My Experience as an Asian in STEM

Discussing the stereotype that harms Asian Americans in STEM

Anna Li Qiao Gilstrap
May 11 · 7 min read

The first time it happened, I was in elementary school when I received my first C on an English assignment. The strawberry blonde haired boy next to me jeered, “You’re so stupid for an Asian.” My stomach instantly knotted and my heart pounded. A warm red glow creeped up my ears and cheeks. I quickly crumpled the edge of the paper with my hand to hide the academic death sentence marked in angry red. When the boy saw my obvious shame and embarrassment, he giggled, waving his A+ high in the air, gloating to his friends that he received a grade higher than an Asian.

That was the first time I realized the academic world would treat me differently. Dark brown almond-shaped eyes, black hair, and honey-beige skin quickly became the physical traits I longed to change, but never could.

However, my journey as an Asian-American in STEM is not typical. I had no Asian tiger mom force me to pursue a career in STEM or berate me for receiving an A- on a calculus exam.

My story began in Wuhan, China. At five days old, I was placed in an orphanage for unknown reasons. A year later, a white American family held me in their arms and from then on, I was uprooted from my birth environment, language, and culture.

I grew up in a suburban, mostly Caucasian neighborhood. My adoptive sister and I were the only Asians in my private Christian school and had to advocate for each other when no one else would. When teachers mentioned communism during history class, all heads turned to my direction. Classmates would ask if I supported the Japanese when they bombed Pearl Harbor “since I was Asian like them.” Friends would call me over to their friend circle, excited to share a (racist) Asian joke with me because they thought I would find it amusing.

The impact of racism produced an overwhelming amount of psychological stress, racial and ethnic identity complications, and Asian values in a study done at Yale University School of Medicine in 2010. Life-long daily exposure to discrimination increases symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) in Asian Americans, while supportive friends and family decreases symptoms of MDD (Chae, 2012). Mental health decline and exposure to discrimination and racism, therefore, are extremely interconnected.

There are many experiences within racism as well, though each type falls under the broad umbrella of racism: discrimination prejudice, and harrassment. Asians Americans and Asians in general are thought of as perpetually foreign, exotic, and alien. This creates a host of assumptions ranging from micro-aggression to violent attacks. Micro-aggressions can include expressing assumptions that perpetuate harmful Asian stereotypes, objectification, and much more (Chae, 2012). Violent attacks, like the racially-motivated shooting in Atlanta (New York Times, 2021) has opened my eyes to the harm of Asian fetishization, discrimination, and stereotypes. Not only is anti-Asian discrimination, aggressions, and blatant attacks mortally dangerous for the general Asian population, but also affects the mental health and well-being of Asians in the academic world.

The Model Minority Myth

Once I graduated high school, I felt as though I had finally fought my way through the harmful academic Asian stereotype, ready to embrace a university that accepts me for the minority I am. My fingers trembled as I tore a college letter open, waiting to read the words “congratulations…” But those sweet words never came. I scanned the top of the page over and over again, instead, reading the phrase, “we regret to inform you.” My heart began pounding and the red hot embarrassment creeped up my cheeks again as my mind echoed, You’re so stupid for an Asian.

Universities boast about their diversity, showcasing pamphlets with a rainbow of ethnic minorities on its cover, when in reality, those students were probably called over, forced to smile, and take the picture. Since Asians have one of the highest college attendance rates followed by whites in America, universities want to even out their diversity pool (“Educational attainment,” 2021).

Today, news surrounding the Washington School District’s decision to lump Asian and white students together is only feeding the model minority myth that Asian Americans constantly face (Soave, 2020). The idea that a certain minority is “better” than another is a way to divide the POC community, making it harder to stand up against white supremacy. I have experienced this divide not only within the POC community, but also within the Asian community. Many have made the comment that being ethnically Asian but adopted by a white family does not give me the right to stand with the Asian community. According to them, those who are Asian, but were raised by white people do not have the full Asian-American experience and should “pass the mic” to the Asian community.

Though I was not raised by Asian parents, I still know what it is like to be Asian. True, I am protected by my white mother’s privilege when I stand next to her. But when I am alone, I look exactly like any other East Asian girl vulnerable to the racism, violence, and abuse that countless numbers of my people had to endure. I picked up my shattered sense of self, built on years of systemic racism, and continued onto college.

