Panel confronts stereotypes, again

Melissa Hung, Hyphen magazine’s esteemed editor in chief, recounted an experience that is all too familiar to many Asian Americans during a panel discussion last night on stereotypes co-presented by Hyphen and hosted by the Asia Society in San Francisco.

It happened for Melissa at the airport, but it could be anywhere, any time. The circumstances may not be the same, but the reasons behind it are if you’ve experienced it.

As Melissa was going through security, one of the TSA agents processing her said to another, “You have to say xie xie (thank you in Mandarin) to her.”

Oh, no you don’t was Melissa’s reaction to the agents, who then started getting on Mel’s case for being sassy. She didn’t want to make a scene in the airport and just wanted to get on her flight, so she let it go. But Melissa was pissed.

Why would someone just assume that she was Chinese or that she spoke Mandarin Chinese? Why would you make that leap just because of someone’s perceived race? She had a California driver’s license, not a Chinese passport? What gives?

She just got stereotyp’d.

Last night’s panel, Confronting Asian American Stereotypes, was at times an interesting discussion on a subject, that, if we weren’t still discussing it and the world was perfect, Hyphen and this Web site wouldn’t exist.

Part of the reason I chose journalism as a career and perhaps, for better or worse, part of what drives my personality is how I’ve been stereotyped by others and how I internalized those beliefs.

There were the many times that “ching chong” was thrown my way. There was the time the emergency room doctor treating my badly sprained thumb said, “Does it hurt? Oh, even if it did, you wouldn’t say anything, you’re Asian.” There was also the childhood spent in the rural California, where there were hardly any Asian Americans, always feeling different and unsure of myself.

This blog entry is starting to sound like therapy, as were some of the comments and questions audience members threw at Melissa and her fellow panelists, Nguyen Qui Duc of KQED radio, Asian American studies Professor Elaine Kim of UC Berkeley, Pueng Vongs of New America Media and Phil “Angry Asian Man” Yu.

One woman, who only came to the panel because her friend brought, complained that it seemed because she was Chinese and Asian, it was expected that she should behave a certain way, such as always using chopsticks when for her, sometimes it was just easier to put a fork into it.

One guy lamented the fact that news coverage of drug addiction seemed to gloss over the fact that substance abuse is a problem among Asian Americans.

“While I’m not advocating taking drugs to battle the model minority stereotype,” Pueng said, in perhaps the best line of the night, better coverage “does provide a fuller picture.”

A psychotherapist in the audience said that in her practice she’s found that identity issues are common among Asian Americans.

It’s a sentiment backed by Professor Kim, who said she’s met Koreans in Argentina, Japan and Kazakhstan who don’t seem to have the issues with identity that Koreans in the United States have. There’s something about the history of U.S. colonialism, racism and its wars in Asia that fuel this, I think.

We here in the San Francisco Bay Area like to revel in how diverse the population is, but Duc pointed out, and I believe it’s true, we segregate ourselves. Even at the panel, “there are no black members in the audience and maybe three who can pass for Latino,” Duc said. “We’re talking to ourselves.”

The media has a role in how stereotypes are formed. It doesn’t take a scientific study to see that there aren’t many realistic portrayals of Asian Americans in the entertainment or news media, which can feed stereotypes.

Phil started his blog and named it so it would be “an assault on the senses,” he said. What’s more in your face and breaks the “Asian American” mold, or ANGRYASIANMAN.COM?

I said earlier that the panel “was at times interesting” because I’ve been discussing and writing about this and similar subjects since I minored in Asian American Studies 15 years ago. That’s a long time, and quite frankly, there hasn’t been much positive movement. It’s the same conversation and story, over and over again. Asian Americans are still marginalized in ways big and small.

There’s no magic pill that makes stereotyping go away. When it comes down to it, Duc put it pretty well:

“We have to look at ourselves. When we see something we don’t like, we have to write that letter to the editor . . . We have to raise our voices.”

He was talking about poor news coverage, but I think the principle applies elsewhere. Asian Americans can’t let stereotyping bring them down, but it can’t be ignored either.

This posting is also at Hyphen magazine’s blog.

2 Replies to “Panel confronts stereotypes, again”

  1. thank you for posting this harry. what’s interesting to me is that it appears folks were tackling the issue from individual/personal POV’s, which is not a bad thing in itself. but i wonder if what you are saying re: how this is the same discussion you’ve heard over the last how many years has to do with the personal and individual POVs and acts in response to stereotyping. i am interested in hearing discussion on a larger, organizational (even institutional?) scale: did melissa talk about hyphen mag, for example, as a proactive and organizational response to asian stereotyping, or did duc talk about his work with pacific time, etc.

    anyway, some things i am thinking about this morning.

    hope you are well.


  2. Hi Barbara,

    The panelists did talk about their respective organizations a bit as part of a response, but certainly not the only way to respond.

    Part of their message was that it doesn’t matter how many magazines of TV shows are out there, it’s inidviduals who through their behavior, independently and collectively, that will make change. And, change is slow.

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