Here is the full transcript of Canwen Xu’s TEDx Talk: I Am Not Your Asian Stereotype at TEDxBoise conference.
Canwen Xu: My name is Canwen, and I play both the piano and the violin. I aspire to some day be a doctor, and my favorite subject is calculus.
My mom and dad are tiger parents, who won’t let me go to sleepovers, but they make up for it by serving my favorite meal every single day: Rice.
And I’m a really bad driver. So my question for you now is: How long did it take you to figure out? I was joking.
As you’ve probably guessed, today I am going to talk about race and I’ll start off by sharing with you my story of growing up as Asian-American.
I moved to the United States when I was two years old, so almost my entire life has been a blend of two cultures.
I eat pasta with chopsticks. I’m addicted to orange chicken, and my childhood hero was Yao Ming. But having grown up in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Idaho, all states with incredible little racial diversity, it was difficult to reconcile my so-called exotic Chinese heritage with my mainstream American self. Used to being the only Asian in the room, I was self-conscious at the first thing people noticed about me was, that I wasn’t white. And as a child I quickly began to realize that I had two options in front of me.
Conformed to the stereotype that was expected of me, or conformed to the whiteness that surrounded me. There was no in between. For me, this meant that I always felt self-conscious about being good at maths, because people would just say it was because I was Asian, not because I actually worked hard. It meant that whenever a boy asked me out, it was because he had the yellow fever, and not because he actually liked me. It meant that for the longest time my identity had formed around the fact that I was different.
And I thought that being Asian was the only special thing about me. These effects were emphasized by the places where I lived. Don’t get me wrong. Only a small percentage of people were actually racist, or, even borderline racist, but the vast majority were just a little bit clueless. Now, I know you are probably thinking, “What’s the difference?” Well, here is an example.
Not racist can sound like, “I’m white and you’re not”. Racist can sound like, “I’m white, you’re not, and that makes me better than you.” But clueless sounds like, “I’m white, you’re not, and I don’t know how to deal with that.” Now, I don’t doubt for a second that these clueless people are still nice individuals with great intentions. But they do ask some questions that become pretty annoying after a while.
Here are a few examples “You’re Chinese, oh my goodness, I have a Chinese friend, do you know him?”
“No, I don’t know him. Because contrary to your unrealistic expectations, I do not know every single one of the 135 billion Chinese people who live on Planet Earth.”
People also tend to ask, “Where does your name come from?”, and I really don’t know how to answer that, so I usually stick with the truth: “My parents gave it to me. Where does your name come from?” Don’t even get me started on how many times people have confused me with a different Asian person.
One time someone came up to me and said, “Angie, I love your art work!” And I was super confused, so I just thanked them and walked away. But, out of all the questions my favorite one is still the classic, “Where are you from?”, because I’ve lived in quite a few places, so this is how the conversation usually goes.
“Where are you from?”
“Oh, I am from Boise, Idaho.”
“I see, but where are you really from?”
“I mean, I lived in South Dakota for a while.”
“Okay, what about before that?”
“I mean, I lived in North Dakota.”
“Okay, I’m just going to cut straight to the chase here, I guess what I’m saying is, have you ever lived anywhere far away from here, where people talk a little differently?”
“Oh, I know where you’re talking about, yes I have, I used to live in Texas.”
By then, they usually have just given up and wonder to themselves why I’m not one of the cool Asians like Jeremy Lin or Jackie Chan, or they skip the needless banter and go straight for the, “Where is your family from?” So, just an FYI for all of you out there, that is the safest strategy.
But, as amusing as these interactions were, oftentimes they made me want to reject my own culture, because I thought it helped me conform. I distanced myself from the Asian stereotype as much as possible, by degrading my own race, and pretending I hated math. And the worse part was, it worked.
The more I rejected my Chinese identity, the more popular I became. My peers liked me more, because I was more similar to them.
I became more confident, because I knew I was more similar to them. But as I became more Americanized, I also began to lose bits and pieces of myself, parts of me that I can never get back, and no matter how much I tried to pretend that I was the same as my American classmates, I wasn’t.
Because for people who have lived in the places where I lived, white is the norm, and for me, white became the norm too. For my fourteenth birthday, I received the video game The Sims 3, which lets you create your own characters and control their lives. My fourteen-year-old self created the perfect little mainstream family, complete with a huge mansion and an enormous swimming pool.
I binge-played the game for about three months, then put it away and never really thought about it again, until a few weeks ago, when I came to a sudden realization. The family, that I had custom-designed, was white. The character that I had designed for myself, was white. Everyone I had designed was white. And the worst part was, this was by no means a conscious decision that I had made.
Never once did I think to myself that I could actually make the characters look like me. Without even thinking, white had become my norm too. The truth is, Asian Americans play a strange role in the American melting pot. We are the model minority .Society uses our success to pit us against other people of color as justification that racism doesn’t exist.
But does that mean for us, Asian Americans? It means that we are not quite similar enough to be accepted, but we aren’t different enough to be loathed. We are in a perpetually grey zone, and society isn’t quite sure what to do with us. So they group us by the color of our skin. They tell us that we must reject our own heritages, so we can fit in with the crowd. They tell us that our foreignness is the only identifying characteristic of us.
They strip away our identities one by one, until we are foreign, but not quite foreign, American but not quite American, individual, but only when there are no other people from our native country around I wish that I had always had the courage to speak out about these issues.
But coming from one culture that avoids confrontation, and another that is divided over race, how do I overcome the pressure to keep the peace, while also staying true to who I am? And as much as I hate to admit it, often times I don’t speak out, because, if I do, it’s at the the risk of being told that I am too sensitive, or that I get offended too easily, or that it’s just not worth it.
But I would point, are people willing to admit that? Yes, race issues are controversial. But that’s precisely the reason why we need to talk about them.
I just turned eighteen, and there are still so many things that I don’t know about the world. But what I do know is that it’s hard to admit that you might be part of the problem, that, all of us might be part of the problem. So, instead of giving you a step-by-step guide on how to not be racist towards Asians, I will let you decide what to take from this talk. All I can do, is share my story. My name is Canwen, my favorite color is purple.
And I play the piano, but not so much the violin. I have two incredibly supportive, hardworking parents, and one very awesome ten-year-old brother. I love calculus more than anything, despise eating rice, and I’m a horrendous driver. But most of all, I am proud of who I am. A little bit American, a little bit Chinese, and a whole lot of both.