A couple of friends came over to my house a few weeks ago. My violin stand was in the living room as I had practiced earlier that day. One friend asked, “who’s violin is that?”
“Mine,” I answered and deadpanned, “how Asian of me.”
“Well, you are a stereotypical Asian,” another friend replied. I turned around and smiled, thinking that she was joking. Then I saw that she was actually serious.
A few reactions happened simultaneously. Mostly, I was defensive. I have spent so much time and effort not fitting into the stereotypes, but my friend still thought of me as a stereotypical Asian. Having gone to a 96% white suburban high school in Ohio had made me well-versed in the Asian stereotypes. We are supposed to be obedient; good at math and sciences; play the violin and music; nonathletic; nerdy; socially awkward; overachievers academically; hopelessly fashionless, etc. I, like many of my Asian-American friends, spent much time in high school and college defying these exact stereotypes. I took dumber math classes in college though I tested into the highest series. I played tennis and ran competitively. I dreaded all Asian gatherings. I played the piano competitively not because my “tiger mom” made me, but because, well, anyone could tell you that I love it and have the talent. One doesn’t get offered admissions to music schools when one is still in 9th grade if one isn’t good.
It was not until I came to Kenya that I started to fully embrace my Asian side of the Asian-American equation. I realized that I simply could not avoid it. In the States, it was easier to hide in that illusion because in America, looking Asian can mean that one is also an American, and people get that. But elsewhere in the world, the first thing and the only thing most people can see in me is my Asiatic looks. It doesn’t matter that I speak American English and go back “home” to the States. They will always see me as Asian and never as American. I’ve had this conversation more times than necessary.
But most importantly, I gave myself pressure to change. My rebellion against these stereotypes wasn’t healthy and was too exhausting. There is a reason why stereotypes exist- because behind them, there is a sliver of truth. One should never judge someone based on these stereotypes- and this is where I had the most problem with my friend’s comment- but stereotypes don’t crop out of thin air. They are based of truth. Not the whole truth but partial. Not all stereotypes are good and fair, yet on the flip side, many of these point to our a) high value in education; b) ambition; c) belief in ourselves and skills that we can make shit happen; d) hardworking and that nothing can replace smart hustling; e) careful about finance; and f) make the most of all opportunities.
These are the foundations of the majority of the Asian stereotypes. I’m happy to take and accept them, because they align with my personal values (well, being better with finances is a work in progress…). So I guess in a sense, by running away from these stereotypes, I have been running towards them. And I accept that. I do various things because I want to and not because society tells me so or tells me not to do so.
I am American and Asian-American.