As written by one.
I am an Asian American woman. I was born in Minnesota, the state of 10,000 lakes, and my parents were refugees from Vietnam. And yes, I absolutely embrace every Asian bit and piece of me, from my black hair and brown eyes to my ninja-like chopstick skills. However, I am well aware of how different I look next to other women, as well as of how differently I was raised compared to my peers, from my beliefs and values to my interactions with others.
So perhaps this might make you a bit uncomfortable, but I am showing up to confront Asian American stereotypes and how we, as a society, perpetuate these beliefs.
Many Asian American women struggle to feel like a part of the “club” because of how we were raised. We feel different than people around us, because we have constant reminders that we are different, and not always knowing how to best express these feelings is frustrating. As girls, we are taught to suppress our voices and not speak up. Then we grow up and we’re told to accept how we’re treated by others, even if we don’t like it, in order to not be labeled a “troublemaker.” We’re expected to keep our heads down, stay quiet, ignore the ignorance and stereotypes, and let it all go. These problems are a central part of the Asian American experience, and it’s incredibly important that we share them with one another, if only to cast some light on what’s so glaringly wrong with the “nice Asian girl” stereotype.
Here are 4 examples of struggles Asian American women experience every single day that you probably never realized are founded in problematic Asian stereotypes, racism and ignorance.
1. Being constantly asked where you’re “from”.
Many of my first conversations with someone new go a little something like this:
Person: “Where are you from?”
Me: “I was born in the US.”
Person: “No, I mean, where are you really from?”
Me: “I was born and raised in Fridley, Minnesota.”
Person: “No, I mean where are you originally from? Are you Chinese? Japanese? Korean? Viet-min-ese (which is how some people like to pronounce it)?”
Me: “Oh, you mean Viet-nam-ese? Yes, I am Vietnamese, but I was born and raised here in the US.”
Person: “Ahhh …” (nods head)
I get it. People are curious. Maybe they think this is just a really great way to start a conversation.
The thing is, when you ask it like that, it makes me feel like I’m not really an American, even though I was born and raised here. If I were Caucasian, no one would ask me where I am originally from … like REALLY from. This “harmless” question is a constant reminder that no matter how long my family and ancestors have lived here, and no matter how hard we try to assimilate, we’ll forever be considered foreigners because of our “Asian-ness.”
So here’s a suggestion: Instead of asking people where they are from, simply ask, “What’s your ethnicity?” That one’s easy! I can answer that question. Then, let’s move on to something more interesting, like whether or not I know Kung Fu! Just kidding. That was a test. That’s another question we roll our eyes at when asked. So please, no Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee references.
2. “Compliments” on your “good” English
Asian American women often hear people say, “Your English is so good! You don’t have an accent at. all.” I might respond, “Yours is good too!”
I will say that, in my personal experience, this is more of a generational thing. I tend to receive these “awesome” comments from people who are about 20 years older than I am, or people who just haven’t been exposed to many Asians in their lifetime, other than those they’ve seen in movies. These people are used to seeing first generation Asian immigrants and refugees who don’t know English very well. But even if you personally have never said or thought this yourself, you should be aware that there are still plenty of folks who think that, because of our ethnicity, we don’t speak fluent English. When I encounter this, I politely respond that I was born in the US, and for most people, that seems to be an acceptable answer. It’s just funny to me that there are people out there who would still be confused by that. This kind of thinking is what’s known as a biased or faulty generalization, “a conclusion about all or many instances of a phenomenon that has been reached on the basis of just one or just a few instances of that phenomenon.” It basically sends a message that we don’t really belong here, or that we fit the role of someone who should have an accent.
And Hollywood’s persistent stereotyping of Asian women as flakey people speaking in thick accents certainly isn’t helping.
3. Constantly feeling torn between American and Asian values
Growing up, I embraced both my American-ness and Asian-ness, and as a result, I struggled with finding my identity. Like most Americans, we value education, hard work, and getting a good deal. I mean, who doesn’t like saving 50 percent off on shoes?! However, there are Asian values, like piety, a quiet and passive acceptance of whatever comes up in your life, and self-control, that we care about, too. For example, my parents raised me to be obedient, especially to figures of authority, and they taught me that speaking up is a sign of disrespect.
These Asian values often conflict with American values emphasizing individualism and independence. And in Asian culture, anything remotely related to or close to the topic of feminism is just crazy talk. So as I grew older, I never spoke up I never voiced my opinion, and I never felt like my words counted. That said, I don’t blame anyone for this. I believe we are 100 percent responsible for everything that happens to us. I could have chosen to say something, but I was too attached to keeping my Asian identity. It was as if my worth was defined by my obedience to my parents and making them proud. Now as an adult, I’m finally breaking that pattern of belief. I now speak my truth, I share my thoughts, and I know that my words hold value.
4. Assumptions that you must not be highly educated
Several years ago, when an acquaintance first learned I was Vietnamese, he asked me, “What nail salon do you work at?” Surprisingly, I actually wasn’t offended. I knew that someone who spoke those words didn’t know any better because his social network didn’t include many Vietnamese people who worked outside of the nail salon industry. So I kindly corrected him and let him know that I didn’t work at a nail salon, and that I was, in fact, a nurse.
Because of experiences like these, I, like many Asian American women, constantly feel a need to prove myself and show I have a depth of professional experience as an entrepreneur. It doesn’t help that Asian women aren’t breaking through the glass ceiling. A recent report showed that while Caucasian females are rising up the corporate ladder, the same cannot be said about Asian American women. They seem to be the forgotten minority in this conversation, but that is something I want to see change.
Many people may not understand the subtle difficulties Asian American females face every day. They often incorrectly expect us to be docile creatures, and because people assume that all Asian women are a certain way, when we show up and behave differently, it seems out of the ordinary to them. But Asian American women can be just as powerful as anyone else, and should be able to speak their minds just as freely. While we are seeing more Asian women running for public office and more female Asian influencers in the community and world, we still have a long way to go. My hope is that more Asian American women will embrace the opportunity to step into leadership roles and help trigger change for future generations around the world.
Feature image is for illustration purpose only (Image by mentatdgt)