The 626 Night Market and Asian American self-image

Photo: Kenny Korn (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Tomorrow is the second 626 Night Market, an event that tries to bring the night market cultures of Asia to Southern California. I missed the first one, and thank goodness, because by all accounts it was a dangerous and unpleasant mess of an event. The venue was too small, there was not enough food, and the parking spaces were limited–all things the organizers are trying to fix this time around.

What really struck me in reading the reviews of the first event on Yelp (a business and event rating site) was the amount of racialized self-hatred there was in the negative reviews that the algorithm put at the top of the list. The Yelpers, mostly of apparent East Asian descent (judging from the photos), tended to blame the mess that was the 626 Night Market on the fact that it was an Asian concept attracting Asian people.

Van D.: “And THE CROWD… FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCKKKK!!! makes me hate asian people!! They push into you, they step on you, they cross the street without walking. Fuck, this is worse than Asia -_-‘ They even try to cut in front of you when you’re waiting in line. It felt as though I left civilization and re-entered some PRIMITIVE place where rules no longer applied.”

Anita L.: 1. Traffic – Well, you know what they say about Asian drivers, I was grateful that I didn’t get killed. [...] 4. Crowds – Okay, I understand that we are all Asian here, but give me my personal space! I really don’t hate it when people actually think they can move faster if they rub against the person in front of them.

Laura S.: “There is nothing ou can do about crowds… The planners anticipated hundreds but not thousands. But with an event like this… And Asians… You never know…”

If these comments had come from non-Asian reviewers, we’d all be crying racist. But while it might be socially acceptable for Asian American reviewers to make such comments about their own racial group, let’s step back and deconstruct these comments for a bit. To me they all hint at an aspiration towards white, middle-class American norms of behavior. This is clearest in Van D.’s comment, which puts the 626 Night Market on the primitive end of the civilized-primitive spectrum. In fact, she remarks that it is more primitive than Asia!

What do comments like these tell us about Asian American self-image and about the future of the San Gabriel Valley? While some people are predicting that the San Gabriel Valley is breeding a new type of Asian American enclave experience, in which (English speaking and economically privileged) Asian Americans define the space for themselves through innovations like the 626 Night Market, it’s clear that the region is not completely shut off from the rest of American society. “Asia,” “Asians,” and markers of “Asianness”  continue to be considered “primitive” and uncouth, even in this space where Asian Americans are the majority.

  1. This is a great article. I’ve definitely noticed this, but many times, I choose not to think about this too deeply because it is rather uncomfortable. I definitely have some stereotypes preserved for my own ethnicity, and yet I think of myself as being proud to be an Asian. How do I rationalize that pride when I often feel shame over some things that people do which I think are decidedly Asian? I can completely understand some of the comments, since I think of them a lot of times too: why don’t they have better manners? why don’t they tip better? and things of this nature. For second generation Asians and ones who have lived in the US most of their lives ( like me ), they tend to connect better with the more white habits, I think. Ways of doing things that may be generally accepted and expected in Asia do not necessarily receive the same view here, and I think for many immigrant Asians or ones that have not yet assimilated completely, this is the main problem.

    While I can see your point about “aspirations toward white, middle-class American norms of behavior,” I think it’s unfair to classify it as “white,” since the root of this is simply “American.” These Asians that have spent probably most of their lives in America are simply accepting the American customs. I don’t see it as an aspiration, so much as an adaptation, an assimilation into the dominating culture around them.

    ♥ xixia

  2. Ben

    Interesting post. Those comments are definitely racist regardless of who they came from – and probably (maybe obviously) self-hating too. If you read some of the other negative comments from the yelp site they make criticisms without the racially inflected spite.

    I tend to think that American society conditions some Asian-Americans to believe that they have to incorporate anti-Asian chauvinism into their identity in order to “fit in”. Criticizing Asia or Asians for their “backwardness” and embarrassing mannerisms, sets you apart from them and makes you more American somehow – “Look!! Asians are obnoxious, how American of me!!!”

    Although it is normal to assimilate into a dominant culture, appropriating the dominant culture’s negative attitudes towards your own culture of origin is an unhealthy way to go about it. But I think that this is the only model for becoming American that we have been shown – even by some of our own Asian-American cultural figures.

  3. The majority of the 626 adult generation (20 years +) is still going to be stuck in a “subconciously-wish-I-was-white” mentality. However, kids younger than 15 I think will view themselves and their identity in how it relates to American cultural norms very differently.

    We have to acknowledge that Asian manners are “not up to par” in a Western view. Western culture is the dominant culture on earth and especially in America.

    Everyone wants to roll with a winner so we push away from where we come from (and it’s perceived weakness).

    But I think once people really realize that white people will never FULLY respect us unless we own our culture (ie BRUCE LEE doing martial arts, David Chang cooking ASIAN food) then we can begin to own our quirks and bad driving.

  4. Random Reader

    I reckon there is not enough critical mass of Asians to counterbalance and counteract such prejudice. So it harks back to the adage: “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!”

  5. JL

    On the other side of the coin, it may be too simplistic to see comments like these simply as expressions of self-hatred or racism. Perhaps these comments also stem from a sense of entitlement. Since these Yelpers are Asian, they feel entitled (or bear the right) to be able to make blanket comments about others like them, whether they’re innocuous or caustic.

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