A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Sounding Asian/America: Asian/American Sonic Rhetorics, Multimodal Orientalism, and Digital Composition

Jennifer Sano-Franchini, Virginia Tech

(Published December 18, 2018)

The history of Asian/American rhetorical practice can in many ways be understood as a struggle to “sound” Asian/America. That is, Asian/American rhetoric has largely been a persistent struggle for self-expression and self-representation, oftentimes working against characterizations of Asian cultural identity from the perspective of white supremacy. Moreover, this struggle to “sound” Asian/America has often pushed back against the unrelenting stereotype of the silent, submissive, and compliant Asian body. Take, for example, Aiiieeeee!, the onomatopoetic title of one of the earliest anthologies of Asian/American literary expression. “Aiiieeeee!” is a reappropriation of Asian sound as it was depicted in Hollywood productions: “the shout, the scream, often the only sound coming from the yellow man or woman in American movies, television, or comic books" (Chan). As the title for an anthology of works by Asian/American writers, the sound “Aiiieeeee! is re-con/textualized and subverted to represent the embodied, sonic expression of rage, anguish, grief, and—perhaps—the catharsis of the minoritized Asian “Other.” Indeed, for Asian/Americans, expressions of racism have often emerged from markedly sonic registers. Take, for example, recent debates over the stakes and politics of performing mock “Asian” accents within popular media, as well as longstanding complaints about unintelligible Asian accents as expressed through derogatory “ching chong” chants. Consider stereotypes of the quiet Asian student or the noisy Asian tourist. Consider, in addition, stereotypes of the Asian body as mysterious, cunning, and manipulative—characterizations that seem to stem from a habit of mis-hearing the Asian “Other” as silent, withholding, and as not forthright in their utterances. These examples show that sound is of critical importance for Asian/American rhetoric, and the stakes are even higher in this digitally-saturated, transnational context where technologies like GarageBand, Audacity, SoundCloud, and Bandcamp make it possible for just about anyone with access to a computer and the internet to produce, borrow, remix, post, and disseminate sonic representations of others across cultures, embodiment, space, and time. In such a context, it is easy to de-contextualize and de-historicize digital content in ways that directly impact how media consumers perceive others.

This article works from this context as I present a two-part argument: 1) I argue for more work in Asian/American sonic rhetoric because sound offers a helpful way of examining with greater detail the embodied, affective, and material experience of Asian/American rhetoric; and 2) I demonstrate what such an approach can look like by articulating multimodal orientalism, aural stereotyping, and aural othering as key concepts for an Asian/American sonic rhetoric that can help us better understand the rhetorical workings of Orientalism in a twenty-first-century, multimodal context. In other words, I consider how an analysis of sound shared over the transnational, cross-cultural sphere of YouTube can help digital rhetoricians and Asian/American rhetoric and writing scholars more fully understand the rhetorical workings of aurality in digital composition and in the trans/formation of Asian/American subjectivity. In doing this work, I draw on Jennifer Stoever’s The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening, which interrogates the relationship between listening, power, and race by “connect[ing] sound with race in American culture, showing how listening operates as an organ of racial discernment, categorization, and resistance” with deep ties to the history of systemic white supremacy in the United States (16). For instance, Stoever describes the ideological and racialized[1] underpinnings of sound, including how it is the very sonic quality of particular kinds of music like hip-hop—as opposed to its lyrical messages—that is offensive for some and empowering for others.[2] The Sonic Color Line is important for how it centers blackness while it demonstrates how listening is a politicized and racialized act that is rooted in histories of oppression. Furthermore, it makes explicit how “Willful white mishearing and auditory imaginings of blackness—often state-sanctioned—have long been a matter of life and death in the United States” (1). At the same time, The Sonic Color Line risks reaffirming the black-white racial binary even as it endeavors to challenge this binary; it centers race while not taking up, in any substantial way, the impacts of sound on other racialized groups.[3] A focus on racialized sound in the context of Asian/America is an important addition to Stoever’s perspective because it works toward a fuller understanding of the range of ways that sound gets racialized.

Thus, I explore what I refer to as “sounding Asian/America,” or, how rhetorical practices of sounding—of designing communications with and through sound—shape perceptions about Asian/American identity and subjectivity across multimodal contexts. When I say “sound,” I refer to vibrational and primarily auditory qualities of voice, song, accent, tonality, reverberation, music, score, and/or other sonic arrangements. This sounding might include both Asian/American sound—Asian/American sonic self-representation—as well as Orientalist sound, or, the sounding of racialized, sonic archetypes that render audible fantasies of the East as constructed in the Eurowestern imagination. Although both approaches are important for understanding Asian/American sonic rhetorics, I focus on the latter for this particular essay because doing so offers the critical language necessary for identifying and responding to the history of dominant sonic representations of Asians that are already widely accessible within popular media. Furthermore, an articulation of Orientalist sound can encourage digital rhetors to be more careful and conscientious about how we might inadvertently replicate the rhetorics and rationales of white supremacy.

To do so, I examine the workings of sound in what I refer to as multimodal orientalism —or, how music, soundtracks, sound effects, voice, and accent interact with and across visual, textual, and contextual modes to re-inscribe Orientalist tropes of the Other as foreign, exotic, and threatening. In this way, multimodal orientalism re/visions Edward Said’s 1978 articulation of Orientalism as “a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western experience” (1). [4] As Said explained:

The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe's greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other. Moreover, the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience. (1)

In other words, by defining the Orient as irrational, deceitful, childlike, incoherent, disorderly, and inferior, and by institutionalizing that definition since at least the late eighteenth century, the European West has been able to position itself in opposition to these qualities—as rational, virtuous, mature, clear, orderly, and superior. Multimodal orientalism updates Orientalism for a twenty-first-century context of participatory media. In addition, I offer multimodal orientalism as a potentially helpful term for assessing the rhetorics of sound in the teaching and practice of digital composition. Multimodal orientalism, I argue, offers a way to understand how sound works in multimodal contexts to reproduce and reinforce stereotypes about minoritized others.

