“Please welcome Ming Zhu…”: On Identity, Positive Stereotypes and the Oscars

“I don’t see you guys as Asians.”

We are standing in my college’s cafeteria. The statement’s loaded, especially since she’s addressing it to me, a racially-identified Chinese immigrant, on a campus known for its international program. My friend — one of my best friends — is saying this to me. She’s a Dutch exchange student. When she says “you guys”, she’s referring to the mostly Indonesian (though there’s me, a girl from Malaysia and a guy from Tunisia) friend group that we have.

Statements like these are common. Chances are, if you’re Asian American, Pacific Islander, an immigrant here to study/work or even a tourist who’s been here long enough, you’ve heard these microaggressions from everyone regardless of nationality: your English is so great, your skin is so pale, what do you think of Panda Express (I hate it, FYI), do you like anime, you’re so different from all the other Asians I’ve met. You’re not like them.

My Dutch friend sees me as non-Asian because she sees me with people who aren’t Asian. That’s the requirement. My entire identity is completely invalidated — which is a good thing to her — because I’ve somewhat assimilated. She’s made it clear even before this — saying things like “At least you guys bother to hang out with people who aren’t from your country”. This is on par with every other criticism of the Asian international students I’ve heard, from Americans and non-Asian international students. She’s saying, oh man, you, you’re special. Now you can be let in on the joke, you can feel good about yourself, you can laugh along.

There’s jokes being passed, here, in this small community, amongst the Americans, the Europeans, the school staff. The Asian Invasion. The International Takeover. All the kids in your Business or Economics class all can’t speak English but they can juggle numbers like a dream, it’s all a laugh. They’re all so fucking smart, I hear someone say in the library one day, how did they get so fucking smart, they’re making us look bad -

One of our teachers told an entire class made of Asian international students he liked us because we weren’t dynamic thinkers like Americans and we didn’t talk back like them. We’re smart. We’re hard workers, he tells us. After class, my friend tells me her American host family tried to feed her lettuce out of the trash. Just defying her to say something, go on, Chinese girl, I can imagine their expressions saying, say something. Prove us wrong.

Positive stereotypes aren’t bad, right? A white kid asks me at lunch.

My German friend is worse - you know, the vaudeville racism that makes people feel better about microagressions. He calls every Asian girl whose appearance he doesn’t like Ling Ling — out loud. He constantly makes racist jokes in front of me even though I’ve made my opinion clear on it. His expression every time saying; you’re supposed to be cool, dude, you’re supposed to find it funny.

Patrick T. Fallon for The New York Times

The Oscars happen. Those three kids — the girl with her adorable pig tails, the two boys, all of them carrying brief cases — walking onstage. A lot of people don’t think about it. If they do think about it, they say it it’s just a joke. Or we should concentrate on the fact that we addressed diversity in terms of African American representation. While I’m happy — believe me, I am happy about that — I’m also tired.

I’m tired about people looking at me and then visibly breathing a sigh of relief when they can see that I am “not like them”. I am not working 24/7 to get good grades, my head is not always in a book, I can speak English. This great privilege — the privilege of being let in the joke — is bestowed upon me, and it feels like Mt. Rainier on my shoulders.

I’m tired of having to disprove a stereotype (“tabulated by the Accounting Firm…they sent us your most dedicated, accurate, hardworking representatives”) to immediately fall into another — the Cool Asian. I get a “minority discount”. I’m “practically American”.

My countrymen — no, the larger Asian community — in turn shuns me for going white. Gaijin, gweilo, mi chang, there’s words in every dialect and language that they call people if they catch them going native.

Not even really Asian, my Dutch friend tells me, my white host family tells me, my teachers tell me, you’re not really Asian if you don’t fall into the stereotype, if you don’t fall into line, if you don’t speak Mandarin, Bahasa, Japanese, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese every time you open your mouth. If you do, you’re Asian: comedy gold in every sense.

If you don’t, you still are funny except this time they don’t allow you to be offended. They tell you that you’re not what you’ve been your whole life, and that’s good, it means you can laugh, come on, laugh, if not swallow it down. Don’t say a word, Ling Ling, Ming Zhu, it’s all good and you’re one of us until you start talking back.