The Music That Provided The United States to a Generation of Asian Immigrants

A fixture of saccharine Elegant Bowl commercials and orthodontists’ waiting rooms across the nation, John Denver’s platinum document “Use Me Home, Country Roads” turned 50 years former closing month. Kitschy, yet earnest; dated, yet eternal. In its terse descriptions of bucolic West Virginia—“Life is former there, older than the bushes, younger than the mountains, blowing enjoy a bolt”—the soft folks tune can conjure nostalgia for a pickle you’ve never visited and a life you’ve never lived. It’s as classically American as a McDonald’s apple pie; an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States.

Nonetheless over the previous half of century, Denver’s Appalachian anthem has moreover lodged within the hearts of many households in Asia, thousands of miles away from the Blue Ridge Mountains. In a 2009 paper, the sociologists Grant Blank and Heidi Netz Rupke printed an informal look of school classrooms in Western China that learned that “Country Roads” turned into the most smartly-appreciated American tune amongst the college students. Even supposing the look’s sample turned into puny, its findings had been, as Blank and Rupke write, a testomony to the tune’s enduring relevance as a “mighty cultural symbol.”

Provided to Asia within the midst of a length of U.S. defense pressure influence, domestic political upheaval, and elevated outbound migration, Denver’s tune about reminiscence and homecoming learned an target audience grappling with deep cultural and demographic replace. Many listeners encountered within the pastoral scenes of Denver’s lyrics a panorama upon which they would possibly maybe well challenge pure fantasies of an ascendant United States. Thus, a tune drunkenly belted out at West Virginia University tailgates turned into transmuted into an aspirational, mythological hymn.


Denver turned into maybe an unlikely candidate for stardom in Asia, but his musical occupation intertwined with a time of like a flash transformation on the continent. After the death of Mao Zedong, a brand original era of U.S.-China detente started. In 1979, Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping made the main diplomatic commute to Washington by a sitting chief of China since World Battle II. For this ancient summit, President Jimmy Carter hosted festivities at the Kennedy Heart, featuring the likes of the Joffrey Ballet, the Harlem Globetrotters (a reputedly compulsory fixture of geopolitical statesmanship), and John Denver.

Carter’s thought of an unforgettable night will have to enjoy left an impression on the Chinese delegation. In 1985, Denver turned into invited to be one of many main Western artists to tour contemporary China, alongside with his performances place of dwelling to broadcast on inform-controlled TV networks. Denver himself proclaimed that “the Chinese are extra familiar with me than with any other Western artist.” Even supposing his commute stalled, reportedly on legend of concerns over venue plot and crowd adjust, in 1992, Denver launched into a multicity tour of the nation. At a time when the Communist Occasion’s anti-American policies serene colored each day life, Denver’s tune turned into amongst the main and most smartly-appreciated gadgets of American pop tradition to be widely disseminated across the nation.

While Denvermania unfold across China, the artist turned into considered as a deliberate tool for U.S. cultural influence in other aspects of the continent. Karen Tongson, a professor of American research and ethnicity at the University of Southern California and the creator of Why Karen Picket employee Matters, told me that the tune of sentimental-rock artists a lot like Denver and Karen Picket employee obtained massive followings on legend of the provision of Armed Forces Radio (now called the American Forces Community) over decades in areas with a foremost U.S. army presence, a lot just like the Philippines, Vietnam, and Korea. The tune that turned into performed over defense pressure airwaves needed to be muted in its field and in its politics—have confidence how Robin Williams’s character in Valid Morning, Vietnam would over and over glean himself in anguish for playing rock and “that funky tune” as a DJ for the U.S. defense pressure in Saigon.

Support in The United States, grand of what captured the attention of Gen X regarded enjoy Elton John’s liberatingly vibrant costumes, sounded enjoy Jimi Hendrix’s overdriven amps, and promised Marvin Gaye levels of sex. Nonetheless the smallest notes of vulgarity normally didn’t make it out of audio system in Asian worldwide locations tied to the U.S. defense pressure’s fraught presence. So former-college balladeers and schmaltzy serenaders enjoy Denver and Picket employee grew to vary into radio mainstays. For officials of both the U.S. Armed Forces Radio and the Chinese Communist Occasion, Denver equipped an anodyne simplicity fit for programming, and in this simplicity, thousands and thousands of Asian listeners learned resonance. As Tongson told me: “A tune enjoy ‘Country Roads’ would’ve been clear passable to convey at church for Christian Asians.”

