Breaking bad Asian stereotypes

Battambang Bike tour, 2015
Sticky rice in bamboo, anyone? [Battambang, Cambodia, 2015]
First of all, as an Asian American living in Asia, this is an interesting (and dare I say, amusing) topic to investigate. I’ve been trying to understand why this is entertaining for me though. I guess because I have what I consider a more balanced view of stereotypes.

I understand that some stereotypes, in a particular context, are just that – made for amusement. For instance, Bernie Mac did a routine on how Black people take breaks differently than White people. This is a generalization, obviously. Yet, comedians are supposed be hyper-aware of our assumptions and behaviors, and I for one believe we need that levity. Laughter brings people together.

One of the things I try to remember is to not take myself too seriously – heck, not to take life so seriously.

But this isn’t about how fun stereotypes are. This is simply a bit of background. I’m Asian American living in Asia taking a look at common Asian stereotypes from within the beast. I’m not angry. This isn’t a lecture.

Lastly, I should mention I don’t get into Asian stereotypes of other Asians or other “races”. Perhaps I’ll tackle that one for the future, because it’s worth mentioning that Thais have stereotypes about the Chinese, Japanese, and Americans and so on, just like any other group of people.

Now let’s get started.

/1/ Asians are clean.

My Ubon Ratchathani Story
My uncle’s house. [Lamphun, Thailand, 2014]
It’s funny because I’ve heard foreigners talk about how much Thais like to sweep. While it’s true, you often see them sweeping their floor or outside, you shouldn’t assume that they are clean people. Floors are important in Thai culture because it’s where we often sit, and sometimes eat.

But there are plenty of houses and apartments that are overflowing with stuff – and somehow seeing all their stuff spilled out on to their yards doesn’t instill a belief in cleanliness.Fellow blogger Mabel Kwong wrote about this.

My mom seems like a clean person because she’s such a big fan of Clorox bleach. However, after she has bleached the bathroom floors, she doesn’t really wipe them off so the floors become sticky or tacky. WARNING: do not touch anything in the kitchen.

Clean is also a relative term. I’ve had people tell me that they are neat and clean, and then visit their house, or see their car, and it’s a different story. And you might be like, “Well, Lani, let’s see your place!” Yes, you are welcome, anytime. Challenge accepted.

/2/ Asians are bad drivers.

Siem Reap boys-on-a-bike
Looking back, driving forward. [Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2016]
After living in SE Asia for as long as I have, I TOTALLY understand where this comes from. There doesn’t appear to be any order or rules compared to the West. But that doesn’t make them necessarily bad drivers. I’ve seen some pretty crazy skilled driving on motorbikes with people carrying: bicycles, food containers, livestock, IV drip bags (with the IV in the driver), large electronic items, fans, you name it. There are also professional drivers in Asia, just like in any country, and they drive just fine. I think it’s safe to say that there are bad drivers in EVERY country.

/3/ Asians are quiet and non-aggressive.

penang motobike street art
We’re so agreeable! [Penang, Malaysia, 2016]
Chinese travelers can be quite obnoxious. (Yes, this is a stereotype.) Thais and Cambodians definitely have had a clash of cultures with them despite all the handshaking their governments are doing.

Thais, you might find interesting to know, can also have fiery tempers despite coming from “The Land of Smiles”. I should know because my mom’s Thai. I’ve also heard stories of incidences where Thais essentially “blow their tops”. Expats and travelers should be aware of this because everyone has their limits, and Thais are no different, but it can be quite a shock if you are not expecting it.

I see this as the darker side of “saving face” or “putting on a good face”. Often we are called to act a particular way, to control ourselves all of the time, and when that last straw does snap, it can be bad. I remember being at the airport and watching an Asian man lose his shit – like explosive. I was taken aback, like everyone else, but naturally, I was wondering what happened.

/4/ Asians are studious and hardworking.

Here I am working hard at relaxing 😉 [Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2013]
This one’s funny because I’m a teacher in ASIA – and trust me, I’ve come across some hoards of exceptionally lazy students. Part of the reason could be because the school system pushes them too hard, and they burn out. But the stereotype of Northern Thais is they’re lazy, while the stereotype of Eastern Thais is hard working.

In the North (can anyone else not think of Game of Thrones?), life is considered easier and much cooler. You can throw a papaya seed down and the next week you have a papaya tree growing. While in the East, it’s a poorer area: it’s hot, the ground is hard, and many Issan (or Eastern) Thais leave their homeland for jobs in the city or another country.

/5/ Asians are Buddhist or “spiritual”.

“Making merit” at a pagoda. [Mt. Bokor, Cambodia, 2017]
No, many Malays are Islamic. And it’s not uncommon to work or interact with the Muslim communities in Thailand and Cambodia.

