October 19, 2017

SONG | What It Means To Be An Asian Woman

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When I say I’m an Asian woman, people say they know what that means. They say it means growing up with tiger moms and Silicon Valley dads. It means bowls of rice clutched in the palms of our hands as we pour over SAT prep books. It means Dad sending us to elementary school with a doctor’s coat and stethoscope already in one hand.

But to me, being an Asian woman also means warm pineapple bread that Grandma just pulled from the oven. It means bamboo plants Momma decorated with red ribbons and snuck in my bedroom for good luck the night before my exam. It means Dad driving a beat-up Toyota Camry to my violin lessons and stopping for Szechuan food on the way back.

I am an Asian woman. Specifically, a Chinese woman. I’m loud, I like acoustic rock music and I go to bed later than midnight. I don’t have front bangs, I don’t sit in the back of the classroom quietly and I don’t listen to classical piano all day.

There are the Asian women who fit the stereotype, with soft voices and strict parents, and there’s nothing wrong them at all. But generalizing every Asian woman to be the same chopstick-holding, submissive girl with a bun is exactly what it sounds like — a foolishly put-together cliché that’s rooted in deeply misinformed generalizations.

Because questions run through my mind all the time, and they follow me everywhere. Will my teachers assume I can do calculus just because I’m Asian? Will my friends never want to come to my house because they think I have a helicopter mom? When I say I’m an English major, will people look at me funny because they expect me to be a doctor?

And then I realized it all sounds so ridiculous. Why do I have to like green tea or soy sauce or sesame seeds? Why can’t I wear a blazer and be the next CEO of a company and be loud at the podium? Why can’t I prefer English to chemistry?

I’ll never forget when I wrote the top-scoring essay in my high school history class and my heart warmed from the glowing 98 percent scrawled across the front. The comments on the back? “You write really well for someone whose first language isn’t English.” I was born in Missouri.

And I see Asian women all around me lowering their voices instead of fighting this rage because that’s exactly what’s expected of us — nothing but smart, rule-adhering, soft girls. No one expects us to fight back; they say we’re the “model minority,” the quiet ones who never speak up.

And how could we react any differently? The very act of fighting defies our Asian roots. Our fathers taught us to respect our elders, our mothers taught us to hand-wash the dishes, our grandmothers sent us to school with a bowl of congee and wishes for a rich husband. How can we fight against the roaring insincerity of our stereotypes, when it’s Asian culture to humbly accept our faith?

But our fathers taught us this because they were called “chink” at the airport when they tried to immigrate to America with just a leather bag on their backs. Our mothers taught us to clutch books close to our chest and sit in the back of the classroom because their professors never picked on the girl with the “heavy accent.” How can I blame them for the way they wanted to protect their daughters?

But despite the facade, I see strength in Asian women. I don’t see quiet, meek girls. I see my mother hand-making my favorite dumplings while I’m struggling over my essay at 4:00 a.m. I see my grandmother spoon-feeding me Chinese cough syrup when I have the flu. I see my aunt wrapping a fragile teapot with her overcoat in her luggage so my sister and I can drink tea from an authentic set from China. We are Asian women, and we express strength in subtle ways, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

To all the people who only see Asian women as creatures that are too timid, you’re wrong. To all the Asian women who think all you can do with your lives is sit with hands in your lap and nod graciously, you’re wrong. You can be loud, you can stray from the path, and you can be filled with a blazing strength. You can write a book, play guitar, wear tall boots. Screw the rest of the world that says you can’t. And your fight will be echoed by every other Asian woman, because they all have that strength in them too.
Kelly Song is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ksong@cornellsun.com. The Songbird Sings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.