In the section that follows, I situate this article in relation to existing scholarship that touches on sound in Asian/American rhetoric and composition as well as key concepts and terms within Asian American studies, including techno-orientalism and high-tech orientalism. I then introduce my study of multimodal representations of East Asian blepharoplasty, also known as cosmetic eyelid surgery, on YouTube, which is the basis for my sonic analysis. Next, I draw on this study to describe two strategies for multimodal orientalism: 1) aural stereotyping, which refers to the sonic re-inscription of old, essentialized, and racialized tropes (such as the Asian riff or the sound of a gong) in a multimodal context; and 2) aural othering, which refers to the use of sound to create a sensibility of the racialized Other as strange, foreign, odd, or otherworldly. I then discuss the implications of my analysis for Asian/American transnational rhetoric by considering how my observations take up the ways in which the current techno-rhetorical context allows for new transnational circuits of information that then get inscribed on Asian/American bodies and subjectivities. Finally, I close by arguing for more work on Asian/American sonic rhetorics and by sharing a YouTube playlist of music composed by Asian/American artists as a way of providing reader-listeners with a sampling of the textured, sonic landscape of Asian/America—on our own terms, in our own voices.

Situating Asian/American Sonic Rhetoric and Multimodal Orientalism

To date, Asian/American rhetoric and composition scholars have touched on the rhetorics of sound in a range of ways. Some have discussed related concepts such as voice, articulation, dance, performance, silence, song, and listening (Carroll; Kannan; Lyon; Ghosh; Monberg; Young “Neither Asian”). Such examinations of Asian/American sonic rhetoric tend to discuss sound in ways that are more implicit than explicit; in other words, they do not discuss sound as auditory vibration, or in relation to sonic properties such as pitch, timbre, tonality, melody, instrumentation, or loudness. Instead, these works often highlight the profoundly embodied nature of voice, silence, song, and listening. Furthermore, they examine the relationships of sonic performances to subjectivity and identity. Among the works that take up sound in more explicit ways is Vani Kannan’s “The Mahamantra, Kirtan Performance, and the Embodied Circulation of Cultural Rhetoric,” which explores the “deep links between Hinduism and sacred sound” through an analysis of her experience performing kirtan—a “call-and-response singing of devotional songs or mantras.” In this essay, Kannan takes up Guy Beck’s articulation of the “Hindu concept of nada brahman, the idea that all beings (and the universe) are composed of vibrations—a philosophy that centers sound in both ontology and in practices of worship.” Kannan elaborates: “Within Vedic philosophy, the repetition of Sanskrit mantras is understood to have profound vibrational effects on the body, mind, and spirit.” Kannan emphasizes the ideological and embodied tensions that emerged as she performed kirtan, a deeply sacred practice, within the commercial and secular space of a yoga studio. Kannan further demonstrates the complexities of sonic expression and practices of listening through a cultural rhetorics framework, highlighting how the very act of sounding is experienced differently by different actors. That said, sound remains a critical but under-examined concept within Asian/American rhetoric.

In addition, my concept of multimodal orientalism extends from two critical areas of inquiry within Asian/American studies. First, I build on the extensive scholarship that has theorized, identified, and critiqued visual, linguistic, and embodied race-based tropes and stereotypes about Asian “Others” within popular media, literary texts, and public policy. This work includes the articulations of, for example, the threatening “yellow peril;” the docile, obedient, and objectified “China doll;” the sexually eager and servile “geisha girl;” the demure and submissive “lotus blossom;” the “perpetual foreigner” who cannot speak English “properly;” the hypersexual, manipulative, and opportunistic “dragon lady;” and the one-noted “kung fu fighter” (Hagedorn; Hamamoto: Ono and Pham; Prasso; Tajima; Young). Specifically, I go beyond the visual to consider how these tropes are supported, and at times furthered, through sonic strategies. Race and race-based stereotypes are often conceptualized as visual, textual, and linguistic formations via associations with the visibility of particular phenotypical traits and the semantics of hate speech and ethnic slurs. As a result, race-based stereotypes are often described in terms of visual, linguistic, literary, and otherwise textual tropes. At the same time, race and racism rely in large part on the racialization of sound; in other words, race-based stereotypes are oftentimes rhetorically constructed or at least supported through the rhetorics of sound.

Secondly, my notion of multimodal orientalism is inspired by more recent scholarship in Asian American studies and media studies that has considered how Said’s theory of Orientalism has changed shape amidst shifting cultural, economic, and technological conditions (Chun; Fan; Morley & Robins; Roh, et al.; Sohn). For instance, Roh, et al.’s Techno-Orientalism takes up “the critical commonplace that Orientalism actively produces and reproduces an oppositional East to cement Western hegemony” (8) by examining twentieth-century speculative renderings of the West’s anxieties of an Asian future beginning with the 1912 depiction of Dr. Fu Manchu (1). More pointedly, Ueno asserts, “If the Orient was invented by the West, then the Techno-Orient was also invented by the world of information capitalism” (“Japanimation” 228). In a similar vein, Chun theorizes the concept of high-tech Orientalism as a response to Japan becoming the largest creditor nation in 1985. Chun argues that high-tech Orientalism takes Orientalist tropes to a nationless techno-future where the threat of the Oriental colors the global landscape: “Faced with a ‘Japanese future,’ high-tech Orientalism resurrects the frontier—in a virtual form—in order to open space for the United States.” Drawing on analyses of Neuromancer and Ghost in the Shell, Chun argues: “As opposed to the openly racist science fiction of the early to mid-twentieth century, which warned against the ‘yellow peril,’ cyberpunk fiction does not advocate white supremacy or the resurrection of a strong United States. It rather offers representations of survivors, of savvy navigators who can open closed spaces” (178). As such, high-tech Orientalism transcends nationalisms by “disengaging Orientalism from the Orient” (242). Such an idea is especially compelling when considered alongside contemporary waves of Asian migration across the globe.

