On Techno-Orientalism

New, technologized forms of anti-Asian appropriation betray both old prejudices and new desires

Full-text audio version of this essay.

I first came across the existence of fake-Asian digital profiles on Twitter. They had bios written in a mix of Korean and English and profile pictures featuring faces haloed by the blur of overlapping filters. The posts on these accounts made frequent reference to an alleged Asian heritage, statements that stood out against the disquieting images of white faces heavily edited to appear more “Asian” (e.g. monolids, winged/elongated eyes). Proud stories of passing as Korean peppered their feeds — one white user boasted about being mistaken for Korean by a Korean couple, another about her eye shape. Following these users were small hordes of bot accounts of attractive Asian men.

Soon, I started noticing similar profiles cropping up elsewhere. On Instagram and TikTok, accounts run by white users posting similarly filtered images and videos found fertile grounds to proliferate, thanks in part to an algorithm that pushed this content onto an ever growing base of “relevant” communities — anime readers, K-pop stans. From January 2021 to June, Google saw a 3.5x increase in searches for the term “Asian fishing,” an all-time high. Some accounts played into an infantilizing and hypersexual view of the female Asian body— mirror selfies featuring Japanese school girl uniforms abounded. Others spewed racist hate speech, as if the guise of non-whiteness somehow excused or disguised it. While the content was heterogeneous, almost all of these accounts had something in common: a white body that was modified, transformed, to appear Asian.

Old prejudices met a new techno-culture infatuated with the “posthuman,” with the cyborg; that which serves to dehumanize the Asian body paved the way for its theft

I remember being struck by the uncanniness of it all. Faces that seemed to be caught in the midst of some aborted racial mutation — an inversion of the Bond villain Zao, whose own grotesque figure was the result of an incomplete transformation that would have rendered his Asian body Caucasian. Then, I remember feeling confused. What, exactly, was going on here? What was I looking at?

White America has long profited by appropriating non-white cultures, in particular the culture created by Black Americans. Markers of cool, of difference, of style are stolen and decontextualized, de-historicized, to service the white self as quickly as new markers can be created. In this context, these faux-Korean accounts made some sense: After all, as bell hooks wrote, this desire to “eat the Other” is intrinsically tied up with a desire to be transformed by an encounter with the Other. It is through this transformation that white Americans seek to validate themselves as individuals, as different from the rest of their cohort.

Yet this desire for transformation rarely goes so far as becoming the Other. Distance is usually maintained, lest one lose oneself in the act of appropriation (lest one “go native”). This is key to the historical logic of appropriation: take the culture, the aesthetics, and erase the race.

The Asian community is no stranger to this mode of appropriation. From trendy tattoos bearing Chinese characters (that famously translate to nonsense phrases), to the use of kimono (largely worn for formal occasions in Japan) as sensual sleepwear, Westerners have often taken the markers of Asian culture, detached them from their source, and appropriated them into a system of empty aesthetics. Bodies, too, are appropriated, features divorced and recontextualized. Consider the “fox eye trend” that went viral in 2020, which had subjects applying make-up to give their eyes a winged, elongated look common to many East Asian eyes, accompanied by a gesture in which the subject would place their hands at their temples and stretch the surrounding skin and eyelids outwards. This is, of course, a taunting gesture that nearly every Asian-American had witnessed at some point. White Americans reframed it as a harmless, chic, and exotic way to frame one’s face.

These profiles, however, were different: These users were not taking the signifiers associated with Asian bodies and culture while ignoring the race, as in the examples above. This was not simply an attempt to inject an element of ambiguous exotic appeal into a white body. Instead, the users I encountered were using those signifiers to actively claim that they were Asian. These digital transformations, these acts of photoshopping, were an attempt to bypass whiteness into a new self-proclaimed racial mapping. Unlike the traditional mode of appropriation, in which Asian bodies and people are only invoked in the most symbolic and abstract way, these users were embodying East Asian features in an attempt to be Asian.

This was a mutation in the traditional logic of appropriation. No longer were these users simply attempting to take the aesthetics or the culture of a given group, but attempting to inherit the race-construct itself. Old prejudices met a new techno-culture infatuated with the “posthuman,” with the cyborg; that which served to dehumanize the Asian body paved the way for its theft. In the estranged faces of these users, part human, part digital, I was witnessing the ways that stereotype, race, and technology were beginning to intersect.

