By Wayne Chan
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Growing up as an Asian American, I was always cautioned that all stereotypes were bad.
But even when I was a kid, I had questions.
I would ask, “Well, are they all bad? I mean, the notion that Asians are a model minority, that we work hard, that we are great at math—those are bad, too?”
I think I was in sixth grade when I started questioning the idea that all stereotypes were unfair, inaccurate, and not constructive. At the time, it just so happens that I was getting all A’s, I was great at math, and never got into trouble. I remember thinking, how bad could the model minority tag be if I was an example of how it was true (at least for me).
That all changed in the 7th grade when I was introduced to algebra. For me, it was the dreaded “A” word. All of a sudden, I wasn’t the best at math anymore. In fact, it was a real struggle.
I now had first-hand experience that not all Asians are good at math. Once that myth was busted, I started looking at some of the other Asian stereotypes that just didn’t square.
We’re all bad drivers? Really? As long as I could remember, my dad was a great driver. You could just feel it when you were sitting in the back of the car. He kept a safe distance from other drivers and if another driver made a mistake, he swerved out of the way like it was child’s play.
Then there were the stereotypes that did, kind of, sort of match. My dad did in fact start a Chinese restaurant and did start a laundry business. That’s when I started seeing how stereotypes too easily pigeon-holed a whole population.
Yes, he started a Chinese restaurant, but he did it in part to help some relatives earn a living when they moved from Asia to the U.S.
And yes, he started a laundry business, but it was the largest laundry business in town, and it was so successful that he added another two locations after that.
He also bought a hotel in the 1970s, which is still in business today. And he did all of this while being the Chair of the Electrical Engineering Department at San Diego State University.
Seems like the stereotype doesn’t seem to mention any of that, which I suppose is part of the problem with stereotypes.
Now that I’ve got grown up kids and own businesses, as well as writing, I have a more nuanced view of stereotypes. While I agree that it’s never great to use stereotypes to corner people into a narrow category or group, I’ve also found that at times, use of stereotypes has gotten me out of a jam.
A few years ago, as I was traveling through China for business, I was at a border crossing going from one province in China into another. When I approached the Chinese border agent, I pulled out my U.S. passport and visa and I spoke to the agent in Chinese. He reviewed all the documents carefully, then started typing something into his computer. After a few minutes, I decided to ask the agent if there was a problem, still conversing in Chinese.
He asked me what my Chinese name was, and I told him. I thought it was a strange question since I’m a U.S. citizen, born and raised in the U.S., and my Chinese name isn’t listed in my passport.
After I told him my Chinese name, he started typing more into his computer, and at this point, I was getting a little nervous. Nearly 10 minutes had passed now, and I politely asked the agent what the problem was.
He said that I have the same Chinese name as another Chinese national who is wanted by the police.
At this point, I immediately reverted to English and told him in English that I wasn’t born in China. He asked me a few more pointed questions, and by the end of the questioning, I had gone “full surfer dude” on him, saying things like, “Dude, that is totally trippin’ me out. I’m like, from California, bro!”
He let me go.
On another occasion, during high school, the local school bully decided to single me out for abuse. As I was getting a drink from the water fountain, he pushed my head into the fountain and turned me around, ready to fight.
With some quick thinking on my part, even though I had never taken a kung fu class in my life, I got in the most Hollywood kung fu pose I could think of, and I said, “Knee or nose?”
He said, “What?” I said, “I’m either going to break your knee or your nose next. I’ll let you choose.”
He let me go.
It’s a complex world out there, right? You do what you have to do, I figure.
Wayne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.