My deep fascination for STEM began in high school when I started excelling in math and science courses. I was constantly in awe of the biochemical mechanisms within the human body and the logic of numbers. However, my adoptive family was full of English professors, lawyers, and humanities-driven professionals. I was expected to excel at English, literature, and philosophy.

Freshman year, I enrolled into a mandatory Intro to Philosophy course and miserably studied for hours, passing with a B. My science courses on the other hand, fed my hungry mind which I devoured ardently with every class. My sister excelled in math. Her chemistry, physics, and calculus grades were all A+, but my mother grew mortified when my sister finished her AP Literature class with a C-.

“I have failed you as a writer and mother!” she would weep. My sister and I lovingly nicknamed her the Grammar Queen. She is a technical editor to multiple authors, publishers, and PhD students working on their dissertations.

Pursuing a degree in STEM was viewed by my family as flying to a foreign land, which they hesitantly encouraged my sister and I to travel to. My love for biology, evolutionary science, and genetics spurred creativity in my mind the same way words and writing spurred my mom’s.

The fact that I am an “Asian in STEM” initially made me nervous that I was perpetuating a stereotype that my fellow Asian-Americans tried so hard to abolish. I would be considered “super Asian” since I was good at math and science.

Throughout my career as a student, I would be embarrassed to ask questions in class or reach out for help from a classmate due to fear of failure instilled in me by years of racial stereotyping. As I thought about this more, I realized that I was letting society dictate my academic dreams, hopes, and pursuits. Why should the shape of my eyes, the color of my skin, and the rich history of my ancestors be a racial weapon used against me?

The Science Identity

I believe many Asians struggle with perfectionism and imposter syndrome. When pursuing STEM careers, these feelings are only amplified due to the stereotypes set upon us by society. The burden that the model minority myth has inflicted on us has silenced not only our voices as Asians, but also as scientists.

As Asian Americans in STEM, we are simultaneously overrepresented in media and underrepresented. The model minority myth perpetuates the idea that Asian Americans are highly intelligent and successful. This decietful notion implies that this ethnic group must be found in extremely profitable and booming careers. In fact, 80% of Asian Americans in STEM are found in non-faculty positions like researchers, postdocs, and lab assistants (Athena, 2020). This harmful stereotype and model minority myth enforces an absence of attention to the complexities within the attainment of STEM careers that Asians face.

Additionally, STEM students in general often place their entire identity in science. Through the rush of dopamine received after having understood complex organic chemistry mechanism to the 100% on an immunology exam, we tend to rush to areas of academics that showcase our competence and performances. The idea of science has also been heavily stereotyped as well. A typical “STEM student” is expected to think and act a certain way. Progressive science identity formation, therefore, becomes hard for not only Asian STEM students, but all STEM students (Athena, 2020). Moreover, the Eurocentric, emotionless, intelligent, and masculine stereotypes within the STEM field perpetuates subtle discrimination against Asians, women, and many POC individuals in science.

Many of these stereotypes perpetuate imposter feelings, especially among all students in the STEM field (The GiST, 2017). These feelings might bring about interpersonal shame. For Asian Americans, this could be shame related to the fear of dishonoring the family or others perceiving them as a failure (let it be clear that these feelings and fears do not solely affect the Asian community). External and familial shame distorts identity and self-esteem, making it hard to develop practices like self-compassion, which greatly correlates to low levels of imposter feelings and interpersonal shame (Wong, 2013). Self-compassion also correlates with the ability to moderate harmful practices of over-identification. As Asian Americans and students in STEM, the academic Asian stereotype and model minority myth amplifies our desperate desire for academic perfection and success (Lee, 2009), leading to increased practices of over-identification and decline in mental health.

In summation, I implore my fellow Asians in STEM to break the model minority myth and harmful stereotypes against Asians. These racist societal ideologies warps our self-compassion abilities, making academic success the forefront of our identity. Learn to trust your unique identity as an Asian in STEM to practice self-compassion and mental health. I have learned that this helps me pursue education for the love of education itself — not for a simple grade in order to define my worth as a human being. Be inquisitive: ask questions in class, receive a C and learn from it, accept your academic flaws. We are not America’s model minority. We have valid feelings, insecurities, and concerns within the world of academics. I encourage the Asian American community in hopes that you never let your unique passions be buried in the Asian stereotypes.

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