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Contact CU Independent Opinion Staff Writer Hayla Wong at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Attending a prep school taught me a few things: everyone deserves an Audi on their 16th birthday, you need a tutor to equip you for the SAT, and most of all, do everything it takes to stand out and get into that top college. Since good grades, community service, leadership and extracurriculars are no longer enough these days, I was advised to legally change my last name to something, well, “less Asian.”
You see, fifty years ago when our parents were applying to college, minorities were sparse and often not even considered in the admissions process. Now, however, the opposite is true. It was a tangible fear that my application would be lost in the pile of other Wongs, Wangs, Chens, Lins, Changs, Lees, Hans and Kuos. Unless I had cured cancer or developed clean water technology for a third-world country or given a revolutionary speech before the United Nations, I stood no chance.
As a result of our typifying Asians as the “model minority” in America, society now holds all members of this group to a higher standard, consequently devaluing hard work, dedication and success. This is an undue pressure.
“You’re Asian and smart, help me with this question.”
While a flattering compliment, the stereotype that Asians are all intrinsically brilliant is — besides being grossly wrong — harmful and also terrifying to those of us who are constantly trying to live up to this expectation. Most racial stereotypes cast a negative shadow on the group it describes, but the smart Asian stereotype is different — it only becomes negative if one fails to confirm it.
I’ll gladly demonstrate that I am not a horrible female Asian driver, but I cannot bring myself to rebel against a stereotype that earns me admiration and respect… if I can back it up beyond average expectations. Not only do Asians experience an immense pressure to be smart, they are also measured against one another and expected to be even smarter than the general population and themselves. Getting the same score or achieving the same as their white, Hispanic or African-American counterparts is simply not enough.
Of course, this pressure on the model minority has many dimensions. American society is not all to blame; this issue has cultural roots. The same pressure is highly present throughout Asian culture and is socialized into most people of Asian descent. The attitude that anything other than perfection is failure is so strongly internalized in Asians that many would rather die than to feel the humiliation of being mediocre. In theaters this month is The Forest, a horror movie that delves into Japan’s Mount Fuji (a.k.a Suicide Forest) where as many as 100 people crumple under pressure and go to commit suicide each year.
“I would kill for your Asian metabolism and flawless Asian skin.”
Believe it or not, not all Asians are natural calorie power burners, nor do they all have skin of satin. Yet with the cultural and social standard of beauty set so high, yet another unrealistic expectation stands to be filled. Many Asian cultures practice restrictive diets that dance around the border of being categorized as an eating disorder, but are disguised as normal Asian food culture. It is not uncommon for Asian women to develop subtle eating disorders that go unrecognized because of cross-cultural confusion about body composition, strength and diet.
While in Japan a few years ago, my host mother asked me what diet and exercise regimen I follow and confided in me that she thought her daughter was getting fat. I was appalled because by American standards, her daughter is incredibly thin. I am a healthy weight, but by Asian standards, her daughter was average and I was slightly overweight. My host mother held me to the American standard while holding her daughter to the Asian standard, thus warping her conception of what is desirable.
This, among so many other things, is not okay.
Holding different races to different standards does not celebrate diversity or unify cultures. Rather, racial stereotypes marginalize groups and disrupt commonality. Rejecting the fact that all humans are born fundamentally similar and ascribing characteristics based on race limits our capacities to accept people as anything other than what we want them to be. This self-imposed disjunction among people creates an ideal of what is right for some and not for others. This is detrimental to both the individual and to society as a whole. It has to stop.