Speak Into My Good Eye

Feature: Your Best American Girls On Asian-American Female Identity

Vrinda Jagota April 15, 2016 Features No Comments

Your Best American Girls

Photo Credit: Ebru Yildiz

Contributors: Vrinda Jagota & Karen Shibuya

Vrinda: It is a funny experience learning you are not white, observing life continue normally as if the axis of your world hadn’t just suddenly shifted. I was 7 years old watching a movie about the histories of racial injustice in the U.S. when my best friend at the time turned to me and said, “Don’t worry. If that was happening now, we would paint your skin white.”

I was lucky. This is a relatively safe way to learn that my peers saw me as different, even when I had not realized that I was. And, my friend’s willingness to include me, should I sacrifice the color of my skin, was troubling, but was still a privilege. Some people learn their difference much earlier, in more directly violent ways. And, as an Indian-American woman, I do not face the kinds of oppression that other groups battle with.

But, that moment nevertheless speaks to my lifelong experience with brownness. There was a time that I did not know it, but it was not possible to go too long without being told. I remember feeling deeply relieved as my friend reassured me she would paint my skin white, grateful for her promise of inclusion. But, as variations on this theme evolved, as I had more “You’re not white” moments, which came to mean “You’re not normal,” relief was replaced with longing. I wanted beauty. I wanted to be cast as Sandy in Grease. I wanted a prom date.

I did not know the word assimilation, but I knew this longing, and I felt the allure of a very White-American hamburgers-and-Britney Spears coolness. I knew that I did not intrinsically possess it, but I felt that if I twisted myself in the right ways, hiding certain angles, over-accentuating others, I could, perhaps tighten my orbit around it.

I was reminded of this moment of realization of otherness and of the longing that ensues in Mitski‘s Your Best American Girl music video. She waves to a potential romantic interest from across the room only to realize that he wants someone else. Despite her fantasies and her killer outfit and her best efforts, he would not approve of the way her mother raised her. She is not his little spoon or his Best American Girl, a construct that feels inaccessibly white.

I wonder often how to address my intrinsic understanding of perceived difference, usually concluding that I have no idea. I am so, so relieved that Mitski’s music video has shown me one answer that doesn’t require, to quote bell hooks, “forgetting oneself as a rite of passage.” Instead of competing with another woman or continuing to mourn the man who doesn’t want her, or to make herself into an inaccessible white Best American Girl, she kisses her own hand, she plays guitar, she creates a space that is, first and foremost, hers.

Mitski speaks often about her position as an a woman of color in predominantly white, male circles, about “the total and complete awareness that [she is] an outsider wherever [she is],” and about how, after spending her whole life trying to be what is comfortable to other people, she has realized that she cannot and will not any more. This practiced self-love clearly informs her work, leaving us with a layered video that is empathetic towards her heartache while also resolute about her desire to exist separately from it.

Karen: When I was in high school, a very privileged, very white, and apparently Spanish boy was told by a teacher that he didn’t qualify as “Hispanic” if he was from Spain. He was Very Offended (insert white tears here) and wrote a Facebook status, which was how I found out about the incident. After I left a comment that vaguely defended the teacher, he replied with something along the lines of, “You weren’t there, it’s none of your business.”

I guess he had a point. But I realize now that I reacted so strongly to his story because for the vast majority of my childhood, I longed so deeply to have what I thought he possessed: the ability to pass as white. (At this point I was still ignorant to the existence of white Hispanics, and so in my mind he was a white-passing person of color).

In elementary school I would bring pictures of Hilary Duff to Supercuts and ask the stylist to make me look like her, by which I really meant “please make me look white.” My mom would cut pieces of double-sided tape into tiny little slivers for me to stick on my eyelids in a series of attempts (all unsuccessful) to transform my Genghis Khan monolids into Twiggy doe-eyes.

So when I see Mitski observing the white couple in the music video, I am also reminded of an unattainable longing towards assimilation. There’s a clear distance that is never breached – she doesn’t ultimately pine after the guy, which I guess would be assimilation, and at the end of the music video she just walks away, refusing to engage and consciously solidifying her distance from whiteness.

