America as Internet Aesthetics

A phone camera that travels through the corridors of an Asian market. It might be a Japanese, Chinese, or Korean grocery store, but the video’s creator, a non-Asian person, didn’t specify that. She briefly zoomed in on a series of food products: bokki sticks, red bean cakes, frozen dumplings, and various forms of Taiwanese bubble tea. She narrates the tour from behind the camera, as if on a safari, delighting to discover such unfamiliar products in the wild. By the end of the video or in the follow-up, I tried to “move the snacks” at home. The videos are posted on TikTok under hashtags like #Japancore or #kawaiicore, for the Japanese word for cute.

In the parlance of Internet culture, the suffix “-core” denotes a visual aesthetic, a style that has been emptied of its deeper core. Cottagecore, perhaps the most prominent example, refers to the cozy country lifestyle of log cabins and herbal tea, but it can still be practiced in a city apartment. (The list also includes Fairycore, grandmacore, and trashcore.) Yu Phengdy, a college student in San Diego, notes that TikTok videos for shopping in Asia are gaining popularity during last year’s quarantine, when few other businesses were open. I found the hashtag #Japancore offensive. She told me recently: “It’s very strange.” “The country is not aesthetic.”

Last spring, Phengdy and other Asian American users launched a sarcastic response in the form of their TikTok videos, which they called the smart tag “Americancore.” Just as Japancore treats Asian cultures as a series of exotic products ripe for the taking, Americancore videos feature Asian Americans visiting TikTokers visiting Walmart or other chain stores to meditate on ordinary American foods — Twizzlers, Doritos, and mayonnaise. It’s unclear where the term Americancore originated from, though comedian Youngmi Mayer posted a video, back in March, that may have been a model. Titled “If Asians Say the Things Whites Say in Asian Grocery Stores,” Meyer is shown standing in front of a green screen image of a Whole Foods-esque store and asking questions like, “What’s cheese?”

In one of her Americancore videos, which has garnered more than a million views, Phengdy makes her own version of the snack, trying Lay’s Potato Chips flavored with lemon and lime. The fact that lemon zest is a Mexican product, not an American one, is part of her comment. “People are like, ‘Check out my Korean snack amount.’” Then they serve Taiwanese boba ice cream. “This is not Korean.” It’s nice to appreciate the staples of another culture, she added, but strange to be fascinated by them. “Brother,” she said, “it’s just red beans, there’s nothing new about it, people have been eating it for hundreds of years.”

When Americancore became its own popular meme, some non-Asian viewers seemed defensive. In the comment sections of videos like Phengdy, they paraphrase discussions about the line between appreciation and appropriation: is it even possible to consume another culture without being called into problematic assimilation? The discussion was particularly harsh on TikTok, where the Stitch post records instant reactions to other people’s posts. In May, coffee influencer Ryan Gulick was criticized as being culturally insensitive for not moistening his whisk properly when making green tea. “I made a matcha latte and received death threats,” he said in a video. Another user, Emily Huang, who is an Asian American, defended. “He’s not trying to take our culture away; he’s really learning from his comments,” she said.

Meanwhile, the cycle of Americancore memes has taken another self-referential turn: In an effort to ridicule ignorant white shoppers, some have argued, the term ends up mocking the experience of those with truly white American culture. He is sexy alien. Ines Adriano, a sixteen-year-old student who was born in Lisbon and lives in Frankfurt, who uses the pronouns they and they, made TikTok in July as they nibbled on the Red Vines they found on the desk of their American father’s college. The caption reads: “Yall r American jokes but we European kids spent our whole childhood looking for it.” Over the phone, Adriano called up a beloved store in Lisbon that was selling Walmart candy and it had a very distinct smell. At that time, they worshiped American culture. “As I get older, I’m starting to see reality, and now I don’t like it very much,” Adriano said.

The ultimate joke for Americanacore may be that disappointment. What began as a commentary on the narcissism of white shoppers, crazy shoppers has become an intriguing term for America’s notion of just another hollow internet aesthetic being embraced, such as being truly in wildflowers and prairie dresses. Americancore has made the leap from TikTok to other social networks, and it has been used to describe everything from School lunches and cafeterias To the costumes worn at this year’s Met Gala themed American Independence. (Jennifer Lopez wears a cowboy hat: Very Americano.)

It is hard to accuse anyone of having a culture that has been marketed and sold all over the world, and made available to anyone who can afford it. But the symbols of the rising United States – McDonald’s, democracy and capitalism – have recently mixed in the global consciousness with darker American metaphors. “French fries, colonialism, sausages, cultural appropriation,” Fengdi said, adding, “The only American stuff: not seeing people of color as real people.” Perhaps there is nothing more American than a set of shiny blank tokens.

However, as another meme says, can’t we let people enjoy things? Yuki Chikamori, a 22-year-old Japanese student who recently started college in Fort Worth, Texas, was unfamiliar with the American discourse when she filmed her first trip to Cracker Barrel last month. In the Japanese narration of the video, I marveled at the rustic decor and the “dumplings” on the menu, which were not gyoza but bits of dough served with chicken and gravy. “The building and the interior were very nice, like an amusement park,” she told me excitedly.

This video has amassed over a million views, and since then Chikamore has documented his trips to Waffle House, Panda Express, gas stations, and the mall. There’s constant talk of Americancore in the comment sections of her videos — in a way, it’s the purest expression of the meme — but Chikamore told me she finds the discussion “kind of sad.” Among her fellow viewers are Japanese students considering studying abroad as well as American fans who enjoy seeing American culture from abroad, urging it for more extreme experiences. “My followers have suggested I go to a gun field 😂 so my next exploration will probably be there,” she texted me. She added that the United States, unlike her homeland, is a land of individuality: “I feel the vernacular shows the national character. There is no word like Americancore in Japanese.”

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