January 23, 2014

Examining Asian Stereotypes


As an Asian American living in the United States, I find myself dealing with prejudice and stereotyping on a near-constant basis. It's a weird thing with Asian people; despite my being completely American in terms of culture, I'm still viewed as a foreigner. I've learned to tolerate it over the years, but there's the occasional person who just doesn't seem to have a care about being ignorant.

We can't just tell these people to stop generalizing, but what we can do is feed them the knowledge they need to stop assuming the wrong things. In order to shed some light on the origins of Asian America's most prominent stereotypes, I thought I'd try my hand at explaining them one by one. By doing so, I hope to help people understand why certain stereotypes exist, and why they couldn't possibly apply to everybody.

Don't expect anything too in-depth; these are just my thoughts. If you are a fellow Asian American, feel free to contribute. Also, note that I'll mostly be discussing stereotypes associated with East Asians. Now, to begin with...


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All Asians Are Smart/Good at Math
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This is probably the premier Asian stereotype. Asians in the U.S. have an unshakable reputation for being studious, hard-working people. They're typically seen as being straight-A students, and they're often thought to have a natural inclination towards mathematics. This is all very flattering, but is any of it true? Well, let's look at the numbers.


Believe it or not, Asian Americans are actually the most successful racial group in the United States. According to research from the Pew Research Center, Asian Americans were the most highly educated and financially successful racial group in 2010. They also have such a large presence in the Ivy Leagues that the admissions offices may have started discriminating against them in order to curb the number of Asian students.

So clearly, the myth is somewhat substantiated. Still, that doesn't stop a stereotype from being a stereotype. A good portion of the Asian American population doesn't fit the stereotype, so it would be inappropriate to assume so. I'm actually a good example of the exception; I was a pretty underachieving student throughout most of my life, and math was my worst subject (my best was English).


This obviously didn't sit too well with my parents, which brings us to the other important question: What is it that makes so many Asian Americans such studious individuals? Well, to start with: no, Asians are not naturally more intelligent/good at math. That idea is called racism.

There are actually a few reasons, and they all have to do with culture. To begin with, many of us either came here as immigrants or have parents who are immigrants. Being an immigrant means having to battle a host of inequalities whilst working incredibly hard in order to make anything of oneself. This typically leads to the "work hard and make money" mentality that many Asian American parents seem to have. They simply want their children to succeed in the new world, often to the point where they can inadvertently push their children too hard.


"But there are a lot of ethnic groups that immigrate to the U.S., and not all of them have found the kind of success that Asian Americans have found". True, which brings us to the next point. Many Asian cultures place an exorbitant amount of value on superficial measurements of self-worth such as name and status. Going to a recognizable school (usually medical) is basically a given, as most Asian parents would likely fall into a deep depression if their child wanted to major in something that doesn't have practicality or the potential for a high salary. This should explain why the Asian American community is so hell-bent on invading the Ivy League.

Ultimately, it's the previous generation's insistence on wealth over happiness that drives many students (willing or unwilling) toward academic and financial success. It's a culture that they've grown up with and fostered, and it's the culture that dictates how many of us fall under Asian America's most prominent stereotype.


As for the mathematics, there's no complicated answer for that. In South Korea, children learn math at a much faster pace than American students, so naturally, recent Korean immigrants will be a few steps ahead of their American classmates. I'm not entirely sure of the reason for this, but I believe it's related to the emphasis on practicality that highly modernized countries like South Korea place on future workers. I can't speak for the other nations, but I'm fairly certain they follow a similar system.


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Asians Are Bad Drivers
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Here's the stereotype you've probably heard in joke form during some run-of-the-mill comedy movie. There's a very persistent belief that Asians are bad at driving. Immediately, it's easy to see that this is a rather silly myth that couldn't possibly be rooted in truth. I mean, what part of our genetic makeup is supposed to dictate how well we drive automobiles?

But, just to be sure, I went and did some research to see if there was any numerical data that supports the myth. Sure enough, I couldn't find a damn thing, besides some data from the NHTSA that shows that it's difficult to see how "accident-prone" each race/ethnicity is when their population numbers are so vastly different. Non-Hispanic Whites were involved in the most traffic accidents, and that's because they're the majority in the U.S.


Without any real evidence to support or debunk the myth, we're left to discuss it using our own knowledge. So, how did this stereotype get started? I couldn't find any reliable information on it, but I believe it's related to the difficulty certain immigrant groups have with adjusting to the ways of the road in the U.S. You see, it's different here. American roads aren't hopelessly chaotic. Let me elaborate...

Countries like China, Taiwan, and South Korea have been industrializing and modernizing at an alarming rate. China, in particular, has seen an absolutely ridiculous growth in vehicle ownership. There were 5.54 million vehicles in China in 1990; that number has since skyrocketed to 62 million in 2009, with analysts expecting that figure to further increase to over 200 million by 2020. To accommodate the increasing amount of cars, China has been building highways at a similar rate.

So imagine an enormous nation of people suddenly increasing its number of roads, cars, and motorists ten-fold within a couple of years; imagine the chaos. These circumstances have led to the development of a rather reckless road culture in Asia, and it's my theory that some people might be bringing their reckless driving habits over to the states.