When a gunman tore through Atlanta, killing six Asian women in the name of his “sexual addiction,” I felt a dam burst in my Asian-American circles. It had been almost a year exactly since the first round of Covid lockdowns in the U.S., almost a year of “Wuhan Flu” induced hatred, almost a year of rising attacks on our most vulnerable. Once again, our bodies were center stage in the American consciousness — as sources of disease, as objects of temptation, as perpetual foreigners.

Only a month later, McDonald’s would announce a collaboration with BTS, the K-pop group that had come to dominate international charts in recent years. In seemingly stark contrast to the ongoing attacks and the prejudice surrounding them, this announcement would be met with an outpouring of excitement. The perfected bodies of the BTS members, locked in tight choreographed synchrony, are public symbols of desire in a way that Asian (especially Asian male) bodies rarely are. K-pop stans on Twitter and TikTok thirsted over their favorite members, poring over their smallest gestures, the slightest show of their sculpted bodies. The strength and scope of this reaction was just one example of North America’s selective fascination with East Asia, alongside the recent mainstream popularity of anime and the success of the film Parasite.

In that back and forth, you can catch glimpses of the kind of tension that in many ways defines contemporary Asian-America. It is a tension between disaster and desire, at the intersection of which lie our bodies. Bodies that are simultaneously coveted and viewed with suspicion, bodies composed of media, history, and stereotype as much as they are of flesh, blood, and bone. This tension has been evolving for centuries. If we are to understand contemporary American attitudes towards Asian bodies, and the unique threats they face, it’s important to understand the external pressures that came together to form this body.

These treatments in fiction literally reduce Asian bodies to machines and holograms, reinforcing racialized attitudes that claim Asian people are capable of mechanistic work but lack the freedom of spirit that defines man

In the late 1800s, Chinese men composed more than half of the workforce creating the railroads that would connect the two U.S. coasts. Back then, just as now, white anxieties about economic replacement were ever present. To feed and justify these anxieties, an idea about these Chinese bodies began to emerge. This is detailed in “Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion, Meat vs. Rice, American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism: Which Shall Survive?”(1902), a pamphlet in which the American Federation of Labor made the case that Chinese workers were intrinsically different from their European descended counterparts. They claimed that Asian bodies didn’t need the kinds of shelter, nutrients, or rest that European bodies did. Instead, they were built to work, capable of withstanding deprivations that would destroy a normal human. These peoples were machine-like, possessing bodies that were essentially “expendable technology,” as David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu write in Techno–Orientalism.

This characterization of Asian bodies as machine-like would only grow as Asia would come to technologically and economically outcompete Western nations after the Second World War, exacerbating the anxieties that fueled this stereotype. Futurity would be increasingly tied to Asian iconography and Asian bodies, as would existential fears about a future in which Eastern dominance would threaten Western hegemony. The cyberpunk genre, manifest in media like Blade Runner and Cloud Atlas, would popularize this connection between East Asia, Asian bodies, and the technological future — take the mise en scène of the former film, in which holograms of Asian women dominate the futuristic skyline urging people to buy and consume, despite the lack of actual embodied Asian characters in the film; or the latter, in which Neo Seoul is a dystopian future-scape where laboring humanoids are fabricated. These treatments, and many others like them, literally reduce Asian bodies to machines and holograms, reinforcing those racialized attitudes that claim Asian people are capable of mechanistic work but lack the freedom of spirit — the soul — that defines man (e.g. white persons).

This mapping was able to take hold so deeply in part because it latched onto a metaphysical division that had long structured European thought: the categories of man/animal/machine. Discourse around these categories can be found in everything from Aristotle to Descartes, but this tripartite distinction created an easy structure around which the dominant racial codings in the U.S. could cohere. As Wendy Hui Kyong Chun notes, in this system the white “human is constantly created through the jettisoning of the Asian/Asian American as robotic, as machine-like,” and the African American as “primitive, as too human.” This once metaphysical structure, now applied politically and socially, became a way to classify, divide, and control; it also became a way to integrate the Asian body into the larger fabric of racism in the U.S. Claire Jean Kim’s theory of racial triangulation brilliantly articulates the larger consequences of this structure, and how it has been leveraged  historically to pit Asian-Americans against Black Americans, in an effort to maintain a racialized hierarchy with white Americans on top.

