Asian American Artistry: the Counter-narrative

Graphic by Kalin Sivolella
June 13, 2024

Being the daughter of a Chinese immigrant, I’ve learned firsthand the dominant narrative for marginalized communities leaves little room for deviation. It’s like an instruction manual: come to the United States to pursue the American Dream, secure a financially stable job, and craft a life from scratch centered around providing for your family. This manual does not account for what to do if you have additional barriers to access, whether you are undocumented, cannot speak English, or have limited cultural knowledge. Assimilation has its own challenges, including involuntarily severing ties with your culture and struggling with a sense of belonging. The guide simply says: Figure it out. Persist. There is no other option. You already left your country of origin behind—make this sacrifice worthwhile. Inside the guide, the instructions say to become a doctor or a lawyer. Maybe in the fine print, it’ll clarify, Not a singer. Not an actor. Not a writer.

In many cases, the survival guide’s first steps target the college scene, where students of color are devoid of the flexibility to pick a major—and if they have a choice in the matter, they must make sure it’s not a “soft” major. Fueled by societal and familial expectations, narrow definitions of success, and specifically for Asian American communities, the notion of the model minority myth, these individuals pursue money-making careers and often suppress their creative identities in the process. After all, being financially comfortable and artistic are seen as mutually exclusive characteristics in Asian American culture. This narrative needs to change.

There is a counter-narrative that exists, highlighting the success of Asian American creatives. This intersectional story demands to be heard and reframed so it is seen as more socially acceptable. To do this, we need stronger representation, visibility, and support to replace the persisting stigma, judgment, and associations with inferiority that come with being an Asian American artist. Leveraging vocality to articulate our experiences is not only an art form but the most powerful tool for activism; when our voices are silenced, we conform to the monolith the White Man has cast upon us. We concede.

Recent strides to integrate our counter-narratives into society have made history; in the past decade, Asian American artists have received unprecedented recognition in popular culture. Pop star Mitski’s autobiographical song “Your Best American Girl” (2016) is a relatable anthem for women of color who struggle to feel accepted and uplifted in society. Michelle Zauner’s memoir Crying In H Mart (2021) and the seven-time Oscar-winning film Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) are authentic depictions of the polylithic nature of Asian Americans and symbolize success in the literary and performance industries. These counter-narratives are becoming increasingly accessible to the public as the joys and pains of Asian American artists grow into bestsellers and headliners. Is this what it feels like for representation to pulse through the heart of America?

Today, Asian American experiences are embedded into mainstream culture for everyone to consume. It’s easy to forget this wasn’t always the case. In the 1970s, a University of Washington professor, Shawn Wong, was enrolled in an American literature class when his college professor denied the validity of Asian American literature. Determined to prove his teacher wrong, he combed through libraries and bookstores by authors’ last names. Piecing together these findings, Professor Wong and his colleagues Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, and Lawson Fusao Inada created the anthology Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers (1974). This book was the platform for 11 Asian American writers to reach a previously untouched audience: America. For the first time, voices that had never been heard before resonated with thousands of Asian American families. Aiiieeeee! established the canon of Asian American literature. Professor Wong not only proved his teacher wrong, but his name on the cover served as a tangible reminder of his role in weaving Asian American voices into the fabric of American society.

Professor Wong’s research process for Aiiieeeee! led to the perpetual infusion of Asian American history and culture into his works. Identifying his drive to learn and write about Asian American experiences, Wong explained, “I wanted to know what was missing [from the field], so I wrote my work to fill that need… When my first novel was published in ‘79, Homebase, it was the only novel by a Chinese American in print in America.” Being the only Asian American writer at the time gave him the freedom to entertain endless ideas and creative directions. Since then, Professor Wong has written American Knees (1995) and co-edited other anthologies. As an established novelist and professor, Wong’s passion for telling stories and educating people about Asian American history and literature inspires younger Asian creatives to share their stories. Doing so contributes to a framework vibrant with culture, raw with emotion, and stitched together with selfless sacrifices.

Despite this increasing visibility, the manual persists: the success of Asian American artists, including Professor Wong, is a testament to positive change, yet students of color still struggle to deviate from the instruction manual’s narrative. UW sophomore Isabelle Villanueva, who is half-Filipino, is double-majoring in vocal performance and psychology. She’s interested in combining her interests to focus on music therapy. Isabelle recognized the connotation of music changes depending on whether it’s in a casual or formal context. “Visual or audio art is something we all consume and engage with on a daily basis, but once it’s relied on or pursued in a professional sense, it’s no longer as valid,” she stated.

She identified the stigma surrounding a professional career in the arts and the pressure from her Filipino family to take her career in a medical and scientific direction. “From society and family, they’re like, ‘Oh, she’ll grow out of it, this isn't a real career,’ when music is something that makes me feel inspired,” Isabelle said. “We talk a lot about intimacy in relation to another physical being, but I think that intimacy goes beyond this, into things that we’re passionate about and that give us joy in life.” 

Isabelle was destined to be musically inclined before she was even born. When her mom was pregnant, she’d listen to Keali'i Reichel’s music to calm baby Isabelle down when she would start kicking. “My dad always said, ‘Oh, she's gonna be a singer. Oh, she's gonna be into music,” Isabelle remembered. One of her earliest instruments was a toy cat piano, but no matter what the medium was, “there was always music. If you’re Filipino, I’m sure you grew up with a karaoke machine table.” Her love for music is ingrained in connections to her family and culture. Growing up in a Filipino and Hawaiian household, she explained, “Both cultures rely on music, especially with colonization and Hawaiian music being passed down through call and response and having that culture stripped [from us] for a long time.”

Professor Wong and Isabelle find their creative pursuits deeply intertwined with their Asian American roots. Consequently, it's improbable that either would desire, let alone be capable of, divorcing their prominent identities from their work—the message each Asian American artist hopes to convey is linked to who they are and their chosen medium of expression. This is the beauty of a counter-narrative: marginalization, with its negative connotations, can be processed and even beautified in its portrayal. Asian American artistry unravels a nuanced narrative of culture, history, relationships, trauma, survival, and growth—its complexity demands to be normalized as a career path and respected. The survival manual must shift its pessimistic view on artistry and encourage the next generation of Asian Americans to strive for freedom of options, whether that be through a creative avenue or not.

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