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What the hell is a ‘Sad Asian Girl’?

Get to know the art collective addressing the everyday reality of being an Asian woman in a western society

There’s been no shortage of trailblazing art start-ups in recent months. Thanks to visually-led social platforms like Tumblr and Instagram, collectives are now able to tear up the ‘pale, male, stale’ rule book of the industry and rewrite it; with race activists like the Art Hoes and fourth-wave feminists like Art Baby creating their own kind of creative revolution.

For RISD students Olivia Park and Esther Fan, though, there is still one glaring group being left out. Frustrated by the tired stereotyping and ignorant assumptions made about their Asian heritage, the graphic design duo decided to join forces and change the narrative. The result is the ‘Sad Asian Girls Club’ – a new kind of collective dedicated to Asian women feeling divided by their life in western “white-male dominant” societies. “Sad Asian girls are a group of asian individuals with common struggles and frustrations,” they declare in their manifesto. “(We aim to) encourage other asian women to speak up within their environments, and stop the culture of silence and passivity.”

The club first made waves in December last year, after Park and Fan posted a short film on YouTube shining a light on these experiences. Titled “Have You Eaten?”, it poked fun at the pushy dominance of a typical east Asian parent, and quickly racked up 55,000 views. “The video came from the desire to reveal a collection of real-life conversations that usually never came out of our personal familial settings,” they explain over email. “After the release of the video, we realized how much of our audience resonated with us and had similar experiences and perspectives. It was encouraging that there were so many other Asians who could relate to our experiences.”

Now, the self-funded and self-managed group are opening up the conversation wider, and focusing on even more contentious issues; from body image and colourism to queer exclusion and the ‘model minority myth’. We caught up with them both to find out more.

Tell me about the Sad Asian Girls Club. Why did you start it up, and what’s your overall goal? 

SAGC: At this time, the objective of SAGC is mainly to make work that addresses various issues that Asians living in Western societies experience; having grown up with one set of standards given by Asian culture, while also living with the set of standards given by white-male dominant environments. So far we have only made work on our personal relationships with our East Asian mothers, various stereotypes of Asians perpetuated by non-Asians, and the model minority myth. Subjects we aim to tackle next include colorism, queerness in the Asian community, intersectionality and more. 

Why use the word ‘Sad’?

SAGC: To be sad is a taboo in society but we give agency to the term “sad” by making progressive work rather than drowning in our tears. As mentioned in our “Manifesto” video (see below), the “sadness” refers to the confusion and frustration that many Asians in Western societies experience, as we are often unable to fully identity as either “fully” Asian or “fully” American, Canadian, Australian, British, etc. 

What, in your experience, are some of the most frustrating stereotypes Asian Americans have to deal with?

SAGC: Aside from the various stereotypes that come with the fetishization of Asian women, perhaps the most common and most frustrating stereotype that applies to all Asians is the model minority myth, which suggests that Asians are more successful and studious than other minorities and thus can not experience discrimination. It creates not only an unrealistic standard for Asians but also pits us against each other. Additionally, this myth is usually applied to only East Asians, simply because we are seen as the standard type of “Asian” by non-Asians. The Asian archetype is rarely inclusive of South, Southeast, Central, or Western Asians, who as a result are often made invisible. 

“All people have the right to want and deserve opportunity while keeping their unique identities, and America needs to learn to be accommodating and considerate to these people” – SAGC

Your new project looks at the ‘Asian nerd’ myth that’s often perpetuated in schools. How do you hope to debunk it?

SAGC: The next project “MODEL MINORITY” will be a video series which will be released on YouTube and other social media (watch the first episode here). The videos allow those who participated to describe the model minority myth for themselves as well as their experiences with it. Most of them begin to talk about their frustrations with the stereotypes that come with the myth and the unrealistic expectations forced upon them by not only their own family but by a white society as well. Our project aims to firstly define the model minority myth and all of its implications, then explain why it is not obtainable and not to be expected of us, and finally list some ways that we may stop the perpetuating of the model minority myth and some things that people can do. 

What are some of the most interesting things you’ve learnt from doing the project?

SAGC: It was very encouraging to see how willing our volunteers were to open up and give details of their life experiences; we learned of various ways that their own Asian parents have tried to push unrealistic standards upon them as well as how they came to unlearn these internalized ideals over time. It was also interesting to hear a variety of opinions on why the myth exists and the different detriments that come with it.

You’re graphic designers, and you worked mostly with visual arts. How can these tools be powerful?

SAGC: Ideally, we are able to clearly communicate any subject we need to cover in a way that can be easily and successfully consumed by today’s internet-dependent audience; as young people ourselves, it is easy for us to communicate with other like-minded Asian individuals on such a widely used platform. We tend to keep technical graphic aspects simple and straightforward. The main colours of the current SAGC identity are red and black and our main typeface is Helvetica. The formal decisions, however, may change in the future, as we are still continuing to grow and develop SAGC’s identity. 

In terms of diversity and inclusivity, do you think America is moving forward?

SAGC: America is definitely progressing in terms of the population with racial “diversity.” Interracial marriage is more encouraged than ever, the number of minority kids enrolled in schools are growing, and supposedly by 2043 the white race will become the new minority. But with that being said, the nation needs to think about how to be more accommodating to this shift in diversity. How can we progress with racial inclusivity and how will we balance issues of race at a social, political, institutional, economic, and cultural level? We should drop the ideal of the “melting pot” – it is severely outdated and also dismisses the reality that all these wonderful backgrounds, cultures, races, and stories will always be different and unique. It’s a matter of creating a safe and inclusive democracy for the people of this country, rather than forcing assimilation. All people have the right to want and deserve opportunity while keeping their unique identities, and America needs to learn to be accommodating and considerate to these people.

How do you hope to expand on your projects in the future? What’s the ultimate goal?

SAGC: It’s been five months since SAGC started and we’re still a duo of graphic designers making one project at a time. We are considering ways in which we could solidify a stronger community of Asians (either on the web or worldwide, or both) because it is very rare to see Asians stand in solidarity on social issues. The lack of awareness and push for change comes from a lack of resource, community, and encouragement, especially in predominantly white institutions. We have begun to reach out to our own community around RISD as well as consider collaborations with other artists or groups, as well as what different directions we may go in the future. As of yet, our final long term goal has not been clearly defined, and it is likely to keep changing over time. We plan to continue SAGC to the furthest extent we can take it, wherever that is along the process. 

Learn more about the Sad Asian Girls Club here, or watch the first episode of their Model Minority Myth series here.