While the Chinese (post-Mao) are overwhelmingly not religious at all. The religious were persecuted into near non-existence.

But because Thailand is a Buddhist country, there’s a belief that Thais are super-Buddhist. It’s been my experience that like any religion, the individual relationship to X, Y, or Z varies. There might also be a change within the younger generation as well, drifting further away from tradition and old ideals.

Supposedly, the most popular day to visit the temples here is the day before the lottery numbers are announced.

I remember visiting a temple with a Thai friend and seeing Thais with their hands in a wai, kneeling, putting incense in front of various gold statues and thinking how exotic and spiritual it all looked.

“What are they saying? What are they praying about?” I assumed it was a chant like, “Our Father in Heaven, full of grace” kind of thing.

“Oh, they’re asking for things. Like money, a new car, that kind of thing.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

Buddhist monks regularly bless cars, houses, and well, even washing machines. I’m no expert but I don’t think this is what the Buddha had in mind. In other words, there’s a difference between tradition and following the tenets of Buddhism.

Asians can also be Christian. Our landlord is an archdeacon. The majority of Filipinos are Christian, and Christianity is the largest organized religion in South Korea.

/6/ Asians are slim.

Food cart [Chiang Rai, Thailand, 2014]
Not anymore! I can’t tell if it’s the introduction of the “Western fast food diet” or the fact that many Asian countries are experiencing a higher level of comfort and disposable income than ever before; probably it’s both. Gone are the days when you were the tallest person or even the biggest-boned person at the market or mall. I would imagine that diabetes and obesity will continue to grow on this side of the globe, too. Now, this isn’t to say that there are still some fairly slight Asians, and it probably depends on what Asian country you are in, but this is a real trend.

/7/ Asians are self-sacrificing, noble, and put family first.

A-ok. [Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2017]
Anyone who has lived in Asia for some time will find this one particularly laughable. Asians can be aggressive drivers and highly selfish people, just like anyone else. And while Asians are big on community and family, this is changing. It feels like there is more of a struggle now with younger generation Asians between wanting to please family and do their own thing. I’ve also heard horrible stories of Asians cleaning out their parents’ bank accounts or selling off land and leaving them behind. (And if you haven’t read about this already, take a look at articles on why the Japanese are dying alone in their apartments.)

We, as a global society, have become professional consumers, and the reality is money – having money – making money is seen as the Holy Grail of happiness. The ultra-wealthy are celebrities by the very fact that they are rich. We believe that money makes everything better. And to some extent, it does, after all, if you never had to worry about it again, how would your life be different? In other words, money is a game changer.

So the idea of “I have children so they will take care of me when I’m old” is outdated and no longer a guarantee.

/8/ Asians speak English with a strong accent.

I’m famous! Being spotted at Angkor Wat by a guide who had seen my videos. [2015]
I’m not talking about Asian Americans, I’m talking about Asian-Asians. The thing about the internet is more Asians are speaking without the “funny accent”. This is also probably due to the fact that many Asian countries have English instruction throughout primary school. There are also a plethora of expat teachers here. It was rather interesting for me to teach and interact with Khmers and seriously wonder if they had studied abroad because their English was so good. Khmer is not a tonal language so perhaps that makes learning English easier for them as well.

But what makes their English good is not just their pronunciation, it’s also their ability to use “filler” words we native speakers take for granted like, “so, anyway, like, as I was saying, right, OMG!” etc.

/9/ Asians are not cool.

Catching a breeze. [Chiang Mai, 2011]
Well, I think it’s safe to say K-Pop and Korean dramas have done excellent work on slaying this stereotype. Not only is that cool factor not related to Kung fu or Karate, it’s hip, young, and is dynamic. I’m not saying I’m a fan, because I’m not, but my students are, and I can see the appeal. I also like that it gives Asian kids other Asians to look up to – especially for Thais because Thai TV and movies are so bad – even if the Korean boys are wearing makeup and look prettier than me.

How did I do? And what did I miss? What Asian stereotypes do you find amusing?

16 thoughts on “Breaking bad Asian stereotypes

  1. LOVE this article. I find some of the stereotypes quite amusing, such as being clean, studious, speaking with a heavy accent and being quiet. There was a lecturer this week in one of my classes that said “all stereotypes are lies” because a stereotype is saying that “all this or that do this”, whereas not everyone may do it. I think it’s so easy to assume things these days, but the best thing is that every person has a different personality, and thank goodness for that 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Yeah, I try to be careful about using “always” or “never” or other language that can get me in trouble. Although I think we have a tendency to speak this way, “OMG. I never go shopping without makeup on” or that kind of thing.

      It can be a little tricky to try to catch yourself speaking in extremes.

