Coping with Asian American Stereotypes

By Linh Lam

The challenges and frustrations of coping with Asian American sterotypes.

A couple days ago I learned that there's nothing wrong with being ignorant. My "Significant Other" Dug pointed out that just because people don't have the luxury of being exposed to different cultures doesn't mean that they are at fault. What I should be worried about are the folks who grip onto that ignorance (even when exposed/confronted) and are proud of it. Then it borderlines on stupidity and irresponsibility.

This sounds harsh but I guess it's good to know when to distinguish between those with and without oppportunities or willingness to learn. I use to work at this Asian bakery in town while still in school. It's a great place, right in the middle of liberal Ann Arbor, Michigan. But, I can't tell you how often people would mime their orders and speak slowly thinking I can't speak English. Then there were folks who exclaimed how exotic our iced coffee was and surprise that Asians can bake. I used to get so mad, eeking out a smile and politely saying "I speak English." But I was thinking more along the lines of "Would it be easier for you if I spoke pidgin English? or just Vietnamese? Do you know I was born here and am a student at the Univeristy? That I can elaborate on Constitutional law in English With a nasally, Michigan accent?"

There are so many incidences. I had waitressed while in high school, first for a Thai restaurant then at some Italian places. I loved the Italian spots, the people who worked there were the real working class, not spoiled middle-class kids like me. What aggravated me were the customers who would ask for fortune cookies, say how can a Jap like me know what gnocchi is, etc. I was terrified. It was one thing for kids to make fun of me or parents to snicker, another to be serving people and then being taken advantage of. You are defenseless. I ended up "spilling" Coke on people.

Now looking back I have to laugh and groan at myself. For one, most people weren't spiteful. Two, I could have save myself a lot of time ranting over ignorant people if Dug was able to share his stance. Most people really don't know much about Asians save for warped media images and some dishes from their local Chinese restaurant. When they do meet or see Asians you can almost see the cogs spinning. It's like they want the full Asian experience.

"What are you? Where are you from?"

"American, born in Columbus, Ohio."

"No, really. Where are you from? You're Oriental."

"I'm not a vase or rug. I'm Vietnamese. You?"

*** Then you can see their eyes pause from blinking, and their minds trying to match up all things Asian and Vietnamese with the person in front of them...Vietnam War, Lucy Liu, Jacky Chan, Mulan, Oliver Stone movies, geishas, math wizards, rice, the cool t-shirts with kanji writing at the GAP.....Wait, why is she asking where I'm from? What's this with the rugs?***

"American. Hey, I've seen all of the Oliver Stone movies."

It can be so frustrating when people just don't realize what they are saying, you always hope that people would be more aware. But it's hard to be incented or provoked to learn in today's society. Everyone wants some immediate value; equality and sensitivity don't always make the list. The good thing is that things are getting better and that kids have more resources. As time passes there won't be such a steep learning curve and people, minority and majority, will be better able to process where exactly they belong in society. I'd like to see a point in future when I'm spending less time explaining I speak English and more time talking about Vincent Chin and the exotification of Asian women. Hopefully by then I won't be spilling so much Coke.

Linh Lam was the Director of Mam Non Organization, which shared Vietnamese culture with the adoption community.