The Hello Kitty Exhibit & What it means to be Asian

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Hello Kitty is an icon– a symbol, an “artifact” which represents some form of culture.

To me she is adorable, peaceful, cute, delicate, and in a way, malleable. As all symbols, definition may vary but an image stays constant.

She’s been criticized for her lack of mouth—“she can’t talk. She’s just another symbol for the oppressed Asian woman.”

But mouth or not, Hello Kitty sure does a lot of talking—she’s makes about $5 billion dollars yearly.

When I was a little girl, I adored Hello Kitty. She was the big huggable plush whose spotless white fur glowed under an expensive shop light. She was the face on expandable pencil boxes that magically opened up countless compartments with the touch of a button. She was on the smoothest pink gel pens and the fruit scented erasers. Her face beamed from dainty pastel colored tops with ruffled sleeves. But alas, being a first generation daughter from a family trying to make end’s meat in America—those fancy toys were just a distant dream. If it wasn’t found in a McDonald’s happy meal– it wasn’t found in my hands.

It wasn’t until college that I indulged in my Hello Kitty fascination. I wore a Hello Kitty backpack to class,  complete with triangle feline ears and a puffy sequined bow.

“Hey, cute backpack,” a random guy stopped me.

“Thanks,” I said.

“It’s like so Asian.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.

He gave me a puzzled look, “oh you know, I don’t know any girls who like, admit that. Nobody wants to say they’re Asian.”

“Erm… Well, I am Asian.”

“Y-yeah…” He stammered. After a few empty awkward seconds he began to retreat.

My friend laughed when we had taken a few steps away, “that guy was totally bad at hitting on you.”

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To say I was ecstatic when the Japanese American National Museum announced the opening of its special exhibit, “Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty” would be an understatement.

The exhibit opened in October 2014 for her 40th birthday, and caused quite a stir with the whole “she’s not a cat!” controversy. Hello Kitty is 40 years old, a middle-aged kitty now.

I didn’t think I would actually be able to see the exhibit with my own eyes—JANM is in downtown LA and I live in SF. But when my boyfriend and I drove down to Disneyland, I demanded we go.

It was a feast for kawaii-hungry eyes. She was painted everywhere, her image spread across massive walls and her kitten eyes watched you from above. Sparkling pink items shouted from neatly peppered glass cases.

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Under a subtle spotlight, a small plastic coin purse the size of my thumb hung above a stepped pedestal behind a glass case labeled simply, “Coin Purse.”

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The classic Hello Kitty stationary items I admired as a girl were arranged precisely so that each piece called your eyes but the case itself was unified in visually satisfying set.

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It was quite the collection—bags, figurines, a panorama of Hello Kitty plushies through the ages.

My favorite part of the exhibit was the art. A sign called her, “A Muse for Artists” whom inspired many from across the globe with her “Zen-like disposition.

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She was cute, ferocious, demonic, surreal, beautiful, classic or downright ridiculous. Despite being a cartoon cat, she was painted with the elegance of a geisha to the pink patriotism of Old Abe himself.

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Towards the end of the exhibit was the dress that adorned Lady Gaga herself—a plush piece sewn from dozens of stuffed kitties. Stepping into the last room, was stepping into the secrets of the ancient Egyptian pyramids. Darkness clouded the air, rudely cut by beams of beautiful gold emitting from the center of the room. Oh great Pharaoh Kitty towered over our mortal souls, Cleopawtra herself engraved in glimmering gold as she sat upon her sprinkled donut thrown.

After we exited the Hello Kitty exhibit, is where the museum took a stark turn.

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The exit spat us out into the internment camp exhibit. A few seconds ago we were in the super cute world of Hello Kitty, and now we were in a dark history that America tends to forget. It felt like I was Dorothy and after exploring the Land of Oz I was thrown back into sepia toned Kansas. Photographs, video tapes, and momentos documented the stay of families torn away from their homes. A quiet dreary kind of sadness hung in the air, permeated by a calm instrumental folk song.

The eyes that stared at me from those black and white photos looked very much like my own.

“My grandfather was in an internment camp,” my boyfriend said as we looked at photos.

The photos varied, some children were playing while some looked lost. I wondered if at a young age if they knew what was going on. They had done nothing wrong, but were incarcerated for the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, their native tongue. They were labeled prisoners for a land far, far away.

I stood before a wall built entirely of dark brown, blue and black suitcases. How much of their “homes” could they fit into these? How could you blame them for the actions of an unfamiliar land? Most people come to America for a new life, new opportunities, and a place to call “home.” I know that’s why my family did. But here, these people were denied their home, denied their hopes, and had their dreams deferred. Displaced blame resulted in displaced lives. What happened to their American dream?

Such a problem still exists today. We tend to blame an group of people for the actions of a few individuals. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that not everything is just black and white.

At the exit, a poem shadowed in sunlight called out to me.

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“Community in not just where you live.

Community is also about who you are.

We are on common ground with all Americans,

with all peoples.”

When we were about to leave the museum, we decided to take a picture with a Hello Kitty statue. One of the museum curators, a friendly older Japanese man asked us if we needed help taking a photo.

“Look Asian!” He smiled.

“What?” My boyfriend looked puzzled.

“Like this,” I held up my right hand up in a peace sign and flashed a wide grin.

By then, I had a better idea of what it means to be Asian.

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