Multimodal orientalism builds upon and deviates from these works in that it centers the rhetorical process by which such orientalist tropes are constructed across digital modalities in the current technological context.[5] In this way, individual modalities or particular sounds may not in and of themselves be racist; however, when placed alongside other modalities, they, together, do the work of affective Othering, oftentimes by reinforcing xenophobic dispositions. At its core, multimodal orientalism builds on the idea that sonic rhetorics are not made up of mono-modal experiences; rather, multimodal orientalism treats listening as synaesthetic. As Ceraso has argued, “Listening is a multisensory act” (102). Although sound cannot be analyzed as an isolable experience, I argue that momentarily focusing on the aural and its relationship to other modes of communication can fruitfully help us come to a better understanding of how sound works to reproduce Orientalism’s affects. Moreover, an analysis of the rhetorics of sound on YouTube can help establish ways of guiding digital communicators toward making more purposeful and culturally reflexive decisions with regards to the use of sound in multimodal compositions.


Studying Sonic Representations of Asian Eyelid Surgery

The idea of multimodal orientalism emerged from my study of YouTube videos about East Asian blepharoplasty—colloquially known as “double eyelid surgery”—which is a cosmetic surgical procedure common among people of East Asian ancestry whereby the surgeon makes an incision and/or stitches in the eyelid so that a crease forms, making the eye appear larger and rounder. In this study, I analyzed approximately fifty videos (including their titles, descriptions, tags, likes, dislikes, and comments) with a focus on how users rationalized the decision to get or not get the surgery.[6] Through this study, I was able to look and listen for a range of subjectivities situated across the United States, South Korea, and Australia and across a range of genres and forms, including medical advertisements, television segments, talk show excerpts, documentary film, news reports, and vernacular video. I find this content to be especially fitting for conceptualizing multimodal orientalism because the topic of double eyelid surgery—a technologized method of body modification largely influenced by transnational migration—is often racialized and often understood very differently across cultural differences.

In the analysis below, I identify two sonic strategies of multimodal orientalism as deployed by digital composers: 1) aural stereotyping, or the sonic re-inscription of old, essentialized, and racialized tropes (such as the Asian riff or the sound of a gong) in a multimodal context; and 2) aural othering, or the use of sound to create the sensibility of racialized others as strange, foreign, odd, or otherworldly. These two strategies are not meant to serve as a comprehensive set of strategies for multimodal orientalism; rather, they are examples that effectively highlight the rhetorical workings of multimodal orientalism. I believe presenting them together offers a helpful way of introducing multimodal orientalism as a concept; the former is an example of aurality in multimodal orientalism that is more explicitly racialized while the other offers a subtler example of sonic “Othering.” In my discussions, I use a case study of three videos from the larger research project to provide examples of these strategies and thus articulate the workings of multimodal orientalism.


Aural Stereotyping

Fig. 1. The Oriental Riff (Wikipedia)


Aural stereotyping refers to the sonic re-inscription of old, essentialized, seemingly timeless racialized tropes to signify the “Orient” as imagined by the West based on a limited sampling and reinterpretation of Asian sound. The most common examples that come to mind are the sound of a gong—which is, for example, audible whenever the quintessential Asian caricature, Long Duk Dong, appears in Sixteen Candles—and the Oriental or Chinese riff, which is featured in Carl Douglas’s 1974 “Kung Fu Fighting” and The Vapors’ 1980 “Turning Japanese” (see fig. 1). Another example is the song of the Siamese cats from Lady and the Tramp: “We are Siame-ese, if you ple-ease” (Solomon). In many ways, aural stereotyping is Orientalist in and of itself; it is typically used when a non-Asian rhetor wishes to invoke some sense of “Asianness” as imagined from a Eurowestern perspective beyond linguistic, lyrical, or visual modes. To do so, aural stereotyping oftentimes accompanies other recognizable, oversimplified, stereotypical representations of “Asianness.” As a result, it works rhetorically to intensify these other significations of the “Oriental.”

Furthermore, aural stereotyping is often positioned adjacent to Orientalist text, image, and/or video that depict the “Oriental” in opposition to some depiction of Eurowestern culture within a comparative framework. To illustrate, most audiences would quickly recognize what the buck teeth and “slanted” eyes of the conniving and untrustworthy Siamese cats are meant to signify, and all the more so as they are positioned in contradistinction to the innocent and wide-eyed Lady. In this way, the audience not only cognitively understands the content (i.e., the cats) as Asian but also feels a sensibility that uniquely accompanies conceptions of the “Oriental.” That is, the song renders forth the range of affective connotations that accompany the idea of the “Oriental” at a given time. Because aural stereotypes are often paired with other modes of Orientalist and racialized signification, these sounds quickly become racialized themselves in an associative fashion. As a result, many listeners immediately recognize this sonic rhetoric as a kind of aural shorthand for “the Orient.” In this way, sound plays a critical role as it imparts Orientalism’s affects—creating associations across visual, sonic, and linguistic tropes.

