According to The Atlantic, the total population of China is equivalent to the populations of North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, and all of Western Europe — combined. That, as you can imagine, is a whole lot of people (about 1.3 billion, to put it in numbers).
So a part of me understands the reason why friends and strangers alike assume that I am Chinese. And while I realize these people aren’t intentionally trying to offend me by asking about my nationality (“Where are you from?” “New York City.” “No, where are you really from?”), it’s important to note the underlying negative messages these stereotypes send about Asians. It makes us feel like we don’t belong, that we’re not American enough (or in some cases not Asian enough), and that we’re non-distinguishable from the mass of other faces that resemble our own. As a Korean American, I’ve learned not to let comments like these get the best of me, but it’s unfortunately a frustrating and exhausting regular occurrence that could be avoided if people were more cautious about thinking about the meaning behind their words and its insinuations before saying them out loud.
During a time where Asian Americans are finally making their way into American mainstream media with roles that don’t pigeonhole them — like comedian and writer Mindy Kaling, actress Lucy Liu, and model Fernanda Ly— I encourage all of us to stop slowing the positive progress by reinforcing such stereotypes. Ahead, here’s a list of other generalizations and misconceptions we should really wrap our heads around:
1. Are you from China?
We know how this plays out: If we say yes, you give yourself a smug look as if you’re mentally patting yourself on the shoulder for guessing correctly. If we say no, and we choose not to divulge our actual nationality, please don’t play the game where you list every single Asian country until you pick the right one. It’s really not that fun, or funny.
2. You’re Korean/Japanese/Chinese? Do you know [anyone with the last name Lee, Kim, or Chang]?
Obviously, Bruce Lee is my dad because we share the same last name. This one gets one of my most exaggerated eye rolls, because it implies Asians are potentially all related or know each other in some way. We see your effort to try to connect with us on a social level, but if you don’t have any other qualifiers that could be a reason why we’d know your friend other than a common race, 99.9% of the time, we won’t, so don’t ask.
3. Asians are good at math.
The Asian culture and emphasis on education could be the reason why Asian students do well academically, but this implies that being good at math is the only thing they’re good at. The running joke is that a “B+ is an Asian F,” but the truth of the matter is that this common stereotype is a source of pressure and stress for many Asian students, who feel like they need to live up to the image.
4. You look like you’re 12 years old.
Sure, my good genes will serve me well when I’m 80 and look half my age, but this comment makes most Asian women uncomfortable, especially in a professional setting. I remember a particularly awkward interview I did with a very well-known fashion designer who insisted on guessing my real age for the first five minutes of our meeting and couldn’t believe I was older than 20. Haven’t they ever heard never to ask a lady her age?
5. Do you eat dogs?
While it’s true a certain percentage of Asians do eat dogs and cats, the way certain animals are considered food, work animals, or pets differs from country to country. Just because it’s taboo here, eating dogs could be completely normal in some parts of the world. Yet, if your friend is from one of those countries that do, it doesn’t mean they automatically fit under that category.
6. Can you do the Gangnam style dance?
Comedic South Korean rapper Psy’s catapult into fame back in 2012 for his catchy single “Gangnam Style” brought attention to K-Pop music in a way Korea’s shirtless boy banders couldn’t. Though it’s entertaining and even refreshing to see how Psy became embraced by Westerners, it’s not a reason to assume this is representative of Korean culture as a whole, and that somehow Koreans were all born with a tendency to dance like they’re riding a horse.
7. Asians aren’t athletic, unless it’s in martial arts.
This myth is largely thanks to mainstream media and the stereotypical roles Asians are given in Hollywood. The rise of Asian women and men starring in martial arts movies like Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Mr. Miyagi in Karate Kid, and Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Bruce Lee throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s proved that Asians can be tough and attractive, but it’s been a struggle to create new image in their shadow. Luckily, athletes like Michelle Wie and Jeremy Lin are helping to break that stereotype.
8. Asian women are bad drivers.
Would you like to see my driving record?
9. Singling out those with “Asian glow.”
Chances are you’ve seen a friend experience the facial flush that occurs when some Asians drink alcohol. It’s due to the fact that some people aren’t able to break down an enzyme properly and the buildup of acetaldehyde causes the blood vessels to dilate and turn their face and body red or break out into hives. It can be a source of embarrassment and frustration, especially when there’s peer pressure to socially drink in college. Do them a favor and just simply don’t point it out and bring further attention to your Asian friend. And definitely don’t try to downplay it by saying it’s cute. We painfully know that it’s not.
10. How come Asians are so skinny?
“Well, I don’t eat anything and when I feel like I’m about to faint I eat a cube of cheese.”
By Christa Joanna Lee | Teen Vogue