Monday, May 16, 2011

Asian-American Self Image

(Sorry all of these posts are going to be so ME-centered, but I'm not an expert on Asian-American studies, and I like to talk about myself. So there. Not implying everyone's experience is identical to my own.)

I have probably told this story many times before, and mostly for comedic effect, but I had a problem when I was little (dead serious):

I wanted to be a mother, and I wanted blonde-haired, blue-eyed children. Super Aryan babies. This delusion persisted through my elementary school years. It maybe, possibly had something to do with the fact that I was the only Chinese girl in my class. To this day, I still tend to befriend white people; I even feel kind of uncomfortable being in large groups of Asians, which is pretty ironic. But back to the point, I was really setting myself up for disappointment, because when I got to junior high and began to crush on a half-Asian boy, I realized that I was never going to have blue-eyed children. I mean, I'm not a genetic specialist or anything, but I'm fairly certain that even if I procreate with a hot Scandinavian man, my children are still going to have that particular shade of flat brown hair all half-Asians have and brown eyes.

That story might not be totally relevant to this post, but it still illustrates that sometimes, Asian-Americans have problems and inner conflicts with self image. It's difficult for everyone in this day and age, being bombarded from all sides with images of what you're supposed to look like, what you're supposed to do, that stereotypes often become models to emulate. Even if the model minority thing is nurture instead of nature, the very effect of having all of your friends, classmates, and even teachers assume you must be smart because you are Asian forces you to do better, if like me, you're an inborn perfectionist.

When I got my first and only B (88.6, dammit) in high school, I literally caterwauled like a dying cat on my knees in the hallway in front of my math teacher who, for the record, looked extremely uncomfortable, but was unwilling to change my grade. "You don't understand," I said, sobbing, "This is going to ruin my chances of going to an Ivy League school. The entire community is going to disown me. My parents will kill me." This is terrible logic, by the way; don't ever go to your teachers with this excuse. Obviously, my personal problems and stature within the Chinese community do not cancel out my inability to do math at an A-level.

In retrospect, this was not one of my more shining moments. I'm competitive, and I like to be better than everybody else, there's no doubt about that. But your grades are not your life. Not going to an Ivy League school will not kill you; I am still alive, after all. Still, I believed it was my job to get A's. It was part of my identity. I was going to be a stupid, failure Asian if I did not get A's. I was an A-SIAN, NOT A B-SIAN. There is some element of cultural expectation upon this need to take standardized tests like a boss (not important life skill), but it works like a positive feedback loop. Asians feel like they need to excel, others see a monolithic group of yellow people who tend to do well, so therefore must do well without exception, and on and on.

I guess it's not one of the worst stereotypes to suffer; oh, people think you are smart even if you're not, how sad, you baby. But think about all of the people who fall by the wayside. Think about all of the people who are good at music or art, who don't really care to be a doctor or a high-powered, six-figured businessperson on Wall Street. Think about the writers like us. Or think about athletes. Think about people who just want to be C-students. I'm not saying you should be less good than you can be, but I am of the firm belief that college is not for everyone. Probably not a popular idea, but it's not. How though, as an Asian person, can you say, I don't think college is for me. There is a lot of inner torment with not being able to live up to the standard. And it sucks when people expect you to be smarter than it's actually possible for you to be. Even subconsciously, there are teachers and employers who may want you to be better, faster, smarter than Sally Smith who sits at the desk or in the cubicle next to you. It's not fair.

It's sort of a weird social experiment I do when people meet me. I always make them guess my major instead of telling them outright. And reliably like clockwork, how do the choices go? 1) You're in business, right? 2) No wait, let me think. Molecular and cellular biology (pre-med). 3) Not that either? Okay, engineering. (HAHA, this is truly funny; I am a disaster with all things practical science.)

After that, they stop guessing, because they don't know where to go from there. I'm not offended. I'm not telling you this because I'm angry about it. It's just a funny observation. It's kind of an accident that I'm going into law, and I'm in history because I fiercely love it, not because I think of it as a stepping stone. When you're not in one of the three majors I listed above, there's a strange sense of not-belonging, like you're an outcast, like you're doing something you're not supposed to. You feel like a constant rebel, which is cool sometimes, and other times, not so much. Why do we feel like we have to fit a mold?

On a more superficial level, it sounds stupid, but feeling beautiful is an important thing for women. I don't know, maybe some girls are less shallow than I am, but I am pretty damn shallow; I mean, my vanity is approaching the level of Snow White's evil stepmother at times. I like to dress up. I like to look nice and for people to notice. Confession: I even fish for compliments, more than occasionally. I am one of those girls who reads every fashion magazine every month and is horrified at the idea of going to work in sweat pants, and people know it. This is, I guess, a recent phenomenon, because I had a hard time feeling beautiful when I was younger. I didn't know how to dress or put on makeup. I was skinny and short and I had glasses, and I tried to make up for it by being funny and smart. I am still skinny and short, but in a okay-I-can-tell-she's-a-girl way. Yeah, obesity may be a problem in America, but it's just as difficult being a stick and seeing curves be celebrated everywhere.

