Believe it or not ‘why is it so hard for Asians to love themselves’ was a search term that I found on my blog one morning. I’m usually amused or curious what folks are looking for, and I don’t make it a habit to turn them into blog posts (see exception), but this one piqued my interest.

My search produced two first page results. The first article is by an Asian American woman who lived in many countries during her school years. She discusses the differences between American and Chinese culture, and ultimately, how she’s learned to blend her ‘around the world’ experiences into a strength, not a weakness, as it originally felt.

The second one was by a German Asian male, and his article clocked in at 51 minutes long, so I skimmed. He had a self-loathing attitude, and seemed to resent the fact that he grew up as a minority. I think he’s still struggling with his identity (he’s also young), but is coming to better terms with it.

There are a couple of things that jumped out at me. First, I was reminded of when my brother told me that it was easier for Asian women to be accepted into American society rather than males. The Western stereotype is Asian women are attractive, and Asian men are nerdy. Secondly, it sounds like the woman had a broader outlook due to her family’s travels as well as more access to her heritage, which the man did not.

male asian stereotypes

But I didn’t read his article as carefully, so all I can do is make a sweeping statement. (I also can’t speak to what’s it like growing up in Europe, and I imagine Germany’s more of a monoculture as opposed to the States.) The point though was this search got me thinking.

Do Asians (and/or Asian Americans*) have a harder time accepting themselves? Let’s assume there are reasons that they do, and then I’ll attempt to get to the broader question.

** Asians and AAs you could argue shouldn’t be lumped together because of the great cultural distance between them. However, I’d like to argue that most AAs are first or second generation Americans. To quote the wiki, “large-scale immigration did not begin until the mid-19th century”; therefore, I believe that many AAs have a stronger connection to their parents or grandparent’s culture, than say, the majority of other ethnicities in America.

Beauty is a Beast

In an effort to understand why some Asians may have a hard time loving themselves, I reflected on my upbringing by my Thai immigrant mom.

I remember asking her, “Am I beautiful?” and she said, “No, you’re cute.” I was exasperated, hurt, and angry that my own mother didn’t see her child as beautiful. Couldn’t she have lied or something?

She also has made numerous suggestions throughout my life that I undergo plastic surgery for various things. I know, right? But hear me out.

Recently, one of my former students got a nose job. All of her classmates were in ‘oohhs’ and ‘ahhhs’ saying how beautiful she looked. I, on the other hand, was in shock. She’s an nice looking young woman, and it never crossed my eyes that she would do any cosmetic surgery. As I sat with them, with my mouth still agape like an idiot, it occurred to me that I (as a Westerner) was the odd one out.

It’s taken me 10 years of living in my mother’s birth country to understand so much of her. Asians have a much different attitude towards plastic surgery (hello, Korea) than Americans. I knew my mom ‘meant well’ when she made her suggestions, and I’m not like suddenly for it (unless it’s for reconstructive purposes) because I was raised to believe that beauty comes in many forms.

While here, I find myself defending seemingly unattractive characteristics like small eyes or dark skin. Although it is funny that being called short is considered a bit of an insult.

Dare to compare

Asians also have a habit of comparing themselves. Now, you might be like, oh, we all do that, but I would say that Asians can be competitive perfectionists. I grew up forever listening to my mom compare me to other Thai daughters. And perhaps you’ve heard the term Tiger mother? Or Made in China? Knockoffs and copycats are all part of the game.

What’s mental health?

Lately, I’ve noticed Asian Americans talking about metal health issues which are a massive taboo in Asian culture. We’re not fans of perceived weaknesses. We’re great at lifting the rug and sweeping shit under there. We’re excellent sweepers.

Generally speaking, Asians aren’t into talking about their feelings. When we returned home from school, my mom never asked us, “How was your day?” or “How was school?” We never had cozy hugging moments, or were read bedtime stories, but we were brought up on plenty of cautionary ‘don’t you end up like so-and-so or I’ll kill you’ tales.

It’s not in the culture, really. Americans like to ask, “How are you?” Thais like to ask, “Have you eaten yet or not?” or “Where are you going?”

