Although one and a half centuries have passed since the first major wave of Asian immigrants arrived on U.S. shores, many Asian Americans continue to feel like strangers in their own homeland.
Despite the community’s invaluable contributions to get America to where it is today, the group as a whole is still overlooked. Even worse, it is blamed for the most pressing problem that besets the country and the rest of the world at present.
“We’ve earned our right to be here,” Andrew Kung, a Chinese American photographer based in Brooklyn, told NextShark. “And we should be proud of where we’re from.”
Kung and his girlfriend, product designer Kathleen Namgung, who is Korean American, have created a photo series that highlights Asian Americans in “everyday American spaces.” They call it “Perpetual Foreigner,” but their creative annihilation of stereotypes makes this title a powerful oxymoron.
Through the series, Kung and Namgung showcase Asian faces and bodies that “deserve to exist and be seen in spaces that have always been reserved for ‘all-American’ families, couples and individuals.” Think football, beaches and pickup trucks — what could be more American?
The duo began conceptualizing the project last year, reflecting on their own experiences growing up as Asian Americans.
“We both grew up around white main characters on Abercrombie shopping bags, Disney channel shows, mainstream movies and more,” the couple told NextShark. “The deeper we dug into our own past, the more we realized we grew up feeling invisible as everyday Americans, wondering if we actually had a place in this country or if we would always be perpetual foreigners.”
This inspired Kung and Namgung to start the series, which recreates relevant moments from the ’90s and early 2000s. They took inspiration from campaigns at the time and built a corresponding image archive of locations, activities and styling.
As collaborators, Kung and Namgung begin their work by extracting concepts and ideas from casual conversations. These then evolve into a more formal narrative and story, influencing visual direction and inspiration.
“These visual references exist in everyday life, films, vintage and contemporary photographs, and other forms of fine art. We always want the final product to be more than just a beautiful photo; we’re intentional about every detail and how it translates to our narrative, from casting, set design, environment, to styling,” they said.
“Perpetual Foreigner” does more than reflect the couple’s younger years, however.
“Ultimately,” Kung and Namgung shared, “we wanted to highlight that Asian Americans deserve to be included as the ideal portrait of American life.”
The project features more than a dozen photos that depict this intent. Kung’s favorite ones are the photos of his parents at a park having a picnic.
“The opportunity to include my parents — first-generation immigrants to the U.S. — was a special one because it was an opportunity to highlight my parents as the ideal, everyday American couple. The tender and intimate portraits are a reflection of how I saw their relationship as their child,” he said.
Meanwhile, Namgung’s favorite shots are of a first-generation Asian American father named Wii holding his children, and of three men — Hitesh, Masa and Carty — playing football on the beach.
“The theme and styling was heavily inspired by ’90s American brand campaigns. There’s a sense of nostalgia and familiarity, but these photos feel refreshingly closer to us as Asian Americans,” said Namgung, who served as the project’s creative director and stylist.
The series also evokes the unique sense of “Asian joy,” which the pair describes as the right to deserve freedom and belongingness.
“The construct of joy is rooted in freedom, a quintessentially American value, tailored for white communities, individuals, and families. Asian joy is the right to deserve freedom and belonging as fellow Americans in everyday American spaces,” they said. “While these images can seem like Asian Americans just sitting in front of a white picket fence, laying down at the park, fishing at the lake, or riding a horse, they are a quiet, subtle depiction of what this joy looks like.”
Kung and Namgung acknowledged the progress of Asian Americans toward better inclusion and representation — particularly in the media — but they believe more must be done.
“Anti-Asian hate crimes are at an all-time high, and even with award nominations for ‘Minari,’ an American film about a family growing roots in the U.S., it was classified as a foreign language film, showing how far we are from embracing American narratives that don’t look and sound a certain way,” they said.
“For us to really start making progress, we need to push for awareness, education and empathy not only from our allies, but also from within our own community.”
The couple also has a message for community members who have been victimized, who have faced stigma and/or who still see themselves as “perpetual foreigners.”
“You are not alone — we know what it feels like to be invisible, to be perpetual foreigners, to be desexualized or fetishized, to struggle with what it means to be ‘American.’ Don’t fall into the trap of believing that we’re really an outsider. Take time to understand our history and our community, since so much has been forgotten,” Kung and Namgung said.
They added: “We’ve earned our right to be here, and we should be proud of where we’re from. We have an amazing history of hard working and influential individuals in this country, and we have just as much right to be here as any American. In solidarity, we have hope and optimism for the current and future next generation of Asian Americans.”
“Perpetual Foreigner” is available in full on Kung’s website. He has worked on similar projects centered on Asian American beauty, belonging and individuality.