There are so many ways in which Mitski and I share common experiences. Being half-Japanese like her and having moved around a lot, experiencing diaspora on a lot of different levels, it is so relatable to me when she talks about being “half Japanese, half American but not fully either.” In the music video, too, she articulates how the unattainability of whiteness is so deeply intertwined with the unattainability of Americanness — like when the white couple she ultimately walks away from is wrapped in the American flag.

Your Best American Girl

But in other ways, I wonder about the differences between our diasporic experiences. Mitski talks about how even though she had never lived in America until high school because her father worked for the State Department, and she says in an interview with Hyphen that she, “expected to come to the US and finally be in [her] own country. The big shock was when [she] got here and [she] realized [she] still didn’t feel like [she] was one of the Americans.” Whereas, growing up inside the U.S. I think I always knew I wasn’t white, and wasn’t seen as fully American. It was never a shock.

I talked earlier about aspiring towards being white-passing — sure, I would have loved to be Hilary Duff or Twiggy, but on some level I always knew that I would never be able to be a fully mayo’d up white girl. So I was actually more acutely jealous of my Hapa (mixed White/Asian) friends — who were often able to pass as white or had white-sounding last names — as some sort of bizarre emotional compromise.

Vrinda: Yes, I relate to what she says about constantly feeling like an outsider. But also, it is inevitable that each of our narratives will be distinct- there is not one “Asian” or “immigrant” experience. As people of color growing up in the U.S., that moment of realization that we were different perhaps happened earlier for us. Like I said, I was 6 when someone told me I wasn’t white. And still, despite my obvious non-whiteness, I have always felt that I need to prove my Indianness as well, which Mitski also talks about.

One of my Indian friends recently told me that she “forgets I’m Indian” because of how “white” my parents are, which was so confusing because…my parents are not white. And in white-dominated settings, I feel my difference and I attribute that difference to my Indianness. So, to hear that I am not Indian or not Indian enough was destabilizing.

But, I want to remain aware of the privileges that come with being seen as less foreign. Identity is not just how we see ourselves but also how others see us and how we behave, so if my Indian peers feel that I have an easier time integrating into white culture, who am I to deny that, right?

Which is why I think it’s really important that Mitski is alone as she plays guitar in the music video. Her solitary expression in some ways provides an answer to placelessness. She is not conforming to any imposed identity when she creates her own space.

Karen: In general, I think Mitski has a solitary, intimate relationship to her Japanese-American cultural identity, and even though she performs it publicly, it is very personal. I actually noticed that she posted a screenshot on Twitter that showed that she uses the Twitter app in Japanese, which is so interesting — that the lens through which she uses social media herself is Japanese, but publicly, she tweets in English.

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I see it, too, in the ways she subtly invokes Japanese-ness in her music. Unlike stereotypical representations of Asian art (that are often filtered through a white gaze), there are no oriental riffs or exoticization when she sings a line in Japanese in “First Love/Late Spring.” Her Bandcamp says she, “grew up surrounded by her father’s Smithsonian folk recordings and mother’s 1970s Japanese pop CDs.” The 70s Japanese pop, which I was also exposed to, is a definite influence I hear.

Vrinda: It’s interesting that you mention her private performances because I am intrigued by the ways in which she does just the opposite in this video. When she kisses her hand, I am reminded of the times I kissed my own reflection as a 12-year-old just to see what it’s like. But if anyone had seen me doing that, I would have been totally mortified. I enjoy vicariously consuming how public her exploration of her own body is. I am thankful that the personal space she creates is also accessible to us as viewers.

And, in the beginning, we see her getting her hair and makeup done. We are shown that she didn’t wake up like this- in fact, there is an immense amount of labor required to exist in this space. Conversely, the other characters casually appear, glistening, with their hair blowing in the wind, so as Mitski makes her private labor public, we are made aware of how hard she has to try to belong. And then, when she shows that she’s on a set by walking off it at the end, we see a total transformation in her level of agency. Whereas earlier, other people are putting makeup on her, at the end, she chooses to walk out, to expose the space as a construct.

