Don’t Call Me Angel: My Experience with Stereotypes as an Asian-American Woman

My name is Isabel. I am 17 years old. My favorite color is black. My favorite movie is The Matrix. My Hogwarts House is Slytherin. I chopped my hair off because I’m lazy and I hate styling my hair. I’m impatient. I’ve got a big temper and a bigger mouth.

I’m also Asian-American. My mother was born in Vietnam, and although my father is white, people have always perceived me as Asian because I look more like my mom. I’m proud of my heritage and have never wished to be a different race. However, it has led to a lot of misjudgments about my personality, based on age-old stereotypes.

It started the minute I was born. “Oh, isn’t she a cute little doll?” “What an angel!” “She’s too sweet for words.” These people weren’t trying to be harmful. I’m pretty sure most of them thought it was a compliment. Believe me, I’d rather be called a “cute little doll” than an “ugly toad”. But both are wrong, because neither one is accurate.

I heard so many of these things repeated as I grew up that I started believing I was truly that person they said I was. On the outside, I looked like the girl they described – sweet, innocent, and happy. But as I grew older, I started questioning my true identity, and only then did I realize I had been stereotyped my whole life.

Throughout history, there has been a prevailing stereotype around Asian women. We’re seen much like cherry blossoms – dainty, quiet, pretty, and peaceful. Since many Asian cultures are patriarchal, Asian women are often perceived as calmer and more submissive compared to their Western counterparts, although this is a result of society rather than nature. Many Asian women raised in the West have more equal opportunities and independence, but are still burdened with this stereotype.

At first, this may not seem harmful. What’s the big deal about a woman being seen as quiet and beautiful? It’s the concept of weakness that gets attached to this image. For centuries, Asian women have been subjected to harassment and mistreatment because of the stereotypes put upon them. It’s best summarized in Mulan: “Men want girls with good taste – calm, obedient, who work fast-paced, with good fortune and a tiny waist.” They love the idea of a beautiful woman who just smiles and does whatever they want (and in some cases doesn’t even speak enough English to say no). Watch any piece of Western theater about Asian culture and you’ll see it – Madam Butterfly, Miss Saigon, Memoirs of a Geisha. During the Korean and Vietnam Wars, some American soldiers even developed something akin to a fetish surrounding the Asian women they encountered. They saw them as easy prey because they had been raised in an unequal society where women obeyed their men. Now, almost 50 years later, many Asian-American women are still subject to this treatment. This even includes Asian-American women who hold positions in law, medicine, and politics. No matter how smart they are, they’re still seen as weaker because of their race.

White imperialism created a stereotype around Asian women, and some of us have been so immersed in these false beliefs that we’ve actually started reinforcing them. It’s not intentional, but I had subconsciously started believing these things I had been told and applying them to other Asian girls. I would see a new young figure skater from Japan and instantly call her “cute little baby” in my mind, even though she was my age. I saw plenty of other skating fans – white and Asian alike – doing this, so I didn’t realize it was wrong until several months later when I was talking with a friend about this stereotype. We know nothing about these girls, but because they are young and beautiful, we assume their personalities are equally flowery. I’ve seen this behavior directed towards some white girls or even Asian boys, but nine times out of ten, it’s used on Asian girls and young women.

To put it simply, Asian women are women. Women can be smart, strong-willed, independent, and visionary. They can be doctors, attorneys, diplomats, and scientists. They can be filmmakers and architects and artists. They can be determined and brave and creative. They can also be bossy, crabby, cunning, dishonest, and ruthless. They can be gossipy and petty and all shades of jealous. Women can save lives or commit murder. Women are humans, and they have the capacity for good and evil just like men. An Asian woman can be just as much of a Captain Marvel or a Cersei Lannister as a white woman if she chooses to be.

Asian women are women, women are human, and humans do not fit one particular stereotype. We do great things, we do terrible things, we win daily victories and we make small failures. This is the nature of humanity, and Asian women are not exempt from it.

You know what? Personally, I would love to see more Asian female villains in movies. By making all Asian female characters “good girls”, it implies that Asian women have no choice whether to be good or evil because they, unlike their white or male counterparts, are incapable of choosing to do something wrong. I personally loved the “Return to Halloweentown” Disney movie that featured three troublemaking Asian sisters. They were a trio of typical spoiled mean girls, and it had nothing to do with their race. They weren’t mean because they were Asian, they were mean because they were brats.

