How do Westerners view Asians?

And how should Asians view themselves?

The original essay in Vietnamese and published by the BBC can be found at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/vietnamese/vietnam/2011/11/111111_kimhuynh_west_asia.shtml

In my last essay I touched upon some of the main issues, perspectives and recent developments that Vietnamese should know before they venture West. However, I neglected to address one important question, “How do Westerners see Vietnamese and Asians more generally?”

The good news is that, by and large, Westerners view Asians like anyone else. Entrenched liberal values and the elevation of the individual have generated a belief in many Western countries that everyone should be treated fairly and equally. Laws are in place to promote and protect the ideal that, when it comes to work and public life, there should be no discrimination based on gender, family, sexuality, religion, ethnicity or race. Just as importantly, these laws reflect an open-mindedness and commitment to social justice that makes the West so successful and worth visiting or even living in.

But of course Western societies, like any society, do not always live up to their ideals. While there are relatively few formal and extreme instances of discrimination in the West, discrimination is still very much present. From personal experience, after living in Australia for over thirty years, violent race-based attacks are very rare. So while concerns for personal safety must always be considered, they should not prevent Asians from making their own “Journey to the West”.

The form of discrimination that Vietnamese should be more conscious of is insidious and hard to pin down. It manifests itself in shops and restaurants where the service seems to be little more curt and sluggish than it is for others. One sees it in passing sneers when one is speaking Vietnamese loudly in the street. And it can be identified in how people snigger at superficial things like haircuts and facial hair (or the lack thereof), long pinky fingernails, an unfamiliar delicacy or the way one parks one’s car.

A high level of low-level racism

In many Western countries Asians are regarded as model immigrants who are very successful and well integrated, so I am not suggesting that the discrimination against Asians in the West is the foremost challenge or greatest injustice of our times. Instead, the Australian intellectual Waleed Aly has it right when he says that in Australia (and probably throughout the West), “there is a high level of low level racism”. This means that Asians are subtlety obliged to live down to expectations set by Westerners and criticised or ridiculed when they do not.

Asians are often viewed as being totally different to Westerners and at the same time impossible to tell apart from one another. It is this interplay between being different and indistinguishable that makes Asians invisible to the Western eye. They all have straight black hair and slanting eyes, are industrious, good at numbers and committed to filial duties. Of course these stereotypes are not a problem in themselves; the problem is that they are stereotypes.

These stereotypes should be challenged because, as I will show below, they can hamper personal relationships and professional careers. Moreover, discrimination against Asians is worth combating not only to improve the wellbeing of Asians, but also to enhance the virtues of Western civilisation where, as Martin Luther King taught us, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

Interracial relationships

There is a lot to like and respect about relationships between Asians and westerners. Like all interracial unions they can act as bridges between different societies. An examination of the values, ideas and images that commonly cross over these bridges offers an insight into how Westerners see Asians and also how Asians see themselves.

Basically, and this is surely no surprise, Asian women are more attractive to western men than Asian men are to western women. In the US census data shows that Asian-American women are approximately twice as likely to marry outside of their race as Asian-American men.

The disparity can in part be explained by the western image of Asian women as elegant, alluring and exotic. This is evident in blockbusters like Rambo: First Blood Part II, Good Morning Vietnam, Indochine and The Quiet American (both the 1958 and 2002 versions). The leading Vietnamese characters in these films are beautiful, but also mysterious and troubled.

Gender and Asian studies scholars have pointed out that the desirability of Asian women in the West is connected to a vision of them as yielding and submissive. The pursuit of the Asian woman by the Western man thus accords with a fantasy to save, tame and civilise Asian societies in general. Moreover, this meek and demure model of femininity appeals to more traditional western men who have reservations about the impact of feminism on contemporary ideas about beauty and gender roles.

Importantly, I am not suggesting that all Western men involved with Asian women are driven by colonial fantasies and nostalgia, only that these urges contribute to the dominant image of the Asian woman in the West and can help explain why interracial relationships between Asian women and western men are far more prevalent than those between Asian men and western women.

