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What is Asian American cultural criticism to do with Nick Jr.'s Ni Hao, Kai-Lan? Ask us again in 10 years.
I watched Nick Jr.'s Ni Hao, Kai-Lan at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, and it didn't take long for me to realize that I was not the target audience for this show. Not even close. I obviously can't speak as a preschooler, nor as the parent of one, so I'm not sure what credibility I have in "reviewing" the show. So what follows is not a "review" in any traditional sense, but some reflections on Asian American television inspired by a viewing of Ni Hao, Kai-Lan.
For those who haven't heard, Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, according to its official website, "will familiarize the viewing audience with elements of Chinese and Chinese American cultures to promote multicultural understanding in the next generation and goes beyond featuring 'culture' as only ethnic food and festivals." Like many children's shows, every episode contains a theme or lesson. Every episode of Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, however, also includes a Chinese word or phrase which is repeated throughout the episode in various contexts. There are also snippets of untranslated mandarin Chinese normalized through regular exchanges of dialogue between the main character, Mei Mei, and her grandfather.
The didacticism of "Chineseness" was startling. Asian American popular culture has roughly arrived at a point now where artists are resistant to the "burden of representation." That is, they self-consciously attempt to shake off pressures to "be Asian." Hence, there is a move away from the cultural-conflict dramas and immigrant tales like The Joy Luck Club and others, toward more culturally neutral representations such as Red Doors or Harold and Kumar. Meanwhile, works like Better Luck Tomorrow self-consciously deconstruct the model minority myth with mixed or even negative portrayals of Asian Americans.
But those are works of art and entertainment for teenagers and adults. When it comes to children's programming, is it really possible to be neutral or deconstructive? Is it really possible to critique the delusions of multiculturalism? As I watched Ni Hao, Kai-Lan and read about it online, I cringed more than once at its jolly depictions of Chineseness (let's make dumplings! let's wear coolie hats!) and the suggestion that you too can be Chinese! If this were made by MTV (which shares a parent company with Nickelodeon), there'd likely be some noise from the Asian American community. But it seems there's a different standard for racial politics when it comes to preschoolers, one that is quite contrary to what is going on in "adult" Asian American popular culture. Is that a good thing?
Again, I'm not the right person to answer that question. But the disparate standards suggest that children that young are unsophisticated and totally impressionable (which may or may not be true), and that the perfect, scientifically-concocted blend of multiculturalism needs to be served to cater to their curious minds. I counted a total of three Ph.D. consultants in the episode's closing credits. I suspect there are more. All children's television programming is designed as a kind of moral indoctrination (whether effective or not), which I suppose is scary enough. But when race is foregrounded as a show's central moral purpose, my worries are multiplied. I'm not faulting the producers for their sense of moral responsibility -- in fact, I'm quite excited that a show like this is on the air. The nervousness is over the fact that nothing in my training and experience with racial issues has prepared me for a case quite like Ni Hao, Kai-Lan.
What I do know is this: Ni Hao, Kai-Lan speaks to anxieties over China/U.S. relations in a culture of cross-ethnic adoptions, “Made in China” paranoia, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, outsourcing fears, and escalating economic competition. From the end of creator Karen Chau, Ni Hao, Kai-Lan is a revolutionary depiction of Chinese American subjectivity. But from the end of parents (and thus advertisers), it's a cultural investment with political/economic imperatives. The show follows other Nick Jr. enterprises, Dora the Explorer and Go, Diego, Go! (Spanish/English shows negotiating immigration anxieties), and you can be sure a multiculturalist South Asian show will follow. (The Arab version may be a bit more difficult at this point). The crucial questions then become: how (if at all) is the multiculturalism on these shows serving political/economic interests, and why don't we have shows like Ahn Nyeong Kai-Lan or Ohayo Kai-Lan.
The answer to the second question should be fairly clear. To answer the first question, I'd have to watch more episodes, and frankly, I'm not sure I'd want to. From the giggles by kids during the screening at SFIAAFF, I'd say that Ni Hao, Kai-Lan is successful at engaging preschoolers in life lessons (like anger management) and Chinese culture (like learning "hat" in mandarin). But my response was somewhere between mild amusement and deep confusion. Conceptually, it's a fascinating show. In practice though, I'll leave it to the parents to figure out.
Date Posted: 3/21/2008