When have you felt stereotyped for being Asian? When have you stereotyped yourself?
Identity can empower but also confine us. Through stereotypes, we are told that a single narrative exists and that we belong to it. Stereotypes are difficult to escape but sometimes, we find comfort within them. How? Because at least we can be defined by something.
Let me pose a challenge for you– step away from the labels for a moment, imagine that these notions in society do not exist. Who are you? You decide who you are, even if you do not know who that is yet.
“Who gets to be an American? What does an American look like?”
― Charles Yu, Interior Chinatown
Growing up in a 96% white town, I re-made myself as white.
Growing up in a 96% white town, I re-made myself as white. Since Asians were “smart," I pretended to be dumb. Since my Chinese food smelled "weird," I bought school lunches. Since Asians were "unathletic," I made sports my life. I avoided east-asian friend groups and never posted pictures with Asian friends. But I didn't realize that although I excluded myself from Asians, I was still excluded from white circles—they never saw me as their own.
It took a painstakingly long process, but I’ve finally reconciled with my Chinese identity. A huge part was meeting people at Brown who genuinely appreciated my culture and heritage. Another part was writing my own guzheng songs, making interactive artwork, and self-reflecting on my identity in the creation-process. Now, I’ve finally decided to pronounce my last name correctly. I used to always Americanize ‘Zhang” as “Zang,” but now I say “Jahng”—the real way.
––– Bree, Chinese-American, 20
“I need to find that little Oriental and talk with her.”
My last debate tournament, one of the three judges finds me afterwards. He congratulates me on a job well done, and I’m glowing with pride, a breathless string of denial nursing the bright, warm thing in my belly. Before he goes, the judge says, “After I heard you speak, I told myself—I need to find that little Oriental and talk with her. Tell her what a fine speaker she is!”
He salutes me jauntily. I go cold, and I think my diaphragm forces a laugh, one that I can't hear past little Oriental still ringing in my ears. In my blazer, my pressed slacks, my Calvin Klein flats, I feel like an imposter, and the realization of it plows into me like a truck. I can't remember how to stand, how to speak, can't remember how to be American. The judge has no idea it took him only a heartbeat to strangle the bright, warm thing and leave it for dead, its corpse shriveled in my gut, a weight I can barely breathe past.
––– Cindy, Vietnamese-American, 19
Salt Lake City, Utah
"For a culture to be palatable, it may often exist as stereotypes."
For a conversation about culture to continue, it cannot remain that way. Recently, I stopped and pondered the image of my own ‘motherland’ I had constructed in America. I have built a cross-cultural identity backdropped against formidable city skylines and refurbished with a glossy history. I proudly recount escapades from my upbringing in Shanghai; I take pride in my familiarity with Tang dynasty literature. I understand my role now as an ambassador of Chinese culture: a title that I did not invite upon myself, but was automatically bestowed upon me. I take upon this role with pride, but I also realize that at times, I flaunt not just my culture but also my “otherness”; it embellishes my identity with uniqueness, but in the process of doing so, I run the risk of bundling complex, nuanced aspects of my identity into more flavorful, digestible tropes: cheap blue and white chinaware, bamboo chopsticks engraved with Chinese print, fabric shoes embroidered with dragons and phoenixes.
My father is the epitome of the loving trope of immigrant parents who cut fruit for their children. My best friend, after coming to our house and witnessing my dad knock on my door and silently hand me bowls of cut apples, oranges, or strawberries over the course of seven years, concludes beautifully, “Your dad’s love language is preparing fruit for you.”
––– Alec, Chinese-Canadian, 20
Student from Shanghai studying in the US