Bigger problem: Apparently some white people aren't aware of this or don't notice (which is great!), but Asians are divided into monolids and double lids. Double lids are what Caucasians have. Monolids are what I have. If you scroll down to the picture from my last post, you can see. My eyes are like two slits in my face; the lids don't fold into themselves when my eyes are open. Or for reference, look at the cover of THE FOLD by An Na, which I am promoting as a great book for understanding Asian-American self image. Yes, people get surgery over their eyes. Maybe not because they want to look like white people, like Tyra Banks so callously and simplistically suggested on her show a few years ago, but because, guys — it is really hard to put on makeup and both look like you put anything on and also avoid looking like a mixture between a clown and a streetwalker. I worked past it, but not without some measure of self-hatred. For a while, I even convinced myself that I was unattractive solely because of my eyes. This is utterly idiotic, even for me. I think most people don't notice I am monolidded until I point it out. People blow up their own imperfections and one day, it's the only thing they can see.

Especially since there are so few Asians in the media, it's hard to be like, oh yes, she is beautiful and she looks like me. All I could think was, why don't I look like that busty blonde? She is beautiful and I don't look like her, and therefore, I must be ugly, since there are clearly only two alternatives. So we're back to square one with why I thought my future children would be Aryan. This works the other way around too; when you ask me to think of attractive Asian guys, I have a hard time. I list actors; they're all white or even African-American. I don't think of any Asian actors who I would — excuse me — like to bang.

And this is the crux of it. How can you be confident or feel like you're good at anything, wanted by anyone, if you don't at least believe you're beautiful? I'm lucky. I've never had an eating disorder, never tried to kill myself, never seriously cried over this, but there are still good days and bad days. There are days when I do like looking in the mirror, and there are days when I don't, sad to say. Cultivating a healthy self-image is what makes a happy person. And I think everyone deserves to be happy. I don't have a solution to creating these good self images for Asian-Americans everywhere, but this was cathartic for me,* so maybe all it takes is someone to talk to about it, a role model for younger kids, and a confidant for older ones.

I don't want to end this post on a boo-hoo, look at my #whitegirlproblems (so sad, wrong, and ironic that I use this in daily conversation), so HAVE SOME KEVJUMBA, who manages to address this issue more concisely and in a less depressing way. Go Dragonball Zeeeeeee! Okay, so I lied. Fictional character, but I totally had a crush on Goku when I was kid. Look at those arms that are completely attainable so not 'roid rage. He's full on Asian. He counts.

*Okay, but really I am fine and happy, so don't leave me any numbers for rehab or anything.

I realize I didn't cover a lot of the problems Asian-American men face. Further reading if you are interested:

Playing the (Asian) Dating Game (article from HerCampus)
Asian Pre-Teens (


  1. It's interesting what you said about people not guessing your major. I think white people tend to make assumptions about people based on how they look, and, well, since all Asians look alike to us (NOT!), we think they're only good at the few professional careers we've seen them in the most. But expecting all Asians to be A-sians is unrealistic, and unfair.

    At the opposite end of the spectrum, being an Asian girl and wanting to feel attractive, you might wind up being compared (or comparing yourself) to either the Western standard of beauty with big hair, big eyes and big boobs, or the Western notion of what an Eastern woman should be. It sounds like a lose-lose situation.

    On that cheery note, I just put The Fold on the top of my tbr list, so thanks!

  2. OMG, Blogger just ate the ridiculously long comment I was about to post. SAL;KJFASDL;K.

    In summary, you touch on A LOT of Asian self-image issues. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    I was lucky in that I grew up in a relatively Asian area. I grew up with a number of Asians and I have a lot of Asian friends, so I think the beauty issues weren't as pronounced because I had lots of people who looked like me. Did I want to be blonde and blue-eyed? Yeah, for some time in my chidhood, I did. I wanted to be freaking Princess Aurora and Cinderella and Odette. I still want to be taller, but that's less about image now and more about how nice it would be to be able to reach things and see over people's heads.

    The flip of growing up around a bunch of Asians was the academic side of things. I can't stop praising how cool my graduating class was because yeah, we were competitive, but most of us weren't competitive in a destructive, negative way. We just wanted to score high, get good grades, go to college; there wasn't any sabotaging. Still, there was pressure from that and from the outside because there were people (family, friends, outside teachers) who compared our grades and all that. And yeah, like you, being an A-sian was totally part of my identity. I still identify part of myself as a "high achiever."

    I sort of got over this in college. I did well, but I realized there are some smart people out in the world that I just can't compete with. Still, there's a part of me that feels sometimes that I'm not reaching my full potential because my image of myself as a high achiever doesn't quite mesh with my current situation.

    I liked that you showed how pop culture and societal ideals influenced some aspects of your self-image. For all the people who don't get why people get upset about lack of diversity in media, your struggle is an example of why it's important and how media can affect individuals. Lots of people agree that we need more non-model-skinny, airbrushed people on TV/magazine covers/ads for the same reason; so it's baffling when people don't think diversity is just as important. On a recent episode of Glee, this was also touched on: Tina says she wears blue-colored contacts sometimes to make herself feel prettier because she's closer to looking like the models in magazines, and she mentions the lack of Asian beauty icons for her to emulate.

    Anyway, I don't really know where I'm going with this, except to say I appreciate your sharing this. Oh and I think guys are kind of oblivious to the whole single/double-eyelid thing too. I had this one Asian Am class where we were discussing the single/double eyelid issue. One guy finally asked the professor, "What's the difference between single and double?" and it became apparent after that none of the guys in that class really knew the difference, so we had to show them.

  3. Wow, thanks for the thought-provoking comments, guys. Krispy, I saw that episode of Glee and I loved that part with Tina. Tere, enjoy THE FOLD!

  4. *Sigh* I have monolids too, the only one in my family other than my brother... My friend was investigating my eyes one day and it was really annoying, but she was my friend, so I didn't snap at her right away... I know how you feel...