“My potential is more than can be expressed within the bounds of my race or ethnic identity.” —Arthur Ashe
For anyone that knows me well, you’ll know I’m always down for a good Asian joke. When said by someone I’d consider a good friend, there’s a 98% chance I’ll laugh and find it legitimately funny. Heck, sometimes I’ll even make them on myself, because hey—learning to laugh at yourself is a good thing, and if you actually ask me “which Korea” I’m from as a legitimate question, I will reap pure joy out of answering that as sarcastically as possible. But jokes aside, after stumbling across a few YouTube videos this week, some things regarding Asian stereotypes came to mind that I’d like to share.
Before I go further, I’ll mention the videos I watched. I’d encourage you to check them out before reading the rest of this post. They’re all three minutes or shorter each, so they won’t take long! They’re all from BuzzFeed, one of my favorite YouTube channels that I’m sure you’re all familiar with. The first is “Awkward Moments Only Asians Understand.” It’s a humorous one that I personally found pretty funny, but it highlights some of the stereotypes I’m going to talk about. The second is “I’m Asian, But I’m Not…,” and this one is a bit more serious again, though it continues to touch on stereotypes. The third one is more direct and blunt, “Asian Americans Respond to Racist Comments.” A bonus is another funny-yet-still-true one, “If Asians Said the Stuff White People Say.” (And before anyone angrily comments, it’s not meant as a jab at Caucasians, nor is anyone claiming all white people say stuff like this—calm yourself.)
Now that you’ve watched those videos, I’ll continue. Basically, I wanted to make this post to address some Asian stereotypes and comments I’ve received before (and probably will receive again because ignorance and insensitivity are still, unfortunately, a thing). As much as I enjoy the occasional Asian joke, there is a thin line between what is and isn’t offensive. At many points in my life, people have made comments to me about my race and ethnicity that don’t exactly leave me feeling warm and fuzzy inside. Here are just a few of those stereotypical comments. Also, since most of the comments were made at a time when I lacked the confidence to speak up for myself (aka middle school and about 75% of high school), I am also including how I would respond now and an explanation.
The Comment: “You’re Asian so you must be really smart!” Most people’s first reaction to this is “Why is that offensive? Being smart is a good thing! You should take it as a compliment.” First off, the definition of “smart” implied with this stereotype is “book smarts,” otherwise known as academic inclination (and generally, when talking about Asians, “smart” is equivalent to being good at math). I have an issue with that in itself because everyone is intelligent in one way or another, and there are thousands of different forms of intelligence. (But that’s a separate discussion entirely—maybe I’ll write about that some other time.) While it’s true that being smart is considered a positive trait, the assumptions associated with it can be negative. One time in high school, for example, I received a math test back that I got a B on. When one of my friends asked me what score I got on it, I answered, to which she replied something along the lines of, “Whoa, I did better than an Asian! I thought Asians were supposed to be good at math!” (… Yeah, that happened. I really wish I was making that up. And for the record, she scored better than me by just a few points. It’s not like she aced it and I failed it.)
My Response Now: “I really didn’t appreciate that comment. For starters, a B is not a bad grade by any means, especially for a subject I struggle with. Beyond that, that type of comment implies that I’m somehow ‘less Asian’ for scoring lower than a Caucasian on something as trivial as a high school math exam, as well as implying that I’m not ‘smart like an Asian should be.’ I usually do well in school because I study and do my homework, not because I’m Asian. My ethnicity, in fact, has absolutely nothing to do with it. You made me feel like crap during a time in my life where I already lacked confidence (so thanks for that). But thankfully, now I know that my intelligence is not based on the score circled in red or the capital letters on my grade report. Even more importantly, I know that my worth isn’t based on how well (or poorly) I do in school.”
The Comment: “Oh, you’re Asian? Do you know kung-fu or something?” This one is partially fair because many Asian countries are known for practicing forms of martial arts, and the media’s portrayal of Asians doesn’t really help disprove it. But contrary to popular belief, not all Asians know martial arts, so it’s a stereotypical assumption nonetheless.
My Response Now: “Actually, while it’s not specifically kung-fu, I happen to be a black belt in karate. But I earned that black belt through six years of extremely hard work—NOT because I’m Asian. And yes, I could probably still kick your butt in a sparring match.”
The Comment: “Ew, delete that picture! I have Asian eyes!” I’ve heard this one quite a lot, and I’m actually guilty of saying similar comments before, too. But seriously? Let’s think about this one. Just the tone itself that people use when saying this (usually a squeal of disgust shortly following a picture being taken) is derogatory. I’m sure you can see the issue here—it’s not only implying that all Asians’ eyes look the same, but also that that eye shape is ugly or repulsive. The term “Asian eyes” generally refers to the hooded eyelid that a lot—not all—Asians possess. I, for one, do not have hooded eyelids, and I’m going to be honest: I have commented that I look “super Asian” in pictures before. I generally meant it in a poking-fun-at-myself type of way and not implying that I looked bad, but regardless, I’ve made a conscious effort to stop saying that so it doesn’t get taken the wrong way.
