Artwork by Jesmira Bonoan
For the past few years, much of Asian American popular media has been heading down a regrettable, cringey consumer-capitalist path. You probably already know what I'm talking about: Crazy Rich Asians, Fresh Off The Boat, Awkwafina, Randall Park, Constance Wu. Young, usually East Asian American protagonists navigating tiger moms, math tests, smelly food, monolids. Real "not your model minority!" type stuff. There is actually a term for all of this milquetoast-ness, of which I was only recently made aware: boba liberalism. Originally coined by @diaspora_is_red on Twitter, boba liberalism is "a type of mainstream liberal Asian-American politics" that, like the drink, is "sweet, not very offensive, but also not that good for you ... it's just empty calories."
But beyond the original definition, boba liberal media is invoked here to refer to the pop cultural output of a specific kind of atomized identity politics: the kind that is ostensibly by and for us, but tastes so stale and flat that it might as well have been made by a white person. It feigns at wokeness but centers a selfish and corporate-verticalized ownership of identity: think "AAPI Representation" instead of Yellow Peril. There's also a healthy dose of wish fulfillment that hints at what haunts so many of us: daddy issues (i.e. poorly-disguised shame over our immigrant parents), and that nagging ache to inch closer towards whiteness by performing for its gaze.
In recent weeks I wondered why boba liberal media had begun to feel suddenly, blessedly, extraordinarily outdated, and have come to the conclusion that the realities of COVID-19 are challenging the very tenets of its ideology. The resurgence of explicit, often violent racism towards Chinese Americans—and those mistaken as such—is more than a wake-up call; it has upended the norms we were raised with. Now, instead of feeling erased, we are hyper-visible. Instead of being dismissed as powerless and docile, we are feared. Easy comedy tropes such as being read as FOBs are now real concerns as people are assaulted for speaking Chinese, while former issues like Hollywood representation feel increasingly trivial. Finally, the global scale of the pandemic, and the heightened awareness of conditions in places like China and Vietnam that comes with it, gives us a chance to de-abstract our relationship with Asianness itself and build present-day connections alongside historic diasporic mythologies.
But first, let's take a trip back to boba liberal culture at its nascency. It's 2006, and one of your Asian lunch table friends has just sent you three videos by Wong Fu Productions, who literally commodified "Nice Guy" into a series of t-shirts. A few years later, Like A G6 will follow, then Gangnam Style. If you had scrubbed "S.W.A.G.: Something We Asians Got" out of your memory, sorry. I'm reminding you now.
Popular media of this "Boba-AZN Era" oscillated between a tragically earnest desire to assimilate and be liked, and a sort of preemptive irony and self-Orientalizing that desperately hoped to signal that we were in on the joke, that we loved you long time, too. The former, rooted in an aspirational proximity to white auteur culture, can be found to varying degrees in consciously "indie" works like The Farewell and Master of None. The latter we see in Fresh Off The Boat, most Ken Jeong roles, and William Hung of She Bangs infamy (who, as E. Alex Jung eloquently describes, was the epitome of how we feared white America saw us: "intrinsically foreign, deeply unsexy.") In between, there was a nebulous middle zone occupied by Crazy Rich Asians, The Joy Luck Club, and its ilk: foreign but palatable, wholesome Orientals.
But whether through assimilation or mockery, an underlying commonality was thinly-veiled shame over our first-generation immigrant parents and roots, and a consequent desperation to create something of our own. Not that I am entirely unsympathetic to this instinct; I did it too. We made fun of our parents because we wanted to differentiate ourselves from them, but also because we wanted to claim the right to mockery, that useless race card, before white people could deride them in even more cutting ways.
Perhaps the most chilling is the terminus of this shame or discomfort, where our Asian parents are wiped out entirely from the story. In To All The Boys I've Loved Before, we end up with three Asian sisters raised by a white father. The film was based on a 2014 novel by Jenny Han, who Plan A's own Chris Jesu Lee describes as "an Asian American writer who wants to write an aspirational semi-autobiographical story," yet, unsettlingly, "feels compelled to make her father white, kill off her Korean mother, and chase after white boys" in the world she builds.
Elsewhere, our parents began to function as mere props in order for us—the millennial diasporic children—to obtain some cultural-historical street cred. In her excellent review of Gook, Emily Yoshida comments that the protagonists, who are based on the director's father, are "not really meant to be representative of the average Korean shop owner in 1992, but more like audience surrogates, down to their trendy-again ’90s streetwear." The Farewell is another example of an earnest but flawed attempt to overcome Boba-AZN Daddy Issues. On the surface, it was the tale of an intergenerational bond between a middling millennial and her Chinese grandmother, but one that overwhelmingly centered the emotions of its young American protagonist. For the most part, her extended family came off as little more than plot devices for her own complexity and character development.
The heritage-as-clout strain of boba liberal cinema tends to unintentionally replicate that familiar Hollywood power dynamic where the marginalized exist for the sole purpose of white male enlightenment. The Asian simply steps into the role of the white hero, while the manic pixie dream girls and wise elder tropes are embodied by, say, a young Black girl (Gook), or Chinese grandparents (The Farewell). Maybe what I'm saying is: give me some good fights! What if Kamilla hated the Korean shopkeepers, for whom she worked out of necessity? What if Nai Nai called Billi (Awkwafina) out on her selfishness?
Rejecting boba liberalism goes hand in hand with a deeper and more meaningful engagement with both our own motherlands and the struggles of others. In this respect, the overt media presence of not only Wuhan and China, but Asian nations in general in coronavirus-related discourse is another opportunity to re-conceive of diaspora as more than an exercise in escapist nostalgia.
The coronavirus is forcing more of us to take seriously the struggles of our families, beyond the immediate impact they had on us as individuals. We now genuinely fear for our parents and grandparents both as subjects of hate and violence as well as potential victims of the virus. It feels hollow, even cruel to use them for our gain, especially as many of us now return home to our families, no longer our teen selves, with a realer understanding of what it means to support and be supported. It is also breaking down the previously accepted construct of a generational difference between "progressive hybrid-identity" Asian millennials and their "traditional bootstrap-mindset" parents. Anecdotally speaking, many young Asians are adopting a newfound sense of, if not filial piety, filial protectiveness, while older generations grow increasingly radical (my own parents definitely have).
Still, Plan A Editor Q warns against the danger of absolute reversals, and contests the idea that there is any straightforward generational breakdown in either direction. Citing the self-preservationist strain of young Asians Americans who are choosing to aggressively distance themselves from China (complete with "I'm Not Chinese" t-shirts… boba liberals love t-shirts), Q concludes that "unfortunately, solidarity is hardest when it's least convenient."
The challenge now for East Asian Americans, especially those who have benefitted from relative economic privilege and white-adjacency, is to make sure we do not get stuck in self-pity. Much of this self-pity stems from the sadness of realizing that we were never really liked by White America; but we shouldn't be afraid to be unlikeable. As Bảo Ngô tweeted:
The same thirst for likability (or fear of rejection) that fuels Asian-assimilationist delusion is also what fed into the utter blandness of boba liberal media. This was what had doomed forebearers like All-American Girl, which unsuccessfully attempted to package Margaret Cho's brash comedy in a neat sitcom bow. The willingness to forgo that fear and depict Asians doing Bad Things in a Bad World is what made films like Shoplifters and Parasite all the more remarkable: they afforded the same nuance to Asian narratives that Hollywood had been championing in white antiheroes. Not to say that Asian characters have to be flawed or contrarian to be compelling — they just have to be substantial. (Another good example: Steven Yeun in Sorry To Bother You.) This is all to say that the shift away from boba liberalism didn't start with the coronavirus, but it might just deal the final blow.
Yet even as it nears its possible end, there is at least one boba liberal still at large: Andrew Yang, whose Washington Post op-ed urging Asian Americans to "embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before" triggered an onslaught of criticism, even from traditionally center-left bastions like Vox. Yang is kind of like an evolved Pokemon version of woke capitalism, though to be fair, his diagnosis (inequality) and cure (redistribution) are not entirely incorrect.
But for Asian Americans, at least, I think that part of Yang's appeal was always his Caucasian likability. Following his exit from the Democratic primary, Jacobin editor Connor Kilpatrick described him affectionately as "a person of color who is, in many respects, the dreaded 'class-first bro.'" From the New York Times Editorial Board to the Red Scare girls, Yang was universally seen as a likable guy whose policies were misguided but well-intentioned. It just felt good to see an Asian described as genuine, if naive. But we cannot mistake empathy for solidarity. We cannot even mistake humanization for true protection.
This is the final danger of boba liberalism — it is frighteningly easy to fall into a cult of personality, a form of fandom, really, because so much of the ideology hinges on psychopathology and personality tropes rather than material outcomes (again, this is why boba liberals were always so obsessed with Hollywood and media representation). If Asian Americans go back to a total lack of mainstream visibility, I am frankly okay with that. If the Boba-AZN Era has taught us anything, it is that no representation is better than bad representation.