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November 16, 2017

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Escaping some stereotypes while embracing others presents a difficult task.

Stereotypes have always followed me around. In elementary school, the “Asian” accent was a running joke. All my friends did it and I did it too, perhaps as a way of deflecting the joke, owning the joke, showing that it didn’t matter and that I could be a good sport about it.

In middle school, I was the Asian math nerd. I had transferred to a mostly white private school in seventh grade, and before anyone really knew me, they were asking for my help on their algebra homework. “You’re good at math,” they would say. “You're Asian!”

It didn’t help that I rarely saw an Asian person given a fleshed out—or even marginal—role in the television shows I so ravenously consumed. When The Walking Dead came out and Glenn, an Asian-American, developed into a character with real depth and a real fan base, I was beyond ecstatic. I didn’t even like zombies, but I watched the show religiously for a good couple of seasons just to watch Steven Yeun play him. He was one of the first Asians I had ever seen, real or fictional, that seemed cool and badass enough to hang with the white people, and it made me feel as if I could belong, that there was nothing wrong with me, and that I was just as worthy as the people around me.

For a lot of minorities, stereotypes become these things that they desperately want to break out of. See me for who I am! But for me, it was even harder because in many ways, I was the stereotype. After all, racial assumptions are often just generalized truths. I was the skinny Asian math nerd with minimal social skills. I was awkward. I liked learning and I liked getting good grades. I didn’t really know what to do with myself in this world that wanted to slap an easy label on me and move on, especially when that label was the truth.

So I doubled down on who I was. I swaddled myself in the Asian stereotype and became a caricature of it. I focused entirely on school and the math competitions that I was, at the time, so invested in. I withdrew from the middle school world of relationship drama and sleepovers and hangouts at the mall. If I was just the typical Asian boy that people seemed to expect, I could become invisible. I could fly under the radar and no one would care enough to judge me.

But there was the nagging guilt, almost, that I was failing people somehow. A lot of Asian-American literature has been written about characters that don’t quite fit the prescribed mold. The Asian girl who isn’t good at math, who felt like she somehow wasn’t worthy because she didn’t live up to this racialized expectation, who found liberation in rejecting the stereotype and in owning who she was. Meanwhile, I felt like I was reinforcing these backwards assumptions about Asians that people had. Sometimes it feels like there is a responsibility, as minorities, to do everything in our power to break those calcified notions of who our people are. And I wasn’t living up to that responsibility at all. I was somehow setting us all back. 

At a certain point, I got sick of the invisibility that came with embodying a racial stereotype. Perhaps it was part growing up, part rebellion, but in the last couple years of high school, I did whatever I could to distance myself from who I used to be. I threw away my glasses and put in contacts. I quit doing math competitions. I stopped trying so hard in school.

I found myself slowly cutting out all the parts of me that I deemed “too Asian.” I renounced all things stereotypical. I didn’t want to be known as that Asian kid who was good at math and liked classical music and was horrible at sports. And while I did begin thinking more clearly about who I was and what I wanted, I found that more often than not, I would push away things I truly identified with just because they vaguely reflected certain Asian tropes. In my quest to escape what confined me, I inadvertently ran into another box. I was still letting stereotypes dictate what I could and could not do, but in reverse.

Perhaps worst of all, I found myself caring less and less about my education. I wanted to project an air of nonchalance that would show I was above it all, that good grades weren’t the only part of my identity that mattered. It also seemed to me that no matter how well I did in school, those grades, those achievements would always be lessened by my Asian-ness. Of course he did well, he’s Asian! And not only would they be lessened, but they would stick me right back in the racial mold I had tried so hard to escape. It was easy, too, to pretend like I didn’t give a damn. But deep down, I did care—I do care—and the contradiction at the heart of all of this still eats at me.

I’m still trying to figure out who I really am, what I really want and like. It’s so much harder because I’ve been trying to navigate my cultural identity too, and all the generalizations and assumptions people sometimes make about that. And in some ways, I feel like it’s impossible to truly separate who I am from these stereotypes. To completely extricate some real version of myself from the racialized caricature of myself. The way I negotiate those tropes, the way I interact with them, determines in part what I like, what I don’t like, what I want, what I don’t want.

These stereotypes are going to be part of who I am, no matter how far I try to run from them. But I hope I can find a version of myself in all of this that feels true and authentic. I hope I can find something solid in this mess of self-discovery, that I can hold onto and claim as my own. And I hope I can find it soon.

Lucas Du is a first-year in the College.

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