I am writing this from North El Monte, an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County sitting on the margins of the ethnoburban region now popularly known among Southern California Asian American youth as “the 626.” Ever since the Fung Brothers came out with their Ode to the 626 music video earlier this year, this playful toponym has been gaining currency. The Los Angeles Times even published an article about it this morning!
The use of the area code to refer specifically to the ethnoburbs has rubbed me the wrong way since I first heard it back in February. It reminds me of the disconnect between the entirety of the area and people indicated by the area code and slim, privileged sectors that “the 626″ refers to.
The 626 area code goes far beyond the middle class, largely Chinese and Taiwanese ethnoburbs east of Los Angeles, though “the 626″ as a geographic descriptor means those regions exclusively. What about places in area code 626 like Baldwin Park, La Puente, or El Monte, which are largely Latino and working class? What about mostly white Monrovia or San Dimas? It’s not even clear if the region’s big city of Pasadena can claim to be part of “the 626,” except perhaps when the 626 Night Market is held there.
“The 626″ is also extremely narrow as a demographic descriptor. I think we can agree that the term refers specifically to youth, so the middle-aged and older do not need to be part of the discussion. Can immigrant youth in “the 626″ claim to be of “the 626″? Can non-Asian residents of “the 626″ claim to be of “the 626″? My sense is no. The people of “the 626″ are exclusively US-born or raised, English-dominant, middle-class or upwardly-mobile Asian American youth, and the geographic “626″ is specifically the parts of the San Gabriel Valley ethnoburbs where these youth play, if not also live and work.
“You don’t fit anywhere, so you create something new,” says Aileen Xu, 21, who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley. “A lot of us don’t necessarily connect to our homeland. We’re not from China. We speak English.” – from the LA Times article, emphasis mine.
“The 626,” both as it refers to people and as it refers to geography, is far too grand a term. It is laden with privilege of race, class, citizenship, language, generation, and age. Not everyone living in the 626 area code of the North American Numbering Plan is in or of “the 626.” This claim by a narrow, privileged segment of the population to the area code effectively makes everyone else disappear.
When you think of “the OC” do you think of the poor and working class Latinos of Santa Ana and Anaheim? What about the large Vietnamese communities of Westminster and Garden Grove? My concern is that “the 626″ will take over the image of the San Gabriel Valley region and make even those who live here forget that it is far more diverse than the architects of this new identity would have you think.