Your Best Asian-American Girls

Growing up as a first-generation half-Filipino half-Cuban girl in Connecticut, finding representation was definitely a challenge. Especially as someone with immigrant parents—each one so connected to their past homes. It was impossible to pick one identity, ethnically, Asian or Hispanic or American. I couldn’t check one box on standardized tests. I’m all of those things, and it was a little disorienting. Even more so because it was hard to find Asian-American influences in media.

Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan were the biggest Asian stars in the U.S. that weren’t figure skaters. But they were considerably older, so there wasn’t much to relate to. I think the only other exposure I had to anything close to my background was through Sailor Moon and Mulan. Both of those stories contained strong female leads and killer storylines and adventures, but was that really it?

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Fast forward to now. I’m a junior in college, still at a predominately white school, but the difference this time is: there is hella representation, especially in music. There have been so many break-out stars from Mitski to Japanese Breakfast to Jay Som.

These women break every stereotype that western ideologies have forced down the throats of Asian women. We’re not always soft and submissive. We’re not always good at school. If we are, we’re that and so much more. This is about letting Asian women be multifaceted people and not stagnant characters such as the tired tropes like tiger mom or the karate hero. And why should we be? Can’t we just… live?

Singer-songwriter, Mitski Miyawaki, just Mitski on musical projects, has had huge success in the indie-rock scene. She writes songs about every hard feeling—vulnerability, pain, uncertainty—with such beautiful, heart-wrenching lyrics. She channels her experience of being a Japanese-American woman in a relationship with your typical American boy in her song “Your Best American Girl.” Her voice flies over thrashing electric guitar, singing,

“Your mother wouldn’t approve

of how my mother raised me,

but I do, I think I do.”

This song in its base form is about finding self-love and worth while not fitting into someone else’s world. Not just of herself but also of her background and upbringing. In the penultimate chorus, she changes “I think I do” to “I finally do,” and that makes for a striking resolution of acceptance to the pain of not fitting in.

Although there is a certain empowerment through embracing your culture, there is a downfall of being the representative figure. It’s a thin tightrope to walk when everything you do turns political, just because you’re one of the first. In an interview with Line of Best Fit, Miyawaki explains, “I write personal stories about relationships, and living in this world and being a human being…but I happen to live in a world which views me as an Asian-American. So my experiences are tainted by that, even if I’m not conscious of it.”

Of course the fact that she is Japanese-American is not important to her work as an artist, however it can be so rewarding for both the artist and for listeners because it provides young Asian-Americans that might be interested in pursuing something artistic someone to look at that is just like them and made it. That is an incredibly comforting feeling.

These artists understand the need for representation because it is what they’ve experienced as well. Michelle Zauner, who goes by the name Japanese Breakfast, discusses in an article with Teen Vogue, “...when I grew up there was no Korean popular culture in America. So I grew up relating to Japanese culture quite a bit because it felt like the closest thing I had.”

Zauner continues later in the article explaining, “...Karen O [from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs] like changed my life... I just remember seeing videos of her spitting water all over herself and like deep-throating a microphone and just being like, ‘I want to do that.’”

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Despite her stage name, Zauner is of Korean-Jewish descent and was raised in Oregon. She chose the name because it fit the vibe she was going for, the American familiarity of breakfast mixed with something commonly exoticized—Japan. It mingled nicely with her music, which is nostalgic and pop-y, but with a hit of something else you can’t quite put your finger on. She is outspoken about her Korean background, her Twitter description is “PSA: I’m Korean.” In her video for “Everybody Wants to Love You” she’s in traditional Korean dress, hair, and makeup, shooting pool, riding on the back of a motorcycle, and partying in a bar, emphasizing her love for her Korean and American identities.

I’ve even found Filipino artists such as Melina Duterte, who goes by the stage name, Jay Som. Her parents are both immigrants, and she grew up in Oakland, California. She’s a well-known name in the bedroom dream-pop scene, and has produced so much content on her own between the two albums she’s released since 2016. She and Zauner are good friends and have even collaborated on a Valentines playlist together for NPR and they are also on tour together.

These women and so many more have provided a shelter for Asian American girls. Not only do they blaze a trail for those to come, but they invite others to learn and re-educate themselves on who we are as people. The mold America has built is not only broken, but burned down. Now it’s time to dance on the ashes…to some great music.

Illustrations by: Nicole Bae