The relative unattractiveness of Asian men in the West can in part be accounted for by popular perceptions of them as physically too effeminate and socially too patriarchal. The Asian man in Western culture is often portrayed as sinister and devious (most famously, Emperor Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon) or if they are likeable it is in a quirky and comical way (Jackie Chan, Pat Morita or John Cho). In both cases, the Asian villain or sidekick is never a match for the brawny and self-assured western hero and never gets the girl.

While Asian women might appeal to traditional conceptions of western femininity, Asian men are far less desirable when lined up against traditional and still dominant conceptions of western masculinity. The ideal western man is muscular and assertive, while the Asian model male is more likely to be dexterous and reserved.

Contrast, for instance, lightning fast badminton strikes and the sleights of hand that command a ping pong table with the driving force of tennis or the caged brutality of squash. There are many similarities between Chinese chess (xiangqi) and the variety played in the West (that has its roots in South Asia and Persia). However, in the former the pieces skirt along the edges of squares, cannons kill by surprise from above, a river divides opponents and propriety dictates that kings can never face one another. Western chess is generally slower moving, squares are occupied by pieces, attacks are more full-frontal and the greatest agility is reserved for the queen.

Western perceptions of Asian men may well change in the future, particularly if this is to be “Asia’s Century”. Already Asian men are, in general, eating more and growing larger. However, in the same way that one sport or game is not intrinsically superior to another, perhaps Asian masculinity is no better or worse than Western masculinity, at least when it comes to aesthetics? Indeed maybe Western perceptions of male beauty would benefit from changing just as much as the Asian man’s physique? Is there any good reason in the twenty-first century to believe that bigger is always better?

Far more important, then, is to address the view of Asian men as unattractive because they are unenlightened and chauvinistic. It is worth questioning some of the entrenched Asian, particularly rigid Confucian, ideas that place men at the top of their families and communities. Out-dated and unjust patriarchal hierarchies are not only a turn off for many western women, but also for Asian women who are rightfully “breaking the ties” with traditions and mores that kept them at home and under control the control of men.

In an article in the Journal of Asian American Studies Kumiko Nemoto interviewed Asian‑American women who had dated or married white men. All of them expressed a frustration with Asian men who they saw as old-fashioned, uncaring and cold. According to one interviewee, Asian men, “are not gentlemen…They are not affectionate….I think my personality clashes with a lot of them because I think I’m too independent. I’m too outgoing. I’m just a too-myself kind of a person.”

I have heard Vietnamese women of various ages and in different places express similar frustrations about Vietnamese men. Recently, while trying to recommended a male Vietnamese friend to a female one, I stressed that he was caring and progressive, that he had grown up in difficult circumstances and knew how to look after himself and others, that he was an excellent cook and cleaned his own house. “All of that will change when he finds a wife”, was all the young lady had to say. I was left thinking that Asian men, perhaps amongst many others, need to reassess their attitudes towards companionship, housework and childcare if they want to avoid lifelong loneliness.

The bamboo ceiling

Asian aloofness and passivity can also have drawbacks in Western workplaces. Westerners often see Asians as good employees and are at times threatened by their industriousness. However, they maintain that the West has and will continue to have the edge over the East because it is more innovative. Asia, and China especially, may well have become the world’s factory, but it is Europe and North America that remains in charge of the design and management departments.

Korean-American writer, Wesley Yang, recently wrote a provocative article in New York Magazine asserting that in many American workplaces there is a “bamboo ceiling” that insidiously keeps Asians down. He points out how in fields where Asian-Americans have for decades constituted a large proportion of the workforce such as finance, law, health and information technology, there remain only a very small minority of Asian supervisors and directors.

Yang denounces this “unconscious bias”, but is even more critical of the Asians who perpetuate it. The inability of East Asians particularly to express their emotions, ideas and will mean that they are seen as more robot than human, and therefore assigned to the assembly line.

Put another way, Asians in the West are appreciated in the same way as a Honda motorbike which is reliable and naturally aspirated, but which lacks the flair and style of a Vespa and falls well short of a BMW’s commanding esteem. Asian workers are prized, but on the proviso that they keep their heads down and do not ask for too much.

Yang wants to smash through the bamboo ceiling by jettisoning all of his cultural baggage. He summarises his feelings towards Asian values as follows: !@#$%^&* filial piety…!@#$%^&* deference to authority….!@#$%^&* humility and hard work….!@#$%^&* harmonious relations….!@#$%^&* sacrificing for the future….!@#$%^&* earnest, striving middle-class servility.