With this stereotyped view, the Asian body took on a kind of uncanniness — human but not quite, perpetually stuck in Mori’s robotic “uncanny valley.” One need look no further than one of the most notorious Asian caricatures, Dr. Fu Manchu, to see this play out. The “ultimate expression of Chinese cunning,” the good doctor had cat-like green eyes, a “reptilian” quality, a “masklike,” “impassive” face, as well as “one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present.” Here was an image of a chimera, a humanoid character that was anything but human, an assemblage of fears about Asian technology and inscrutability.

All this baggage was historically enough to keep white people from wanting to associate too deeply with Asian bodies. Certainly there were traits or cultural signifiers (mystic, technological, exotic) that were, and still are, commonly appropriated piecemeal: The Western hero learning the ways of the exotic Orient is a trope still alive today in popular franchises like Marvel’s Doctor Strange. But fully transforming oneself into an Asian body was taboo. The fact that there are users who now feel comfortable doing it — through digital, technologized means — tells us that something is changing.

Lisa Nakamura, writing in the early 2000s, coined the term “identity tourism” to describe chatroom users who pretended to be Asian, adopting names like “Miss Saigon” or “Geisha Guest.” These users would often role play as Asian types — the lone samurai, the seductive geisha — cobbling together various stereotypes as they saw fit. However, as Nakamura notes, these early users, by drawing attention to their own stereotyped Orientalism, were “[tipping] their interlocutors off to the fact that they are not ‘really’ Asian,” to the fact that behind these text-based avatars and usernames, there was a non-Asian body. The self-aware artifice was largely the point. Two decades later, the users behind fake-Asian accounts are seeking to claim these bodies as their own — hoping to convince their interlocutors that the person behind the screen is indeed Asian. Rather than doing so solely through textual cues, like the early identity tourists did on message boards, they are able to manipulate images of their actual bodies through filters and photoshop, creating an Asian figure that is pure simulacrum.

It doesn’t take much to see how old racial attitudes are well and alive in this practice of turning oneself Asian. The practice itself requires a latent belief that Asian bodies are vessels without souls, donnable because they lack any sort of internal essence. Already and only a skin to be put on. Just as the defenders of Scarlett Johansson’s casting in Ghost in the Shell argued that anyone could play Motoko Kusanagi because the character was technically a robot — therefore lacking any internal reality that would contradict a white woman taking her on — these users betray a view that Asian bodies can be inhabited by anyone because they are essentially hollow.

It is unsurprising that in this moment the chimera-like Asian body begins to feel less far off, less grotesque to white Americans

This new form of image- and technology-led appropriation betrays not only old prejudices, but emergent ones as well; new desires and attitudes toward race responding in part to the tectonic shifts in self and identity brought on by our evolving relationship to technology. This is a moment in which phones are prostheses, in which our digital lives are less and less meaningfully distinguished from our embodied lives, and in which we are becoming increasingly comfortable with thinking about the self as a mediated assemblage. The “I” is composed not just of a physical body, but the technology we rely on, all those instantiations that live online, all the filtered images that exist in cyberspace — an “extended” self. It is unsurprising that in this moment the chimera-like Asian body begins to feel less far off, less grotesque to white Americans.

As this techno-culture begins to celebrate a new, assembled view of self and explore its limits, the uncanny automata, the assembled human — the Asian body — becomes an ideal to aspire to rather than run from. Mainstream culture now celebrates artificially rendered influencers like Miquela, or figures like Poppy who fashion their personas as robo-entertainers. When we see Gigi Hadid posing alongside the A.I. Miquela in a Calvin Klein campaign, the juxtaposition feels interesting and playful, aspirational even. The uncanny becomes normalized, fetishized. (That these artificially rendered influencers are often racially mixed or ambiguous underscores the fascination with racialization itself as an accessory). As these elements intersect, the cultural barriers which have historically warded white people from associating with Asian bodies diminish.

It’s critical that these profiles “become” Asian by becoming technologized and composite, by photoshopping their embodied selves to the extent that they are rendered cyborg, because the intention here is to become Asian by becoming cyborg (or perhaps vice versa). These figures — with their pushed and pulled faces, edited eyes, skin so airbrushed it looks like a render — are uncanny not by accident, but by design. The otherness of the Asian body, which is racialized as technological, is simulated through technology.