Quick conclusion: A culture with the strong tendency to be obsessed with appearances + compare + don’t talk about feelings (+ social media, and/or you are different) = potential self-acceptance issues.

Caveat: The Lucy Liu phenomenon

Both women are beautiful. ‘Nuff said.

In China, American Asian movie star Lucy Liu is not considered a desirable beauty. She’s got freckles, her eyes are a bit too slanted, but to Americans and many others, she’s stunning. The Chinese have a different idea of beauty that I would argue is more conventional.

Westerners typically look for the qualities that make a person standout (individual), like Cindy Crawford’s mole, even though she was initially encouraged to get rid of it. However, being different in Asia is – well, not being normal.

There’s also a Thai supermodel that has enjoyed international success, but in her home country she’s considered too dark skinned, too outside typical beauty standards to receive any attention.

In Thailand, Sririta’s half-Danish and half-Thai looks are considered more beautiful than Kanyanut’s.

Who’s standard of beauty are we going to go by? Does it matter?

Caveat: We all can struggle with loving ourselves

Something that I think gets overlooked in minority cultures reflecting on their differentness is the assumption that just because folks appear alike on the outside that they feel the same on the inside.

In other words, I can’t walk into a room full of Asians and expect everyone there to feel a sense of belonging or acceptance. I’m sure on any given day there is someone in the crowd (no matter how much they blend in) who feels alone, ugly, or lost .

When I was an Asian American in the US of A, minority or not, race wasn’t necessarily a deciding factor on whether or not I felt like I belonged.  Even in Thailand, I don’t get a sense of ‘these are my people’. Actually, I feel more American than ever.

While loving myself is no longer the struggle it was when I was younger, I still try to remember to have compassion towards everyone in the room because I know everyone struggles with self-doubt, fear of rejection, and other emotions that drag us down.

 

What do you think?

10 replies on “Is it harder for Asians to love themselves?

  1. Aloha Lani!
    I remember my Chinese mother telling me the story of meeting my Caucasian dad. She told me that she wasn’t Asian-cute enough to get a cute Asian guy, but she was Asian enough to get a cute Caucasian boy. I don’t know what this did to my pre-teen psyche, but I do know I spent a lot of time in the middle of Oklahoma trying to look just a little more Asian…
    I think your brother has a point, at least for the years when we were growing up. I didn’t get too much bullying or teasing in school (guys singing David Bowie’s “China Girl” in the locker room not withstanding (Eeeww)), but my brother got called every Asian epithet in the book (except Chink – he would have to tell them he was Chinese first to get that one), and got into fights often.
    I think that while every human probably has issues with self-acceptance, someone with Asian or mixed Asian heritage may have a slight disadvantage. Not only do we have the cultural/family dynamics, we have to deal with societal expectations of our Asian-ness. Throw being mixed into the mix and I’m surprised any of us have any sort of positive perception of ourselves! Hahaha.
    Thank you for always making me think 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think once younger bro left the safer shores of Hawaii, he was fighting against the tide of Asian stereotypes. He was in a much more diverse place than me, but as a male, yeah, I think it was a different bunch of bananas.

      Although, I was around a Native Am population, and our little college town was used to Asian exchange students, that was when I did feel unattractive because I was comparing myself to the majority of the population.

      But those years are like that, even in Hawaii, I felt not pretty enough.

      Your mom’s comment is FASCINATING, but I totally get it. But I see your point, in a world that’s obsessed with height, big muscles, boobs, butts, we physically are at a disadvantage.

      Thanks, Ann. Now you made me think. 😛

      Like

    1. I suppose media will always represent the unattainable beauty, and to an extent I can’t fault them for that. We want our fitness models to look amazing, and our actors to make us swoon.

      Big media also has to appeal to the masses, and for some reason play it safe because they have to answer to many more people, than say, an indie film or magazine.

      So as a society, community, enter your tribe here, I think we have to decide what’s important to us, what we value. These days, more so than ever I feel, it’s about money. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “Rich.”

