prominently shown in a recent surveys of Asian-Americans in the dance club/rave scene, the model minority myth serves as counterpoint to various viewpoints regarding drug use among Asian-Americans pertaining to cultural pressures and psychological health, institutional barriers in public policy, and identity creation.

Institutional Myths and Cultural Barriers to Treatment

The “model minority” stereotype depicts Asian-Americans as intelligent, non-confrontational, and upstanding students and workers who achieve social status through merit. The 1966 New York Times article “Success Story: Japanese-American Style” introduced the term to American discourse, praising Japanese-Americans for having strong family values and a resilient work ethic. Similar articles about Chinese-Americans followed suit. According to this positive image, Asian-Americans’ good values prevent them from being a “problem minority,” i.e, committing crime and using drugs.

Statistics confirm that Asian Americans have very low rates of arrest and have the lowest rates of drug use; however, do these figures also confirm them as the “model minority”? I believe the argument is reductive.

Though statistics are unavailable, it is believed that the rising use of “study drugs” such as Adderall in university settings is specifically on the rise for Asian American students. This is attributed to the academic pressures prescribed by social narratives and Asian American families.

Students are in a double bind: either they fulfill the stereotypical image of achievement and are burdened with the anxiety to continue performing well, or they fall short and feel the effects of parental and social disappointment. Psychological research confirms that the model minority stereotype harms the psychological wellbeing of Asian Americans. The cultural expectation can lead to social isolation, anxiety, and depression. If Asian parents are stressors rather than supporters of their children, Asian Americans may find drug use a method to cope with the pressures placed upon them.

In their article “Asian-Americans, Addictions, and Barriers to Treatment” by Dr. Timothy Fong and Dr. John Tsuang from the Los Angeles School of Medicine, they write that “AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islanders) may be less likely to ask for help” and are “are greatly underrepresented in addictions treatment,” due to social shame and stigma. While shame is a barrier for any ethnicity to ask for mental health assistance, it is magnified in the case of Asian Americans, whose “traditional response to crises is either denial or attempting to handle problems within the family itself.”

For fear of “losing face,” Asian Americans suppress addictive disorders, seeing them as “a medical problem, a sign of weakness, or a lack of willpower over Western temptations.” This response is often accentuated from past experiences in native countries, “whereupon such treatments are often equated with incarceration, banishment, or long-term institutionalization.” Thus, due in part to specific cultural modes of thinking, Asian Americans are far less likely to utilize substance abuse and mental health care, resulting in the underreporting of data on Asian American drug abuse.

In fact, the drug use among AAPI and mixed-race individuals was not subject to any studies prior to 2013. In past research regarding race and substance use, AAPI and mixed-race individuals were often omitted, or placed into the category of “other.” One can read the lack of research on Asian Americans as a byproduct itself of the model minority myth, which becomes self-fulfilling on an institutional level: If Asian Americans are not a “problem minority,” then there is little need to report on their drug use or devise culturally-specific mental health treatment for them.

Asian American Identity in the Dance-Scene 

Now, from institutional to subjective perspectives: how do Asian-Americans understand their own drug use?

In their study “’How Asian am I?’ Asian American Youth Cultures, Drug Use, and Ethnic Identity Construction,” Hunt, Maloney, and Evans interview 100 young people in the dance club and rave subculture who are consumers of various drugs including: alcohol, marijuana, ecstasy, and “club drugs” such as cocaine and LSD. The researchers investigated the connection between drug use and its role in shaping and constructing first and second generation immigrants’ ethnic identity from a personal standpoint. Seeing that there is no unified answer to Asian American identity and drug involvement, they sorted these narratives into three general categories.

1. Narratives of Disjuncture. These respondents describe their drug use as deviating from “typical” Asian Americans, as a result perhaps of increased assimilation and acculturation with American culture. They juxtapose themselves against their understanding of other Asians as “model minorities” and don’t consume drugs, which may be a source of anxiety or shame if seen as a “losing [of] one’s Filipino or Asian culture.”

Yet, this deviation may also be seen positively, as a source of pride for defying stereotypes. Whether positive or negative, these individuals employ different strategies to deflect stigma and criticism. For example, they may keep their drug use and party going activities secret from their ethnic group and experience “leading a double life,” or disidentify from other Asian Americans and associate with other racial groups. This result is a result of the idea that it is “not an Asian thing to do” to use drugs or go to clubs.

2. Asian American Hybridity. Rather than seeing their drug use in opposition to Asian American identity, respondents in this group see their participation in dance scenes as connected to “being both Asian and American and having an identity that transcends and/or fuses the two.” Many Asian Americans note the “in between status” as being neither fully Asian nor fully American.

Dance and drug use are ways for these individuals to find “balance and grounded identity” between cultural pulls from East and West.  Torn between the Asian emphases on family and academic achievement and American values of individualism and personal expression, one interviewee saw her partying and “rebellions as intrinsic to the experiences of young Asian Americans.” Other respondents viewed their activities as a form of “self-medicating,” a release from the pressures of achievement and satisfying the “need to reconcile conflicting expectations of multiple culture or achieving balance in their lives.” For these individuals, the use of drugs is a natural outgrowth of their unique ethnic identities.

