The 7 Worst Asian-American Stereotypes

Stereotyping of Asian-Americans happens. But the first step to finding out whether there’s real truth behind these claims is identifying them. It may not even be possible to consider the diverse group of people who lived on a large continent and moved to the United States as a coherent unit of “Asian-Americans” that can be stereotyped as a homogeneous group. But stereotyping still happens. Here’s seven of these stereotypes.  We’ll start with pretty bad stereotypes, and it’s gonna get worse as you read on.

7. Asian-Americans Can’t Drive.

A bad joke about Asians goes like this: “How do you blind an Asian? Put a steering wheel in front of him.” Here’s another: “What did the Asian get pulled over for? DWA (Driving While Asian).”

In reality, Asians are the ones taking you where you need to go. Also, rides from Asians do not result in fatal car crashes in as high of percentages as rides from other racial groups. Thirty-eight percent of taxi and limo drivers are immigrants, most often from South Asia (2.9% from Pakistan and 2.3% from India). You should give them a break next time you call a cab, considering that they now drive on the other side of the road. Besides, South Asia is one big chaotic traffic jam. In India, you might have to slam the brakes to avoid hitting a common street traveler: a cow.

So here’s the last one with two stereotypes for the price of one: “How do you know if an Asian has robbed your house? Your homework is done, your computer is upgraded, but two hours later, the thief is still trying to back out of your driveway.”

6. Asian-Americans Don’t Know How to Speak English.

Historians know (or should know) that the British Empire included India, Burma, Ceylon, and Jordan. With England’s rule came the English language. Brunei, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Singapore count English among their official languages.

South Asians often hear the question, “Do you speak Indian?” Sometimes I don’t bother to correct this common misconception, so I respond, “No.” But I’m often tempted to respond in kind and say, “Do you speak American?” In reality, there is no such thing as “speaking Indian,” just as there is no such language as “American” (although linguists apparently have characterized what I speak as American English and what my parents speak is ridiculed as Indish). There are actually many Indian languages. Hindi, Urdu, Kannada, and Konkani are just a few of the many. In India, English used to be my primary language. Indeed, it was taught in schools, but students were polyglots, studying multiple local languages and dialects in addition to English.

Vice President Joe Biden apparently seems to hear a lot of Indian accents in convenience stories, gas stations, and when he telephones a call center. Once invited to a fancy reception, I wore a plain black pantsuit, but was handed a dirty plate. A lot is assumed about me before a word comes out of my mouth. I was told by my parents to be as American as I could and learned only English as a language. When I was an intern on Capitol Hill, I had the experience of helping answer the D.C. office main telephone for a United States senator. One caller had no idea I was Asian-American, because otherwise he probably would not have made offensive xenophobic comments about Asian-American immigrants. I told my supervisor about it, and the office itself offered support, given that callers regularly cursed at those answering the phone. But it’s a valuable lesson: be careful what you stereotype about Asians.

5. An Asian Is A Doctor, But Definitely Not a Lawyer, or Indian Chief.

The 1945 #1 hit “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief” offers the memorable lyrics, “There’s a doctor livin’ in your town / There’s a lawyer and an Indian, too / And neither doctor, lawyer nor Indian chief / Could love you any more than I do.”

Let’s set aside the fact that “Indian” here is probably a false name resulting from Christopher Columbus’s massive navigational error — discovering the “New World” by accident on the way to Asia. But let’s discuss this lyrics, pretending that “Indian” here means “from India.”

The stereotype at issue is that Indians can be and are doctors, shouldn’t or can’t be lawyers, and will probably face the bamboo ceiling before they can ever rise to the rank of “Indian chief” executive officer. In The Big Bang Theory, the character Raj Koothrappali is an astrophysicist. In ER, Parminder Nagra was cast as a doctor. Is art imitating life? Asian-Americans constitute 9% of scientists and engineers in the United States while only composing 3% of the overall population. Many Asians learn that a liberal arts degree is in fact “B.S.” The B.S., the bachelor of science degree, may be more highly valued by Asian parents.

Interestingly enough, while a significant proportion — 26% — of engineering faculty tend to be Asians, a very small proportion of Asians — a mere 3% — teach psychology. If you didn’t already think that your IT support technician is (or should be) an Asian, commercials by Staples, CVS, Best Buy, IBM, and others perpetuate the stereotypical Asian technological expert. If their child isn’t aiming to “do her medicine” or “do his engineering,” the Asian parents stereotypically worry.

4. All Asian-Americans Can’t Play Sports but Are Martial Artists.

Maybe it’s Jackie Chan’s fault. I blame Mr. Miyagi of The Karate Kid. But I don’t see that many casting agents giving Asians a chance in Hollywood except for limited stereotypical Asian roles. The Asian martial arts film is tremendously popular. But I don’t know that many people with black belts, Asian or otherwise. Then there’s the popular movie Bend It Like Beckham, which introduced a daughter’s rebellious efforts against her Sikh parents who disapproved of her playing soccer. Art may imitate life. We have soccer player Mark Chung. The hysteria over Jeremy Lin is changing the perception that Asians only do ping pong or taekwondo. Asians are top athletes. Eighteen Asian-Americans went to the Olympics in London. David McKienzie was on the U.S. men’s volleyball  team, Clarissa Chun is a wrestler, Lindsey Berg plays volleyball, Nathan Adrian swims freestyle, and Sandra Uptagrafft shoots in sport pistol events.

