September 9, 2018

WANG | Indistinguishable Asians

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A few months ago in the spring, I had a sit-down with a charming professor about a homework problem I was stuck on, and while the chat was productive, it soon devolved into tiptoeing around a racial issue that, frankly, has worn a bit thin on me.

When I told her I was Chinese, she inevitably started talked about her experience traveling abroad in mainland China, and while her eyes glowed when she talked about the sights she saw, her mouth began to twitch uncomfortably when she descended from the sights to the people. And word for word, before she began, I knew what she was going to say.

It isn’t a secret in the Chinese American community that there is a certain disdain for their peers from abroad. Whether it’s true or not, nationals are regarded as louder, less behaved and generally less suited for assimilation in America. In Chinese American culture, there’s value in being unnoticed, in being respectful and silent. There’s safety in being quiet.

And so when my professor began her mini-monologue on the loudness of the people she ran into, I could only do what I usually did. I nodded politely. I smiled. I listened to her complaints. I wasn’t surprised when she made the comparison between the two cultures, noting approvingly, how, in her experience, Asian American kids were more reserved than those abroad. When it was all said and done, I got up and gave my fake, brave smile, and thanked her for her help. Then I left.

I didn’t think about it for the longest of time. She only said what I expected, and what my peers in America harped on. Our Asian American parents scorned the loudness, brashness, and the uncouthness. To them, that was the principle they lived by, even if that particular principle reeked of a superiority complex.

But in the meantime, from the moment of my conversation with my professor during the spring to the current late summer, a long contested lawsuit has gained significant momentum. The anti-affirmative action Students for Fair Admissions, a group that has accused Harvard of discriminating against Asian Americans, won a rather stunning victory in August when the Department of Justice determined that the school had, in fact, discriminated against Asians.

But while countless think pieces have discussed the legal ramifications of such a decision, the underlying evidence for the DOJ’s conclusion was troubling and brought me back to my conversation with my professor. While her story had put down a certain section of the Asian community, it also highlighted a gap in the Asian American community that may be more damaging than loud behavior — the complete absence of it.

The outpouring of documents and intel from the lawsuit reveal Harvard rates Asian American applicants lower than any other group. Common descriptions are “industrious” and “bright” but “unexceptional” and “indistinguishable.” More likely, Asian Americans were seen more as introverts and followers, rather than extroverts and leaders. In one particularly jarring case, a female Asian American applicant was determined to be a “hard worker” but was questioned “would she relax and have fun?”

It’s a depressingly regressive view of Asian people. It’s a played out stereotype, a double edged sword that has them lauded as technically proficient, but as studies have repeatedly shown, excluded them from management and leadership roles due to a perceived lack in “distinguished excellence” and “exceptionality.”

Truthfully, in my own opinion, it’s also a symptom of a failing of the early vestiges of Asian American culture. Being quiet and passive is something that is inherent in many past Asian American households, and it’s entrenched in the minds of many. The quiet, reserved Asian student sitting in the back, taking notes, is an outdated cliche that is still stuck in head of many — and my conversation with my professor only reinforced the perception that has taken a hold of many people (and many college admission officers!).

So it’s not surprising elite colleges, looking for a well ranging and diverse student body, often fall back on their implicit biases to cut out students in an increasingly cutthroat world. It’s wrong, but in any case, it’s no good to simply sit behind a lawsuit and cry over spilt milk. A more important task is for Asian American students to take action themselves, embrace their outgoing nature and break their biases. After all, stereotypes aren’t unwrapped and litigated — they’re smashed.