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March 12, 2018 | by  | in Features Splash |
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The Pity and Pleasure of a Shit Asian

“You’re the worst Asian I’ve ever met. What are you going to tell your parents?” Tom said, laughing.

It shouldn’t have come as any surprise when I received my year 12 report card. All through high school, my fears lived in a square, dimly lit classroom, filled with poorly aligned posters. Algebra, calculus, geometry: I didn’t understand any of it. What I did understand was this: as with any problem, one of two outcomes is possible. Success or failure. When it came to maths, I was always a failure.

For some reason Tom and I thought it would be a good idea to open our cards together. An oath to one another in sharing our mutual pain and suffering. We both looked at my card with the same concern.  “It’ll be alright, the white guy will tutor the Asian for her maths final,” he cheekily proclaimed.

For most of my life I have been classed as a “shit Asian”. Asians are overachievers who bend over backwards to please their academically demanding parents. Their intelligence is uniform, limited to the likes of math, science, and IT. They are organized, grade-obsessed pre-med students, like Jill Chen in Carrie Diaries. Based on these assumptions, I’m pretty much a disappointment in every respect. In school, amongst my peers, or at home, I was often reminded of my failure to meet expectations.

More often than not, I ignored the sting of failure in efforts to find the humour in the whole situation. I didn’t want to be one of those Asians that found it exhausting to bear their visible racial identities as burdens. So, I played the “shit Asian” stereotype to death. My classmates found it funny, poking fun at the irony of it all. At the time, it felt good knowing that others liked having me around.

I am often told that the stereotyping of Asians as rich, successful, and good at maths, is a good thing. That Asians like myself should be flattered. It is hard to call those who think they are complimenting you “racist”. But positive racism is still racism, and pinning a set of ideals to a given race masks the diversity that exists within it.

We are labelled as a success story, devoid of recognition of the continued discrimination we face.  Asians are frequently referred to as the “model minority,” meaning that despite the struggles experienced, we represent what others should aspire to be. Then we’re forced to succumb to the high standard that societal stereotypes have imposed.  This blanket label of “Asian” marked the beginning of how I would navigate my feelings, while being so visibly classified by my background. Only now do I realise the profound impact it has had on the way that I chose to speak, dress, and act.

Like every other 18-year-old, I had to choose what I would study after school. For most of my friends, it came easy. They had spent senior school narrowing down their list. But for me, many of the “smart Asian” stereotypes served to ingrain the idea that intelligence was monolithic. That it was fit for a single mold and was by no means malleable. For the first time, I was confronted with the hypervisibility of my own being, I was taught to mind my own social position, a position that had been predetermined for me.

Going off to university, I had no idea what I was doing, but like most, I was sure that I would figure it out. Initially, I was desensitized by how mundane my lectures were, convinced that this was how it was supposed to be. During the weekdays I memorised, spewed out, and then forgot, pages upon pages of case law. I was living in a new city, meeting people, and partying. I was able to convince myself that law was a good match. Friday night antics were successful in rattling away any brewing self-doubt. And somehow, I managed to get good marks. For the most part, I was happy.

At the end of first semester I was advised to take up an elective. Nothing interested me, so at random, I chose an English subject called Introduction to Narrative.

There are so many stories about people chasing their dreams. They’re all sweet, endearing, and romanticised. However, the moment I realised that I’d prefer to pursue writing than law was pretty shit. For most of first year I was notorious for doing everything last minute, doing the bare minimum and usually having it work out by chance. Yet here I was, sitting at my desk at 2:30am, finding myself in the pits of journal articles, trying to learn everything possible from my English class. I knew that if I was up past 2am doing something this lame, then there must be a reason. I wanted to know everything, I needed to know. For the first time, I had fallen into this model student type form, but it didn’t fit the mold. For many Asians, the definition of success is framed rather narrowly — receiving straight As, graduating from a prestigious university and pursuing an advanced degree. Showing an interest in the arts is synonymous with “not making it”. Asian parents frequently feel a need to shepherd their children into high-status professions so that they can be shielded from a world of instability. The last thing I wanted was to be a burden to my parents by studying something like literature.

I later realised that my interest towards law was as shallow as a shot glass and as short-lived as a pack of cigarettes. No number of stimulants or good times were sufficient in masking the fact that I hated law. I had worked so hard to suit a criterion but no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t fit into the model minority type form. I began nursing a paranoia subdued by a tough self-loathing. Underpinning everything, I felt shame and inadequacy.  By the end of 2016 I decided to change my degree, and chose instead to pursue arts and commerce. If I told you I was proud of my decision, I would be lying.

As shit as it sounds, at times I wish I had just chosen a stats paper for my elective. Even if my contentment with law was a façade, I was still happy with pretending. It made life so much fucking easier. Even now, as I try to chase my passions, I haven’t stopped the exhausting endeavor of trying to live in line with how I’m supposed to behave based on the way I look. I often catch myself justifying why I choose to study what I do. As if pursuing anything outside of law, engineering, or medicine needs a reason. The thing is, most of us, myself included, are used to the status quo. We are accustomed to order and what makes sense.

At this point I feel like the “shit Asian” stereotype has come full circle. The problem with the model minority myth is that it holds so much subtext of dominant attitudes and understandings of Asians which are simply not true. Despite all of this, navigating who I want to be against a given manuscript has been one of the most stressful, rewarding, and liberating challenges that I have faced. More than anything, I want other minorities to understand that we do not need to accept the stereotypes that others impose. We do not need to accept the model minority myth and convince ourselves that it is a good thing. Just like any other stereotype, it is a trap.  By solely relying on surface level appearances and false racial stereotypes, we belittle each other’s dreams.

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