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From Fengshui to Ginseng Tea: The Asianization of America
Eastern Standard Time
1997 Review by Sara Dorow (Winter 1997 issue)
Roll over, Rudyard Kipling. Eastern Standard Time has declared that while East is still
East, and West is still West, the twain have indeed met. Published by the trendy
A.Magazine, the cover proclaims it “the first book about the Asianization of America—
the long-awaited guide to Asian cultural literacy.” Several nights in a row I curled up
with this comfortingly weighty paperback, expecting to discover the many ways in which
Americans of all walks had been unwittingly Asianized. With the opening piece on
bonsai and ikebane, however, I suspected that the second promise on EST’s cover was
more to the point: this collection of essays seemed more a popular culture encyclopedia
(albeit a very fun one) than an examination of Asianization.
At first I found it disappointing. So much literature, both scholarly and popular, has dealt
with the powerful dissemination of the “Coca-Cola culture” to Asia, so the smaller but no
less interesting invasion of the United States by soy sauce and fengshui deserves equally
thoughtful analysis as a form of resistance and hybridization. But the book told me to
lighten up. If we can find ironic delight in Levis on Chinese peasants, or kimchi pizzas in
the frozen food sections of Seoul grocery stores, why not turn that back on ourselves?
Why not take a campy approach to Asian popular culture, consciously packaging a guide
that is at once informative and fun?
Subjects in EST range from brush painting to aphrodisiacs, from Confucius to Jackie
Chan. Any subject that has remotely hit American consciousness is fair game, and the
reader is assumed to know something but not a lot. Since no one person can know it all
anyway, there is something for everyone in EST. Since I thought I knew something, I
wanted an index, or at least a table of contents to direct me through this thick book.
Again, the book warned me to lighten up. Sans direction, the reader wanders through
sections on Art and Design, Film and Television, Food and Drink, Ideas and Philosophy
in much the same way that things Asian filter through our everyday existence in America.
(EST does employ a system of cross-referencing, for those who want to flip back and
forth following a theme.)
My complaints are few, but start with EST being a little Japan-heavy. Sure, Japan has
seeped into American consciousness longer and in more ways than probably any other
Asian nation. But why reinforce that? I don’t know how, for example, the review of
Asian pottery and ceramics could omit Korean celadon or the section on fashion miss
Korean designers. Just as EST describes Paper snacks as “Picky’s slighter shorter
Korean cousin,” it gives Korea (as well as other countries) the short end of the stick in its
coverage of numerous other topics as well. Not that Korea is left out completely: King
Seagoing, hangup, callboy, the term “gook,” Taekwondo expert Jhoon Rhea, and writer Chang Rae Lee among other prominent contemporary Korean personalities, all make appearances. EST is sure to both delight and offend. I rarely experienced the latter, until a misinformed essay on Asian adoptees appeared in the last section on “Trends and Phenomena,” followed by a piece on Asian pets. Again, it seems anything is fair game. Discomfort is part of the challenge of reflecting on “Asia in America.” How we read EST as tells us something about how we Americans read Asia: as never explicitly defined, as a disjointed collection of ideas and objects and people that we mix together to try to make sense of the Other. But the Other is here, in our cupboards and theaters, hanging on our walls, living next door. EST challenges the reader to not only acknowledge but enjoy and learn from this meeting of the twain. Thus this book deserves a place on everyone’s nightstand, between the Sanyo alarm clock and cup of ginseng tea.
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