“Oh my god, Matt, you’re such an Asian.”
I was momentarily stumped by that statement: I am Asian, what does he mean? And the way he said it is just so… condescending. ‘No.’ There’s a note of exasperation in the voice, that isn’t mine. I turn around along with everyone else – anytime a commotion happens in the locker room, it’s bound to attract unwanted attention.
It turned out to be another Asian – I don’t quite remember his name, I just know we shared the same PE class. He looked at me as if I had just taken a shit on the floor. Shame and embarrassment twisted my tongue and tied my stomach into knots. I knew what he was looking at. I had momentarily taken off my shirt and it must’ve revealed the red patches on my back from the cupping therapy I had undergone at my local Chinese doctor yesterday. It’ll fade in a few days but its visibility has suddenly become the center of attention. I hastily put on my school shirt, hoping the white fabric will completely mask the shameful streaks on my back.
Coming here to Melbourne from Hong Kong, I never knew my ‘Asianess’ would be such a defining factor of my identity. Everything I do has the word ‘Asian’ attached to it. Introducing yourself as originating from a foreign country would inevitably attract a list of questions, which, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind at all: in fact, it’s quite flattering and I am more than happy to answer anything you’d like to know about my city. However, things get a bit annoying when your actions are perceived to be tied in with your ethnicity.
Case in point: After school is my favorite time to take a shower. Living in an all-boys boarding school, certain pastimes were best done when no one was around. I enjoy taking my time in the shower, re-enacting favorite movie scenes or just talking to myself, and it gets a bit awkward when you have someone in the next stall.
Luckily, the only stall occupied was by a guy named Nick. We get along quite well, he had just finished his shower which was a bonus. I noticed he was holding his phone, undoubtedly to blast music during his session and decided to make a quirky remark about his skills of not getting it wet.
“Don’t you take your phone with you in your shower?” He asked me.
The sudden image of my precious iPhone being drenched in water flashed across my mind and I shuddered. My reaction warranted an even bigger reaction. He seemed baffled and shocked at the same time.
“Is it some kind of superstition thing? Like a Chinese thing, you can’t bring your phone into the shower?”
It wasn’t a question. It was a statement made quite aggressively. There was a hint of annoyance on his face and I immediately felt ashamed. It’s a strange feeling, to feel shame when you don’t even know what you’re supposed to be ashamed of.
I immediately wanted to defend myself.
“No, no, it’s just I don’t want my phone to get wet.”
“That’s such an Asian thing.”
I hated that word. It feels dirty, almost, as if being Asian was something I could shed, something I could replace. If I stopped doing certain things, stopped speaking in a certain way, if people perceived me not as Asian, I knew it would be the better. This part of my identity was interchangeable. Or I was made to believe.
Ever since then, I did everything I could to avoid being perceived as a walking talking stereotype. I tried to gel my hair, I tried to hang out less in huge Asian groups, I tried to avoid showing up with ethnic food (bubble tea), I blasted English music, I refused to speak Cantonese with other classmates from Hong Kong. I was desperate not to be seen as ‘too Asian’, I didn’t want to be the stuttering nerd with huge wire frame glasses with the slantiest eyes you see in comedy. The sidekick, the dweeb, the nerd, the pathetic punchline: that’s what Asian meant to me.
I was ashamed of being born the way I am.
In hindsight, I feel silly for feeling so ashamed of being me. Reminiscing back to the good ole days of high school filled with a bunch of pre-pubescent racist asshole isn’t the best time, but I survived and I’m living my full life as a proud Asian. Proud of my heritage, proud of my culture, proud of how I look, I wear my difference with pride. Why would I ever want to change how I am in the first place?
Unfortunately, life isn’t that easy sometimes. When you shed one label, another comes and smack you across your face.
“Stop, that’s so gay.”
I stopped sipping my gin and tonic and looked across the table. We were drinking at the pub near uni, it was a lazy afternoon and the alcohol was starting to hit my bloodstream. I was tipsy and happy but that quickly evaporated as I heard that remark. Indignation rose within me and I quickly put down my glass.
“What do you mean, you’re gay as well.” I shot back.
He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, but stop acting like a fag.”
I was befuddled. We literally just recounted our past sexual experiences. We talked about sucking dick in front of straight people for crying out loud but somehow I’m acting too gay?
“Well, what’s wrong with acting gay. Pride.” I reminded him with as much dignity as I could possibly muster. My straight friends shifted uncomfortably in their seats and remained quiet.
“Yeah, but you don’t have to be so,” he wrings his hands, “so gay.” He said the word as if it’s something to be ashamed of. Deja vu. I took back my drink and finished it, making sure to stick my pinky out.
He sighed and turned to our straight counterparts, who at this point looked incredibly awkward.
“I’m sorry, not all gay people are like that.” he laughed, half-jokingly.
I stuck my head up and laughed, aware that I was dangerously close to tears.
As minorities, it sometimes feels like it is our duty to dispel stereotypes placed on us by our oppressors. Whether you’re a minority in terms of race, gender identity, or sexuality, the burden of the entire community’s representation lays on your shoulders. Especially when you have to interact with those outside of your community on a daily basis. We become ambassadors to thousands if not millions and sometimes billions of people in the world. Yes, we do that. No, we do not do that. Yes, no, yes, no. We rectify our behavior, monitor our own movements, double check everything we do, just so we’re not perceived as a stereotype.
But, it’s not our job to dispell any stereotypes you have about us.
If you hold assumptions about a certain group, do not expect someone from that group to rectify your view – that’s your fucking job.
Stereotypes and baseless assumptions were derived from a time where things were much, much worse for minorities. Justification to ostracize and discriminate came from those stereotypes you hold when shaping your worldview. You change how you see us.