Wednesday, December 17, 2003


not your ordinary language classes

If you haven't seen it yet, you can view the video for Jin's new single, "Learn Chinese" at MTV's TRL site (scroll down to "Jin"). I'm still trying to unpack what to make of this and have had excellent conversations about it with Sharon and Hua. Here's the gist of some of my thoughts, though please take these as musings in development:

Jin is faced with the unenviable task of having to position himself in a world dominated by Blackness from a subject position that's largely invisible, or at best, constantly misrepresented in mainstream media. His days on 106 and Park proved that his "Chinese-ness" will always be subject to scrutiny if not downright attack. With "Learn Chinese", he takes a page from the Eminem's successful school of pre-emptive racialization, in other words, Jin outs himself as Chinese before anyone else can.

It's sort of a weird, pretzel logic but by making his race/ethnicity so prominent, Jin is actually deflecting the ability of others to make an issue out of it - the equivalent of a "yeah, I'm Chinese, so what?" taunt. On one level, "Learn Chinese" is a racial pride song but it simultaneously tries to critique how Chinese have been represented - not just within American popular culture, but particularly within hip-hop. That's why he opens the song talking about "the days of the pork fried rice and chicken wings are over" as well as saying, "this ain't Bruce Lee/ya'll watch too much t.v." Clearly, on a basic level, Jin is aware of the subject position of Chinese Americans (and Asian Americans by extension) within popular American media. His best line might very well be: "we should ride the trains for free because we built the railroads", showing off at least a basic knowledge of Chinese American history.

That said, the video for "Learn Chinese" is rife with problems. One of the biggest and most obvious is Jin's gender politics - women figure in this video like they figure in most rap videos: sex objects desired for nothing more than their bodies. Disappointing but generically so. The more complicated issue is how Jin positions a racialized class element - the second verse of his song is basically about how gangsta Chinese can be, especially in Chinatown and this is Jin's attempt at equating, if not outdoing, the trope of the Black Ghetto by offering Chinatown as an even more lurid competitor. He's glamorizing the ethnic enclave in the same way that African Americans have glorified the ghetto and projects and Latinos talk about the barrio but Jin's approach to Chinatown is even less critical than these other examples. For one thing, as Hua pointed out, Jin didn't grow up in Chinatown - he went from suburban Florida to Flushing, Queens, notably middle class spaces that are as distinct from Mott St. as Monterey Park is from L.A.'s Chinatown or the Sunset District from Grant Ave, S.F.

Hua shares, "most of the people I've heard who hate this video are the rare Asians who grew up poor. and they have a problem with how Jin sells an exoticized "Asian American poverty." Hua's main point is exactly right: Jin is sexing up the struggles of the Chinese underclass who live in Chinatown, not because they want to, but because economic, political and social marginalization forces poorer immigrants into those spaces.

Most folks familiar with any of the major American Chinatowns know that the people who own the shops there don't actually live in Chinatown - they're all out in the new Chinese suburbs like San Mateo in the Bay Area, Flushing in New York or the San Gabriel Valley in L.A. The folks who live in Chinatown are there largely by circumstance, not choice and Jin's portrait of Chinatown as some Orientalized Badlands might play well for the BET crowd but like all glamorizations of depressed, segregated neighborhoods, it doesn't remotely come close to representing the realities of everyday life for those who actually live it there. In effect, Jin trades in one stack of stereotypes: kung fu fighters, take-out delivery men, etc. and just replaces them with another set of equally suspect images.

That said, I do find the video fascinating. The opening is particularly interesting - the fact that the first image we see is of three Black men watching Jin's video (a video within a video) triggers me to want to think of what Laura Mulvey would say about this cross-racial, homo-social scopophilia but frankly, I don't want to bore you with cinematic psychoanalysis. What's interesting though is that I seem to think Jin is doing two things...he's both making a critique, i.e. "this is how ignorant black people view us Asians" but it's also an attempt to connect with a BET audience by suggesting that if black folk in the video can dig on this video, the BET crowd can too. The black trio are strawmen, to be sure, but they actually help to validate Jin on some level too.

What are your thoughts? Hit that comment link below. (thanks to Sam Chennault, since, through his blog, I realized I could add comments finally.)