When Is It Stereotype and When Is It Just You?

I was intrigued when I first read Jennifer’s post over at Mixed Race America on things we avoid just to avoid perpetuating a stereotype. For example, when you’re at the food court in the mall, do you avoid going to the Asian food stands, because it would help perpetuate the stereotypes that Asians eat rice (and other Asian foods)?

I bring up that specific example, because when I went to college in Philadelphia, my roommate, Phil, whose family was local, invited me to dinner one night. His mom was Italian-American, and his family has been in the U.S. for a few generations. Phil warned me before we got to his house that his mom had made rice for dinner, as she didn’t know what else to make for a Chinese guy (it didn’t matter that I’ve been in the U.S. since I was 2, and she’s met me and knew I spoke English with a perfect Long Island accent). Phil’s girlfriend, Val, at the time was African-American, and Phil’s mom prepared fried chicken whenever Val went to dinner at their house, so I guess I shouldn’t have been offended. (And I was plenty happy to have rice for dinner, since I was a poor college student living on mac and cheese.)

Speaking of not doing something just because it would perpetuate a stereotype, Jennifer (of Mixed Race America) brings up the example of not wearing a cheongsam at her wedding, because she didn’t want to perpetuate the stereotype of her being “Suzie Wong”. I do catch myself sometimes thinking I shouldn’t order “oriental chicken salad” and then do it anyway, just because I like mandarin oranges. There’s probably dozens of other examples just like that. And then sometimes I do things just to completely be opposite of a stereotype. My entire career and profession is sort of a reaction to the Asian stereotype. My parents wanted me to be an engineer, but I followed a career path to become a marketing executive. Instead of being meek, quiet, and hard-working at my desk in a cubicle farm, I go out and give presentations, talk loudly at work functions, and meet and greet customers.

This topic gets more difficult when I try to apply this to my four year old daughter. I want her to learn about her culture and heritage, even if it means perpetuating stereotypes, because it’s too easy to lose sight of where you’re from as an Asian American. I want my daughter to wear a cheongsam at her wedding and to consider it a part of who she is, rather than what it makes her appear to be.

The question remains whether as a society we’re ready to see people for who they are or are we helping to perpetuate stereotypes when we do things that are really just who we are?

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About Tim

I'm a Chinese/Taiwanese-American, born in Taiwan, raised on Long Island, went to college in Philadelphia, tried Wall Street and then moved to the California Bay Area to work in high tech in 1990. I'm a recent dad and husband. Other adjectives that describe me include: son, brother, geek, DIYer, manager, teacher, tinkerer, amateur horologist, gay, and occasional couch potato. I write for about 5 different blogs including 8Asians. When not doing anything else, I like to challenge people's preconceived notions of who I should be.
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