Aural stereotyping and multimodal orientalism can be seen, heard, and felt in my study of YouTube videos about East Asian cosmetic eyelid surgery. “Asian Double Eyelid Surgery (Blepharoplasty) - Why?,” a YouTube video that received over ten thousand views at the time of my analysis, provides an apt example that demonstrates the workings of multimodal orientalism through a focus on its sonic properties. The purpose of the video is twofold: 1) to explain why people get double eyelid surgery (per the title of the video), and 2) to promote blepharoplasty using “DST,” or the double suture technique. The video opens with stereotypically Orientalist music in the form of a falling glissando followed by sparsely plucked notes from the strings of what sounds like a guzheng (see fig. 2).

Fig. 2. “Asian Double Eyelid Surgery (Blepharoplasty) - Why?” uploaded to YouTube by DocShopVid.

As if the opening music was not enough to signify “Asianness,” this sounding is paired with several immediately recognizable Asian visual tropes including stereotypically “Asian” font and an Asian eye—the physiological feature that is perhaps most often racialized as Asian. The font used for the word Asian in the title, “Asian Blepharoplasty,” appears to emulate the brush strokes of East Asian calligraphy. Furthermore, this text is positioned in contrast to the all-caps serif font for the word blepharoplasty—as if to visually signify scientific and medical authority. To the right of the video is a large, cropped image of a sepia-toned, seemingly Asian, mono-lidded eye, bringing focus to not only the subject of the video but also the anatomical part most commonly attributed to visible Asianness. The background is greyish green in color with a shadowy circle swirled over it as if to provide a sense of mysticism—a sensibility also often attributed to the Orient. These elements work with the music accompaniment to communicate the stereotypical and Orientalist idea of Asian as mysterious, timeless, essential, and unchanging. Through this process, the music is further associated with—and solidified within the minds and bodies of the audience—in relation to the ideas and affects of Orientalism. In this way, even music written and/or performed by an Asian composer or musician can be rhetorically re-appropriated to connote Orientalist ideas and sensibilities.

These aural stereotypes are apparent to the viewers of the video who lodge critiques of these representations through YouTube’s commenting function. For example, YouTube user Ha Eun Cho comments, “the music -.-‘ ………..” to which GuitarHeroPatriarch responds, “hahahaha it’s so politically incorrect, i [sic] love it.” In a separate comment, GuitarHeroPatriarch adds, “‘An eye-opening … option’ ahahahaha, that combined with the stereotypical asian [sic] background music made it very hard to take this report seriously.” By critiquing multimodal orientalism and inscribing that critique on the user interface through participatory media, these users reframe the so-called “report” about a surgical technique for others. By challenging the credibility of the video, these commenters encourage a wider swath of users to view the video through a critical lens.

Given these elements of multimodal orientalism, one might surmise that perhaps a non-Asian video designer created this video using Asian stereotypes via aural stereotyping for a non-Asian audience. This perspective seems to hold at the start of the video, which opens by drawing on the tone of a news report as a third person, omniscient narrator explains in “Standard” American English that Asian blepharoplasty “is to the Asian community what breast augmentation is to Americans.” In doing so, the narrator not only implies that the intended viewer is likely not aware of what Asian blepharoplasty is, but he also positions this “Asian community” as Other and as distinct from Americans; and he does so with a sense of authority. It can thus be assumed that the implied audience of this excerpt is not Asian/American, nor are they members of “the Asian community” for whom this surgery would likely already be common knowledge. The video goes on to include patient testimonies as two women explain why they decided to get the surgery—reasons that, again, seem to speak to a primarily non-Asian audience, or at least an audience who up until this point has not already considered various reasons for getting the surgery.

The audience shifts as the video progresses, and the implied audience of the video seems—at least at times—to be potential blepharoplasty patients. Following the patient testimonies, the video goes on to speak to an Asian audience as Dr. Charles Lee appears to promote the double suture technique (DST) for potential patients. He describes what DST is, who is a good candidate for this technique, and its benefits. If DST is intended for use on Asian patients, it is not entirely clear why a viewer who is not Asian, and thus not a potential surgery patient, would be interested in this information. Finally, the video seems to shift back to speak to a non-Asian audience when it goes on to explain that the surgery is not simply a matter of individuals “trying to look too western.”

It is not precisely clear why the video creators move across audiences and purposes in this way, but one might speculate that perhaps they intentionally address multiple audiences and speak to multiple purposes because the video is posted to YouTube where it might be encountered by a wide range of viewers from different cultures and backgrounds. Given the contested nature of Asian cosmetic eyelid surgery, it is very well possible that the creators decided to explain and rationalize the surgery as an attempt to appeal to a wider secondary audience by accounting for the fact that some viewers might, with insufficient information and understanding, sensationalize a practice that is unfamiliar to them and further stereotypes about an entire group of people as a result. Such sensationalist interpretations within the wider public sphere can perhaps deter potential patients from being open to the surgery in the first place. Or, perhaps the purpose of these statements about the reasons for getting the surgery were directed to potential patients as a way of helping them come to terms with their own ambivalences about the procedure—especially in a US context—by normalizing and destigmatizing the practice and by walking them through “valid” reasons for getting the surgery. If it is true that the rhetor(s) intended to appeal to either potential patients or secondary audiences in an attempt to deter problematic, racialized, or limited interpretations of the surgery it seems they did so, ironically, through use of aural stereotyping—perhaps as a way of appealing to familiar, simplified sonic and racial tropes and archetypes often associated with Asian people.

Finally, it seems entirely possible that the video attempts to appeal to multiple audiences and purposes in inconsistent and even contradictory ways. Although the video was apparently designed to appeal to Asian/American potential patients because it depicts Asian/American-presenting speakers promoting a cosmetic surgical procedure popular among people of East Asian ancestry, the opening music bed and accompanying visuals engage in aural stereotyping. The sonic, visual, and linguistic elements work together to essentialize Asian people—the very target audience themselves—as foreign, exotic, and mysterious in ways that can be off-putting for that audience. This exotic and mysterious sensibility is further contrasted by the third person omniscient narrative spoken by a fluent, “Standard” American English speaking, male-presenting voice in a way that aurally mimics the authority and validity of a news reporter. Based on this analysis, it seems the sonic choices are in many ways ineffective for the video’s purpose of promoting the technique among English-speaking East Asians and Asian/Americans. Furthermore, the sonic strategies are problematic because they re-inscribe Orientalist tropes about the Asian “Other” in a multimodal, digital space.