America’s national pastime is actually a popular game in Japan, which may explain the rise of Asian-American baseball players Ichiro Suzuki, Hideo Nomo, Hideki Matsui, Byung-Hyun Kim, and Kazuhiro Sasaki. But there’s a wide variety of Asian-American athletes: basketball players Jeremy Lin, Yao Ming, and Rex Walters; golfers Tiger Woods and Se Ri Pak; figure skaters Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi; speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno; diver Sammy Lee; football players Roman Gabriel, Timmy Chang, and Dat Nguyen; hockey players Paul Kariya and Richard Park; and diver Eric Sato.

3. All Asian-Americans Are Socially Awkward.

Need I mention the Asian-American Idol, William Hung? It is sadly acceptable for Asian-Americans to be targeted as the butt of jokes about our social skills. In Sixteen Candles, Asian exchange student Long Duk Dong is a supporting character who provides comic relief. Why is the Asian cast as the wimpy clown or joker? On the small screen, in The Big Bang Theory, Raj is ridiculed for his inability to speak to women. Why is the Asian laughed at for being socially inept and awkward? Asian-American comedies like the Harold & Kumar series and Outsourced have popularized laughing at Asians. Maybe the source of this is the divide between the East and the West.  Humans don’t understand “the other” – whatever the other may be. When Asians go west “to the States,” Asians become that other. And those on the Western Hemisphere don’t seem to understand how the other side of the world lives.

2. Asian-Americans Are Democrats.

The first thing wrong with this stereotype is that it suggests that a race or those who hail from a certain continent will always operate as a homogenous voting bloc. Your skin color does not dictate your thoughts. However, common experience or targeted outreach might lead a certain group to find its home in a party or political philosophy.

In my previous piece, “The Overlooked Minority: The Asian-American Voter,” I tried to make that argument. I called the Republican Party the party of Governors Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley. These Indian-Americans are both on the Republican Governors Association Executive Committee now and are probably the best-known Republican Asian-Americans. But in politics, there are other success stories. Look at the state legislatures, where those who took office include California Assemblyman Matthew Lin, Connecticut Assemblyman Prasad Srinivasan, Georgia Representative B.J. Pak, Massachusetts Representative Keiko Orrall, Texas House Representative Angie Chen Button, and Utah Representative Curtis Oda. The U.S. also has a rising number of candidates for public office who are Asian-American.

The fact is that there are far more Asian-American who are registered Democrats. This is because Democrats are much more effective in portraying themselves as welcoming to minorities and immigrants under the shelter of their Big Tent, and the media obliges in publicizing this myth.  At the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, the press almost universally criticized the Republican Party as being composed only of old white males. I don’t fall in those categories, but when I was at the convention, not a single member of the media took a photo of me or interviewed me.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the cause of this widespread political stereotype is only media bias. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Republicans rightly believe that people should be judged by the content of their character — not the color of their skin; hence, many Republicans are uncomfortable with so-called “identity politics” or “hyphen-Americans.” I don’t advocate that the GOP tone down conservative principles to get minority groups to vote for them. We shouldn’t have talking points criticizing a party for giving gifts to minorities.

Sharing the message of the 2012 Republican National Convention — the American dream — is something Asian-Americans believe in. The GOP has a packaging problem, not a substance problem. Getting Asian-Americans to run for office and welcoming them into the party is key, and the GOP does not need to change its platform. Reward those who deserve praise on merit alone, promote policies that enable upward mobility, and don’t run from social issues. Asian-Americans just need to hear that message, realize the GOP is right, and register as Republicans.

1. Asian-Americans Work Hard.

While many parents will be perfectly happy to see a report card of Bs, the same is not true of the Asian perfectionist. In the television show Glee, an Asian-American son received a lecture for the dreaded “Asian F,” which is actually not failure (a B grade). I like to refer to high academic standards as instituting the nonfictional “scarlet letter.” Nathaniel Hawthorne may have intended the embroidered A to stand for “adulterer,” but in this context, having an A should not stand for “acceptance.” It’s a common Asian-American experience for a parent to see a child’s test score of 98 (which, I remind you, is actually still an A+ at many schools) and then to promptly interrogate the child with “Why didn’t you earn those extra 2 points?” There’s nothing wrong with parents having high standards for their children, except when unrelenting standards and perfectionism damage their self-esteem and inspire them to use grades to define themselves as individuals.

Just to make this piece not entirely the complaint of a fortunate soul who plays a victim, I’ll turn this stereotype on its head.

Being stereotyped as hard-working is not such a bad thing. First of all, it’s being defined as the gold standard of the American spirit. Work hard and you’ll be successful in this land of opportunity. Second, we may live in a lazy world, but the growth and vitality of the economy depends on hard workers. We should encourage all Americans to aspire to hard work. And finally and most importantly, hard work is what needs to be done to break through the worst stereotypes of Asian-Americans.


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