“My name is Canwen, and I play both the piano and the violin. I aspire to someday be a doctor and my favourite subject is calculus. My mom and dad are tiger parents and won’t let me go to sleepovers, but they make up for it by serving my favourite meal every single day – rice…how long did it take you to figure out I was joking?” – Canwen Xu, ‘I Am Not Your Asian Stereotype’, TEDxBoise 2016.
Everybody holds certain stereotypes. Many people, for example, assume that the British LOVE tea – we drink it like water, we celebrate it with daily rituals, and probably even bathe in it. Realistically, it is unlikely that this stereotype causes great upset.
Why do we assume that an Asian woman living with a Caucasian man must be a nanny?
However, this is sadly not the case for many other sweeping judgements that bounce around our conversations, the media and daily life. It’s fairly likely that over the past week you will have seen the BBC video interview in which International Relations professor Robert Kelly was hilariously interrupted by his two small children, who wreaked some typical toddler havoc before their mother caught them and rectified the situation.
Despite the hilarity of the viral video, many viewers were quick to assume that Kelly’s wife, Kim Jung-a, was the nanny, causing social media to launch into a debate about racial stereotypes. Why do we assume that an Asian woman living with a Caucasian man must be a nanny or domestic helper, and what does this reveal about attitudes toward mixed race couples and the continuing application of racial stereotypes in general?
I am a third year History student currently studying at the University of Hong Kong, and have consequently been lucky enough to meet, interact, and become friends with people from all over the world; differing backgrounds, cultures, race, and beliefs are commonplace in the international student experience. One of these friends, who prefers to remain anonymous, was kind and brave enough to share her own daily experiences in reaction to the BBC broadcast. To avoid confusing the readership, I’ll refer to her as Sarah.
Like a steadily growing number of people in Asia, Sarah comes from an interracial family – her father is American Caucasian whilst her mother is Hong Kong Chinese. However, due to a slightly darker complexion her mother is often mistaken for Filipino, and when out with her mother and younger siblings, many wrongly assume Sarah to be the mother, accompanied by a domestic helper:
“I have gone to family friends’ home where guests have thought that I was the wife of my father and not my mom. Though I never asked why I would be the wife and not my mom, I feel like it is because I am the ‘fairer’ one even though I am only half white.”
EVEN TODAY WE STILL ASSOCIATE CERTAIN ETHNICITIES WITH CERTAIN OCCUPATIONS
For Sarah and her family, this regular occurrence must be extremely testing, but many on social media attempted to justify such assumptions. Of course it must be acknowledged that in Hong Kong many parents who both work full-time jobs do employ nannies, often from the Philippines. In a society in which dual-career couples are becoming less atypical and face less discrimination, though this is not always the case, the need for domestic helpers and childcare has increased.
However, Sarah’s experience, when viewed in relation to the BBC broadcast reactions, demonstrates how even today we still associate certain ethnicities with certain occupations, mannerisms, and characteristics. In many cases this can be frustrating and upsetting for those affected.
The opening quote of this article was taken from a TEDx talk by Canwen Xu, who recounts the ways in which her peers treated her, and the stereotyping she faces on a daily basis because of her ethnicity. In order to escape this stereotyping, Canwen found herself attempting to distance herself from her ‘Asianness’ because being white was the norm, and if she could achieve this, Canwen believed she would stop feeling like the anomaly.
A talent for mathematics and music, a conservative family life, ambition to become a businessman, doctor or lawyer, and a reluctance to make friends with those of other nationalities – these are just some of the common descriptors often used by Westerners when referring to Asians and Asian Americans, according to Canwen. Many blindly accept these characteristics to be true without any consideration; for the Asian population this can be extremely grating, clearly evident from the recent social media campaign by many bloggers and celebrities to dispel these harmful and misinformed stereotypes.
REPRESENTATION MATTERS, AND WITHOUT IT, STEREOTYPES ARE LEFT TO BE REPRODUCED
‘BuzzFeed Yellow’ is a YouTube Channel aiming to do just this, using humor and sarcasm to expose just how ridiculous some of these Asian stereotypes have become. Asian Americans reported being asked questions such as ‘do you know Kung Fu? and ‘do people often get you confused with other Asians?’ Though these are obviously ludicrous, it is concerning that such casual racism still occurs today in a society that is supposed to celebrate diversity.
I believe one of the major issues is that the media and entertainment sectors, particularly the film industry, completely lacks racial diversity – Asians are often underrepresented or overlooked for major Hollywood roles despite their unquestionable talent and suitability. When cast, Asians seem to play very similar roles, be it the ‘intelligent girl at school’, the ‘nerdy guy’, or the ‘kung-fu hero’.
This leads me onto my final thought. I recently saw a video on Facebook questioning the casting of the upcoming film Ghost in the Shell, an adaptation of a Japanese anime. Two Asian-Americans from New York cleverly and movingly produced a short clip wherein a young Asian girl finds solace and comfort in an Asian comic character that she can relate to, only to later come across a movie poster in which the same hero is to be played by a white actress. Representation matters, and without it, stereotypes are left to be reproduced, both by the casual racism of observers, and by the inner-community feeling of entrapment within a perceived identity
The thoughts laid out in this article are my own, alongside things that I have learnt talking to my peers and friends here at Hong Kong University. Whilst there are certainly those who reject these aforementioned stereotypes, it is certain that many, especially when concerning Asia, still exist. Perhaps the most important thing to do is challenge these, be accepting and tolerant of those different to ourselves, and find out more before making assumptions. If we don’t, we could end up hurting or insulting people, even if it is unintentional.