Karen: What Mitski does well, I think, is play with scales of relatability. As evidenced by our different points of access to her work, she is simultaneously unabashedly public and accessible while also deeply personal, establishing a femininity and a racial identity that is hers alone. I think she is able to do both authentically because of her boldness and her connection to and understanding of Japanese culture.

In contrast, I’m SO uncomfortable with bands like Dengue Fever, which is a Cambodian Pop-Psychedelic Rock fusion band which began when a white man was inspired after a trip to Cambodia. It is clear to me that they take pleasure in appropriating an “exotic” Southeast Asian sound. And they love invoking geography — like “Sleepwalking Through the Mekong,” and name-dropping Phnom Penh — as if that’s all cultural identity is, as if they can claim ownership via this kind of invocation. Or even more offensively, I think of the Beatles-instigated appropriation of the sitar, and the whole Orientalist wave of hippies who loved “Eastern spirituality.”

Vrinda: Yeah. The The Beatles song “Across The Universe,” which had an entire movie named after it, is another example. It is frustrating to hear their British accents poorly imitate Sanskrit mantras, decontextualizing them, clearly unaware of the cultural significance they hold. The Beatles’ shameless, half-informed engagement contrasts directly with the way Mitski talks about striving to learn flawless Japanese in order to be seen as authentically Japanese and to minimize her sense of otherness. The Beatles never had that anxiety, sampling whichever parts of Indian culture they wanted.

And, I often feel that white people who appropriate can perform more Indianness than I can because they will never cross the line into “uncomfortably foreign.” Their performance will never be disruptive or threatening, so they have more mobility than someone who has to prove their Americanness because the assumed definition of “American” is so narrow.

Karen: Totally — I used to (and still do) worry so much about coming off as “too fobby,” which again relates to assimilation. I’ve always had this hesitation to, say, be really into bubble tea or to watch anime, because I’m hyper-conscious of how I could be pigeonholed as a fob, as not being American enough. And I definitely see that in my mom, who sometimes says incredibly racist comments about Asians in public who are being “rude” or who are doing something “stereotypical,” like bringing in half-used products for refunds at Costco. I think her internalized racism comes from a fear of being stereotyped, an understandable fear of universalization — that if someone sees another Asian person doing something, then that action affects all Asian-Americans because that stereotype is transferred onto us.

Vrinda: Yes, it is amazing how often I feel expected to speak for my entire race, that the burden to transcend or shatter stereotypes is solely on me. Sometimes I hear myself repeating an evil affirmation in my head that goes, “I’m a cool Indian. I’m a cool Indian. I’m a cool Indian.”

Karen: Yes! I wonder how much of my own experiences I’m projecting, but it makes me think of an interview with Impose Magazine, Quinn Moreland wrote that “after years of being the “trope solo-piano girl,” Mitski picked up the guitar.” When Moreland mentions “trope solo-piano girl” without acknowledging Mitski’s unique position as an Asian-American artist, intentionally or not, she kind of brushes over all the implications behind playing piano when there’s a huge stereotype of Asian kids being “forced” to learn piano and violin.

In this way, I found Mitski’s visual claiming of the guitar in the music video potentially subversive. When Mitski transitions from the red suit to the gold dress and picks up the guitar, it does feel like a claiming of agency. Starting with when she starts making out with her hand, I think, she shifts her attention from the couple to herself and to her music.

Vrinda: I really like that part of the video as well. There is a moment of residual longing when she looks over at the couple, but then at 2:10, she gazes into the camera with incredible certainty. That moment is my favorite affirmation of 2016. I want to frame it and put it on my wall next to that Instagram of Kim K and Amber Rose hanging out.

As Mitski transitions from a performance of sexual agency into a space where she is sole author, she reminds us that, while she still feels heartache, even the camera cannot gaze at her without her gazing back. As the man who seemed so important 2 minutes ago becomes her accessory, it is clear that this is Mitski’s world and the rest of us are just passing through.

Mitski’s new LP, Puberty 2, is out June 17th via Dead Oceans.

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