By highlighting the rhetorical workings of racialized stereotypes in a multimodal context, understanding aural stereotyping can have useful implications for engaging in culturally-reflexive digital composing practices. Aural stereotyping as a term becomes one way of identifying the cultural rhetorical work of certain sonic strategies. In addition, aural stereotyping necessarily considers how those strategies might appeal to people with various cultural and political orientations as well as how they might work rhetorically to shape how we make meaning about the “Other.” Ultimately, the concept of aural stereotyping as a mode of critique clarifies the need to consider, thoughtfully and genuinely, more appropriate approaches for sounding Asian/America, for hearing Asian/American sound, and for appealing to Asian/American audiences.

Aural Othering

While aural stereotyping is quite obviously Orientalist as it constitutes a mimicry of Asian sound and as it works to render audible recognizable visual tropes, aural othering operates on a subtler affective plane by appealing to xenophobic sensibilities of the Asian body as alien, strange, otherworldly, and threatening. Although both aural stereotyping and aural othering can rely on a framework that positions Asian/American culture in opposition to a normative Eurowestern culture, they differ in terms of the affective resonances of that positioning. Whereas aural stereotyping seems to take a condescending view as it draws on recognizable stereotypes of the simple, diminutive, exotic, and/or amusing “Oriental,” aural othering at times draws on sensibilities of fear and anxiety to present the Asian body as something eerie and beyond human recognition. Aural othering is the use of sonic resources in a multimodal context to create the sensibility of the racialized or otherwise minoritized “Other” as strange, foreign, odd, or otherworldly. In this way, aural othering works in a markedly multimodal context as it necessarily relies on textual, visual, and additional features to present its representation of racialized Other-ness. In other words, the sonic components of aural othering may not be Orientalist or racialized in and of themselves but instead work to represent an Orientalist sensibility when used as a way of contextualizing other racialized content. In this way, aural othering becomes a way of setting the mood through passive listening for some information about “the Oriental.” Without this sounding, the audience would likely have a significantly different experience and interpretation of the visual and textual message.

From my corpus of YouTube videos about Asian blepharoplasty, one can hear an example of aural othering via background music, sound effect, and accent in an episode of VICE’s “Fashion Week Internationale” web series titled “Seoul Fashion Week - K-Pop to Double Eyelid Surgery,” (see fig. 3). The fifteen-second opening brings together sound, movement, and light to frame the video and inform viewers that they are about to witness an urban and technologically advanced environment that is strange, weird, and otherworldly.

Fig. 3. “Seoul Fashion Week - K-Pop to Double Eyelid Surgery” uploaded to YouTube by VICE. Content warning: graphic depictions of surgery


As the video begins, we hear sounds resonant of dark ambient space music: a single, higher-pitched tone is textured with mechanical whoops and whistles. The tone repeats while a zooming effect enters the sonic landscape; and a quick crescendo and decrescendo quakes and echoes into open space. A deep, vibrating mechanical hum. The sound is urban and futuristic—reminiscent of a science fiction soundtrack in the way it conjures feelings of suspense and otherworldliness. These sonic elements are accompanied by slow glimpses of Seoul at night: images of a busy street surrounded by lit skyscrapers. Headlights whiz toward viewers from a large boulevard. A collage of brightly lit storefront signage peppered with Korean and English text blur, tremble, flicker, and flash as the video fades in and out of black. The video then transitions through a black flickering effect to a building labeled “Shin Pyung Hwa Fashion Town” in bright, multicolored, neon lights.

The music bed and flashing and trembling visual effects pause and then continue. Our host begins her narration:

It’s 3 a.m.

on a Monday night,

and I’m shopping.

And so is everybody else.


Everything you can see around here is open.


Nobody’s drunk,

nothing’s weird,

it’s the same as during the day, it’s just dark.


This is an underground station, but as you can see

it also takes you to the underground shopping center.


It doesnt feel real; its like a weird


post-apocalyptic underground world.


Why is it open? Why aren’t people in bed?


We’re definitely gonna come back

at a more civil hour. (VICE; emphasis added)