What this theory doesn't account for, however, are the Asian Americans that have never driven on foreign soil. They've learned under the same conditions as other American drivers, and we concluded earlier that there's no way to prove that they are actually lesser drivers, so the only question we really have to ask is: "What keeps perpetuating this stereotype?" What is it that makes so many people believe in a completely baseless assumption?

The answer is actually pretty clean-cut: It's confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is described as "the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses." So, if one were to run into a bad driver, and that driver just happened to be Asian, they would confirm their preconceived notion that all Asians are bad drivers. However, if the bad driver turned out to be white, they would likely just dismiss the situation and not think about race at all. 

It sounds simple, but confirmation bias is the reason unfounded stereotypes like this circulate constantly. It's basically the reason for all stereotypes. Next time, if you ever come across a bad driver who happens to be Asian, use your head. Don't perpetuate the stereotype.  


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All Asians Look Alike
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This one can be explained with a bit of logic. Humans naturally generalize what they see, so it's difficult for them to pin-point specific differences between similar objects. Asian people don't actually have a tendency to look alike, but they do share a single set of features. Basically, almost all (East) Asians are born with black hair, dark eyes, and light skin. Barring any hair dyes or extreme tans, most Asians share the same basic features. That is why a group of Asian people might "look alike" in the eyes of a foreigner. 

Now, keep in mind that this explanation is absolutely no excuse to believe the stereotype at face value. Asians are just like the rest of the human race in that they're varied and discernibly different from one another. Those who choose to ignore this fact are simply electing to stay ignorant of an entire group of people. It's akin to saying, "I don't want to bother seeing you people as individuals. You're all the same to me". One may think their observations are harmless, but alas, they're anything but.


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All Asians Do Martial Arts
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It's safe to assume that people associate Asians with martial arts because a lot of martial arts come from Asia, but I'd say the emergence of this stereotype is owed mainly to the massive success of action stars like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. They made such household names of themselves that American media just started lumping Asians and martial arts together. For decades afterwards, one couldn't even dream of being an Asian American actor without having to settle for some kung fu master stereotype.

Those big name stars have since left the spotlight due to age, and Asian Americans have actually been making some progress towards playing actual people in Hollywood. Albeit, it's still an incredibly slow progress, but any sign of moving forward is a good one. I mean, look at Steven Yeun. He plays a major character on an extremely popular television show (The Walking Dead), and he's not even a nerd/martial artist stereotype. He's just a guy (and he gets the white girl!). That's absolutely amazing.


And that concludes my list. Like I said in the introduction, if you have anything to add, please let me know in the comments and I'd be glad to consider it. Also, if you would like to give your input as a fellow Asian American, that would be greatly appreciated as well.

1 comments:

  1. But in many ways you can say the same about Asians have stereotypes about Westerners. Now I have been living in the ROC (Taiwan) for so many years now that I gave up my own nationality and am now a Taiwan citizen.

    Unfortunately many of the stereotypes are based on some fact. now I can only refer to Taiwan and China where I spend a couple a weeks a month. There is one correct you need to make Taiwan was already modernized and industrialized back in the 70s way before the ROK and the PRC.

    Drivers.I would have to say drivers in China are a lots worse than drivers in Taiwan, Hong Kong or Singapore. But this is only because in many ways cars are still new toys to mainlanders. Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore have always had private ownership of cars. China it's really only been in the last 25 years in tier one cities like Beijing or Shanghai. In tier two cities in the last 15 years and tire three (plus others) in the last 10 years or less. The other issue is because of corruption in China you don't even need to pass a driving exam. Simply buy it for around 10,000RMB. A bit of what Taiwan was like in the 60s.

    Asians do not all look alike. There are certain physical characteristics you will find. Those in the south tend to be smaller than those in the north. This has to do with diet and climate more than anything. But they all look different depending on what ethnic group that are from. There are mainlanders in the north in some regions like Yumin County where you will find Chinese with blue eyes and blond hair and for the most part look Northern European. There are also a number of other areas along China's border you will find the same.

    A funny little anecdote. First I speak Mandarin, including 8 other Chinese dialects. So when I go to China I can use the local dialect that trows people off all the time. On the phone I'm always mistaken as Chinese. When I show up for meetings with people that I've never met their mouth drop open when this 6'2/190/blue eyed/brown hair white guy walks in the door. Which is always very funny. I should mention that I also speak Korean, can't write or read it. But I am speak both South and North Korean. They are the same, but there are a number of differences. But I digress.

    A few years ago I had to go to Washington DC for a meeting. I flew into JFK. Immigration was very funny. Because I now travel on a Taiwan (ROC) Passport. So I got to the window handed it over. The immigration officer looked at me at the passport. Then at the passport and looked at me. He had a look of bewilderment. And then started with the questions. Are you a citizen of Taiwan? Yes. But your not Asian? Right. How did you get this passport? Well I became a citizen of the Republic of China (Taiwan's official name). I had to produce my drivers license, health card, military service card (yes I did Taiwan military service).

    Anyway I'll sign using my Chinese name.
    陳基思


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