When I was in preschool, I had an aid. Kristen was a high school student with blue eyes and a charming toothy smile. She visited me every week to draw pictures with me, or push me on the swing set. At the time, I was so painfully shy in my new environment that I became essentially mute. One of Kristen’s responsibilities was to help me adjust. My parents knew that I possessed language skills, but for some reason I didn’t utter so much as a syllable at the beginning of preschool. I’d open my mouth to talk and then freeze up, tongue-tied. By the end of preschool, I grew more comfortable and made a couple friends. But soon I went to kindergarten, and I reverted to my mute self. I was then placed in English as a Second Language (ESL) because the school assumed that I had language difficulties as a result of my Chinese and Taiwanese background. Eventually, the ESL teacher discovered that not only could I speak English, but that I could also read chapter books (turns out others have had similar experiences). For me, the problem wasn’t that I couldn’t speak English; I simply preferred not to speak at all.
Years later, I’m still quiet. I grew out of my mute phase by first grade, but a milder version of it returned once I got to Princeton. I get shaky when I have to speak in class or at a meeting, in both formal and informal settings. As a result my thoughts become jumbled in my head. Before I speak, I have to physically visualize the words I want to say and place them in order, like word magnets on a fridge. The process is stressful and time consuming, and by the time I come up with a complete thought the chance to share it has passed.
While I have these shy tendencies, I’m not the “quiet Asian girl.” We all know her. She’s introverted. Bookish. Probably posts pictures of food on Instagram. May play a musical instrument. Most importantly, the “quiet Asian girl” doesn’t exist as a real person, and the stereotype is reductive and harmful. No single ethnicity is inherently “quieter” than the other, and racial differences do not cause one to “become” quiet. There are people who are more introverted and others who are more extroverted. Everyone’s a combination of both. This is not news.
Yet the stereotype still permeates our world. Examples in recent pop culture include Lilly (“I ate my twin in the womb”) from Pitch Perfect, and Glee’s Tina who is so shy she pretends to have a stutter. These representations can be traced back to the “China Doll” or “geisha girl” stereotype, which views Asian women as exotic, feminine, and subservient, and may be the root of the association of shyness with Asian females. As Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” It’s no surprise then that Asian and Asian American females are actively trying to break the “quiet Asian girl” stereotype. Sometimes I hear other girls saying things along the lines of “Ugh, I hate when people assume that I’m quiet or shy.” Then a voice inside my head tauntingly whispers: you’re a quiet Asian girl, Emily.
Even though I hear this voice, I know the statement is flawed, just as I know I’m clearly more than just a stereotype. I like writing music and watching sci-fi films. Ask me about my latest television marathon at three in the morning or the bargain I scored on my weekend shopping trip, and I promise you I won’t shut up. But what happens when you find certain facets of your self within a stereotype? A friend once told me that it means I have enough self-awareness to recognize them. The question is whether or not I should feel so negatively. Nowadays, the traits associated with the “quiet Asian girl” are unintentionally stigmatized. When people I racially and ethnically identify with are constantly voicing their efforts to prove that they don’t possess the traits I happen to have, I end up feeling guilty, and that I’ve been shoved off to the side.
Standing alone, the “quiet Asian girl” stereotype is undoubtedly damaging. But the individual parts that comprise it and are present to some degree in everyone are not. In her fantastic piece, fellow Stripes writer Morgan Jerkins provides insight into the limiting “sassy black woman” stereotype. Describing various aspects of her self that may seem paradoxical at first, she then writes, “These attributes are not dichotomized within my being. They are of me.” I’d like to add to Morgan’s statement by saying that these “attributes” should not have positive or negative connotations, whether intentional or not.
I’m quiet. I’m Asian American. I’m female. I’m not the “quiet Asian girl.” But I am allowed to embody certain traits of the “quiet Asian girl” without bearing the weight of a label on my shoulders. So are you.