By some rare, wintertime miracle, I found myself emerging from my cocoon of library books, essays, and empty Pringle cans to finally wiggle into a small, black dress for a well-deserved night out. A few shots in and a charming, gorgeous English boy appears, armed with words like honey and an infectious, teasing smile. Just as thoughts of a certain nighttime exercise flitted through my head, he shrugged off one of my self-deprecating comments, ensuring me that “I was beautiful… for an Asian.” I’ll simply say that the boy was lucky to leave my presence with his fingers intact.
That was not the first time, nor am I naïve enough to believe that it will be the last time, that someone decided that aspects of my being were conditional upon the standards and expectations dictated by my race. Ever since I could remember, I was expected to be intelligent – and not because I was a hard worker, a late-night studier, and a bookworm with a love of knowledge; no, all of my hard-earned awards were simply expected of me, as a natural consequence of being brought up by what most assumed were helicopter parents. Truth is, my parents are more like cheerleaders than tigers; they were always supportive and helpful, but never forceful or demanding. School was not a walk in the park for me, either; I could not comprehend math or equations, and, as a visual learner, I had to read all the textbooks and recopy all the lecture notes because I couldn’t learn from just listening. When I achieved good grades, it was not because I had some inherent advantage as an Asian; it was because I worked my ass off and burned the candle at both ends every night.
Now, I may be a workaholic, but I’m also a sarcastic extrovert who loves drinking wine, downing shots, dancing crazily, and barging into conversations when I have an opinion. Apparently, that goes against some expectations about Asians being quiet, meek, socially awkward, and allergic to fun. I let a lot of drunken comments slide, but I don’t forget them; it’s a bit hard to with remarks like, “wow, you don’t drink like an Asian” or “are you sure you’re fully Asian? You don’t look or act like it!” Stereotypes are harmful in so many ways, but their worst aspect is the shame they make you feel – and the fear of inadvertently fulfilling them. They make it cliché to exhibit any characteristics that could be attributed to your culture; they make rebellious teenagers like me go out of my way to prove basic individuality while simultaneously denying aspects of my heritage.
In reality, trying to defy expectations and break stereotypes is simply another way of reinforcing them; it gives them the power to generalise the nuances of an entire race through a few caricatures. What does it even mean to be “such an Asian?” Asia is a pretty large continent filled with different countries that each have within them diverse ethnicities. How can you say that we all act in the same way? Can each of the 1.3 billion people in China be put into a box and described as one person? My sister and I alone share DNA and we are as different as day and night! So please, stop looking at me with lenses tinged by race. I am a pianist because I love the beauty of the notes and the majesty in the chords. I am a martial artist because I am a reckless wanderer with insomnia, not because I want to hear you snicker about ninjas and samurais. I am not a doctor, or a scientist, or an engineer, or a mathematician; I am a world-changer, maybe a politician or a businesswoman, and I’m definitely a type A personality – and I am definitely not here to fulfil your Asian schoolgirl fantasies. I do love dumplings and I do eat with chopsticks and I can tell you ancient tales about battles won by straw men and flights of determination that drive girls to the moon. It doesn’t make me a stereotype; it makes me the daughter of a woman who folded love into every wonton and always had time for one more bedtime story, no matter how tired she was.
Ignorance breeds prejudice and I’ve been lucky that my stereotypes have always been more of a nuisance than a threat. I do not walk in fear of being misjudged or hated to such a degree that I would fear for my life despite knowing I’ve done nothing wrong. I do not shoulder the burden of being constantly vigilant, eternally scared that even those meant to serve and protect me may fail to look beyond the surface of my body and simply act on what they expect to see. Though my small, slanted eyes may be mocked, my skin colour has never made someone cross to street to avoid me or mistake me for a thief when I cover my head with a hoodie.
Humans are amazing creatures; each has a film reel of memories as well as countless unique experiences and thoughts, which together can create a limitless future. Every single person has a story to tell and a voice to contribute to shaping this world; no one should be robbed of their chance to write their verse because of intolerance, misconceptions, and bigotry. Afford each individual a chance to show you all their unique dimensions and to paint a picture of the universe for you through their eyes. You’ll be surprised how much more you can learn from someone when you stop putting them in a box and expecting them to fit a mold or follow a script. Approach each person with an open mind and enjoy wherever that connection takes you. In the end, we owe it to each other as fellow people to put aside our forgone conclusions and give the complicated, flawed, and utterly unique humans in front of us the chance tell us who they are inside – Mulan joke totally intended.
*The content of Perspective articles, as with all articles posted on the Tribe, reflects solely the views of the authors. The opinions expressed are not those of the Tribe as a publication or necessarily those of any other member of the editorial and/or writing staff*