It was pointed out to me the other night that Iâ€™m a living, breathing embodiment of the stereotypical quiet Asian.
I was among a few friends and some friends of friends in the bar at AT&T Park prior to a San Francisco Giants game. I was the only Asian American male in the group, but there was a loud, gregarious Asian American woman. The two Asians in the group seemed to be polar opposites, something that was apparent to everyone at the bar. Iâ€™ve been thinking about expectations and stereotypes since news broke that the gunman in the Virginia Tech killings was Korean American. My evening at the bar made me ponder it some more.
Everyone else was more than a few drinks ahead of me, and I had driven to the ballpark, so I was nursing a beer. I was also concentrating on the game, which had started and was being shown on the barâ€™s TVs, though this is no excuse for being withdrawn when among friends, and even friends of friends.
It didnâ€™t go unnoticed by the others, who gave me a few jabs about being so quiet and that I should â€œkeep it down.â€ It was also very apparent that Unusually Loud Asian Woman, who I didnâ€™t know, was no quiet Asian. So much so that I was told to stand next to her so â€œosmosisâ€ would quiet her down. After taking a place next to Unusually Loud Asian Woman and seemingly calming her down, a Friend and Friend of Friend asked me, â€œhave you ever met a Chinese woman whoâ€™s like this?â€
So on the one hand, Iâ€™m quiet so Iâ€™m Walking Stereotype, but on the other hand, Unusually Loud Asian Woman is just having a good time at a bar, but there seems to be something out of place with that as well.
The comments and events I describe were all in good fun. Weâ€™re all aware of our differences and perceived differences. Itâ€™s what you do with that knowledge that can cause problems. There was no malice that night. I did start thinking more about stereotypes afterward. Reading Jeff Yangâ€™s analysis of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Choâ€™s race in Salon.com gave me more food for thought. The article really hit home on the effect stereotypes can have.
Yangâ€™s story and many others since the shooting also talk about the collective gasp that many Asian Americans let out when news broke that the killer was Korean American. As a journalist, I worried that the media would focus on Choâ€™s race without any context, as Thomas Huang writes about at Poynter.org. Many Korean Americans felt a collective sense of guilt, as did many people in South Korea, even though Cho hadnâ€™t lived there since he was a boy.
Emerson College journalism Professor Paul Niwa, quoted in Yangâ€™s article, has a viable explanation:
Most of the perpetrators of mass school killings have been white. After those shootings, do you think white people felt guilty that the shooter was white? Do you think white people felt that since the shooter was white, that the shooter would give society a bad impression of whites? A shooter can be white and nobody thinks that race played a part in the crime. But when someone nonwhite commits a crime, this society makes the person’s race partially at fault.
I donâ€™t mean to belittle the killings at Virginia Tech by drawing an analogy to my night at the bar, but I think some of what Niwa says is at play. Sometimes I can have the personality of a cardboard box, so Iâ€™m Walking Stereotype, but for non-Asians who are socially awkward, theyâ€™re just quiet. And Unusually Loud Asian Woman canâ€™t be herself, either, without being, well, Unusually Loud Asian Woman.
There is nothing innate to being â€œquietâ€ and being Asian American. I know plenty of Asian Americans who are more like Unusually Loud Asian Woman, and at times envy them for their ease around people. But I am who I am. The cardboard box that once held the really quiet, painfully shy kid is open. Iâ€™ve been making my way out. Unfortunately, it appears that whatever was holding back Seung-Hui Cho burst to tragic results.
This post can also be found at Hyphen magazine’s blog.