We can see how technology has allowed a racist teleology to arrive at its terminus, a point at which the Asian body is now presented as pure assemblage, pure exteriority. These profiles are emanations of an emergent view in which the Asian body’s uncanniness is a north star, something to be sought after and mechanically replicated. The avatars’ eyes are soulless, but perhaps that is the point.

Writing in a 2015 collection of essays, cultural theorist Seo-young Chu tells us that “technologies are constantly changing, and they are constantly changing the way humans are shaped… (Consider technologies such as Photoshop, cosmetic surgery, and CGI).” The bounds of what we consider to be human, of identity itself, are not simply set by one’s embodied life. The way we appear to others is more plastic and malleable than it was before, and while this malleability has the potential to disrupt the essentialist attitudes that underpin stereotypes, it can also pave the way for new modes of caricature, for new stereotypes to emerge from old ones. Will this “posthuman world be a post-stereotype world?” Chu continues, “Or would stereotypes look posthuman?”

It’s a question that has been grappled with since the earliest days of cyberspace, when the future of the net felt more open to possibility. Back then, there was a kind of cautious optimism that digital life could lead to a reworking of oppressive socially constructed categories. New combinations of race, class, and gender made possible by the malleability of digital life could challenge reductive stereotypes and show users how wrong these preconceptions were. Or so it was hoped.

As this techno-culture begins to celebrate a new, assembled view of self, the uncanny automata — the Asian body — becomes an ideal to aspire to rather than run from

In practice, these “posthuman” assemblages — modes of personhood that could prove transgressive to race — were rarely placed in the hands of those who needed these liberational tools. Instead, white users would come to wield the tools of racial dislocation that many early-net theorists placed so much hope in, and use them to create precisely the new posthuman stereotypes Chu writes about. From them would emerge visions of Asian bodies rooted as much in the past as in the digital present and future, haunting visions from our new cybernetic lives.

In an introduction to the book Techno-Orientalism, the authors discuss how this new form of technologically inflected Orientalism developed in the post-war period. Rather than arrest the East in a pre-modern stage of development (the mystic, the ancient) as Orientalism had historically done, this “techno-Orientalism” would imagine “Asia and Asians in hypo-or hypertechnological terms.” It would present “a broader, dynamic, and often contradictory spectrum of images, constructed by the East and West alike, of an ‘Orient’ undergoing rapid economic and cultural transformations.” This narrative would provide a convenient outlet for anxieties and fears about a dominant Asia that was homogenous, mechanized, and opposed to the liberal human subjectivity of the West. It would premise and underpin the acts of imagistic and technological appropriation that I’ve discussed.

Yet the authors make clear that, unlike the Orientalism that preceded it, techno-Orientalism is not a narrative solely authored by the West. As the theorist Toshiya Ueno writes, “if the Orient was invented by the West… then the Techno-Orient was also invented by the world of information capitalism.” East Asian enterprises have helped construct this perception as well through their own media, through informational and capital currents that reach across the Pacific. The authors of Techno-Orientalism ask whether “techno-Orientalism is still Orientalist if contemporary techno-discourse is being authored principally by Asians, seemingly without regard for the Westerners who look on with a mixture of anxiety and envy.” This complicates any reductive understanding of the phenomenon, without overhauling the general structure of an East/West binary.

This binary, however, loses those Asian bodies caught in between. Those members of various diasporas that are currently bearing the brunt of violence spawned by racist fears. How are those in the “West” whose bodies are nonetheless Asian positioned when they try to assert their right to author their own counter-narrative? These emergent technological practices, leveraging techno-Orientalist attitudes to steal and replicate our bodies, combined with the rising violence being done to actual, human bodies urge us to re-examine the underpinnings of technological production, economy, and capital that uphold this attitude at a global level.

This phenomenon is intersectional, multinational, and tangled up in worldwide media flows. In the end though, it starts and ends with our bodies. It matters because of our bodies. Bodies that have never been given the space to be just bodies. Bodies that are mediated, composite, extended, but cannot function without a pulse; that are subject to violence digitally because of violence done to them physically, and vice versa; that deserve to be treated with dignity precisely because they are bodies, inhabited by real souls, living real lives.

Leo Kim is a writer based in New York. He covers film for the zine From the Intercom, and spends most of his spare time wading through contemporary image culture.