I am fond of his feistiness, but wonder if Yang is rebelling against Asian values only to submit to American ideals of work and leadership. It is as if he is screaming, “Hey! We Asians can be Western too!”

This raises another key question, “Can Asians succeed in and contribute to the West while still remaining Asian?” For the sake of East and West alike, I would like to think that the answer is “yes”.

Being more Asian

The first thing that young Asians should consider doing is learning more about where they come from. That is, along with a valid visa and spending money, Asians moving to the West should have a firm grasp of the history, culture, contradictions, challenges and nuances of their own society. Without this knowledge they have no chance subverting negative stereotypes about Asians in the West. They will be unarmed against low-level racism and the ignorant people who sustain it.

For many Asian students studying overseas, being familiar with their background and heritage can also serve as a comparative advantage in their studies. Too often, I have witnessed Asian students in Australia under-perform in essays and projects or be left out of discussions, not for lack of English, but rather because they have little to offer in terms of examples, issues and ideas from their own societies.

Many domestic students (and teachers) are keen to know more about foreign lands and people, but start to question if there is anything worth learning when their Asian classmates do not seem to be interested or informed. In these situations, Asian students are not excluded because they are not Western, but rather because they are not Eastern enough.

I have often heard that Asian, especially Vietnamese, forms of thinking and learning are too passive and programmatic and that they need to become more dynamic and creative. This may be true, but there is something contradictory about striving to be more dynamic and creative only to be “like the West”. Therefore, in dismantling the bamboo ceiling it would be foolhardy to totally discard Eastern ways of thinking and living or assume that they have little to offer the outside world.

Amy Chua’s provocative and wildly successful memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, explores the stark differences between Chinese and Western parenting techniques. In so doing, she outlines some horrifying and also humorous accounts of how she raised her daughters: insisting on the highest grades, denying them frivolous pleasures and forcing them to study and practice music for hours a day.

Chua points out that “rote repetition is underrated in America”, that it promotes discipline, fortitude and a sense of accomplishment through effort. And when the child eventually achieves excellence – whether it be school, piano or swimming – the activity becomes much more fun and even self-expressive (a similar message can be found in The Karate Kid and Kung Fu Panda series). The tiger mother assumes that her cubs are resilient rather than weak, she always prepares them for the future and demonstrates her love through boundless sacrifice.

In working with hundreds of Western students every year, my sense is that many of them would benefit from being a little more Asian. Too many have forgotten that two of the key responsibilities of students is to shut up and listen. Instead, western students commonly believe that they have more to tweet, blog, SMS and post to others than they have to learn from their teacher and from books. Sometimes they are too busy multi-tasking to get anything done. Western youth risk not cultivating their creativity because they lack focus and discipline. Of course, many Asian students are also ill-focused and ill-disciplined; they too need to be a more Asian.

To understand how westerners view those from the East, is to understand that neither side is perfect and each side has a lot to offer the other. Vietnamese have been aware of this fact for a long time. They have a rich history of borrowing from, adapting to and blending together a wide range of outside influences, which over time they come to claim as their own.

“There is no pure culture,” the esteemed intellectual Hưu Ngọc reminds us about Vietnam. “Everything is a mixture.” This can be seen in Vietnamese mythology (“con Rồng cháu Tiên”), language (quốc ngũ), religion (tam giáo), fashion (aó dài) and food (phở). Therefore, if the past is anything to go by, young Vietnamese people moving West do not need to be frightened of losing some sort of “natural essence” or being polluted by outside forces. They can be Eastern, Western and other things while remaining proudly Vietnamese.

About the author: Kim Huỳnh is a lecturer in international relations at the Australian National University. Kim has written a biography of his parents, Where the Sea Takes Us: A Vietnamese-Australian Story (HarperCollins 2008) and is the co-editor of The Culture Wars: Australian and American Politics in the 21st Century (Palgrave MacMillan 2009). Kim originally wrote this article in English (before translating it to Vietnamese) and is grateful to his teacher Dr Hà Thị Thu Hương from Integrated Culture and Language Studies for her assistance. BBC Vietnamese also lent some editing assistance.