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Individualism Stained Yellow: 5 Thoughts on Being Asian-American in High School

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Liana Wang, Bellaire, 2016

In the intersection between the competitive atmosphere of high school and the discovery of self, being Asian American has handed me more labels than I’d like to wear.

In second grade we defined people by their character in baby adjectives: nice, creative, smart, stylish, popular. By fourth grade, those had melted away and left us with colors. In high school, we’ve re-categorized each of those colors to come with their own set of labels. No doubt that students of all backgrounds suffer from these labels. But this piece is on the set of labels that I know best.

  1. “AP/IB/Advanced Courses.” Doing well in and taking higher-level courses is a grounded social expectation for those of Asian descent. Socially, we applaud those of other races for ‘challenging themselves’, yet we stigmatize Asians for being ‘bookworms’ and ‘nerds’ since the time that grades evolved beyond stars and stickers.  The misperception is that others take advanced classes to further their interests, while Asians only do it for the college resume. We are easily termed “GPA whores”. We are devalued into cookie-cutter replicas of our race, taking classes solely for the college resume, devoid of any real passion for the subjects.
  1. “Try-Hard”. Somewhere along the line, we stopped valuing the hard work and diligence that someone puts into something to get the results they want. If you study too long for a test, you’re a try-hard. If you turned in your homework early for extra credit, that’s pretty try-hard. Being president of the clubs you care about is try-hard. Getting an internship. Winning math competitions. Doing science fair. Trying hard to obtain your goals is seen as a positive quality of most students – yet it is negative when it comes to Asians.
  1. “Tiger Parents.” I don’t resent Amy Chua for publishing her now infamous/famous book (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother), but I do resent the generalizations that others have extrapolated from it. More often than not, our achievements derive from our individual passions; our competitive nature and bids for success are of our own making. I don’t abstain from the careless partying of my peers on account of a tiger mother or tiger rules. My parents do not check my report card obsessively, they do not force me to finish my homework or study endlessly for the SAT – and neither do many of my Asian friends’ parents. The attribution of Asians’ achievements, especially in school, to rigorous, militaristic watchdog parents is individually devaluing and hurtful.
  1. “Talentless.” Asians are stereotypically relegated to the realm of academics, and then mostly to STEM. They are expected to ace a physics test more often than to excel in athletics. We are told that we have a high IQ and a low EQ, that we lack the personal skills necessary for politics, that we are too emotionless for acting or theater. Subconsciously, students have carved out these areas and bordered them in with race; the same mentality that deems Asians unfit to succeed in ‘real’ competitive sports stems from the same paternalist attitude towards kids of other races who succeed in academics.
  1. “Model Minority”. The label of the model minority is disgusting not only for its assumption of hierarchy (so are other races non-model minorities?) but also for its boxed-in portrayal of the average Asian American. For as many successful, wealthy Asians in society and in high schools, there exist countless more whose families have struggled with poverty and the trials of the first-generation immigrant. My parents live with remnants of history like the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen square. They ran into the “bamboo ceiling” in their search for jobs as interviewers and bosses rejected and underpaid them. I grew up in a dingy apartment in Chinatown. Asians, too, had to carve out a path to success and denying the recognition of that fact is offensive and ignorant.

I struggled with my identity as an Asian-American for many years. Every success of mine became, in my eyes, a failure, yet another product on the assembly line of my culture. Even now, when I hear the words “that’s so Asian” yelled out at me in playful retort, I still sometimes catch myself blustering away an explanation, uncomfortable that I fit inside the stereotype. I hate that the things I work hard for are dismissed as stuffers for college applications. Where do you belong? Which best describes you? Bubble it in. Mark it here. Standardized tests, the years of pencil lead and black-inked checks have corralled me into the fishbowl other, the boxed up Asian, the Amy Chua book club Chinese. Individualism and the freedom to embrace differences should be the most quintessentially American of all values, but somewhere along the line, individualism stained yellow, as if American-red oxidized like iodine, became negative.

Countless more problems exist even within the most diverse city in the US, and in possibly the most diverse high school in the district. We see, and we categorize- white kids are ‘preppy’, black kids are ‘ghetto’. Everyone becomes a variation on a theme of [insert race here]. This is not to say that Asians suffer most from a social system ingrained with inequalities; indeed, the impacts of stereotypes pinned upon others are often far worse, or violent. Yet the point is: even if those larger aggressions are worse, smaller stigmatizing is not justified.

An editor asked if I would like to speak of the labels we hand other races: those labels shouldn’t exist, but I haven’t personally experienced them. Even this account is centered on my experience and those of many friends, and even I am not guiltless when it comes to stereotypes. The point is not to become a saint or rue not being one, it is to realize those transgressions as problematic and avoid them in the future. I’d invite anyone reading this to reflect on your own time in the social sphere, and perhaps submit your own account.

I hope students think twice next time before even a harmless offensive comment. I hope teachers are less quick to judge their students’ success. I hope perhaps one day, schools across the district can be unafraid to speak frankly about race, to talk about social discrimination, and to discourage the kind of environment in which this stereotyping, judgment, and these micro-aggressions become acceptable.

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This entry was posted on April 10, 2015 by and tagged , , .

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