This narration is voiced by the tall, thin, and modelesque Duboc who speaks with an English accent. The speech describes Seoul hyperbolically as a city that doesn’t sleep—surely not “everybody else” in this metropolis of ten million people are shopping at the time of the recording. Notably, Duboc explains that “nothing’s weird,” moments before deciding, “It doesn’t feel real; it’s like a weird post-apocalyptic underground world.” This paradox suggests that Duboc is experiencing a temporal and affective dissonance because “normal” activities are taking place at an abnormal time—abnormal, at least, for the host and her implied audience. This temporal and affective dissonance reflects a culture of white-collar, nine-to-five work and also what Halberstam has referred to as “family time,” or, “the normative scheduling of daily life (early to bed, early to rise) that accompanies the practice of child rearing” (5). To exist in this temporally dissonant world does not “feel real”—at least not according to reality as the audience is supposed to know it; rather, this description echoes the sonic resonances of a science fiction future—Seoul on a Monday at 3:00 a.m. feels post-apocalyptic and uncivil. The sonic, ambient, visual, textual, and narrative elements work together to produce a sensibility that is metropolitan, futuristic, and eerie all at once. In many ways, this rhetoric reflects a techno-Orientalist affect that evokes Eurowestern anxieties about the hyper-capitalist and mysterious East. The dark ambient space music conjures feelings of suspense and mystery, which frames the visuals and the script addressing Korean culture in such a way that it registers as weird, otherworldly, and conspicuously foreign. Furthermore, this sensibility is mapped onto Asian bodies; this opening not only characterizes an urban landscape that is ostensibly Asian but it also frames an account of South Korean embodied practices via fashion, music, gender and sexuality, and cosmetic surgery. In fact, some of the sonic and visual distortion effects described above recur at later points in the program—providing a repetitive and recognizable sensorial pattern as a way of managing how new information is processed (13:14-37, 24:18-25:27). Ultimately, the video spends almost half of its runtime—fourteen minutes of a thirty-four-minute program that is meant to be about Seoul Fashion Week—exploring cosmetic surgery in South Korea. Moreover, the video presents cosmetic eyelid surgery as the result of an Asian desire to “Westernize” in a way that is fundamentally embodied; Duboc’s European embodiment, in contrast to the numerous Asian people she interviews and encounters, presents—aurally, visually, linguistically—intense discomfort, even cringing while watching a surgeon perform a procedure on a patient (31:01, 32:12; content warning: graphic depictions of surgery).

Unlike the examples of aural stereotyping, the non-verbal sound effects in this video are not in and of themselves racialized. One likely wouldn’t hear Duboc’s voice or the music bed and immediately think of some Asian stereotype; but when placed alongside the visual representations of Seoul, South Korea and South Koreans, the glitchy visual effects, and the narration by Duboc, these elements come together to reaffirm techno-Orientalist tropes. This example demonstrates that even beyond cultural soundings (i.e., regional accent or music specific to a culture), sound can work covertly to produce sensibilities that impact how we read others. The VICE example shows how the re-contextualization of sound, made possible by digital recording technologies and facilitated by transnational inter-networks, can do significant symbolic work to rhetorically re-shape how we perceive the world around us. As Thomas Rickert puts it, “The world reveals itself in a musical way, but it does so in such a fashion as to transform our experience of place itself. Ambient rhetoric, analogically, brings the world to us but in doing so transforms the disposition of our inhabitancy” (29). In this way, a range of sonic elements can work together within a larger context of experience to shape how we interpret not just place but also what we understand as reality more generally, including our orientations to history, culture, people, and our relationships with them.

The VICE video exemplifies a techno-Orientalist approach to aural othering through use of dark ambient space music, futuristic sound effects and post-apocalyptic narrative spoken from the authority of someone with an English accent; however, the second example from my YouTube research project demonstrates a different, perhaps more subtle approach to aural othering. “Surgery to Alter Your Ethnicity (HUNGRY BEAST)” is an episode of Hungry Beast, an Australian television show that was broadcasted by the ABC Network between 2009 and 2011. Similar to the previous example of aural othering, many of the sonic features in this video are not obviously racialized when experienced in isolation; but when placed alongside visual and narrative content about a racialized and oft-contested practice, the aural works with visual and textual modes to re-establish a sense of the East Asian “Other” as odd, strange, and foreign. The sonic features thus perpetuate and reshape familiar stereotypes that have impacted the ways in which Asian/Americans are perceived and discriminated against—particularly in the European West. The video uses contrast, music, and voice in ways that present the Asian “Other” as a mystical, diminutive curiosity—reinventing the trope of the exotic and mysterious Asian for the technologically saturated twenty-first century (see fig. 4).

Fig. 4. “Surgery to Alter Your Ethnicity (HUNGRY BEAST)” uploaded to YouTube by Hungry Beast. Content warning: graphic depictions of surgery


This video opens with the show’s title sequence which features the Hungry Beast logo—a jagged, simple black drawing of a beast on a blue background accompanied by the name “HUNGRYBEAST” in all capital letters—with a short but forceful rock and roll riff. The video cuts to the image of the top half of an Asian woman’s face from what looks like a poster advertising cosmetic surgery. The frame pans out slowly while the accompanying music shifts from the powerful and assertive riff to a much quieter, twinkling melody in the upper registers of a piano—delicate, but in a minor key, as if from a child’s fairy tale. A young male voice, which we later learn belongs to fourteen-year-old Sam Jae Wook Kim, speaks over this melody: “I don’t really know what the perfect eyes look like. I guess the perfect eye is the one that matches your face the best.” He speaks slowly, and his voice sounds tentative or perhaps a bit unsure according to dominant listening practices because he ends the statement with a slight rising inflection. As Kim speaks, the image cuts to what appears to be the reception area for a cosmetic surgery office where botox brochures are displayed over a reflective glass table. The piano continues as a young woman’s face appears. She has a slight smile, but her expression is otherwise even-keeled. She speaks in a voice-over with a youthful rising inflection: “My name’s Heidi, and I’m 20 years old. I’m gonna get double eyelid surgery, just to make it bigger, more wide-eyed.” The image cuts to a chart that appears to measure the proportions of an illustrated Asian woman’s face.

There is a striking contrast between the title sequence’s bass-heavy, full-toned, fast-paced riff played over the drawing of a black, jagged beast and the quieter, twinkling piano music that frames the voice-overs by the two young subjects. Through this sonic contrast, the video presents the show with a powerful, confident, contemporary, and relevant affect while Othering the two speakers as curious, diminutive, and perhaps enigmatic and intriguing but at the same time a bit sad. In doing so, these sonic resonances work rhetorically to reflect a sensibility akin to the stereotype of the Asian “Other” as exotic and mysterious but also child-like and therefore not critically aware. Such sensibilities are in line with the racist tendency to infantilize Asian subjects who are often assumed to lack the critical awareness of Eurowestern subjects. This feeling is enhanced by the title of the video. “Surgery to Alter Your Ethnicity,” which works with sound and image to provide a sense that the subject of the video (a surgical practice common among people of Asian ancestry) is a fantastical attempt at a delusional impossibility. After all, we all know that one cannot actually alter their ethnicity. What’s more, the tentative inflection in the voices of the subjects, positioned together in the context of this fairy tale like background music, further reflects the affect of the submissive Asian body. Given these multimodal rhetorics, the video uses sonic contrast, music, voice, and deliberate aural framing to endow particular subjects with critical authority while removing critical agency from others. There seems to be a clear distinction between the sonic framings of “valid” interpretations of the surgery and fantastical, “Othered” commentaries.

