Thursday, April 22, 2010

HGTV, what the crap is "Asian inspired?"

I was grading papers this afternoon and watching HGTV (don't judge, it's great background TV because you don't have to actually pay attention, just look up once in a while and go "ooooh, those people have more money than sense, also, I want a koi pond").

And because it is Earth Day, all of the shows had an obligatory "green" theme. As I half-watched, I noted that two shows in a row also had an "Asian" theme, Colorsplash with David Bromstad and Spice Up My Kitchen. Both of these shows were fixing up the sad kitchens of Asian homeowners, two sisters in the former and a couple in the latter.

Which brings me to the question, what the crap does Asian-inspired actually mean?

Colorsplash entitled this episode "Asian-Inspired Kitchen with Eco-Friendly Materials (Episode HCLRS-411), and the homeowners actually suggested the Asian theme for their kitchen. They were Japanese-Americans, and David Bromstad took inspiration from a (kind of cliche, but still very pretty) photo of Mount Fugi with an orange-leafed branch in the foreground. The result was a gorgeous kitchen that the sisters completely adored.

But why call this Asian inspired instead of Japanese inspired, which it clearly was?

Spice Up My Kitchen called their episode "A Modern and Eco-Friendly Kitchen Renovation" (Episode HSUMK-504). Note that they did not use the word "Asian" in the title but used it roughly 700 times in the first five minutes of the episode. They had the Asian (I'm guessing Chinese since their name was Li, but I could be wrong here) couple chose between two layouts, the first "Asian" inspired and modern, the second more old fashioned and not Asian inspired.
The couple chose the first layout, but they did not use the word Asian when they explained why they made their decision. Instead, they pointed to the very snazzy appliances and other modern touches. In fact, the Lis used the word Asian only once in the episode that I counted, unlike the host who couldn't stop repeating it.*

The host also kept pointing out how the Asian layout matched the rest of the couple's house. Now, perhaps she was referring to the modern style in the house, or perhaps the couple had intentionally cultivated their own Asian theme. But what I kept thinking was "does the Asian layout match the rest of their house just because they're Asian?"

Here is the final result, taken from here:Asian-y!

I'm still not entirely sure what makes this Asian inspired. Unlike the Colorsplash kitchen which at least featured some cherry-blossom-like branches on the cupboards and things like this Shoji Lamp which are Japanese, the Spice Up My Kitchen - um - kitchen - has...

Square plates?

And was kind of weird about the whole Asian thing throughout the episode, particularly since the Asian homeowners didn't seem that keen about the theme to begin with.

It got me thinking... how many times do you see HGTV produce a room that is "European-inspired"? Let's do a quick search on

"European inspired": 55 results

"Asian inspired": 228 results

Ok. We've learned that Asian inspiration hits HGTV designers about 4 times more than does European inspiration. But they do do rooms that are inspired by Europe, the massive, general continent.

Let's do another search.

"French inspired": 141 results.

HGTV designers are inspired by France, the specific country and cultural area, 2 1/2 times more often than by Europe in general.

"Japanese inspired": 75 results.

HGTV designers are inspired by Japan, the specific country and cultural area, 3 times less than they are by Asia in general.

So what?

So when we think of Europe and European inspiration in our home decor, we are way more likely to think of a specific region or movement - Tuscany, Paris, Bauhaus - than we are to think of Europe as a whole. This is because we are familiar with the enormous differences between the different regions in Europe and understand that each culture has its own unique characteristics.

But when we think of Asia and Asian inspiration, we aren't as likely to think of a specific culture (even though we may end up relying heavily on one culture, like Japan, for our actual inspiration). Asia, like Europe, is made up of many different cultural regions. Thailand is different from China is different from Japan, just as much as France is different from Germany is different from Spain. (And, of course, each country itself contains numerous separate regions with their own cultural differences).

We don't think of Asia in this way, we think of it as a single, homogeneous area with all of the same things in it. Just look at the search results! Designers do use Europe as a whole, but they are more likely to use a specific region, like France. Conversely, designers are much more likely to use Asia as a whole than they are to use a specific region, like Japan.

The designers (like most Americans) likely don't know as much about Asia as they do about Europe and so aren't able to make a Vietnamese inspired room, but could create a Spanish inspired room.

In this way, we can see how our preconceptions and ignorance about non-white cultures creeps into every aspect of our lives - is invited, in fact, into our own rooms either through HGTV or by our decor decisions.

*Full disclosure - I didn't finish watching this episode because I fell asleep. I DO NOT GET PAID FOR THIS, OK. Perhaps the host apologized for stereotyping the Li family or the Li family enjoys vaguely Asian themed things. It's just a jump-off for my larger point, let's move on.

It was suggested that I search "African inspired". Here are the TOTALLY UNSURPRISING results:

"African inspired": 43 results

"Egyptian inspired": 8 results, but the first hit is about Feng Shui

"Kenyan inspired": 0 results (2, if you change it to "Kenya inspired")

This obviously raises a whole separate conversation of what is trendy and which cultures we value and celebrate or find non-threatening enough to put in our own homes. For another day!


  1. I think the Asian themes (notice the lack of some major Asian cultures.... e.g. Russia, etc.) helps Americans feel as though they are being exotic within the norms of American society. This is the safe exotic. Your search for Kenyan inspired was doomed to fail because Kenyans are too Other-y for white bread middle-class American housewives (the target demo for HGTV). There is also a guilt or bad feeling associated with using African culture for decorating in white homes. We can trample on the Southeast Asian cultures because they are more like us than other exotics, but if we trample on African cultures we are racists and we are abandoning the norm (what does one say when a white friend's house has been remodeled with an African theme?).

  2. I *heart* Anderson Cooper too! He is dreamy.

    I totally agree with you here. Asians are the safe minority - they are the "model" minority, right? I like your term "safe exotic" and may work this into a future post. Thanks for reading!