Combating Asian-American stereotypes as a young female

Hansook Oh has learned to embrace, and sometimes caricaturize, her Asian identity. Photo Credit: Andres Aguila / Daily Sundial;
Hansook Oh has learned to embrace, and sometimes caricaturize, her Asian identity. Photo Credit: Andres Aguila / Daily Sundial;

I grew up feeling more or less ugly. Like many girls, I stood in front of the mirror obsessing over all of my imperfections, wishing everything were different.

I wanted to be taller, thinner and have whiter teeth. But most of all, I wanted to become something that was incredibly impossible — a pretty little white girl.

I dreamed of milky white skin, pale blue eyes and platinum blonde or brunette hair. I wanted a name like Mary-Kate Olsen, Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson, not such a foreign name like my own. I wanted to be that popular cheerleader in all of those high school movies or the unpopular girl who goes through a stupid makeover and becomes the most popular girl in the end.

I wanted to be Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, or at the very least, Baby Spice.

But one day, while I was hating myself in the mirror and trying to put my hair up in the latest J-14 style, I looked again and suddenly, I saw my Asian-ness.

Oh shiitake mushroom.

I was floored. What did that mean for me? I couldn’t think of any people or faces on television to start comparing myself to, except for Mulan or Lucy Liu and a bunch of submissive, unnamed Asian women with foreign accents who worked in a restaurant or nail salon. I did not know of any popular Korean entertainers in mainstream media, so I didn’t even want to be Korean, if Korean didn’t really exist here.

My only role models were straight-A students who got into top-notch colleges, but I hated school and could barely manage Cs. I felt the pressure to be competitively perfect for the Korean community and to be a quiet “whiz kid” from American media. When I almost failed math and science in the beginning of sixth grade, I felt like I was failing my Asian self.

I still wanted to be a pretty little white girl more than anything, but for a very short time in the seventh grade, I took a crack at being a real Asian.

I hung out with the Korean kids and tried to become familiar with Korean pop culture, language and style. I even put up my hair with a pair of chopsticks because I saw an Asian woman do it in a movie.

I tried my best to do well in class, but I was nowhere near the grade point average many of the other Asian girls slaved over to attain. Ironically, it was with these girls where I learned how to make my Asian eyes look bigger by faking an epicanthic fold. I hated my flat, uncreased eyelids, and so did all the other Korean girls, but I didn’t know there was a solution other than plastic eyelid surgery.

The trick was to stick a special kind of clear tape shaped like a crescent moon on the bottom of the eyelid, forcing that epicanthic fold to appear when I opened my eyes. To mask this tape, I put on eyeliner and heavy makeup.

I felt closer to beautiful, but it was a pain in the eye. On very hot days, the adhesive on the tape would melt into my eyes and the tape would start falling off my lids, making me look ridiculous. I had to spend extra time every morning to make sure the tape looked natural. When I ran out these eyelid enforcers, I resorted to cutting out the same shape from transparent tape.

Despite this hard work and my sticky situation, I couldn’t fit the stereotype no matter how desperately I tried. It made sense to me to do martial arts because my father is a ninth-degree Taekwondo master, but I didn’t feel like I could truly be Asian in any other way.

Sometime during middle school, I decided that I did not want to be Asian, and definitely not Korean. I distanced myself from other Korean people and I refused to speak the language. I was apathetic and disengaged from my school work because I found no context to find my identity in history or literature, and I absolutely hated math and science.

I became the anti-Asian. I was full of self-loathing, confusion and misplaced anger, but not only because I was a moody teenager. I tried to stuff the hole in my identity by rebelling against a stereotype I originally tried to force myself to become. In this process I lost fluency in the Korean language and felt genuinely stupid during those years.

I entered high school feeling the same way about “setting myself apart” from other Asian people. I wanted to erase my ethnic struggle into a blank white slate. But I could never escape my face, my stinky food or the familiar but suffocating oppression.

I tried to create self-acceptance by rationalizing the internalized racism I inflicted onto myself through clothes, hair styles and the people I associated myself with. I felt numb, depressed and fragmented, but I felt there was no possibility of any continuity between the “whiz kid,” the anti-Asian and the wannabe white girl inside.

I can’t believe I found a way out of my world of broken mirrors. I am fortunate to have attended a high school that had a program that encouraged me to challenge social constructions of race, gender and class.

I finally learned that Asian Americans had a part in American history and were not just people who appeared during the 20th century to do dry cleaning. I learned that the pressure felt from both European-American and Asian-American cultures to be perfect came from a nonsense idea called the “model minority myth.”

A deconstruction of this stereotype revealed a carefully constructed expectation on all minorities to live up to the “Asian” standard of individual success, to create more interracial violence and hostility and to silence any other kind of Asian-American voices.

I continued this process of self-actualization through college. I’ve declared an Asian American Studies double major to continue my enlightenment. I’ve met mentors to help me to explore and build my identity apart from these stereotypes. I have created an identity apart from stereotypes and unreal expectations.

I am no longer aspiring to become a pretty little white girl. I am no longer ashamed of my beautiful name or the shape of my eyes, and I don’t put tape on them.

  • samurai5

    A very well written piece with lots of truth.  As an Asian American myself, I recognize many of the experiences you’ve documented.  It’s too bad some of the lesser minds here choose shallow comments over any indication of “getting it.”  Well done!

  • Great essay. A+ 
    Being Asian is cool you just have to know how to use the benefit   :-)

  • old glory

    Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You have to be one of the most self-absorbed writers for the Sundial. It’s not about you, get over it. 

    • David the small-L libertarian

      She has a tendency to use the Sundial as a therapy session.  I think this is inappropriate.

      • Anonymous

        Oh no! She’s using the opinions section to write….opinions?! I will not stand for this!

      • samurai5

        “She has a tendency to use the Sundial as a therapy session.  I think this is inappropriate. ”

        Really, David the small-L?  I think you should consider your own presence on these discussion boards. 

    • one voice

      How ignorant do you have to be to say that? Why do you dismiss her experience as something not worthy to look at? It is a real problem that Asians and any other minorities experience as being marginalized and stereotyped that affects self-image as they grow up in this white-male dominated society. How do you change a perception of yourself when it is ingrained in the culture you live in since you were a young child? I still know some adult Asian-Americans that still have trouble defining themselves and embracing themselves as Asian because they don’t teach Asian American History at all when Asians did and do have a part of making this country. It’s a damn struggle everyday to live with feeling displacement and to not be seen as part of the society at large. And it’s the indifference and lack of understanding that perpetuates ignorance such as yours, I feel sorry for you.

  • long duc dong

    Nice opinion piece… I’m glad to hear that you have decided to embrace your “Asian-ness.”  You will appreciate what you have even more when you enter the job market and find that the “model minority myth” works to your advantage.  Generally speaking, there is an expectation among employers that ALL Asians strive to live up to what you called the “Asian standard of individual success.”  Good luck in your endeavors.