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Even supposing launched over the airwaves, Denver learned wider circulation thru guitar-wielding fans. In his book Circuit Listening: Chinese Widespread Music within the Global 1960s, Andrew F. Jones, a professor of Chinese literature and media at UC Berkeley, writes of how the mass manufacturing of guitars marked an infrastructural replace across Asia. By the early ’60s, Japan had established itself as one of many ideal world producers of electric and acoustic guitars. As Jap producers subcontracted operations to neighboring worldwide locations, guitars grew to vary into considerably extra real looking and accessible across the continent. Bookstores equipped songbooks with easy-to-discover sheet tune for works by contemporary contemporary singer-songwriters a lot like James Taylor and Carole King. “I’m guessing every single songbook had ‘Country Roads,’” Jones told me. “It grew to vary into the canonized anthology portion for folks who foremost to learn this repertoire.” The recognition of those acoustic pop tunes turned into inextricably tied to the rising hobby in studying English, Jones acknowledged: “If you foremost to be sophisticated or worldly, you had with a opinion to focus on the language.”

For younger folks in Manila who fell asleep to the radio and college college students in Seoul though-provoking the nuances of English dialogue at their guitar clubs, “Country Roads” turned into allotment of a playlist that helped mold cultural sentiment toward The United States. This turned into the tune of ambition from a nation of business would possibly maybe well, but moreover the tune of suburbanity and balance. Easy-listening artists a lot like Denver projected a obvious “whiteness, squareness, wholesomeness,” Tongson acknowledged. “There turned into a particular form of aspiration to that level of belonging and the normalcy of it all.”


As these songs of American replacement proliferated across Beijing and Bangkok, Asian folks had been foundation to make their skill to U.S. cities a lot like Fresh York and Los Angeles in immense numbers. From 1980 to 2000, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that the Asian immigrant population grew greater than threefold, from 2.5 to eight.2 million. For many of those who selected to relocate across the Pacific, Denver’s corny ballad about Appalachia grew to vary into an emblem of an idealistic model of The United States—a romantic concept sanitized of the moral stains of Jim Crow, Jap internment, and McCarthyism.

My former man turned into one such believer in this Denverian dream. Born and raised in a puny port metropolis in South Korea, he grew up harboring the photos of American splendor he had heard about from Denver, Tom Petty, and the Eagles. In 2001, he took a one-skill flight from Incheon to JFK Worldwide alongside with his wife and sons. He had few family or chums on arrival within the U.S., and minute language skill. Doubtlessly top-of-the-line ingredient of substance that awaited him turned into the hope that life would possibly maybe well also very smartly be better for him and his younger folks in a nation that is at anguish of be “practically heaven.” Within the basic info of his life’s trajectory, he doubtless wasn’t all that varied from the six Asian girls killed shut to Atlanta, the postal employee reportedly stabbed within the Bay Dwelling, or the grandma that police suppose turned into spat on in White Plains, Fresh York, this year.

Once an anthem for the potentialities of Americana, “Country Roads” half of a century later would possibly maybe well resonate with the Asian diaspora in a obvious skill: as a melancholic reminder of leaving a pickle they called residence, and the entire thing lost to the promise of a greater life. While it former to be a clean canvas for the hope of their formative years, the tune’s emotional resonance has evolved as many Asian folks’s phantasm of The United States has dissolved: There turned into no Denver hit called “Trek Support Home (Where You Belong)” or Eagles tune called “Lyin’ Slanty Eyes.” For my folks and their cohort, immigration’s emotional payment is enumerated by the weddings of contemporary family they couldn’t meet, birthdays of chums they couldn’t enjoy a good time, and funerals of family to whom they couldn’t suppose goodbye. To a era that has experienced the fallacies of the American dream, “Country Roads” would possibly maybe well serene feel enjoy a tune of longing—though much less for an aspirational, imagined residence than for one where they know they’ll belong.

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In his novel Internal Chinatown, Charles Yu writes of “the pretty older Asian businessman standing patiently in line for his turn” at an American karaoke bar.  “When he steps up and begins slaying ‘Country Roads,’ try no longer to laugh, or wink knowingly or clap a little too laborious,” Yu writes. “Because by the point he will get to ‘West Virginia, mountain mama,’ you’re going to be singing alongside, and by the point he’s executed, you would possibly maybe well understand why a seventy-seven-year-former guy from a minute island within the Taiwanese Strait who’s been in a out of the country nation for 2-thirds of his life can nail a tune, show veil very most attention-grabbing, about looking to travel residence.”

Last year, after twenty years of living in The United States, my folks moved abet to the metropolis in South Korea where my dad grew up, to the same building where traditional-rock LPs from his teenage years had been gathering dirt within the attic. I don’t know if he serene thinks about visiting West Virginia. Nonetheless in spite of the entire thing this time, he’s lastly residence.



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