      Like

  2. Are we smart enough, beautiful enough, popular enough? Are we too fat, too shapely, not shapely enough? Are we kind, generous, humble, moral, hard-working, creative, friendly? How do we learn to accept ourselves as we are and still keep trying to improve? I don’t know about racial differences, but that balancing act is something to keep working on for a lifetime.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suppose that’s why I have come to see values, and what our beliefs are as so pivotal in shaping our actions and thoughts. But this coming from someone who is much older than the 20-somethings that wrote about this initially.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Huhu Lani,

    Great post, as always – thank you 🙂

    Regarding your thought if Germany is more monoculture than the US, I would say that statistics clearly back this up. If I’m not mistaken, the biggest minority in Germany is Turkish, but apart from that, “foreigners” are mostly from other European countries.

    This being said, when I lived with my Japanese girlfriend in Germany for some years, I was nothing less than flabbergasted to hear her stories about what had happened when she had been out alone. Now, we lived in a somewhat rural area, but still I could not believe how often she experienced something like “ni hao”, being called “Chinita” (ok, that one was more often the case when we lived in Mexico), “are you Chinese?” or something like that. Sadly, I heard similar stories from other Asian friends – even from the ones who lived in bigger cities.

    So, while I do not think that (most of) these guys want to behave in an insulting manner, I still wonder why on earth they would do something like this… So, if you had asked me a few years ago, I would have said that Germans are of course aware that not every “Asian-looking” person is necessarily a foreigner, nor that all Asians are Chinese. But unfortunately I had to recalibrate my image of my home country – less worldly-wise, less considerate, less reflected. I skim-read the article you linked and I can totally understand the struggle of the German boy of Vietnamese heritage.

    Actually, I think that people are simply amazingly ignorant – also observable when they tell you that they went to that “Asian” restaurant:
    “Oh, do you mean Japanese, or Vietnamese? Thai, Chinese?”
    “Yes”
    ….
    (then again, for the sake of fairness, they also do call it “European” restaurants in Japan).

    Ok, I think I’ve gone a bit astray, but your thought about Germany felt so much like an invitation to write down my thoughts on this 😉

    Oh, and by the way: Bi-weekly or monthly updates: I don’t care, it’s up to your insecurities, Lani 😛 Haha just kidding, bi-weekly is totally not too often, I’m looking forward to each new message.

    Take care and best regards,
    Fabian

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s been my experience that places and people with less exposure to someone different are going to ‘act out’ more than more diverse places.

      It must be something evolutionary that makes the brain seek out the differences faster than the similarities. Perhaps it is evolutionary that noticing something different is interpreted as a possible threat.

      Some cultures are also more territorial than others. It’s funny how people try to engage with ‘ni hao’s and such. I get that even in Thailand. What are folks thinking???

      I’m glad though you like the post. Thanks for reading! And for your thoughts on the NL 😛

      Like

  4. A very interesting post, Lani! I can’t speak for all of Germany of course but here in Berlin I never had the impression that Asians most of which are Koreans are looked at as outsiders or foreigners. Now Berlin is of course a very international city so it might be a lot different in more rural sites. I had a lot of Korean classmates (though all of them girls) and they were generally seen as beauties even though I knew from them all that they watched themselves quite differently. Since they lived all their life here I don’t think that they were bombarded with the Asian beauty concept from home too much, so I don’t really know why that was. Fact is that most people are not perfectly happy with themselves, they want to be taller, smaller, thinner, have curly hair, straight hair… Like you I’m no fan of plastic surgery except when it’s needed for some reason. And I was shocked when a friend of mine (Chinese btw) had her breasts made bigger. She’s a hard-working, intelligent and good looking woman in a healthy relationship and yet she felt the need to change her appearance. Strange times we live in, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What an insightful comment. I had no idea that there was a little Korean community in Berlin. I always find it interesting to find out where Asians cultures end up around the world. (For example, the Vietnamese in Portland, Oregon, that kind of thing.)

      And I would agree, self-acceptance is a worldwide phenomenon. I would have never written about this if it wasn’t for the search on my blog. But I think for those expats who live in Asia it can be quite the culture shock – and Thais are particularly obsessed with looks.

      Liked by 1 person

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