This sensibility is reaffirmed when the video proceeds to an interview with Joy Ng, a thirty-one-year-old woman discussing how common eyelid surgery is in Taiwan and reflecting on her experience getting the surgery at the age of fifteen. There is no music in this portion of the video, and Ng (about a decade older than Kim or Liow) speaks with a more confident affect, in a lower register, and with greater fluency in Standardized Australian English. Through these aural features and through dominant Eurowestern listening practices, viewers are sonically invited to hear Ng with a sense of authority as she rationalizes the surgery in ways that are more intelligible for non-Asian audiences. Initially, she is neither particularly positive nor negative about the surgery but rather more matter of fact about her experiences. Later, she speculates about why people get the surgery using racialized discourse. Yet by presenting a small glimpse of the reasons why substantial numbers of Asian people get cosmetic eyelid surgery through a racialized frame accompanied by music that connotes a strange curiosity, the video’s sonic properties rhetorically invite the audience to weigh in on an issue about which they potentially have very little knowledge on the basis of very limited information.

As with other kinds of body modification, people of East Asian ancestry get double eyelid surgery for a wide range of contextually-contingent and intersecting reasons including but not limited to representations of beauty in popular media; the desire to fit the dominant physical norms of the people around them and culture-based beauty standards; experience with racism; cultural practices and attitudes toward cosmetic surgery and other forms of body modification; desire for socioeconomic mobility within a competitive, capitalist, and image-based market; as a response to affective norms; and as informed by histories of colonization, cultural mixing, and transnational migration. That said, the video presents just a handful of these reasons, and ultimately, through its title, reduces the surgery to a matter of racism and internal self-hate, thus implicitly encouraging viewers to accept this interpretation of the “Other’s” curious practices. Although white supremacy is indeed a transnational phenomenon that impacts people across the globe, I argue that it is problematic, paternalistic, and racist to reduce the complex spectrum of Asian/American experience and desire to wanting to look or be “more white.” What’s more, I argue that the sonic strategy of aural othering contributes rather significantly to the video’s reductive and problematic representation of this practice, and it does so in a way that can perhaps easily go unnoticed, especially without the critical language for identifying and unpacking such sonic experiences. To be specific, the video’s sonic framings and use of aural othering invites its audience, regardless of their background or experience with Asian blepharoplasty or the Asian community, to assess and critique the various perspectives as a way of coming to their own judgments about the practice without providing the information necessary to enable a nuanced view of the subject. Instead, such cursory approaches have the opposite effect of sensationalizing a common practice in ways that seem to reaffirm Eurowestern views of minoritized “Others” as foreign, strange, and bewildering. 

Sounding (Transnational) Asian/America

I began this article by making a case for the centrality of sound in Asian/American rhetorical practice. I now build on this point to call for more work in the area of Asian/American sonic rhetoric. Sound offers a useful way of examining with greater detail the embodied, affective, and material experience of Asian/American rhetoric over time and across transnational space. Next, I provided an example that demonstrates what an attention to sound might yield for Asian/American rhetoric by articulating the concept of multimodal orientalism as it is informed by two key sonic strategies: aural stereotyping and aural othering. In doing so, I demonstrated how sound can work as a hindrance and a barrier to Asian/American self-representation and agency through misappropriation, commercialization, politicization, and decontextualization of sonic content—as well as how the racialization of sound has significant implications for multimodal and digital composition. Through my analysis, I have shown how multimodal orientalism is a concept that can yield increasingly critical understandings of sound and the various factors that shape Asian/American sound/ings and aural expressions. In doing so, I have highlighted how the current techno-rhetorical context of inter-networked participatory social media allows for new circuits of transnational flows of information that then get re-inscribed onto Asian/American bodies and subjectivities.

Indeed, networked technologies and social media have long been hailed as integral factors in discussions of transnationalism and globalization after the late twentieth century, particularly as these technologies facilitate the transnational flows of products, information, and subjectivities across national, geographical, and cultural space. As scholars like Lisa Nakamura and Linh Dich have argued, these technologies have made possible new approaches to the formation of Asian/American identity and representation. YouTube in particular seems to have been a virtual space where Asian/Americans have thrived, as demonstrated by the successes of Ryan Higa, Michelle Phan, the Fung Brothers, and others who have garnered mass followings into the millions (Gao; Hao; Jalette; Le). Within this emerging technological context, Asian/American sound has transformed and been transformed by complex global and transnational relations and cross-cultural encounters, along with the collective digital memory of YouTube, the various Asian-centered communities active within this space, as well as in other mediated contexts. At the same time, the possibility of Asian/American sonic self-expression and self-representation has grown even if it is not yet audible or recognizable in the popular imagination.