My Response Now: “What’s wrong with Asian people’s eyes? By saying that, you’re implying that Asians who possess the trait of hooded eyelids are ugly. ‘Asian’ is not a physical characteristic or an adjective for a body part, it is an ethnicity and representative of a very unique culture. If you really meant to say you think you look bad, or you blinked and want the picture retaken, just say that directly. You blinking or squinting in a picture has nothing to do with Asians.”
The Comment: “Where are you from?… No, like, where are your parents from?… No, I mean, where are you from-from?” This one is more annoying (and sometimes embarrassing) than offensive, but it’s a question I receive quite a bit. A lot of times, people will ask me where I’m from, to which I will reply Blaine, Minnesota or the Twin Cities, depending on who I’m talking to. If where I grew up is the answer that person was looking for, the conversation ends there and all is well. But for some reason, people often ask me about my ethnicity—a question I don’t mind at all if it’s asked politely and at an appropriate time. Sometimes, however, it’s the first—or, in the case of a stranger, only—question they ever ask me. Even worse, some people just bluntly ask “which type of Asian” I am, and even worse than that, a few even venture to inquire, “Are you Chinese or Japanese?” as if I absolutely have to be one of the two and no other “type” of Asian exists. My immediate, sarcastic, and definitely way-too-rude response is, “Why did you feel the urge to ask me that? I didn’t just walk up to you and ask what ‘type’ of white person you are. Also, there are other countries in Asia other than China and Japan that one can be born in, you absolute pile of sticks.” While I (narrowly) manage to bite that type of response back, I do still like to make people a little uncomfortable while answering this. Usually at some point in this type of conversation, the question of “Which Korea are you from?” comes up, to which I am physically unable to withhold a sarcastic response. And Heaven forbid they mention the word “oriental” at any point, because I am not a flavor of chicken or pattern of rug. Moral of the story? I’m not sure why knowing that information is of any importance, but if you have a burning desire to enlighten yourself on someone’s ethnic background, just directly ask the person what his or her ethnicity is (but only at an appropriate time and place). In case you need more help, here’s a beautifully-written piece of literary genius I found titled (and excuse the language), “How to Ask Someone About Their Ethnicity Without Being an Asshole.”
My Response Now: “I’m from Blaine, Minnesota!… Oh, my parents? My dad’s from Fosston, which is a tiny little town way up north, and my mom’s from Spring Lake Park!… Oh, where I’m from-from? Uh… I already told you, I’m from Blaine. It’s about half an hour north of the Twin Cities… OH! Did you mean to ask what ethnicity I am, as in which country my biological ancestors are from? I’m Korean… Which Korea, you ask? Well, since I’m currently not still in North Korea, I’m going to go with the one you can adopt kids from.”
The Comment: “Oh, you’re Asian? One of my friends is Asian, too!” Once again, this one is more annoying and stupid than it is offensive, but I wanted to include it as some comic relief. This is another one that I can’t quite muster a legitimate, non-sarcastic reply.
My Response Now: “Oh, really? That’s super cool! I know a few hundred white people, too!” (Yes, I do fully realize there are many, many different sub-classifications of Caucasians under the umbrella term “white people.” However, since 95% of people who ask me this question ignore (or are somehow unaware of) the fact that there are also many classifications of Asians, I too choose to ignore the same about Caucasians. Not sorry at all.)
Those are just a few of many variations of questions I’ve received in my lifetime. Sadly, I’m sure that’s not the last of them. If you’ve ever made a comment like that to me, I probably laughed it off and didn’t let you know it offended me at the time. That was a wrongdoing on my part. I should have confronted you about it right then and there so you wouldn’t think that that type of comment was okay to say. So for that, I sincerely apologize. I also realize that some of you may not have realized what was coming out of your mouth or understood how it could come across as hurtful. I will not hold your past ignorance against you, and if you’ve said something before, know that I forgive you for it. But now, since you have (presumably) read this, you are aware and should work on changing those preconceived notions. They’re hard to change once you’ve thought like that for so long, I know. But, for my sake and the sake of everyone else in similar shoes (which is a lot of people, and far more than you realize), please try.
*** Side note: This is not to say that I will be extremely offended every time something regarding my ethnicity comes up, because I will not. I will still make appropriately-timed Asian jokes on myself; I will still joke about the irony of me being bad at math or failing my driver’s test three times (yeah, that happened); and I will still find it extremely funny when someone I’m comfortable with pokes stereotypical fun at me. I am merely posting this as a bit of a PSA. When in doubt (not only with me, but with everyone else), ask. Know the person you’re talking to, then if you think he or she would find it funny, ask if it’s okay to say a potentially-offensive joke and tell the person to let you know if it made him or her uncomfortable. All I am saying is to be sensitive to others and don’t let ignorance make you the bad guy. (: