Nick Ng on why he doesn’t want to be labeled as an “Asian American.”
Last summer, my girlfriend and I wandered around a Latin music festival in downtown Long Beach and later caught the sound of salsa music coming from the main stage. Like bees to honey, we meandered through the crowd and found a dance floor set up by the stage. The DJ nearby was blasting classic hits from the Fania All-Stars era, including Tito Rodriguez, Ismael Miranda, and Willie Colón. But nobody was dancing.
As hardcore salseros ourselves, we naturally danced on the wooden floor amidst a few hundred people in the middle of the street like it was a salsa club. After we danced a few songs as well as with a few salsa friends who joined us, my girlfriend whispered to me, “Them Mexicans seem pretty surprised to see a chino dance.” What was the surprise? Was it their first time? Did this Asian-American male just shattered their stereotype?
Like most people who live in a multicultural environment like San Diego, Miami, and New York City, I engaged in activities and ate foods that were different than my ancestry. Growing up in a mostly white yet diverse community in San Diego, I befriended and hung out with people from different nationalities, languages, faiths, and skin color. Sure, some of us might make a joke about our race or faith, but we became friends because of common interests and good company, not because of our physical appearance or affiliations.
I was never a math whiz or science lab tech, nor was I very computer savvy. In high school and early college years, I focused mostly on creative writing, English composition, speech and debate, and drawing and painting. I may have inherited my father’s love of learning other languages, which influenced to study French, Spanish, and a little bit of Japanese and Russian (which I don’t remember much).
I enjoyed Hong Kong Cantopop from the 1990s as well as Nirvana, The Bloodhound Gang, and Metallica. In the last 14 years, I have learned to dance hip-hop, bboy-ing, pop and lock, salsa, bachata, and a wee bit of kizomba. But why are some people surprised to know that I do any of these things?
I rarely hung out with “Asian” or “Chinese” groups. I never joined or participated in Buddhist groups. I just preferred to be me, without labels, stigma, or preconceptions. Despite my diverse experience in the last 31 years in the U.S., the Asian American male stereotypes continue to jab their fingers at my back, reminding me that some Americans – even other Asian Americans – may still view me as a math genius or a kung-fu master. And yes, I do know a bit of wing chun, but my love for it is similar to my White, Black, and Latino friends who also practice the art, not because I am Chinese.
Also, there is one question that I dread the most when I meet people for the first time:
“Where are you from?” My only response: “San Diego.”
“No, I mean, where are you from?”
“Well, I grew up in Mira Mesa and later moved to Carmel Mountain Ranch in middle school.”
This is usually followed by a blank stare like a jury not believing O.J. Simpson didn’t do it.
“But I was born in Hong Kong,” I added. Tension dropped; conversation continued.
It may be that most Americans’ exposure to Asian Americans are limited to the media or their favorite Asian restaurant. Asian American men are underrepresented in mainstream media, who often are depicted as intelligent yet shy, especially around women. They are portrayed as a martial art expert, a bumbling immigrant, or somebody who is very good at academics. In fact, the only Asian American male news reporter I know is Ted Chen from NBC Los Angeles. Yet how many Asian American female reporters are out there compared to Asian-American men?
Fortunately, there are some Asian American male actors who are shattering the stereotype. These guys aren’t cast because of their ethnicity, eye size, Asian-language superpowers, or rice and noodle affinity. They just perform their characters very well. For example, Korean American actor Stephen Yeun from The Walking Dead portrayed a former pizza delivery guy from Atlanta, Georgia, who matured and changed throughout the series to a more responsible and stronger character. His role could have been played by anybody of any race or nationality. Would his character, Glenn, be any different if he were an Anglo-Saxon, Arabic, Indian, Italian, or Dominican?
Notable Asian American celebrities and political figures who are known more for their character or contribution include Harold and Kumar ‘s John Cho, physicist Michio Kaku, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, and Houston Rocket’s Jeremy Lin. Probably the earliest Asian American who resisted Asian American male stereotypes was George Takei, who played Sulu in the original Star Trek series.
While some Asian American men complain about the stereotypes in Western media, they should recognize that in Asian media, White and Black men are often portrayed as villains. Any zealots of 1980s Hong Kong action films may recall martial artist Richard Norton, the token White guy who is known for his catchy punchline, “Painful?”
While Asian American male stereotypes will probably linger in the next few generations, I am optimistic that future generations may experience less racial and cultural disparities and accept diversity. According to Pew Research Center, Millennials, who are currently the youngest adults (ages 18-33) have the highest ethnic and racial diversity in any American generation. Over four out of ten are non-White, and many of them were born in the States from Hispanic and Asian immigrants. By 2060, Asian American population will almost double, rising from 5 percent in 2012 to over 8 percent.
While I recognize myself as an Asian American – more specifically Chinese American – this isn’t how I would like to represent myself. The label brings up stereotypes that date back to the late 19th century. It places me in a box that I should be the “model minority” for all other minorities. Instead, I would prefer people see me for who I am and what I do. If people see other people for who they are rather than what they expect, then we may see more commonalities than differences.
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Photo: Nick Ng