America as an Internet Aesthetic

A phone camera weaves through the aisles of an Asian market. Perhaps it’s a Japanese, Chinese, or Korean grocery store, but the video’s creator, a non-Asian person, doesn’t specify. She zooms in briefly on a succession of food products: Pocky sticks, red-bean buns, frozen dumplings, various forms of Taiwanese bubble tea. She narrates the tour from behind the camera and, as if on safari, delights in discovering such unfamiliar products in the wild. By 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 the parlance of Internet culture, the suffix “-core” denotes a visual aesthetic, a style evacuated of its deeper substance. Cottagecore, perhaps the most prominent example, refers to a cozy, bucolic life style of wood cabins and herbal tea, 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 the Asian-grocery-shopping TikTok videos gaining in popularity during quarantine last year, 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 satiric rejoinder in the form of their own TikTok videos, which they gave the clever label “Americancore.” Just as Japancore treats Asian cultures as a series of exotic products ripe for the taking, Americancore videos feature Asian American TikTokers visiting Walmart or other chain stores to gawk at mundane American foods—Twizzlers, Doritos, mayonnaise. It’s unclear where the term Americancore originated, though the comedian Youngmi Mayer posted a video, back in March, that might have been a model. Titled “if asian people said the things white people say in asian grocery stores,” it features Mayer 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 received more than a million views, Phengdy does her own version of a snack haul, trying Lay’s potato chips in plain and lime flavor. The fact that the lime flavor is a Mexican product, not an American one, is part of her commentary. “People are, like, ‘Check out my Korean snack haul.’ Then they feature Taiwanese boba ice cream,” Phengdy said. “That’s not Korean.” It’s fine to appreciate another culture’s staples, 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.

As Americancore became its own popular meme, some non-Asian viewers sounded defensive. In the comment sections of videos like Phengdy’s, they rehashed debates about the line between appreciation and appropriation: Is it even possible to consume another culture without being called out for problematically co-opting it? The discussion was particularly harsh on TikTok, where the Stitch function records immediate reactions to others’ posts. In May, the coffee influencer Ryan Gawlik was criticized as culturally insensitive for 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 his defense. “He’s not trying to take our culture; he’s actually learning from his comments,” she said.

At the same time, the Americancore meme cycle took another self-referential turn: in attempting to make fun of ignorant white shoppers, some argued, the term ends up mocking the experience of those for whom white American culture really is thrillingly foreign. Ines Adriano, a sixteen-year-old student born in Lisbon and living in Frankfurt, who uses the pronouns they and them, made a TikTok in July in which they bite into a Red Vines candy that they found on the desk of their father’s American colleague. “Yall r making americancore jokes but us european kids spent our entire childhood seeking that out,” the caption reads. By phone, Adriano recalled a beloved store in Lisbon that sold candy from Walmart and had a very specific smell. Back then, they idolized American culture. “As I grew older, I started seeing the reality, and now I don’t idolize it as much,” Adriano said.

The ultimate joke of Americancore might be that sense of disillusionment. What began as a commentary about the narcissism of white, Pocky-crazy shoppers became an intriguing term for the notion of Americanness as just another hollow Internet aesthetic to be adopted, the same as being really into 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 worn to this year’s American Independence-themed Met Gala. (Jennifer Lopez in a cowboy hat: extremely Americancore.)

It’s hard to accuse anyone of appropriating a culture that has been marketed and sold the world over, made available to anyone who can afford it. But the symbols of an ascendant United States—McDonald’s, democracy, capitalism—have lately mingled in the global consciousness with darker American tropes. “French fries, colonization, hot dogs, cultural appropriation,” Phengdy said, adding, “Just American things: not seeing people of color as real people.” Perhaps there’s nothing more Americancore than a collection of shiny, empty symbols.

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

That video collected more than a million views, and Chikamori has since documented trips to Waffle House, Panda Express, gas stations, and the mall. There is constant talk of Americancore in the comments sections of her videos—in a way, they are the meme’s purest expression—but Chikamori told me that she finds the debate “kind of sad.” Her viewers include fellow Japanese students who are considering studying abroad as well as American fans who relish seeing American culture from the outside, and egg her on to more extreme experiences. “My followers suggested that I go to a gun range 😂 So probably my next exploration is there,” she messaged me. The U.S., unlike her home country, is a land of individualism, she added: “I feel slang shows national character. There is no word like Americancore in Japanese.”


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