3. Narratives of Normalization. For these respondents, ethnic identity had no remarkable connection with their dance-scene involvement. “Neither drug use, nor being Asian and American, nor being an Asian American drug user are seen as unusual, deviant or problematic,” but simply part of everyday life. These individuals conceptualize their drug use “as only one of many different commodities marking out the style of an individual.”

These styles range from “FOB” (“fresh off the boat,” a mocking term for recent immigrants) to “Twinkies” (or “Americanized Asians”) “gangsters,” and “square Asians” (who don’t consume drugs or dance). For these individuals, other “types” of Asian Americans are the basis against which they construct their own identities. The question for these respondents “is not so much whether” they would use drugs as Asian Americans, “but how.” At this point in our discussion, we have reached the deep end in ethnic culture, whereupon institutional narratives about drugs as a response to acculturation are divorced from the social settings of these youth cultures.

Drug use and treatment among Asian Americans have multiple, complex relationships with dominant stereotypes, institutional policies, cultural attitudes, and personal interpretations surrounding the treatment and use of drugs. As an ethnic group, Asian Americans are a diverse set of individuals facing different economic and sociocultural problems. Understanding the unique experiences and identities of Asian Americans in relation to dominant institutions and narratives is critical for policymakers or individuals to deal with the issues surrounding drug use and abuse. Further, it is also important for young Asian Americans to consider their own drug use and behavior within the culture their own individual surroundings. Rather than using drugs as merely an escapist tool, such contemplation may be useful for individuals looking to understand themselves.

Originally published at The Wang Post

Gender, Performativity, and Long Hair

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David Chiang, model

(Hair) Growth

In how many ways can a man grow in one year? I wish to be a mutant of growth; body and soul seeping in all different directions like tendrils of smoke. Unexpected developments in familiar places, reaching outward and spiraling inward. A second puberty: anxious and awkward, though without self-loathing. Confidence in self-consciousness, which if you strip away the denotation of insecurity, just means self-aware.

Speaking with a long-haired outreach worker earlier this year (written about in The Fun House), I made the conscious decision to let my hair free for a year. Thousands of strands rooted at my head — timelines marking growth and memory.

Why? For one, I’ve never done it before, and the thing about doing new things is that you learn new things. For another, my twenties are going to be the most practical (i.e. socially acceptable) time to grow my hair out. Lastly, because it seems like every male man, dwarf, elf, or wizard (hobbits have hockey hair) in the Lord of the Rings movies have long hair. And their braids and ponytail rings are just awesome.

On Gender, and a postmodern aside

Though this experiment is simple, what does it mean? Treatment of the body and its hair brings up firstly questions of gender and performativity, so let’s begin there. What is gender?

To quote Butler, “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.” Gender is formed by performative acts such as in mannerisms and stylizations, rather than by an internal or biological fact. One understands gender through socially constructed codes and signifiers — there is no reality of gender underneath.

Though writing from a very different philosophical position, Camus writes that even if there exists a Truth behind the actions of another person, we cannot know it. In The Myth of Sisyphus, he says that we do not know anything about an actor’s personality by watching him act. However, if we make a list of 100 characters the actor has been, it is true that we learn a little more about him upon hearing the 100th name. Thus, “a man defines himself by his make-believe as well as by his sincere impulses.”

We are all actors to the extent that we all perform. When in contact with others, we consciously change our habits and behaviors to manage impressions and avoid embarrassment. Using the lens of theater and dramaturgy, Erving Goffman wrote about the sociology of face-to-face interaction in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Each individual can choose their costumes and their props, in addition to the way they choose to present themselves to others. I haven’t read the book, but the Wikipedia article is great. The point is that there’s a substantial portion of social life which is regulated by appearances, and those appearances carry social meaning.

I’ve been having fun screwing with gender norms by wearing skirts. I am cismale, and straight. Mostly. And while men of all sorts (gladiators, monks, Irish dancers) have worn skirts for thousands of years, this culture has designated skirts as a clothing for women. My dip into transvestism probably has something to do with both gender and fashion. So too is the decision to grow out head hair. “Long hair is feminine,” says heteronormativity. We’ll rebut this soon, but my initial reaction is, “Excellent – this should be fun.”

Regarding the ‘meaning of gender,’ I find interesting the tension between gender roles as a social constructs, and the individual’s agency to perform the signs that determine their own gender. Think again to clothing. In modern terms, the clothes that we wear are signs that refer to an underlying meaning, most obvious that of socioeconomic status. There is a social meaning between signifier and signified. So too are certain gendered roles that one ‘puts on,’ expressing through action some type of truth about identity.

