When I was a kid, I used to sometimes stay at my grandma’s house, and she would always stay up until 9 or 10pm (big-kid bedtime) watching Japanese language TV. My grandma was born in the United States to Japanese immigrants, and speaks what she calls “pidgin-Japanese” to our Japan-based relatives, but still enjoys Japanese media, as long as it has subtitles. Sometimes, when I couldn’t sleep, I would watch Japanese TV with her.
Mostly it was soap operas, set in feudal Japan. But we also watched Iron Chef. As I did, later, with my parents. Featuring Iron Chefs Sakai, Morimoto, Chen– and, of course, over-the-top master of ceremonies Chairman Kaga, who would start every episode with a montage of self-satisfied ingredient-sniffing and imperious surveyings of his game show set domain.
Watch this for classic Kaga (plus inexplicable Pirates of the Caribbean music):
Now everyone knows American media really likes to import and translate foreign TV shows and films, and the extent to which the original cultural imprint remains can vary. The Departed gets transplanted from Hong Kong to Boston. The Ring moves to Seattle with a little white girl as evil ghost and blond lady Naomi Watts as terrorized protagonist, while The Grudge stays in Japan with a Japanese woman and little boy as evil ghosts and blond lady Sarah Michelle Gellar as terrorized protagonist. In Europe/Scandinavia, Let the Right One In is redubbed Let Me In and moved to middle America, while The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo keeps the exact same Stockholm setting and story and just switches to English (with some Swedish people having British accents, and some having Swedish accents, both equally inexplicably).
But maybe I can’t compare Iron Chef USA to these transplanted movies. Maybe a better point of comparison is “Wipeout,” which re-creates the zany Japanese game show obstacle course antics of “Takeshi’s Castle.” While the Japanese game show influence is obvious, there are otherwise no representations of Japanese culture in the American show. It’s more of an opportunity for us to see people get hurt by falling off of really ridiculous, brightly-colored things. (A universal pleasure.)
Iron Chef USA, however, has kept the Japanese-ness of its origins alive in two ways. First, by employing Iron Chef Morimoto, one of the original Japanese Iron Chefs. Cool. Fine. Second, by employing Mark Dacascos as the host and “nephew” (because all Asian people are related! Is that it!!) to Chairman Kaga.
Every time I watch Iron Chef USA on Food Network, I cringe at Dacascos’ performance. His studied, self-consciously clipped “Asian” accent. His theatrical overextensions, jumping between a serene arms-at-sides position to the exaggerated arms-sweeping of secret-ingredient-announcing. The little “whoosh” sound effects that accompany the piercing glances he throws at each of the contestants before said arms-sweeping secret-ingredient-announcing.
Before landing his Chairman Kaga Lite gig in 2005, Mark Dacascos made a career as an actor and martial artist. He appeared in Double Dragon alongside Scott Wolf (I know I was like WHOA!) and in a CSI episode as a Buddhist monk named Ananda who is a murder suspect (with that same bewildering “Asian” accent—discussed below). He is originally from Hawaii, according to Wikipedia, born to a Chinese-Filipino-Spanish father and an Irish-Japanese mother. In his own way he is pretty pan-Asian.
But as he stands there on that Iron Chef USA stage, speaking in English, surrounded by mostly white people, enacting that bizarre ritual which kicks off every show which is based on Chairman Kaga’s original routine but here feels unnatural, exploitative, and like an attempt to capture a “mysterious” Eastern vibe using this inscrutable Chairman Kaga’s nephew character, as he shoots kung-fu glances at the contestants and then says in a kung-fu voiceover voice, “Today’s… secret… ingredient… is…” and then fog machines are unleashed and the ingredient is unveiled with Kaga Lite dramatically lifting his arms like a symphony conductor via a magician pretending at the ability to levitate objects, and whatever it is—let’s say it’s oysters—he then, wide-eyed, rolling his head in a kung-fu flourish, announces in the most melodramatic, Asian-y way possible, “Ohh-OYY-sterrs!!!” And the white people stand around and clap at this silly little spectacle. Then he yells in machine-gun Japanese-style French: “ALLEZ CUISINE!” (Something Kaga did too.)
Well. And as he does all this. I cringe.
