Shooting down the Asian woman stereotype

Kelly Yang says leading by example is the way to change the image

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 6:36pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 December, 2013, 2:18am

All last week Asian American women took to Twitter with the popular hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick, a viral trending topic being touted as a digital civil rights movement for them, to voice their complaint over always being stereotyped as: quiet, obedient, good girlfriends/wives, sexually repressed, thin, pretty and smart.

As an Asian American woman, my first reaction when I saw this hashtag was surprise. The stereotypes didn't surprise me - I've long known they existed - but the anger at them did. That's because in my life, I've had no problem shooing away these stereotypes, not through Twitter but through action. I'm an incredibly loud, opinionated person and I've been that way since as long as I can remember.

For me, the stereotype that Asian women are quiet is not only amusing, but exciting. I relish meeting people who hold such a stereotype because dispelling it gives me great joy.

If people really think of all Asians as submissive, nerdy and only good at maths, Twitter is not going to change their minds. Leading by example is.

I'll never forget the time I took California politics in college. I was a junior in college, only 15 at the time, having skipped way too many grades, and my inclination was to hide in the back of class and hope the professor wouldn't call on me. The first day of class, an Asian girl walked in with ripped fishnet stockings, a leather skirt, a skate board in one hand, and a latte in the other. She plopped down in the front row, dead centre, and didn't give the professor 10 minutes before peppering him with challenging and thought-provoking questions on everything from politics to ethics.

The entire class stared at her, mesmerised.

This girl went on to become one of my best friends in college. At my graduation, my friend turned to me and said that we should both be thrilled that we're Asian. I asked her why. She said, because everyone expects us to be so quiet. I raised my eyebrow, not sure why that was a good thing.

"Oh it's great thing," she said. "Because when we open our mouths, they'll never know what hit them."

I took this advice to heart and proceeded to do just that - open my mouth, ask good questions, and speak my opinion - even in the most intimidating of places, Harvard Law School.

It didn't take me long to realise there's not much to it.

By the third week of law school, any and all stereotypes that Asian women are mute little lambs were shattered. Our class learned that we were as boisterous as they come.

It was only after moving back to Asia that I noticed girls perpetuating the stereotypes. Sadly, I've been to far too many dinner parties here where the men dominate the conversation and the women take a backseat. In fact, it seems that some Asian women here actively encourage the stereotype.

A Caucasian friend of mine recently met an Asian woman who told him: "We Asian women are very good at making men feel like men." She said it proudly like it was an accomplishment, like making men feel like men - whatever that means - is a competitive field and in this space, we dominate.

When I got married, an Asian girlfriend informed me that I still had to mind my figure. "After all, we can't let ourselves go after marriage, like the Americans," she said.

Such comments reflect the weird logic and rationale that often go through many Asians' - including Asian women's - own heads. If we ourselves continue to think and act this way in the physical world, we don't stand a chance at dispelling stereotypes, no matter how trendy the hashtag.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.