Xenophobia finds us everywhere – even in games and cafeterias
If you’ve read articles on this site over the past few months, you may have noticed that there’s one video game that gets a lot more coverage than the others: Genshin Impact.
Let me be clear. It’s me. i am the dirty Genshin Impact player who wrote about the real-world locations the game’s setting is based on and who evangelized people into the cult of Rex Lapis. The game lives in my mind without rent.
Paimon’s boring and unnecessary exposition aside, it’s a beautiful game that has nurtured interest in discovering the Chinese part of my heritage and it’s all thanks to the stunning presentation of Liyue’s miHoYo, the fantasy version of the game from China.
Although the game begins in the “familiar” and ambiguous land of Mondstadt, it is Liyue that shines with the love of its creators. Everything from the views atop its karst mountains to the rich history of the land and its people creates a proudly oriental gaming experience that is so rare in games aimed at global audiences.
It’s not that East Asian cultures aren’t represented in the games, God knows how much otaku have nodded to Japan in their games, but few have been this specific and in-depth in their depiction.
So you can imagine how thrilled I was when Genshin Impact showed a teaser during The Game Awards 2021 featuring Yunjin, a character who has long been rumored to be an opera artist.
Along the same lines, you can imagine how disappointing it was when Yunjin’s operatic voice was played during an official live stream and the first thing the cat thinks of is mocking of her singing to be “strange” or “weird”.
But I shouldn’t have been surprised given that it was basically standard operating procedure for whenever a culture that doesn’t fit into the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) model dared to come into view.
Now, Chinese opera has nothing to do with western opera music. While Western opera lovers have Bizet CarmenChinese Opera has the works of Tang Xianzu and this is what it looks like.
It takes some time to get used to the high pitched voices of Chinese opera, no matter if you are listening to the Kunqu, Cantonese, Xiqu, Beijing or Beijing variant. I get it – Chinese opera is “strange”. But the same audience mocking Yun Jin for her culture was probably feasting on Rule 34 fanart of her.
No surprise there. Asian culture is so easily separated from the people who are part of it and shamed when not westernized for traditional palates. Yun Jin had the same experience as hundreds of Asian children when they made the mistake of bringing Asian food to school.
“The day after making the stew, I sent my 6-year-old son to school with leftovers for lunch,” Mei Fong wrote for NBC News. “He later shamefully admitted that he hadn’t finished his oxtail, despite it being one of his favorite meals. His friends called him “stinky”.
Quite a shame since, as Fong explains, the spices that went into the dish were once considered treasures that were literally worth killing. The oxtail stew, simmered in cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg, reeked of Southeast Asia’s history of exploitation and colonialism.
Asian Americans have started calling it the “lunch box moment”. The lunchbox moment is when you realize that the food you grew up on, and by extension the culture it belongs to, is not entirely welcome.
The idea of being bothered by people turning their noses up at your food might seem like a ridiculously small issue, but for many people, the lunchbox moment was one of their first encounters with xenophobia.
Xenophobia is defined as “the fear and hatred of strangers or strangers or anything strange or foreign”. It is commonly used as a substitute for racism, but differs from the term due to why a person is discriminated against.
Xenophobia involves a more cultural form of discrimination, while racism is about, well, race. But even the Merriam-Webster dictionary admits that the differences are nearly indistinguishable.
In my case, the lunch box moment happened outside of school.
Here’s the pov: you enjoy a plate of steaming hot and treacherously spicy sisig with a cold beer on a nice summer evening when a guy on a Discord server asks what everyone is doing. In someone who imagines himself sufficiently sociable, you respond. Now everyone wants a picture. You send one so you can all pretend to make a virtual toast.
One of them replies “@[you] What is it?” You explain that sisig is minced pork face and belly with chicken liver served on a sizzling plate, which you know isn’t the most description pleasing food. Part of your brain forces you to do sisig seem more “normal”, so you send another photo that shows steam pouring from its crispy surface.
This bizarre compulsion to make your culture’s food more palatable could be a tiny part of the reason we have California rolls. When Hidekazu Tojo arrived in Vancouver in the 70s, sushi had not yet become the culinary phenomenon it is today.
In his day, Canadian customers steered clear of sushi because of its raw materials. Tojo, a trained sushi chef, then decided that his mission was to bring sushi to North America. To help its Canadian customers overcome their aversion, Tojo hid the norithe seaweed sheet, inside the sushi roll.
While traditional sushi proudly sported its nori on the outside, the California roll conceded some of its “otherness” to be more palatable to Tojo customers. To be clear, I’m not saying California Rollers are racist. It’s too much to read between the lines, even for me.
But you have to admit there is something about it that seems symbolic of the need for Asian culture to be repackaged and to hide its distinctive signs of “otherness” before it can be considered acceptable.
Tojo insists his rolls are called “Tojo Maki” and that’s the name he goes by in his restaurant. Everywhere else, Tojo Maki is a California roll. The most popular name for something that comes from him is no longer associated with him.
Similar to the number of ethnic foods that have been extracted from their cultures and marketed as “superfoods”, although just a few years before it was popularized by health gurus, it was one of the many ethnic foods that people made fun of.
But before things get too dark and we end up opening the Pandora’s box of culinary colonialism, let’s get back to Yun Jin because in this story, she wins.
After weeks of fan wars centered on the racist and xenophobic character of mocking Chinese opera featured in a Chinese game made by a Chinese developer, Genshin ImpactPatch 2.4 of has been dropped. There was another set of characters that would earn miHoYo millions of dollars as well as a nearly 3-minute cutscene where Yun Jin’s vocals can’t be skipped.
In the cutscene, Yun Jin performs “The Divine Damsel of Devastation,” a fictional play written by her father, on a floating palace in the sky where she catches the attention of her audience – both in and out of the game. .
Unlike the Tojo Maki or the California Rolls, whatever you call them, “The Divine Damsel of Devastation” didn’t understand anything, proudly displaying the shrill voice characteristic of Chinese opera.
Even better, the cutscene was entirely in Chinese, only offering subtitle translation for global players. Yang Yang, an opera actress from the Shanghai Jingjui Theater Company, sang the opera scene in all of the game’s language translations.
Just minutes after the story quest was released, posts about her heartbreakingly beautiful performance dominated Twitter.
Real or not, Yun Jin had become the global face of Chinese opera virtually overnight.
You can search “Chinese Opera” on YouTube right now and find it mentioned in many of them. The top search result, a performance of “Drunken Concubine” released by CGTN, is flooded with praise for the singer, the art form, and for Yun Jin for introducing them to Chinese opera.
This is exactly what its creators wanted.
Xiao Luohao, developer of the game, said, “It is difficult to carry the deep accumulation of Chinese opera art over thousands of years. But if there is a way to use Genshin Impacta form of entertainment easily accepted by others, [it’s] to expose people to the artistic crystallization of traditional Chinese opera, and even arouse interest in the art itself.
What the developers probably didn’t realize was how much it would resonate with the Chinese diaspora (and its many distant descendants) overseas. As for me, I will add Chinese opera pieces to the list of western opera performances I wanted to watch. It’s time for me to be a little more cultured.