Cuteness Overload

Asian babies take over the Internet.

April 16, 2010

(Illustration by Jehan Choo)

My teenage sister likes to send me links to her favorite YouTube videos. And, God bless her Asian Pride-filled heart, she gravitates toward ones featuring Asian children performing incredible feats of musicality, coordination and overall adorableness.

The latest clip was of a 2-year-old virtuoso drummer in footed pajamas with an impeccable sense of rhythm. You can’t tell from the video if he can even talk in complete sentences yet, but there he is, rocking out — even teasing the crowd (Mom and Dad) with cymbal flourishes like a bonafide jazz soloist. It’s one of the most uncanny (and yes, cutest) things I’ve seen in a while.

That video got me wondering why a seemingly disproportionate number of these “viral” videos — clips that spread like wildfire via media-sharing sites like YouTube — star Asian children. There’s the 5-year-old Japanese ukulele player crooning Jason Mraz, the earnest “kid coach” Noah Chang with his basketball instructional video and at least a half-dozen others. Not to mention innumerable clips from Korean and Taiwanese variety shows, where child prodigies are a recurring feature.

Are Asian kids just cuter and more awesome than other kids? Are Asian American parents more computer or Internet savvy? Or is there a weird exotification going on — a sense in which, as with William Hung, America is laughing at us rather than with us?

When Libby Kim first posted videos of her son Christian, the drummer boy extraordinaire, she wasn’t expecting him to become an Internet sensation. Christian had been experimenting on the drums — drawing inspiration from blink-182’s Travis Barker — since before his second birthday, and she wanted friends and relatives to see him in action.

Kim also wasn’t expecting that, amid mostly glowing praise, the videos’ comment sections would be smattered with racist remarks — your typical “Asians pronounce Ls like Rs” jokes, and worse: “hes asian, his parents probably beat him if he doesnt play good” or “shoot that f***ing child in the head, along with every other asain in the world” [sic].

Kim, who has been a US citizen for over 35 years, was stunned that so many people still harbor such prejudices — and that they would direct their vitriol at an innocent child.

Such remarks point to a dark side of these videos’ popularity. The model minority myth they reflect and reinforce — that Asian kids are all musical prodigies as well as math geniuses — can be just as pernicious as the blatantly hateful stuff. Such remarks also demonstrate that derogatory sentiment toward Asians and Asian Americans still persists in mainstream America.

“[YouTube is] more of an exchange and can be more participatory than previous media,” says Margaret Rhee, a doctoral student in comparative ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Shared videos are open to immediate viewer feedback, whereas “we don’t get to see comments written on television or film.”

Rhee speculates that the popularity of these Asian-child prodigy videos, at least among non-Asians, might be linked to society’s perception of Asian children as “cute” and “savable” — a perception reinforced by the mass adoption of Asian babies.

A truism of the Internet age is that when you post something for the world to see, you risk attracting the lowest common denominator — i.e., anonymous “trolls” looking to stir up trouble — especially since sites like YouTube aren’t heavily moderated. But the Internet’s interactive aspect has an upside as well, says Nicol U, also a doctoral candidate in ethnic studies at UC Berkeley.

“You see plenty of other viewers ‘talking back’ and calling out these racist slurs and remarks,” U says. “Unfortunately, I think there’s still that stereotype that the Asian and Asian American community won’t do or say anything if racism is being directed at them.”

U argues that, ultimately, it’s good that Asian kids are getting this media exposure. She points out that maybe Asian presence on YouTube seems so remarkable because their absence on TV and in Hollywood movies is so conspicuous.

“Media spaces like YouTube are a great balance to what one would normally see of Asian American representation in mainstream media,” she says. “Anyone can put up a video of him [or] herself, and it’s up to the viewers to decide whether or not they’ll watch.”

In the end, the last thing these budding YouTube stars need is for us to over-intellectualize their popularity. So, as I reload that clip for the fifth time, I conclude that it would take a real cynic to find something bad to say about little Christian working his drum magic, having the time of his life.

As my dear sister put it, “The world would be a better place if more people were exposed to this cuteness.”   

Luke Tsai is a freelance writer living in Oakland, CA. This is his first piece for Hyphen.

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