Monday, April 29, 2013

Chinese Rust Belt Chic In The San Gabriel Valley

This New York Times article starts out with a now familiar story line of ironic migration. A new group of immigrants is showing up in unexpected places. The world will never be the same. About halfway through, the narrative course changes, sharply:

Andrew and David Fung, who grew up in Seattle, were surprised to see the pervasiveness of Chinese and Taiwanese culture in the San Gabriel Valley.

After moving to the area a couple of years ago to try to break into the entertainment industry, the Fung brothers created several hip-hop videos celebrating what they termed the “boba life,” to embrace the area where, as their lyrics explain, “kids drink more milk tea than liquor.” The videos became so wildly popular on the Internet that local leaders began showing them in official meetings.

People here think it’s normal, hanging out to drink boba all day long, but this culture doesn’t exist everywhere, and we’re trying to tell them to embrace it, to own it,” said David Fung, 26. “We’ve got to teach ourselves to be proud of who we are and tell others about it.”

The Fung brothers have helped create a local ethnic pride that would have been unimaginable a generation ago, said Oliver Wang, a professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach, who grew up in San Marino in the 1980s and returned to the area three years ago. The area could become central to Asian-American identity in the region in the way East Los Angeles is to Latinos or South Los Angeles is to African-Americans, he said.

“It wasn’t cool to be Chinese or cool to be Asian,” he said. “The idea that the San Gabriel Valley could be the locus of some kind of cultural movement or identity is fascinating. They are asserting cultural capital to create Asian-American identity that wasn’t there before, and one that is homegrown, not imported from Taiwan or Hong Kong.”

The sentence I boldfaced is the most overt connection to Rust Belt Chic and rasquache. Replace the boba tradition with cookie table. This culture doesn't exist everywhere. It wasn't cool to be Rust Belt or Chicano. Like San Marino, San Antonio and Cleveland are the loci of some kind of cultural movement or identity.

Choosing between assimilation and multiculturalism is a false dichotomy. The Youngstown cookie table is a mash-up, something you won't find anywhere else. From whence it came doesn't matter. Drinking boba all day long isn't American or Chinese, or Chinese-American. It's 100% San Gabriel Valley. Embrace it. Own it.

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