America as Internet Aesthetic

A phone camera weaves through the aisles of an Asian market. Maybe it’s a Japanese, Chinese or Korean supermarket, but the creator of the video, a non-Asian person, doesn’t specify this. She zooms in briefly on a series of food products: Pockysticks, red bean buns, frozen dumplings, various forms of Taiwanese bubble tea. She narrates the tour from behind the camera and, as if on safari, she loves to discover such unknown products in the wild. Towards the end of the video or in a follow-up, she tries her “snack-haul” at home. The videos are posted on TikTok under hashtags such as #Japancore or #kawaiicore, for the Japanese word for cute.

In internet culture parlance, the suffix “-core” denotes a visual aesthetic, a style that has been evacuated from its deeper substance. Cottagecore, perhaps the most prominent example, refers to a cozy, rural lifestyle of wooden cabins and herbal teas, but one that can still be practiced in a city apartment. (The list also includes fairycore, grandmacore, and trashcore.) Yu Phengdy, a college student in San Diego, noticed last year that TikTok videos for Asian grocery shopping gained popularity during quarantine, when few other businesses were open. She found the hashtag #Japancore offensive. “It’s so weird,” she told me recently. “The country is not an aesthetic.”

This past spring, Phengdy and other Asian-American users mounted a satirical retort in the form of their own TikTok videos, which they cleverly labeled “Americancore.” Just as Japancore treats Asian cultures as an array of exotic products ripe for the taking, Americancore videos show Asian-American TikTokers visiting Walmart or other chain stores to stare at everyday American food – Twizzlers, Doritos, mayonnaise. It is unclear where the term Americancore came from, although comedian Youngmi Mayer posted a video, in March that might have been a model. Titled “If Asian People Said What Whites Say in Asian Grocery Stores,” Mayer stands in front of a green screen of a Whole Foods-esque store and asks questions like, “What is cheese?”

In one of her americancore videos, which has been viewed more than a million times, Phengdy is doing her own version of a snack, trying Lay’s potato chips in a regular and lime flavor. The fact that the lime flavor is a Mexican product and not an American one is part of her commentary. “People say, ‘Look at my Korean snack catch.’ Then they have Taiwanese boba ice cream,” Phengdy said. “That’s not Korean. It’s fine to appreciate the staples of another culture, she added, but strange to fetishize them. Bro, it’s just red bean, there’s nothing new about it, people have been eating that for hundreds of years,” she said.

When Americancore became its own popular meme, some non-Asian viewers sounded defensive. In the commentary sections of videos like Phengdy’s, they revived debates about the line between appreciation and appropriation: is it even possible to consume another culture without being called out for problematic co-opting? The discussion has been particularly loud on TikTok, where the Stitch feature records instant responses to posts from others. In May, the coffee influencer was Ryan Gawlik criticized as culturally insensitive to not properly pre-wetting his whisk when making green tea. “I made a matcha latte and got death threats,” he said in a video. Another user, Emily Huang, who is Asian-American, came to defend him. “He’s not trying to take our culture away; he actually learns from his comments,” she said.

At the same time, the Americancore meme cycle took another self-referential turn: In an effort to fool unwitting white shoppers, some have argued, the term eventually mocks the experience of those for whom white American culture really matters. is exciting foreign. Ines Adriano, a sixteen-year-old student born in Lisbon and living in Frankfurt, who uses the pronouns she and she, made a TikTok in July, biting into a Red Vines candy they found on the desk of their father’s American colleague. “You all make americancore jokes, but we European kids have been looking for that all our childhood,” the caption reads. Over the phone, Adriano recalled a much-loved store in Lisbon that sold Walmart candy and had a very specific scent. At the time, they idolized American culture. “As I got older, I started to see reality, and now I don’t idolize it so much,” Adriano said.

Americancore’s ultimate joke may be that sense of disillusionment. What started as a commentary on white’s narcissism, Pocky-crazy shoppers became an intriguing term for the idea of ​​Americanness as just another hollow internet aesthetic to be adopted, the same as really loving wildflowers and prairie dresses. Americancore has made the leap from TikTok to other social networks and has been used to describe everything from school cafeteria lunches to the outfits that are worn this year’s American Independence-themed Met Gala† (Jennifer Lopez in a cowboy hat: extreme Americancore.)

It’s hard to accuse anyone of appropriating a culture that has been marketed and sold around the world, made available to anyone who can afford it. But the symbols of an emerging United States—McDonald’s, democracy, capitalism—have of late been mixed with dark American tropes in the global consciousness. “French fries, colonization, hot dogs, cultural appropriation,” Phengdy said, adding, “Just American stuff: Don’t see people of color as real people.” Perhaps there is nothing more Americancore than a collection of shiny, empty symbols.

And yet, as another meme goes, can’t we just leave people alone? enjoy things† Yuki Chikamori, a twenty-two-year-old Japanese college student who recently started college in Fort Worth, Texas, was oblivious to Americancore discourse when she made her first trip to a Cracker Barrel restaurant, last month. In the Japanese narration of the video, she marveled at the country kitsch decor and the menu’s “dumplings,” which were not gyoza, but pieces of dough served with chicken and gravy. “The building and the interior were so cute, like a theme park,” she told me, with unironic enthusiasm.

That video was viewed over a million times and Chikamori has since documented trips to Waffle House, Panda Express, gas stations and the mall. Americancore is constantly talked about in the comment sections of her videos – in a sense they are the purest expression of the meme – but Chikamori told me she thinks the debate is “little sad.” Her viewers include fellow Japanese students who are considering studying abroad, as well as American fans who enjoy seeing American culture from the outside and inciting her to more extreme experiences. “My followers suggested we go to a shooting range 😂 So probably my next exploration is there,” she messaged me. The US, unlike its homeland, is a country of individualism, she added: “I think jargon has a national character. There is no word like Americancore in Japanese.”

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