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AsianAmerica.Net: Ethnicity, Nationalism and Cyberspace

Edited by Rachel Lee and Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong
2003 Routledge, London
316 pages

Review by Madanmohan Rao (madan@techsparks.com)

“AsianAmerica.net” provides thoughtful and informative insights into the online communities and perceptions of the Asian diaspora in the U.S. From “model minority” stereotypes and “techno-orientalism” in computer games to gender politics and even diaspora religious extremism, he thirteen essays in the book cover a wide range of issues. The material is inter-disciplinary and draws on anthropological findings, cultural studies, media models and cyberlaw.

Rachel Lee and Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong are faculty members in Asian American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. All but one of the 16 contributing writers are based in the US. The compilation succeeds in bringing together in one volume a range of scattered and multi-disciplinary research on Asian and Asian American studies. It makes useful contributions to the fields of new media, post-colonial cyber-racial studies, and online community behaviours.

The book offers useful perspectives on the successive waves of Asian immigration to the US. For instance, the IT boom in the US, in ways different from the gold rush a century prior, drew a new influx of Asian engineers to the US. The cyber-discourses of these new Asian workers and immigrants as well as the more settled Asian Americans are ripe areas for research into social habits, diaspora culture, globalised politics and even personal and group identities.

Scholars of media studies and politics in Asia would be interested to see how domestic issues and conflicts play themselves out among online Asian diaspora in the West. Examples are provided in this regard from India, Vietnam, China, the Philippines and Korea.

Among the most efficient and effective tools in the cause of the pro-democracy Vietnamese diaspora has been and continues to be the Internet, according to Kim-An Lieberman. The Internet has become an essential grassroots medium for expressing dissent, coordinating the efforts of activists, and changing the landscape of political discourse and advocacy.

Lieberman documents over two dozen Web sites devoted to Vietnamese anti-communist nationalism. “This new political party will be everywhere and nowhere,” in the words of a Vietnamese activist. Real time audio broadcasts via the Web are used by Radio Free Vietnam and Vietnamese Public Radio. “Technically, the Republic of Vietnam fell with Saigon, but in many cases it has been resurrected on the Internet,” observes Lieberman.

The Net has helped group together scattered Vietnamese, provide self-expression, encourage diversity of viewpoints, make the homeland more memorable and personable, intensify a sense of history and nurture diasporic activism. Challenges have arisen, on occasion, for issues like standardisation of the Vietnamese digital fonts (which applies to many other Asian languages as well).

“Vietnam is still ironing out its own approach – vacillating all the while between Singapore’s caution and Malaysia’s enthusiasm,” according to Lieberman. It uses restrictive firewalls in a manner similar to China or Singapore.

In Vietnam, Internet connectivity was first facilitated by the Australian National University. November 19 was declared as Vietnam Internet Day; there is a boom in the growth of cybercafes.

“Hopefully, these new lines of communication between Vietnam and its former citizens will further a better appreciation, on both sides, of the different ways in which individuals and communities can imagine their national identities,” urges Lieberman.

Vinay Lal addresses the political use of the Internet by revisionist Hindu organisations based in North America to create a new sense of history and engage in politics. Unfortunately, some of this view, as revealed in various Web sites, is an “ossified conception of their faith, frozen in time,” and even disruptive, bigoted, unhealthy and retrograde. And at the same time, many progressive online columns have urged Indian expats not to donate money to causes which spread hatred in India.

“Though the Indian diaspora is much smaller than the Chinese or African diaspora, it has perhaps a greater geographic reach and is represented in virtually every country of the world,” according to Lal.

Yuan Shu addresses the more recent phenomenon of transnational communities of Chinese professionals who frequently travel back and forth between China and the US. He compares and contrasts two online Chinese new sources: China News Digest (non-profit, focusing on intellectual responsibility of Chinese in the US) and Chinese Media Net (more business-oriented).

“Discussion columns often turn out to be a virtual battleground for mainland Chinese students studying in the US who promote reunification with Taiwan, and their Taiwanese counterparts who articulate their own desires and anxieties for an independent Taiwan,” observes Shu. He advocates more constructive dialogue, and also recommends more interaction between US-born Chinese Americans and the transnational Chinese communities.

“The Internet has not only transformed our culture and society in terms of networking, but has also challenged our traditional concepts of identity and community that were geographically conceived and historically constructed,” according to Shu.

Emily Noelle Ignacio shows how the online jokes have helped in the quest for the essence of Filipino culture and identity, especially in the context of assimilation to wider forces of Americanisation. The genre of jokes helps the process of boundary making, and creates new forms of hybridity; jokes are an active form of cultural creation.

Aeju Kim raises provocative questions on the validity of cyberliterature as a new literary form in Korea, especially in the context of power struggles within Korean literary circles. Is “electronic Americanism” leading to a dismemberment of non-English cultures, or does the disruptive nature of the Web open up global access to new forms of Korean literature? Or is there a tradeoff between the inevitability of some loss at the micro-level of Korean culture and language on the one hand and greater gains in the worldwide market on the other hand?

“I suggest that it is necessary for Korean literature to appropriate the digital tool in order to survive in the pervading climate of digital globalisation,” advises Kim.

Other contributing writers show how the Internet can enable “virtual Asian American studies” via intercollegiate Web pedagogy, addressing issues like “polylogue” narratives, online discussions and group collaboration.

W.H.K.Chun identifies some of the disturbing elements of “oriental sexuality” as transferred and transformed from the physical world to cyberspace. “Cyberspace both remaps the world and makes it ripe for exploration once more,” according to Chun.

Jerry Kang addresses the issue of projection of racial prejudices and attitudes in cyberspace, especially via the actual names of online users even though visual cues may be absent. “Cyberspace will not magically reform vicarious experiences,” cautions Kang. At the same time, interesting possibilities for experimentation with “cybermutation” open up.

Among other contributions, the book brings together a fascinating variety of terms defining the new language of cybercultures, such as cybertechie, cyberians, cyburbanites, brainiacs, techno-orientalism, “pixelated” Asia-Pacific, long-distance community, Nethnographics, metaverse, hacktivism, Netwar, digital Zaptismo, “ and the rhizomatic” characteristics of the Internet.


Madanmohan Rao is the editor of “The Asia-Pacific Internet Handbook”

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