Here’s a montage of what I can only imagine is every ingredient announcement ever (click here if video doesn’t work):
First off, Mark Dacascos is Asian-American. Yet every episode, he pushes his American subjecthood down under the surface and puts on this weird throwback Oriental act. And maybe because it’s done in such earnest, and maybe additionally because there’s such a disconnect between his Asian caricature and his own, clearly American, mixed features (this shouldn’t make a difference, but just seems to call more attention to it— not to mention the palatability/marketability of a conventionally handsome American Asian with tan skin and large eyes vis-à-vis a more traditionally featured Asian man), and the knowledge that this disconnect might be much less apparent to people who live in parts of the country without any Asians, such that they’ll be like, “Asians! That’s what they’re like!”—that it all feels, you know. Offensive.
Plus, there are hardly any Asians in TV/film, period. And what often happens when they ARE there, is it’s Asian-Americans playing Asian Asians. Like they’re not from here.
People might say that this act is harmless, that it’s just an homage to the over-the-top theatricality of Japanese television, and that might be true. But when analyzing pop culture (no seriously I wish there was a job just called “pop culture analyst” and that someone would hand it to me) I tend to take a multitude of factors into account: intent, performance, reception, broader impact. What you do in your living room when you’re joking around with your friends is going to have a different reception and impact than what Mark Dacascos does on the Food Network. In effect, it is at the very least a reproduction of Orientalist tropes of “the Asian” as mysterious, impersonal, and ultimately foreign.
Note on the “Asian” accent: What I mean by this isn’t your standard Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese et al accent. It’s more like what I referred to as the “kung-fu voiceover”: no traces of mispronounced words, all American-accented, but with a clipped, self-conscious quality that may or may not have originated in the kung fu dubbings of the 1960s and 1970s as an American voice actor’s attempt to sound “Asian” without effecting an actual accent. I have no sources to back this up. This is my impression. “Sau-SAGE!” “Pitz-a-doh!” “TO-MAY-TO!” Suffice it to say, it emphasizes a “foreignness” in the Asian figure that is divorced from any ethnic, cultural, or geographic reality.
Which is just what we need. More “Where are you froms?” More Asians-as-foreigners discourse. More Julie Chen-style desperate playing up of Asian stereotypes to a largely white audience.
For more on the above, listen to Andrew Ti’s very funny podcast from this week, about “Where are you from?” I’m already devising responses in my head to what I anticipate to be an increase in such inquiries when I move inland. (where am I from? California. where are my parents from? England, and Michigan. where are my grandparents from? England, Canada, and California. STRAW MAN MIND BLOWN.)
I usually turn off Wheel of Fortune before they can get to Fortune (you know: Wheel! Of! TV off.) and I tend to think of its guests as people not smart enough to be on Jeopardy, Wheel’s 7:00 syndicated lead-in, but every once in a while I leave it on long enough to watch Vanna walk all the way across that stage and to hear Pat introduce the first glorified Hangman puzzle of the night, and then sometimes it just stays on til the end.
The other night, when such a thing happened, one of the themes or special trips or whatever the hell they do on that show produced a particularly offensive graphic called the “Exotic Far East.” The lettering approximated bamboo and was set against some kind of rice-paddy background. And was there a gong* or does my memory insert one? After this little display of Orientalism the camera cuts to Pat Sajak (in banter, a far superior host to Alex Trebek, but he lacks Alex’s socially inept brand of charisma—my family and I like to make fun of Alex but I think we’d all be very, very sad if he left) and Pat, glib as ever, muses, “Do they call us the Exotic Far West?” Pause. “Anyway–“ and the show went on.
It was the briefest moment of lucidity in what I guess I’d call the realm of mainstream culture as opposed to what I guess I’d call the realm of cultural criticism. Words like “exotic” and “mysterious,” images like chopsticks and dragons and fortune cookies, sounds like gongs* (Andrew Ti knows what I’m talking about) remain entrenched and are the lazy man’s racist stand-in for East Asia (and, at ESPN, for Palo Alto). I both abhorred and appreciated this game-show moment because, while the graphic and segment title were annoying, for just a second, Pat shook himself as if awakening from a dream, looked around, and said, “What is happening? Where am I? Why should the East be exotic?” And then sold some vowels.
Pat, it’s appreciated, now keep on hosting your mediocre game show. Vanna, you anti-feminist icon, don’t even get me started on you.
– “Community” Season 1 Episode 1: intro to Senor Chang
– How to Make a Chinese or Japanese Book Cover, by James Morrison (The Society Pages)
– “Message from a Nightingale” scene, The Drowsy Chaperone, 2006 Broadway musical
*Musician’s Note: The type of gong used to produce the sound that typically accompanies terrible stereotypes is called a “tamtam.” It makes a crash-like wash of noise, as opposed to the “nipple” gong which has that Zen-like (dang! now I’m doing it) low-pitched ring.