But if we think in post-modern terms, then the images and signifiers that one wears have no referents, and the way that one chooses to dress is an act of self-identification and self-production on the level of signifier to signifier. There is no unified or stable truth, and ambiguity reigns. At this point, to say I am male is empty of meaning. To quote Camus again, “Of whom and of what indeed can I say: ‘I know that!’ This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction. For if I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers.” So what is the postmodern identity? I’m afraid I can’t answer that question at this time, though it’s a question on my mind.

Recognizing that within me there are competing and complementing aspects of both femininity and masculinity, I seek to find out how each of them express themselves. Recognize that like a table of contents and the word ‘natural’, these categorizations and labels are both useful and misleading.

feminine : masculine ::

baking dessert : baking bread

unicycling : running

dancing with hips : dancing with legs

washing dishes : walking Scamper

“Long Hair is Feminine”

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Matsuda Shoda, actor

Let’s go back and add color and complexity to that statement, “Long hair is feminine.”

I read an essay titled “The Significance of Male Hair: Its Presence and Removal,” in which author Raj Singh inverts the dominant understanding of the femininity of long hair as it pertains to men. Some sharp prongs of his argument:

( 1 ) Demonstrated in its extreme in military regimes and prisons, and in its everydayness in employment expectations, the social expectation of men to cut their hair is a “token of submission” and reminder that “you are not a free person and cannot do as you please with your own body.”

( 2 ) Forcing or coercing men to cut their hair is emasculating. On the level of appearance, shaving has the effect of making a person look younger, “mimic[ing] the surface quality of the pre-pubertal face,” which may have the effect of changing the shaved man’s self-perception to that of a child. On the symbolic level, removing cranial hair has a clear meaning: castration.

( 3 ) To the extent that men are perceived as dominant, willful, and aggressive by nature (hence dysfunctional as a potential employee), the clipping of hair demonstrates “the best of both genders in that…he communicates to the employer that he intends to be as docile and obedient as would a female be presumed to be.”

Another interesting thing that Singh analyzes are the linguistic biases that we have against cranial hair, which reveal certain assumptions about our modes of thinking. The very phrase “clean shaven” creates the oppositional “dirty bearded,” and if one is “clean cut,” then the implication is clear that one who does not shave is unclean. Another interesting one is the phrase “grow a beard”:

Do we say that a man can make an affirmative decision to “grow a beard,” much as the expert, dedicated horticulturist can grow petunias in the desert? Or do we say that male facial hair growth is the default category and acknowledge that men can only become and remain bare faced when they “scrape off their faces with a piece of steel” on a daily basis?

Singh concludes by placing cranial shaving on a similar level of cultural rituals such as breast enhancement, liposuction, and genital mutilation. He argues that men who let their hair free are “relatively masterful of their own lives and valued as such,” recapturing their manhood and their personal autonomy.

I wasn’t expecting this argument. To be honest, I see pictures of men with long hair looking like women, and relish that prospect for myself*. But I am fond of these associations, and the tension between a feminine, physical appearance and masculine, symbolic demonstration is one that I’m pleased with.

I’m at two months without a cut. I’d normally be getting a haircut in a week or two, which means that I’m about to enter the awkward stage. I’ll look silly, but I see then I see the pony-tailed men at retail stores and the gym, and look forward to each day of growth.

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This is gorgeous. Chiang again.

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*Not of small import is the Asian racial identity of these models as well as myself. The discussion of intersectionality as pertains to sex and race deserves note. In the essay Looking For My Penis (1991), artist and postcolonial theorist Richard Fung investigates dominant (white) cultural representations of Asian sexuality. In these representations, while Asian women are fetishized

Asian men, however—at least since Sessue Hayakawa, who made a Hollywood career in the 1920s of representing the Asian man as sexual threat —have been consigned to one of two categories: the egghead/wimp, or—in what may be analogous to the lotus blossom-dragon lady dichotomy—the kung fu master/ninja/samurai. He is sometimes dangerous, sometimes friendly, but almost always characterized by a desexualized Zen asceticism. So whereas, as Fanon tells us, ‘the Negro is eclipsed. He is turned into a penis. He is a penis,’ the Asian man is defined by a striking absence down there.

All Asian men who have ever been the victim of a small-penis joke should immediately understand how culture has made its mark upon their sexuality. I conjecture that a substantial portion of sexual frustration and anxiety in Asian-American males today can be attributed to these dominant understandings.

Further Reading

“Are Subcultures Conformist or Libertine?” An essay about postmodernism, hipsters, and appearance. http://katrucia.tumblr.com/post/2053437322/are-subcultures-conformist-or-libertine

“Jean Baudrillard” An encyclopedia article about Baudrillard’s understanding of dress and fashion, and how their meanings have changed as pre-modern, modern, and postmodern societies have developed. http://angelasancartier.net/jean-baudrillard 

Bibliography

Asian Guys with Long Hair. http://aznguyswithlonghair.tumblr.com/

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. 1990.

Fung, Richard. Looking For My Penis. 1991. http://www.richardfung.ca/index.php?/articles/looking-for-my-penis-1991/

Singh, Raj. The significance of male hair: its presence and removal. 1997. http://www.choisser.com/longhair/rajsingh.html