The Asian Cultural Legacy in America, or: How There is None

A thought experiment, if you will: suppose in a hundred year’s time, Asian people have all disappeared from America, what would they leave so that they might not be forgotten?

The answer, at least on the many times when I have thought about it, is none.

Asian people have left no cultural legacy in America: we have written no great novels, composed no great music, thought no great philosophy, and sure as hell did not reshape politics.

In other words, Asian people have made not a single dent on the cultural and intellectual landscape of America.

This is not to say that Asian people have not written, composed, or philosophized? Because surely we have, and history backs this up.

But what troubles me is this: Asians have not written, composed, or philosophized in America. At least, not in a significant enough manner to have left a lasting legacy.

It is high time for Asian Americans to get out of the marginalized dungeon that is the Asian Studies departments across campuses, and into the broad daylight that is the American cultural and intellectual pantheon.

Where is our Faulkner? Where is our Gershwin? Duke Ellington? Bob Dylan? Where is our Coppolas and Scorceses? Where is our John Rawls and William James? On every cultural front, Asian Americans have made no significant stride.

In other words, what the fuck have we contributed to the American ideas and culture? Our two most prominent academics, Fukuyama and John Yoo are known as a supporter of an unjust war and an enabler of torture.

No matter how much money we make, or how successful we become, no matter how well-off our children are, in the end, we will NEVER belong to this country, this society, if we never even leave our mark on its culture and its ideas. Because 100 years from now, no one is going to remember how much money we have made, or how high we’ve climbed the corporate ladder, or how big our houses are.

And I sincerely believe that it is not a matter of talent or skills, because Asian people are skilled. I think the matter is one of effort: I just don’t see it. Look, we can be the most successful engineers, doctors, and lawyers in the fucking world, and it would not matter one fucking bit, because until we have made ourselves felt in the world of ideas and culture, we might as well not exist. Sure, our non-existence will be prosperous, but it is non-existence nonetheless.

Failing to write The Great American Novel is not what bothers me, because the road to greatness is paved with innumerable failures. What bothers me is the lack of effort, and perhaps the lack of awareness: the awareness that it is not merely enough to do well financially in order to truly belong to a community, any community.

In order to TRULY belong to a community, its members must participate in the community’s cultural and intellectual formation and undertaking. Because that, at the end of the day, is what determines what a community is, how it thinks of itself. In other words, if Asian Americans don’t even want to participate in the creation of an American identity, then we will never be Americans.

This is not to say that we have to sell out: after all, Ralph Ellison wrote about the black experience, but we don’t think of Invisible Man as a “black” novel, but rather one of the finest examples of the AMERICAN novel. Similarly, jazz is not merely “black” music, but is instead perhaps America’s finest contribution to the musical culture around the world.

True, Asians have thousands of years worth of culture and ideas that they can proudly call their own, but we are in America, and in America, our cultural contribution is, if not entirely absent, then at least sorely lacking.

And lest I confuse you: I’m not saying that cultural and intellectual undertakings take priority above all else. No, if survival is not guaranteed, then those undertakings are of not importance whatsoever. But that is my point: we Asians have done very well for ourselves in America, so survival can and should no longer be our most pressing priority. That kind of mentality no longer fits our economic reality.

In other words, Asians have done well enough for themselves that they now have the luxury of undertaking cultural and intellectual endeavors.

But maybe I’m wrong, maybe all it takes is time.


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