After four years of being an international student in the US, I feel like addressing the perceptions and stereotypes I’ve encountered. It’s funny because I never gave much thought to my ‘Asian’ identity until I came here.
I suppose it’s because in Singapore, where I’m from, it makes no sense to call myself Asian. Chinese, Malay and Indian people are all Asians. Each of these ethnic groups forms a significant portion of the Singapore population and have their own distinct culture and traditions. To lump them all under an umbrella term would be too generalizing, and I think the root of stereotypes is generalization.
It seems that race is a highly sensitive topic in the US. Many incidents that occur (like the Zimmerman case) are attributed to race, and you never know if it is appropriate to say certain things. Me and my non-Chinese Singaporean friends, on the other hand, have no qualms about making jokes on our race. I think it helps that we know a bit of each other’s mother tongue and we share a cultural heritage and the common language of Singlish. I believe that most misunderstandings in the US (and anywhere) stem from ignorance and are not manifestations of outright racism or discrimination.
In Singapore, influences from the different ethnic groups have blended together to form a unique Singaporean identity. For example, this is manifested in dishes that don’t exist in mainland China or India such as Singapore laksa, as well as the Singlish lingo. So I identify myself as Singaporean first and foremost, and only when faced with further questions like ‘but what are you really?’ do I say I’m Chinese.
Furthermore, there exists a divide between mainland Chinese people and Southeast Asian or Straits Chinese (Chinese immigrants who settled in the British Straits settlements of Malaya from the late 19th century). Differences in social habits and attitudes have resulted in tension between mainland Chinese people who recently moved to Singapore and the Chinese locals. For one, English is the lingua franca and the inability to speak English is viewed as a lack of initiative to assimilate into Singaporean society. Ultimately, I identity more with my fellow Singaporeans (regardless of their ethnicity) than other Chinese communities.
About my own family history- I believe that three of my grandparents were born and raised in Malaysia and only my maternal grandfather immigrated from China. So that makes me at least a third-generation Chinese, versus in the US where I’ve met many second-generation Chinese my age (mostly Taiwanese). Migration from Korea to the US seems to be even more recent- some of my Korean peers only came in high school. Perhaps that’s why they still tend to call themselves ‘Asian’, because they have a relatively recent history of being in their adopted country.
What are some of the reactions I’ve encountered? In general, Americans I’ve met have been very welcoming and I really appreciate that. It helps that I can pass off as an Asian-American. I think Americans are more familiar with mainland Chinese and Indians versus Southeast Asians, obviously because the former far outnumber us. Most do not know much about Singapore and I get the occasional person who thinks it’s part of China (!) or asks how winter is like there (there are no seasons in Singapore). However, there are some who’ve read about it or have been there on holiday and it’s always interesting to hear their perception or experience.
It was also here that I was introduced to terms like ABC (American-born Chinese), FOB (Fresh off the Boat) and ‘whitewashed’. I’ve encountered reactions like ‘you don’t seem like a FOB’, I suppose because of the way I dress and speak. I take it all in good spirit, though to some ‘FOB’ might sound derogatory. To me, such classifications are irrelevant in a globalized and cosmopolitan world.
Also, some examples of Asian stereotypes here (again, Asian is very general) are that they are very smart and good at math, and have conservative and strict parents. While there are certainly many who fit that mold, it is inadequate in defining the wide range of characters one can find in any given race. I have two Singaporean friends here who were English majors in American colleges (one also minored in film), decidedly un-Asian fields of study. The funny thing is that Asian-Americans themselves are often the ones promoting these stereotypes by verbalizing them, saying things like ‘oh, you must be very good at math’.
I’m aware that there exists a certain demographic of the US who are anti-immigration and might view foreigners in an antagonistic light. However, there are subtle nuances even in their stance. An illegal immigrant from Mexico could be treated differently from a highly-educated person from India who works in a STEM industry, for example. Besides, xenophobia (for lack of a better term) is present in every country, including Singapore. I think it proliferates when immigrant communities remain segregated from the locals.
If one shows a genuine interest and desire in learning about their adopted country’s culture, I believe that he or she would receive mostly positive responses and hospitality. Some of my memorable experiences over the past years here include having a home-cooked traditional Thanksgiving meal. By learning about other people, you also uncover aspects of yourself that were hidden before. That, to me, is something quite magical and precious.