The perpetual foreigner and the self-perpetuating stereotype

I was talking recently with a guy I’m dating. He mentioned that he had been dreaming about flying alongside a truck, and waving at the truck driver who just looked at him funny.

“Probably just the sound of traffic filtering into your dream,” I said unromantically.

Undeterred in his desire to have a deep and philosophic conversation with me, he asked, “Do you ever dream that you’re just going along, with nothing changing?”

“No,” I deadpanned; “I’m Asian. We don’t have time to think that way, even in dreams.”

So for any of you wondering why I don’t maintain successful long-term relationships with romantic men, now you know.

Additionally, though, I’ve been looking back on that conversation with a little embarrassment. It was just a joke. It was just a comment I made to avoid having a random, abstract conversation I didn’t feel like having.

And yet, how useful was it of me to caricature an entire continent? How accurate was it? I mean, my Indian father is a driven and hard-working man, but he’s also prone to bouts of philosophy and deep reflection and romance in the literary sense of the word. (I would say this is because he’s from Bengal, but that would undermine the point of this piece.) On the other hand, my Scottish mother, equally driven and hard-working, has little patience for meandering conversation about nothing in particular. She would never have a dream about just going along with nothing changing, and if she did, she wouldn’t want to process it afterwards.

 

One of my best friends loves to joke about how cheap he is because he’s Asian. And when it’s just the two of us, we laugh about it—we even have a regular bit where he’ll do something to save a few pennies and I’ll tell him how cheap he is and he’ll say it’s because he’s Asian. It’s funny because it’s a stereotype of which we’re very aware (and, let’s not lie, because we’ve had a fair number of experiences of it being true; immigrants have to be careful with money because “disposable income” is a contradiction in terms to many of us). But when he says it in front of non-Asians, it makes me crazy (which, I think, is why he does it—he takes himself MUCH less seriously than I do). I can’t decide if it’s a “don’t air our dirty laundry in public” reaction or a “don’t perpetuate a false stereotype” reaction or perhaps an “I’m afraid it might be true and I don’t want them noticing if that’s not how they already think” reaction.

 

You know the saying: “The thing about stereotypes is there’s usually a kernel of truth to them.”

And I find myself remembering, when my mother and I worked together at the Traveler’s Shoppe in Akron, Ohio, how the other staff would make whichever of us was working assist the Indian customers, because the staff had decided Indians were never going to buy a (costly) suitcase whose company offered commission, and they’d try to haggle you down on what was already the cheapest bag in the store. And while other stereotypes got challenged repeatedly—Black people, women with spray tans wearing cheap cut-offs and smacking gum, guys with beer guts and stained tee shirts would walk away with Tumi or Hartmann or (big payday for us–$5 commission a case) Andiamo—that one remained pretty consistently upheld. The Indian customers bought cheap and pushed for discounts. (If we’d been in Chicago with the more moneyed second generation Indians, it might have been a different story; second generation Indian Americans don’t stick around in Akron in my experience, especially if they want a good living.)

The reason I hate the saying about stereotypes being true is it misses a layer. A more accurate but less catchy slogan would be “The thing about stereotypes is that they gloss over the ways a community is shaped by its distinct cultural and political experiences.”

My father remembers the drought in his village that resulted in poor people asking his mother to save the water that she soaked her rice in so that they could drink the water for at least a little nourishment. My family owned an acre of rice paddy, and sometimes they only had rice to eat, but there were people in the village who didn’t have that. He will never buy an $800 briefcase. He is reticent to pay more than $30 for a pair of pants. Money means something different to him that shouldn’t be a point of shame.

I get tired of so many of my friends who have been in this country longer than me being asked, “Where are you from? No, where are you REALLY from?”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWynJkN5HbQ

But then I notice the ways that I play up the same stereotypes—usually with other API friends, but (as with the guy I’m dating, who is African American) sometimes not. And I wonder about how perhaps I need to not simply complain about stereotypes when they surface but begin to ask, “What experience underlies that stereotype,” for my own community and in conversation with people from other communities. Where does the stereotype come from? What story does it tell? How true is that story? What culture may or may not underlie it? I might get to know my own people’s survival stories and the stories of others in the process. I might feel less shame about the stereotypes of being cheap and less prone to claim the “hardworking immigrant” narrative that denies the industry of so many non-Asians and the different cultural contexts of some of my friends who do not value “work hard til you die” as healthy.

 

That said, don’t expect me to join in a conversation about dreams of nothing happening. Scottish Indian women in their thirties don’t have time for that foolishness.

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