Credit: Rain Mazumder | Mustang News

To English sophomore Ashley Kang, when absorbing pop culture and different media outlets, people want to see themselves — and they also want to see themselves represented well.

On March 9, the Multicultural Center hosted a dialogue to discuss Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) representation in popular culture. This dialogue was created because Kang, a student assistant at the center, has an affinity for pop culture and wanted to contribute to the various dialogues that Student Diversity and Belonging hosts.

APIDA can include Central Asians, East Asians, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, Southeast Asians, South Asians and West Asians. However, it is important to note that grouping all of these cultures and regions can be extremely controversial outside of the US, according to Kang. 

In Kang’s presentation, it was mentioned that throughout history, APIDA people have faced the brute force of some government-issued acts, such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the Page Act, in which Asian women were seen as “immoral.” Throughout time, Pacific Islanders have been fetishized in relation to colonialism and Desi women have also been seen as gateways into sexuality. Sex tourism has also pushed negative and harmful stereotypes onto APIDA people by placing the stereotype of APIDA people as sex workers and the practice of marrying APIDA people because of certain stereotypes or assumed characteristics. 

For example, some stereotypical representations of APIDA people may include being the punchline, hyper-sexualized, emasculated, studious, obedient, religious or old and wise. These standards are set for APIDA people by non-APIDA people, Kang said.

Participants watched a portion of the video “Where Did The ‘Asian Fetish’ Come From,” during the dialogue. 

Rena M. Heinrich, an assistant professor at USC, said in the video that hypersexualization contributes to Asian fetishization, which has led to sexual assault against APIDA people. 

Representation in the late 19th century is also credited with having been imagined by white men, in which Chinese women who immigrated were thought to be sex workers.

Additionally, Heinrich said representation of the East often works in opposition to the West. For example, if the APIDA people in the West are seen as feminine, the APIDA people in the East are considered hyperfeminine and weak.

Kang said when people see good or bad representation, they internalize it, because our brains are trained to recognize patterns. People will start to notice the repetition of characters and actions within different forms of media and assume that people in real life might share these same characteristics. 

“Real-life people aren’t characters,” Kang said. 

When comparing the amount of diversity students see every day and that is involved in their everyday lives, pop culture will not match the same ratio of diversity. In fact, in 2021, out of 22,022 students at Cal Poly, 2,960 were Asian Americans and 50 were Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. This makes out to be only 13.44% and .23% of the student body. Bad representation perpetuates a cycle of institutionalized racism and ignores the voices of these people, Kang said.

Going against harmful stereotypes by showcasing the complete opposite may also be just as harmful, according to Kang. When APIDA people are often given the stereotype of being naturally smart and talented or quiet and obedient, and media showcase them as lazy and loud and obnoxious, it is still trivializing, she said. This creates an either-or representation in which the audience may perceive APIDA characters and people as quiet or loud, very traditional or rebellious, rather than just seeing them as people.

Communication studies professor Lisa Kawamura serves as the California Faculty Association APIDA co-chair and a member of The Asian Pacific Islander Faculty and Staff Association (APIFSA). She says a white supremacist power structure has made it so the public is often only educated from one point of view.

“To hear from other voices means other experiences and realizing what you know to be true might not be,” Kawamura said.

Kawamura said she deliberately goes against APIDA women stereotypes; if people assume she will be quiet, she is loud and direct, which has caused her to receive backlash from others. 

Growing up, Kang said there wasn’t much Korean representation in pop culture. Many people would go up to her and ask her racist questions based on the negative representation and harmful stereotypes that they had watched. However, later, when there was a boom in Korean representation, people still came up to her and asked harmful and hurtful questions, assuming that they were appreciating Korean culture. 

“It’s this weird dichotomy of ‘yay’ representation, but also, is this really representation?” Kang said. 

This new representation is still a flat image and continues to be trivializing as people are now are hyper-fixated on Korean culture. All the while, this ignores the connotations and history of Korean culture and the experiences that Korean people have faced. 

History and ethnic studies senior Halle Gotico said even though it is nice to have representation in pop culture, it is important to also showcase the culture and history of APIDA people, as well as the realities of these people’s lives. She said without positive representation, people will continue to pass down these stereotypes, negative outlooks and coping mechanisms to their children and create a generational struggle within families.

“It’s about finding that balance between celebrating a culture and being seen but also validating those experiences,” Gotico said. 

Some positive representations that were discussed during the dialogue were the movies “Turning Red” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” 

Students said “Turning Red” showed its audience that it’s okay to be Asian and grow up with a duality of culture where they can be themselves and still be a part of the culture that they are raised with. The character Abby also shifts back and forth between speaking Korean and English, which goes unfazed by the rest of the characters. By treating these instances as normal, it encourages the idea that Abby can be herself without judgment and that switching between languages is not a big deal the students said.

Students at the dialouge and Gotico also praised “Everything Everywhere All at Once” for its nuance and the depiction of an APIDA mother and daughter relationship.

“Representation is a way of affirming that you do belong or [to] validate your experiences,” said Gotico.

As much as it is important to have positive and quality representation in the media, the amount of this representation is also equally important for Gotico. Seeing the mass amount of positive representation recently in movies, TV shows, music and other aspects of pop culture is inspiring to see how demographics are changing she said. 

Kang said she wishes for Cal Poly students to be mindful of who they are and who the people around them are. It is also important to acknowledge how you can perpetuate stereotypes, she said. 

“Knowing something doesn’t necessarily mean the same as educating yourself and trying to move past that,” Kang said. 

Through the Multicultural Center, new dialogues will center around APIDA representation in different elements of pop culture. The next dialogue will center around movies and will take place in the beginning of spring quarter. The slides to the APIDA dialogue can be found on the Linktree at the MCC’s Instagram