I’ve occasionally seen the “good girl” stereotype used to defend wrongful behavior. Through Twitter, I knew an Asian girl who was catty, shady, and just plain mean. One of my friends, who was a white boy a few years younger than her, tried gently calling her out. Her defense? “Don’t hurt me, I’m just an innocent Asian girl and you have no right to bully me because you are a privileged white man.” Strangely enough, this girl was always tweeting about how Asian women are fetishized, but when the water got too hot, she hid behind this stereotype so she could avoid getting in trouble. The guy wasn’t calling her out because she was Asian, he was calling her out because she was being nasty.

The truth is, I think that girl had suffered so much stereotyping that she truly believed it herself, as I did. She had been told she was helpless and weak so many times that she actually saw herself as a defenseless person who was being bullied for no good reason. Instead of spending the rest of our lives under that stigma, we need to stand up and act. We, as Asian women, need to keep speaking out and letting the world that hey, this isn’t okay. We aren’t to blame for the stereotype, but we can be responsible for breaking it. We need to change the conversation surrounding Asian women, and it starts with us.

I was so lucky to grow up with two Asian characters who broke this stereotype: Mulan and Alex Munday from the film adaptation of “Charlie’s Angels”. They inspired me to be more than this stereotype. Mulan defied the expectations of society, found her courage and confidence, and saved a whole country in the process. Her love story with Captain Shang was merely a subplot, and she was important because she loved her family and would do anything to protect her elderly father, not because she was beautiful and “useful” to a big hunk of a man. Alex – played brilliantly by the fabulous Lucy Liu – could take down a whole room full of bad guys, never apologized for being the toughest person in the room, and was still hot enough to cause global warming. In fact, she wore her ability to kick butt as an asset that added to her attractiveness. Both of these characters were gorgeous women who weren’t afraid to be fierce, and I owe so much to them for teaching me that beauty and strength can coexist.

We are finally living in an age where diverse, true-to-life Asian characters are slowly but surely creeping into the book and film industry. Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians trilogy and the movie that followed was revolutionary for us because it showed Asians and Asian-Americans with a variety of personalities. There was a strong female economics professor, a handsome man from a wealthy family, a traditional mother who had followed her husband instead of pursuing her own dreams yet maintained her own sense of morals and dignity, a beautiful and successful woman who dealt with her husband’s infidelity like a boss, a gold-digger, a rich jerk, a hilarious sidekick, and more. It portrayed Asians as real people, not just a race. We’re also seeing Asian women in Star Wars, such as Kelly Marie Tran’s scrappy Rose from The Last Jedi and Ming-Na Wen’s assassin Fennec in the new Mandalorian series. And finally, Marvel’s upcoming “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” will feature a predominantly Asian cast – including my favorite Asian actress, Awkwafina. I hope it’s the start of a new era for filmmaking.

This post is by no means a complaint. Fortunately, I’ve never experienced the intense, hateful racism many Asians and Asian-Americans have faced, and I don’t mean to draw attention away from their serious stories of discrimination. I am simply sharing my story and the struggles I dealt with. Racism, much like misogyny and homophobia, doesn’t always come in the form of enslavement and segregated bathrooms. It’s a mentality – sometimes even a subconscious one – that exists in society and changes the way minorities are perceived. It is my dream for the world that someday, these invisible barriers will dissolve and we can all be equal, but it is a long road ahead. I guess this post is a letter to all the little Asian and Asian-American girls out there. You’re strong. You’re smart. You have so much potential, no matter what anyone tries to tell you. You’re beautiful – not just on the surface, but because you are a human being.

I know this blog is usually reserved for my opinions on figure skating, but there aren’t any major skating competitions this weekend, and I decided this would be a good opportunity to share something a bit more personal. However, I still need to give my shoutout of the week to a positive person in the skating fandom, and this week, it’s @myteenageabyss on Instagram! I’ve known Martha for over a year now, and she is one of the few people who can understand the crazy thoughts running through my head 24/7. At just 18 years old, she has more wisdom and insight about the world than nine out of ten Greek philosophers, but she can also laugh with you about what would happen if Stephane Lambiel adopted you. She uses her voice to speak out against injustice in politics and human rights, but it never feels like she’s attacking you with her opinions – it’s like she wants to have a nice chat and help you see her point of view. As a survivor, she is a passionate supporter of the #MeToo movement and fights every day to make the world a safer place. She’s also a proud bi queen and always stands up for the LGBTQ+ community. Through her poetry, she paints vivid images of the world around her and the human condition in an eloquent, beautiful way. She’s my unofficial poetry tutor and has helped me improve my own writing so much. She’s also a talented flue player and dancer, and her Instagram feed is always stunning. Martha, I’ll be cheering extra loud for Sasha Stepanova to medal at the GPF for you.

On that note: next week, I’ll be back to my regular skating posts with a review of the Grand Prix Final. I wish all the skaters the best of luck, and I’ll see you all next week!

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