British East Asians Finally Have Their Soundtrack

Tom Matsuda

I’ve always had to look across the pond to North America to find myself in media. Alexander Chee’s muses on being a mixed race Asian in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel and the immigrant-centred sit com Kim’s Convenience both provided relief to me. They helped me find a context to my mixed up feelings growing up East Asian in a country that views us still in stereotypical terms.

However as much as I was so glad to finally find myself in written word, it reminded me of a bitter truth. I always look to the experiences of Asian Americans or Canadians to see my own identity validated. And whilst I am so grateful that I can have access to this, I am reminded of the dearth of representation in my home country, the UK.

We are the UK’s third largest ethnic minority and the fastest growing. Yet I can count the times where I’ve ever heard or seen one of our stories told on one of my hands. We have been here since the 17th century and the first British East Asian story exists as early as 1779 in the form of William Macao, a man who married a British woman and worked at Dundas House in Edinburgh as an accountant. Yet in spite of this claim to existence, our voices and our history are continually sidelined.

Actors such as Mia Foo talk of how they are continually passed up in favour of white actors in casting for British period dramas, one of the UK’s most well-received cultural exports. This is in spite of how the aforementioned story arguably comes into the definition of a period drama.

Moreover, when representation does occur it is often at the detriment of us in its use of racial tropes, stereotypes and yellow face. Our stories are not told and when they are, they are roles that not only stereotype but are also given over to white actors.

In terms of other forms of media, Kazuo Ishiguro has offered a British East Asian voice in literature. Moreover, essay collections such as “The Good Immigrant” helped to highlight our struggle to be recognised and the racism that exists under the surface.

However, despite the UK music scene’s history of holding up diverse voices, there has been a relative lack of British East Asian voices. Rina Sawayama’s debut album, however, serves to fill this void.

Whilst not entirely concentrating on her experience growing up in the UK East Asian, Sawayama tells a story that is definitive of the British East Asian experience. It is one laced with micro-aggressions whilst dating, as told in the utterly brilliantly wacky nu metal STFU, feelings of being an outsider in whatever country you are in and the accompanying pain.

We’re never on the inside. We always have our eyes pressed to the glass window, watching everybody else live their lives as normal. A normality that we feel we can never be a part of no matter where we are. And there is no track that expresses that feeling better than Tokyo Love Hotel.

On a superficial first listen, the track appears to be about a short-lived love affair amid the neon lights of the Japanese capital. A deeper look at the lyrics and you’ll find an exploration of how tourists treat Japan with disrespect like a one night stand in a love hotel.

To tourists, Japan with its combination of neon lights, busy streets and accommodating culture of hospitality, the country can seem like a theme park. However for those like myself and Rina who are Japanese but grew up in the West, we don’t want to check into this idea and instead want to regain ownership of a culture that we see as ours.

Yet within this desire to feel integrated with our cultural identity, a conflict is created. By making “just another song ‘bout Tokyo”, are we ourselves as westerners feeding into how tourists take Japanese hospitality and respectfulness as an excuse to be uninhibited. Truthfully, I’ve spent many nights at karaoke and at clubs drunk and out of my mind as a tourist in Japan just as Sawayama did as told in the friendship breakup song Bad Friend. I’ve partaken in the treatment of Japan as an amusement park of clubs, karaoke and all night convenience stores without caring for the people that call Japan home. I am part of the problem yet part of the culture too.

However, it’s not just this familiar feeling of duality that this album manages to capture. Whilst “Paradisin” is a whimsical ode to growing up in London and rebelling against sometimes over-bearing Asian parents by “drinking in Trafalgar Square”, the album also deals with the darker side of how mental health is dealt with in East Asian families.

Whilst not limited to East Asia, many East Asian cultures often make mental health a taboo leading to unspoken truths and unacknowledged pains. Akasaka Sad and Dynasty both trace how the unsaid can pass down to us causing us too to feel mental anguish. As Sawayama proclaims over Evanscene-inspired theatricality, “the pain in our veins is hereditary”.

Glittered in amongst this, is our duty and power to change our narratives. Acknowledging inter-generational pain means that we can shed it like a snakeskin and use our struggles to make us stronger.

Sawayama is the musical proof that the chain of pain can be broken. And in the corona era, where frustrations and fear have been morphed into hatred against asian bodies, this is an important message of hope.

We can change the narrative if we really want to. Representation plays an important part in breaking the chain of racial stereotypes and ignorance. When we are viewed as multifaceted, our humanity comes to the forefront.

No longer are we viewed as the other or the perpetual foreigner but instead as people seen as part of a society. And along with this, our issues and our feelings towards being East Asian in the UK should come to the political, economic and social forefront too.

We live in a world in which history is sadly repeating itself. Once again, another minority group is being scapegoated for a pandemic. Putting East Asian voices to the front in a time like this can help to mitigate the affects of this by humanising our existences. We are not to blame for the crisis nor are we more likely to carry the virus as some have chosen to believe.

This is why Sawayama is more than just a pop album. For people like me, it’s also the sound of a big sigh of relief. Whilst Sawayama most likely did not anticipate that a global pandemic would accompany the release of her debut album, there is arguably no better time for such a quintessentially British East Asian release. Finally in a time of need, we have a voice to our struggles.

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British-Japanese writer from London. Words in OneZero, Human Parts.


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