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From Philosophy to Food, Asian Culture Inspires Americans

By Andrew Lam | Special Correspondent | 13 May 2009
Customers line up in front of food-selling van (AP Images)

The popular Korean barbecue sandwich known as “Kogi” is just one example of the strong Asian influences in the United States.

Vietnam-born American writer Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media. He recently published the book Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.

San Francisco — If you haven’t tasted a Korean barbecue short-rib taco, popularly known as the Kogi, you must. Chased with chili salsa, kimchi and crushed sesame seeds, the Kogi is an invention so new that it is sold only from two roaming trucks in Southern California. The drivers post their destinations on the social networking site Twitter, and folks line the streets in Orange County and Los Angeles —sometimes waiting for up to two hours. Food lovers around the country are waiting anxiously for the trucks to go national. Next stop: New York City.

What happens in California rarely stays in California — it spreads like wildfire to the rest of the country and beyond. And many of these artistic and cultural innovations are, more often than not, inspired and informed by an Asian flair.

Asian cultural influences have lapped at the American shores ever since the Chinese brought their herbal medicines and array of other plants during the California Gold Rush in the mid-19th century. But it’s only since the 1980s that Asia’s influence, along with Asian-American demographic growth, began to take off on a massive scale, becoming respectable and — indeed — desirable. The effect is that what once was considered ethnic or even esoteric has spilled irrevocably into the mainstream, mixing with mainstream habits and transforming the landscape. (See “Immigration and U.S. History.”)

Go to a public park in any major metropolis and see Americans of all colors and stripes practicing tai chi, the ancient Chinese exercise. In supermarkets, you can easily find fish sauce and wasabi. Turn on the television and see Japanese animes dominating the children’s networks. The biggest winner of all at the 2009 Oscars was Slumdog Millionaire, a movie about a slum dweller winning a game show in India.

The popularity of acupuncture or yoga, the ancient form of spiritual practice, or the fact that many women and men of American letters now have a South Asian or Chinese last name no longer is news. What’s new is that Asian cultures have evolved and fully integrated in the 21st century to the extent that it’s often non-Asian Americans who practice and promote Asian cultures.

Kung Fu Panda, a Steven Spielberg production, for example, was a blockbuster smash last year in China. The movie was so popular that many Chinese thinkers and writers wondered why China couldn’t make the same movie. As one Chinese critic observed: “The panda and kung fu are China’s treasures, but we have to let foreigners remind us of that.”

But just as Kung Fu Panda took China by storm, a dance crew named Jabbawockeez wowed America. The group took hip-hop dancing to a thrilling level and won MTV’s America's Best Dance Crew. Seven out of 10 members on the team were of Asian descent. “We’ve come a long way when blonds are teaching yoga and acupuncture, blacks are winning kung fu competitions, and Asians are champions at hip-hop dancing,” observed a journalist friend of mine.

But why not? If there’s a theme to the America 2.0, it is hybridization and remix, and diverse heritages. The mismatched becomes the chic, and nowhere is that more embodied than in the biography of our current president, Barack Obama. But try this metaphor for size: under the flap of the dancing Chinese dragon at the Chinese New Year parade here in San Francisco, Latinos and Russian immigrants and Samoans are found dancing along with Chinese. It is both an apt and poetic image of our new America. (See “Re-imagining the Self, Re-imagining America.”)

West has changed the East, indeed. But for every McDonald’s that springs up abroad, we should take into account the Thai and Vietnamese restaurants that line the major cities in America. East is changing West, too, in profound ways. After all, one does not believe in the effects of feng shui and acupuncture without eventually recognizing the chi, that mysterious force ancient Taoist priests saw flowing through the universe. One does not practice yoga and meditation without making some kind of inroads into the nature of the enlightened mind, the way ancient yogi saw it.

Tu Weiming, the Confucian scholar at Harvard University, called this new millennium “a second axial age.” “It is a kind of era where various traditions exist side by side for the first time for the picking," he states. That is to say, people living both in the East and the West now have more options than simply accepting the traditions in which they grew up. (See “A Patchwork Culture.”)

The story of America began with a vision of the East. It was in search of Cathay and the Indies, their riches, that spurred Columbus to sail west, where he found a new continent instead. That vision remains alluring. And that epic meeting hasn’t yet come to a conclusion. We’re only approaching the dramatic turning points at the beginning of the 21st century. Imagine those Kogi trucks as the future. Latin America meets East Asia in Los Angeles in one savory bite. As they Twitter their new destinations, they may very well help redraw the map of America’s cosmopolitan frontier.

More information is available at the New America Media Web site and PEOPLE & PLACES | Offering a place for everyone.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.

Close-up of Lam at microphone (Courtesy Andrew Lam)

Author Andrew Lam says the popularity of Asian culture and its influence in the United States no longer is news.

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