If you’ve been reading articles on this site for the past few months, you may have noticed that there’s one video game that gets a lot more coverage than the others: Genshin Impact.
Let me come clean. It’s me. I’m the filthy Genshin Impact player who’s been writing articles on the real-world locations that the game’s setting is based on and evangelizing people into the cult of Rex Lapis. The game lives in my mind rent-free.
Paimon’s annoying and unnecessary exposition aside, it’s a beautiful game that has nurtured an interest in discovering the Chinese part of my heritage and it’s all thanks to miHoYo’s breathtaking presentation of Liyue, the game’s fantasy version of China.
Though the game begins in the “familiar” and ambiguously European country of Mondstadt, it’s Liyue that shines with its creators’ love. Everything about it, from the views atop its karst mountains to the rich history of the land and its people, creates a proudly oriental gaming experience that is so rare in games targeted to a global audience.
It’s not that East Asian cultures aren’t represented in games, goodness knows how many otakus have put in a nod to Japan in their games, but few have been this specific and in-depth in their representation.
So you can imagine how thrilled I was when Genshin Impact showed a teaser during the 2021 Game Awards that featured Yunjin, a character who had long been rumored to be an opera performer.
In the same vein, you can imagine how disappointing it was when Yunjin’s opera voice was played during an official live stream and the first thing chat thinks of is to mock her singing for being “strange” or “weird.”
But I shouldn’t have been surprised considering that it was basically standard operating procedure for whenever a culture that doesn’t fit into the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) template dares to be visible.
Now, Chinese opera sounds nothing like opera music in the west. While western opera fans have Bizet’s Carmen, Chinese opera has the works of Tang Xianzu and this is what it sounds like.
Chinese opera’s shrill voices take a while to get used to, no matter if you’re listening to the Kunqu, Cantonese, Xiqu, Peking, or Beijing variant. I get it — Chinese opera is “strange.” But the same audience mocking Yun Jin for her culture were likely feasting on Rule 34 fanart of her.
No surprise there. Asian culture is so easily separated from the people who are part of it and shamed when it isn’t westernized for mainstream palates. Yun Jin was just going through the same experience that hundreds of Asian children have gone through when they made the mistake of bringing Asian food to school.
“The day after we made stew, I sent my 6-year-old son to school with leftovers for lunch,” Mei Fong wrote for NBC News. “Later, he shamefacedly confessed he hadn’t finished his oxtail, though it is one of his favorite dishes. His friends called it ‘stinky.’”
A darn shame since, as Fong explains, the spices that went into the dish were once seen as treasures worth literally killing for. The oxtail stew, which simmered in cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg, stunk with Southeast Asia’s history of exploitation and colonialism.
Asian Americans have taken to calling this the “lunch box moment.” The lunch box moment is when you realize that the food you grew up with, and by extension the culture it belongs to, isn’t entirely welcome.
The idea of being bothered by people turning their nose up at your food might seem like a laughably small issue, but for many people, the lunch box moment was one of their earliest encounters with xenophobia.
Xenophobia is defined as “fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign.” It’s commonly used as a substitute for racism but differs from the term because of what someone is being discriminated about.
Xenophobia implies a more culture-based form of discrimination while racism is about, well, race. But even Merriam-Webster’s dictionary concedes that the differences are nearly indistinguishable.
In my case, the lunch box moment happened outside of school.
Here’s the p.o.v: you’re enjoying a plate of steaming hot and treacherously spicy sisig with a cold beer on a fine summer evening when some dude in a Discord server asks what everyone is doing. As someone who fancies herself sufficiently sociable, you answer. Now everyone wants a picture. You send one over so you can all pretend to make a virtual toast.
One of them replies, “@[you] what is that?” You explain that sisig is minced pig face and belly with chicken liver served on a sizzling plate which you know isn’t the most pleasant description of food. A part of your brain compels you to make sisig seem more “normal” so you send another picture that shows steam rolling off its crunchy surface.
That bizarre compulsion to make your culture’s food more palatable might be a tiny part of the reason we have California rolls. When Hidekazu Tojo came to Vancouver in the 70s, sushi was yet to become the culinary phenomenon it is today.
In his time, Canadian customers kept their distance from sushi because of its raw ingredients. Tojo, a trained sushi chef, then decided it was his mission to make North America eat sushi. To help his Canadian customers get over their aversion, Tojo hid the nori, the seaweed sheet, inside the sushi roll.
Whereas traditional sushi wore its nori proudly on the outside, the California roll conceded a part of its “otherness” to be more acceptable to Tojo’s customers. To be clear, I’m not saying California rolls are racist. That’s too much reading between the lines, even for me.
But you have to admit, there’s something about it that feels symbolic of the need for Asian culture to be re-packaged and have its distinguishing marks of “otherness” hidden before it can be deemed acceptable.
Tojo insists his rolls are called “Tojo Maki” and that’s the name it goes by in his restaurant. Everywhere else, Tojo Maki is a California roll. The most popular name for something that came from him is no longer associated with him.
Similar to how many ethnic foods have been taken from their cultures and marketed as “superfoods” even if, just a few years before it was popularized by health gurus, it used to be one of the many ethnic food items that people were mocked for.
But before things get too bleak and we end up opening the can of worms that is culinary colonialism, let’s circle back to Yun Jin because in this story, she wins.
After weeks of fan wars centered on how racist and xenophobic it is to be mocking Chinese opera featured in a Chinese game made by a Chinese developer, Genshin Impact’s 2.4 patch dropped. In it was another set of characters that would make miHoYo millions of dollars as well as a nearly 3-minute long cutscene where Yun Jin’s singing can’t be skipped.
In the cutscene, Yun Jin performs “The Divine Damsel of Devastation,” a fictional play written by her father, on a floating palace in the sky where she commands the attention of her audience — both in and out of the game.
Unlike Tojo Maki or California rolls, whichever you want to call them, “The Divine Damsel of Devastation” comprised nothing, proudly flaunting the shrill voice characteristic of Chinese opera.
Better yet, the cutscene was entirely in Chinese, offering only a subtitle translation for global players. Yang Yang, an opera actress from the Shanghai Jingjui Theatre Company, sang the opera performance scene in all of the game’s language translations.
Just minutes after the story quest was released, posts about her tear-jerkingly beautiful performance dominated Twitter.
Real or not, Yun Jin had become the global face of Chinese opera practically overnight.
You can search for “Chinese opera” on YouTube right now and find her mentioned in many of them. The top search result, a performance of “Drunken Concubine” posted by CGTN, is flooded with praise for the singer, the art form, and for Yun Jin for introducing them to Chinese opera.
Which is exactly what its creators wanted.
Xiao Luohao, a developer for the game, stated: “It is difficult to carry the profound accumulation of Chinese opera art over thousands of years. But if there is a way to use Genshin Impact, a form of entertainment that is easily accepted by others, [it’s] to expose people to the artistic crystallization of Chinese traditional opera, and even generate interest in the art itself.”
What the developers probably didn’t realize is how deeply it would resonate with the Chinese diaspora (and its many distant descendants) abroad. As for me, I’ll be adding Chinese opera plays to the list of Western opera performances I’ve been meaning to watch. It’s about time I got a little more cultured.