Asian-American web culture defines “Asia” as an interest, not an identity

Four years ago, I helped out with building and moderating an “Asian social networking site” named Asian-Central, a start-up coming out of Stanford. The website was a Facebook-esque profile-based site–essentially what would result from the combination of Facebook and a culture-agnostic Soompi. One of the sites’ huge innovations, however, was the additional of the “rice bowl”, a point based system where users would collect rice points based on how much they were interacting with each other. The users with the greatest number of points were displayed on the main landing page in a leaderboard. Asian-Central members worked hard to accumulate rice points, but general consensus of the membership was that this grand accumulation effort was not to be on the leaderboard, nor was it to compete with others. Asian-Central members wanted to gain rice points simply because the concept of having a rice bowl was “cute and appealing” to them.

The rice bowl was not significant because it was catalyst for interaction. It was significant because if a feature named “rice bowl” popped onto a social network in Asia, such as Mixi or CyWorld, the general question would be: “Why does it have to be a rice bowl?” Social networking users in Asia are not foreign to point systems. In fact, they are extremely accustomed to them. Popular Asian MMORPGs, forums, and social many networking-enabled webpages run on point systems. These points often come in the form of gold, acorns, or just generic points. But to Asians, rice is a bit boring, and lacks any appeal: “It’s not a currency… would Americans have bread points?”, asks Jisun C. from South Korea.

Asian-American culture is very different from both American and Asian culture. More accurately, Asian-*** culture is very different from American and Asian Culture. This distinction is clear both in group determination and in statistics, but often unified in the mind. In fact, this essay might become very confusing to the reader if the split between Asian and Asian-American is not kept separated. Thousands of universities across the country have separate student groups for Asian-Americans and Asians, which relatively rarely interact with each other, but share the same ethnic focus. Schools known for diversity, such as UC Berkeley and UCLA, have Asian-American and Asian populations that, as a UC Berkeley student put it, look down on each other. These social-economic distinctions, which, admittedly, do not demonstrate the entirety of cultural differences, continue in very visible ways. The 2006 US census determined that Asian-Americans held the greatest number of six-figure and over jobs in the country, while Asians were earning slightly less than the average White Caucasian. Contrary to popular belief, a high priority on education seems to be the focus of Asian-Americans, but not necessarily Asians. It has always puzzled me how “tiger moms” could consider top-notch universities such as UPenn or Carnegie Mellon, or in my own case, MIT, “backup schools”, while in Asia, even entering any of those universities would be considered amazing accomplishments (as they are). Additionally, Asian-Americans statistically enter more top-tier universities and perform better in these universities than their Asian counterparts. Asian-American students consistently attain the highest SAT, ACT, and AP scores, while Asians score approximately on-par with the Caucasian population. When analyzing the number of Asian-Americans entering “Ivy-plus” universities (“Ivy-plus” being an Asian-American term expanding Ivy-league universities to include Stanford, MIT, and occasionally Caltech), Chinese newspaper 世界日报 found that Asian-Americans tended to score higher than students from Asian countries, with the exception of Singapore, which is famous for its powerful secondary-education program. Asian-Americans also participated in more student groups and interacted with larger social circles. But its not just about school. While Asian-Americans excel in education and in the workplace, Asians statistically tend to have a better grasp of foreign languages, were more involved in their community and local politics, live longer, have a far lower rate of obesity, and far lower rates of divorce.

My goal with the above statistics is to establish three important points: (1) Asian-American culture strives for neither American values nor Asian goals (although an individual might), (2) Asian-American culture is not a mixed subset or superset of Asian and American cultures, but a set entirely by itself, with interests in its parent cultures, and (3), while an Asian-American might strive for certain goals, such as success in education because s/he is “Asian”, this struggle may not actually be a goal aligned with Asian culture.

How does this all tie back to web culture? While Asian-American culture is often characterized by the constant struggle of an individual to find his/her cultural identity and usually finding something uniquely Asian-American, Asian-American web culture seems to jump identity line and focus on sharing a common interest in Asia. Because of this unique Asian-American outlook, separated from American and Asian ones, Asian-American web culture has dropped the hyphen and has evolved to be different from Asian and American web cultures, as well as separated from the Asian-American identity struggle.

Asian-Americans interacting on the web are not striving to fit in with their Asian or American, or even Asian-American counterparts, as they potentially would in real life. They are also not striving to be active in forums that are distinctly Asian or distinctly American, nor Asian-American. Rather, Asian-American internet users, whatever they have determined their identity to align with, are simply users of the internet with an Asian heritage and often, a shared interest in a highly generalized Asia. For example, Chinese-American, Japanese-American, Korean-American, and other Asian-American communities rarely meld and interact with each other; there is very rarely an “Asian-American” community. As mentioned before, Asian and Asian-American groups often do not interact with each other either. Online, however, this Asian-American cross-cultural interaction is focused on a generic Asia. Users of Asian-Central were far less concerned with what country other members were from, and were simply interested in Asian-themed items such as popular pop-stars, how “fobby” their parents are, and even rice bowls. Soompi, which is focused strictly on popular Korean discussions and news, has a user base which is diversely Asian-American, and not simply Korean-American. On both social networks, the actual number of Asian users is very low: on Asian-Central, it was less than 3%. There is almost no inertia to the Asian/Asian-American cultural difference. The identity struggle is faded. Asian-Americans interacting in Asian-American online communities are not trying to become more Asian, become more American, nor become more Asian-American. The online community is not generated around ethnicity, culture, or cultural identity, but a shared curiosity. Asian-Americans are simply joining with others to share in their interest in a generalized Asia.

Be Sociable, Share!


Alan Sien Wei Hshieh is a software developer, user interface engineer, prototyper, web/graphical designer, and musician living in Cupertino, California, in the United States.
This entry was posted in 1st-Generation, Cross-Cultural, Web Culture. Bookmark the permalink.