A Chinese cowboy searches for the future of the colorful Texan tradition

On the West Texas prairie, the plaintive melody of a Chinese folk song played from a pocket speaker as cowboy Bruce Wang watched over a herd of cattle.

Cowboy culture wasn’t what drew Wang to Texas, but it kept him here by giving him a new identity. Wang, who grew up as a city boy in Kunming, a metropolis of over 5 million people, was stunned to see how rural the Lubbock area was. “I had thought America would be more developed, compared to some urban areas in Asia,” he said.
But determined not to be judgmental, Wang worked to become fluent in Texan culture, and eventually began to research how its colorful cowboy tradition is reckoning with the harsh economic realities of a high-tech world.
Wang said he was first drawn to cowboy culture because it was so different from racial tropes of Asians as studious and perpetually foreign. He began watching Duck Dynasty, hoping to learn a rural southern accent.
“Part of the motivation was, ‘Hey, let me fight against the stereotypes put on me, with that cowboy attire and occupation,'” he said. “I needed to be something else to negate the Asian stereotypes.”


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Soon after he graduated in 2017, Wang began life as a cowboy at the Cochran County feedyard, near the small town of Morton. He rode pen-to-pen checking on thousands of cattle under the mentorship of a diverse group of coworkers, many of them from multi-generational cowboy families, he said.
As they wrangled cattle, traditional folk songs yearning for the colorful clouds of Wang’s hometown were answered by lively Tejano ballads and country rap. Out in the field, Wang’s mentor Mexican recipes for him, while cooked his own Chinese dishes were shared from one calloused hand to another.

Still, Wang said he discovered working as a cowboy didn’t free him from preconceived notions about his identity, especially once working toward a master’s degree kept him tied down with assignments in the evenings as other cowboys gathered for beers and barbecue. He began to document his life in a YouTube channel called, “Bruce Wang, the Chinese Cowboy?”
It’s a potent question of transformation and acceptance. As anti-Asian bias surged across the country during the pandemic, Wang recalled how a professor at his school was verbally harassed. “It made me very upset,” he said.
The strong sense of local community in West Texas, however, shielded him from the violence faced by Asian Americans in large cities.
“I’ve been able to feel really safe,” he said. “In agricultural areas, you’re more likely to get help.”
As he tended to cattle, Wang built a steady following on both Chinese and American social media, with videos that drew thousands of followers curious about modern cowboy culture. People from as far away as India, Brazil and back home in China asked him for advice on how to develop a southern drawl, he said.
“Many people in China were intrigued and interested in learning the accent and culture of the southern US They think agriculture is so romantic,” Wang said. “People told me I must be living the dream life, but that’s just on video.”
In truth, Wang said, modern cowboys have to reckon with not just unruly steers, but the almighty forces of global trade and technology. He pointed out the stress cowboys felt from the challenges posed by everything from rising wheat and corn prices during the to shifting climate patterns that are drying up west Texas.

But for Wang, the dominance of technologically transformed agriculture heralded the biggest change to the cowboy way of life. As he rode pens with coworkers and talked to local ranchers, he carefully observed their reactions to tools like computerized ear tags that tracked cattle health and electronic weighing scales that uploaded data to online apps.
Many of those technologies were deemed essential by big cattle producers struggling to make a profit with low beef prices, Wang said. But they were too expensive for most small-time producers to afford, he said, and cowboys accustomed to traditional ways struggled with a digital knowledge gap separating them from tech-savvy ranchers.

It was a reality he’d felt first-hand in those isolated evenings after work, he said. He later used the concept in his research to explain the mixed attitudes his coworkers had toward technology.
“Even for Americans born and raised over here, the barriers into cattle and agriculture are getting higher and higher,” Wang said. “With people in disadvantaged places like rural areas, with technology there’s a realization that the future may change in ways not beneficial for them.”
Last August, Wang traded his stirrups for a graduate student office at Texas Tech, researching the digital knowledge gap. His years as a full-time cowboy helped him see how cattle producers all around the world — from Inner Mongolia and Tibet in China to the North African grasslands — face similar problems adapting to rising prices and technological shifts, he said.

But Wang hasn’t abandoned his cowboy identity, he told the Chronicle during a recent interview from his home, where five Stetson hats hung on the wall. Equal parts cowboy and researcher, he invoked sociological concepts to explain why he felt belonging.
Becoming a cowboy gave him a “sense of place” in Texas, he explained. “The southern culture I embedded in myself is a part of me.”
But there was also a less theoretical reason: after leaving home behind, his family supported his journey.
“My ability to work in agriculture, to drive a tractor and loader and riding a horse, and that I was able to feed myself by doing these things, that made them proud,” he said.

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