I've encountered many stereotypes over the past three decades as an Asian American. Trendsetting has never been one of them -- until now.
In his 2012 book "The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited," Richard Florida, a senior editor at The Atlantic, estimates that Asians make up 6.1 percent of creative jobs in America -- a number that seems insignificant until you look at it from the reverse. "Asian-Americans are by far the most heavily represented in the creative class work," Florida writes. "Nearly one-half (47 percent) of them work in creative class jobs, compared to roughly one-third (34 percent) of whites, 24 percent of African-Americans, and 18 percent of Hispanics." The jobs that qualify as "creative," Florida says, span "science and technology, arts, media, and culture, traditional knowledge workers and the professions" -- in short, anything but the doctors or lawyers their parents may have once groomed them to be.
So when did Asians become "cool"? And how did the paradigm shift from William Hung, lame "American Idol" contestant, to David Choe, the weed-smoking Korean-American artist who famously painted murals at Facebook's first Sillicon Valley office (for about $200 million worth of stock)?
The influx of Asians in fashion is hard to ignore. In recent years, the fashion industry -- once dominated by too-cool Europeans like Miuccia Prada and Karl Lagerfeld -- has been invigorated by a new crop of young designers, many of them Asian: Doo.Ri, Derek Lam, Thakoon Panichgul, Jason Wu, Phillip Lim and Richard Chai, to name a few. "There is this understanding that there is this group of Asian-American designers who are coming up in the world, and there is a sense of pride," Lam told the New York Times in 2010, in an article aptly entitled "Asian-Americans Climb Fashion Industry Ladder." Parents who may have wanted a more traditional career path for their children appear swayed by the rampant success of fashion stars like Alexander Wang, who, at the age of 28, was named the creative director of Balenciaga.
Then there is food. Soup dumplings, ramen, Korean fried chicken. In urban environments, eating "Asian" has become a trend word for eating at a buzz-worthy restaurant, say Mission Chinese in San Francisco or Momofuku in New York. "Fusion" rings staunchly '90s; instead, a new generation of chefs -- mostly of Asian heritage, sometimes not -- are creating wildly inventive dishes that put their restaurants on the map of every food critic. "Asian hipster cuisine has replaced Asian fusion cuisine," ran a headline from New York Magazine this year. David Chang's success with Momofuku has inspired imitators of his stripped-down blond wood interiors and deliciously strange cuisine. I had been hearing that Korean food would become the next Japanese food for the past ten years. After seeing t-shirts printed with "I [heart] Kimchi," I now believe it.
Much of the changing stereotypes of Asian Americans likely has to do with the fact that there are simply more of us now. Asians are the fastest-growing race or ethnicity in the United States, according to a report published in June by the U.S. Census Bureau. Second generation and third generation Asian Americans have different perspectives than their immigrant parents that can affect career choices.
But a funny thing happens over time with trendsetters who happen to be Asian. There is a certain kind of "de-racialization" that occurs after one becomes part of popular culture. As David Chang grows, his identity becomes less about being a Korean-American chef and more the visionary creator behind an intimidating empire. His relevance extends beyond race or background. That is perhaps the most radical thing that can happen to a stereotype at all: the diminishing of one.
Follow Youyoung Lee on Twitter: www.twitter.com/youyoung_lee