      It’s funny I almost mentioned that stereotypes don’t take into account individuality. I’m glad you did. Cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. These are some on-point stereotypes that might be true and might not be true at all these days. Your perspective is spot on for Asians are clean. I’ve been in many an Asian house where the place is absolutely packed and you’d think there people living there have hoarding issues. It’s not just the older generation but the younger generation too, especially students who cram into a flat (think 4 people in a two bedroom apartment). That said, I’m a clean person and I really am one of those clean and neat Asian people who can’t go to bed unless the kichen is clean.

    Sometimes I think it’s funny how many Asians are seen as hardworking and also seen as lazy and constantly playing video games 😛 Some of the top gamers in the world do come from Asia…

    To be honet I’ve always found Asians speaking with a kind of accent, even the ones who have been born and raised in a Western country. Not too sure how to put it, but if I close my eyes and hear someone speak or hear someone speaking without seeing them (say my back to them), and they speak with perfect English with the Australian accent…yet I can tell if they are Asian or not just from how certain syllables are enunciated very very subtly. Not sure if I am making sense lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was sort of taken aback when I saw the amounts of hoarding over here. And yes, in tiny apts and among young students. Things can be very affordable and I think this desire to have more and lose track of what have is definitely an issue.

      In some ways it’s not fair for me to judge because I move so often – it’s just about impossible for me to accumulate too much stuff!

      But like I said, at least I think so, my mom had like 3 or 4 vacuums in her apt when we visited. ?!?!

      Ahhhh, the video gamers – good point. But don’t get me started on how many kids are addicted to their phones and play ALL THE TIME.

      My brother noticed at a fairly young age that we didn’t speak like other Asians. And I get that a lot. People don’t associate me with being Asian because of my Americaness. Truly. It’s not uncommon for ppl to say to me, “I don’t consider you Asian…” 😛

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      1. Moving keeps you grounded and you decide what you really need and what you can do without. Probably you and I don’t speak like other Asians. But I could probably tell you are Asian just by the tone of your speech 😛

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post Lani! Very amusing, and I think you touched on all the umbrella stereotypes I’ve heard of and some I hadn’t. The Buddhist one was my favorite, and I think true of so many people’s relationship with religion….using it for personal gain and when it’s handy. One that always made me angry here, after the Hmong & Laotian refugees settled in our communities, was people saying that they ate dogs and would steal yours if you weren’t careful. This was worse in the small town I moved to for awhile, and I was quick to argue against this nonsense! It’s too bad about the loss of family because it was a part of the culture I admired and was envious of. Thanks for sharing Lani!☯️✌️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Anne. Yeah, the dog thing – while it is not unheard of in certain Asian cultures, it’s not an across the board truth. What is interesting is eating dog, as far as I can tell, is/was done by necessity (hunger) and not necessarily because of them being part of the every day menu.

      But we made jokes about these steamed buns in Hawaii being filled with cat meat. So there you go 😛 a long tradition of teasing another culture’s food.

      Like

      1. For sure! I remember thinking and saying at times, dogs are not viewed the same everywhere & maybe they do eat differently/view dogs differently, but I didn’t believe they were stealing people’s dogs. We eat cows and that’s unheard of in other places. I did talk to a co-worker about it once who was Hmong & she thought it came from a confusion with another Asian culture. Just goes to prove some of the many issues with stereotypes!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Well, it’s like what many Asian Americans commiserate over, being mistaken for either Japanese or Chinese – hahahhaa – we forget that Asia is incredibly diverse. Kind of like how some folks mistake Taiwan and Thailand, especially when you say “I’m Taiwanese” they hear “tai” and think “Thailand! 😛

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  4. Stereotypes are sometimes funny and when you think about them you can guess why they appeared, but it is also very easy to find examples to counteract them hehe. Asia is so big and has so many different countries and cultures, how can everybody be put together in the same bag? Although many of your points I have heard before about China, especially the one about driving and the being slim one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You bring up a good point which is Asia is massive – and even within a country there can be surprising diversity. Sometimes I think we have a tendency to “lump” a country all together, but we don’t even do that with our own. For example, there are very distinct areas of the US that American’s wouldn’t dream of confusing or assuming we’re all the same.

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  5. Well…There is one rather pervasive Asian stereotype that you haven’t included here. Although perhaps it was excluded intentionally because this isn’t that type of blog. It relates to a certain part of the male anatomy. (The opposite stereotype exists for African/African-American men.) Haha! I personally can’t comment on it though 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahahahahhaa. Yeah, there were a couple that I excluded because I didn’t want to get into those. 😉 I think there are enough of those posts around the ‘net. I tried to offer something different. But! There are “categories” for these types of things (I hear!) that the curious can check out. 😛

      Liked by 1 person

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