For this reason, and in this kairotic moment, I argue for what I have referred to as “sounding Asian/America”—sounding out by amplifying our own communities’ voices and sounding off by pushing to make our voices, critiques, and perspectives heard within rhetoric and composition and beyond. There is room and need for more Asian/American rhetoric research that uplifts Asian/American sonic self-expression and self-representation in ways that embrace its multitudinous dimensions, tensions, and complexities. Such work is both needed given the dearth of work in this area as well as timely given ongoing conversations about the under-representation of Asian/American musicians in US popular music.[7] For example, just last year in March 2017, NPR’s All Things Considered reported that the Austin music festival, SXSW (South by Southwest), featured for the first time a lineup of Asian/American artists (Yu), including Big Phony, Megan Lee, Reonda, Melissa Polinar, Run River North, and St. Lenox. This lineup was hosted by Kollaboration, a non-profit for Asian Pacific Islander arts and entertainment based in Los Angeles, California. Although it is in some ways astonishing that Asian/American artists had not been featured at the festival in substantive numbers up until very recently, it is also unsurprising. Asian/American sonic self-representation has not received the attention or recognition that other groups have achieved perhaps in part because the stereotype of the Asian American model minority largely positions Asians as highly technical but inartistic and lacking creativity. What’s more, if asked the question, “What is Asian/American sound?” I am not sure that many people would have an answer. Although this essay does not quite get to a place of providing an answer to this question, it engages in what I see as the important step of critiquing and hopefully un-doing misrepresentations and “auditory imaginings” of Asian/American sound (Stoever 14). At the same time, this essay is only a small step toward what I hope will be a much larger effort toward unpacking Asian/American sonic rhetorics.

Fortunately for those who are interested in this work, sound has been important to Asian/American rhetorical expression for some time even if it has not been recognized as such. For example, I imagine fruitful and illuminating studies on topics like:

  • the history of how Asian/American rhetoric and composition has grappled with sound and its peripheral terms like voice, articulation, music, silence, dance, performance, and listening (Carroll; Kannan; Ghosh; Monberg; Young “Neither Asian”)
  • the activist and cross-racial sonic rhetorics of avant-garde musician Fred Ho
  • the role of music in relation to Japanese mass incarceration camps (“Exploring Manzanar”; Hung; Muramoto-Wong; “Music in Camp”; Waseda)
  • the music and lives of Chris Iijima, Nobuko Miyamoto, and Charlie Chin who released a 1973 album of anthems from the Asian/American movement titled A Grain of Sand (Nakamura, “A Song”; Wang)
  • the sonic rhetorical practices of more recent Asian/American musicians like the Mountain Brothers, Blue Scholars, Jin MC, Awkwafina, Dumbfoundead, Rekstizzy, and Swet Shop Boys
  • the hybrid and cultural rhetorics of karaoke in Asian/American communities (Wong; Lum)
  • the dimensions of sonic rhetoric within Asian/American nightclub culture
  • willful mishearings of Asian/American sound from a cultural rhetorics perspective
  • non-verbal soundings of Asian/America
  • Asian/American women in indie rock, including the careers and contributions of Yoko Ono, Satomi Matsuzaki of Deerhoof, Karen O, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, Asobi Seksu, Jay Som, Japanese Breakfast, and Mitski (Euse)
  • the role of music in plantation Hawai‘i (Odo; Yano; Young)
  • Asian/Americans in classical music (Yoshihara)
  • K-Pop and J-Pop in the US and beyond
  • the rhetorical work of nonprofits like Kollaboration, which works to support Asian/American and Pacific Islander musicians and other artists
  • the rhetorics surrounding the curation of Asian sonic cultural traditions, i.e., Sublime Frequencies, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, and the Lomax Archives
  • Asian/Americans in popular music, including the role of Asianness in the careers of musicians like Far East Movement, Bruno Mars, James Iha, Mark Shinoda, and The Jets

This list is by no means comprehensive, but I offer it in the hopes of encouraging conversation around the potentials and possibilities of Asian/American sonic rhetoric.

I close now by amplifying and re-centering Asian/American sonic rhetoric, as I share a YouTube playlist of music composed by Asian/American artists. I do so as a step toward aural agency within rhetoric and writing studies—toward making intelligible new ways of listening for Asian/America by foregrounding Asian/American sonic self-representation. Although this playlist is inevitably limited and does not come close to including the range of sonic expressions by Asian/American artists, I share it here as a “signal boost” to provide reader-listeners with a small sampling of the wide-ranging and varied sonic landscape of Asia/Asian America—on our own terms, in our own voices, in ways that are at times empowering, at others fraught, and at others, deeply resonant: Asian/American Sonic Self-Expression and Representation

[1] Omi and Winant articulate racialization as the processes by which “racial meaning [is extended] to a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice or group” (111).

[2] See also the works of scholars within African American rhetoric, hip-hop studies, and Black sound studies (i.e., Tavia Nyong’o, Gwendolyn D. Pough, Elaine Richardson, Tricia Rose, and Alexander G. Weheliye) who have also written about the rhetorical workings of sound as it pertains to African American rhetoric, race, and ideology.

[3] Stoever has written elsewhere about the sonic color line as it pertains to Latinx and Puerto Rican American contexts (Stoever-Ackerman).

[4] I borrow Morris Young’s “re/visions” to situate my argument within and in relation to the larger corpus of work in Asian/American rhetoric and to signify that this essay is an effort to “bring in multiple voices, to connect the public and personal, to view uncertainty as possibility, to work, as [Nancy] Sommers sug­gests, ‘between the drafts’” (Minor Re/Visions 8).

[5] Orientalism has also been taken up in musicology, which largely examines “musical orientalism” in classical music, i.e., via the alla turca style (Al-Taee; Bellman; Clayton & Zon; Head; Scott; Tsou), as well as in popular music (Hayward), including Broadway and Tin Pan Alley such as “Chinatown, My Chinatown” (Garrett) and the music accompaniment to Rudyard Kipling’s “Mandalay” (Selth).

[6] For a more detailed discussion of my methods, see Sano-Franchini.

[7] See, for example, Aran.

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