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Self-discovery amid stereotypes

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I fulfill more Asian American stereotypes than I can count. Play piano? Check. Grew up good at math? Check. Bad driver? Check. I can joke about these stereotypes now, but for years, they were a source of inner turmoil.

Even before I was aware of it, these stereotypes impacted me from a young age. My elementary school classmates would assume that I was good at math because I was Asian — but it didn’t bother me because it was, for the most part, true (third grader Lena truly was a timed multiplication worksheet whiz). But as I progressed through middle and high school, I felt a need to distinguish myself from the stereotypes others boxed me within. I hated the idea that a person could make (correct) assumptions about me by simply looking at me, and as a contrarian by nature, I pushed away from my culture.

In the latter half of high school, I learned to paint a new narrative of myself. I hid the fact that I played violin and piano and all but extinguished my interest in math — instead, I pursued interests in art history and politics and writing. These interests are certainly core to my identity today, but it would be a lie to say my desire to distance myself from my “Asian-ness” did not contribute to my exploration of these topics. Realistically, I am at Stanford today because I learned to hide my interests that affirmed Asian American stereotypes from admissions officers.

The difficulties that Asian Americans face in today’s society are different, and certainly less harmful, than the judgments placed upon other minorities. Nonetheless, they have played an active role in the way others perceive me and the way I respond to those perceptions. Even today, I question whether my interests in politics and policy were simply born as a reaction to the stereotype of Asian Americans interested in STEM subjects.

Privilege is often discussed within the context of power and violence, where black and brown bodies are disproportionately targeted by police or subject to institutionalized systems of inequality. Another privilege, though, is the privilege of self-discovery. Members of minorities are less able to build a self-narrative freely, instead placing their story within societal judgments. These struggles of identity are certainly not limited to racial stereotypes; queer men may find their narrative defined by the “flamboyant gay” stereotype, and rural Americans may resent the “uneducated hillbilly” stereotype. The idea of self-discovery is built on the assumption of being able to fill in an identity onto a blank slate — a blank slate that often doesn’t exist for those in minority groups.

In college, which is often hailed as a time of exploration and self-discovery, I try to provide each person with a blank slate when I meet them. For myself, I have been actively trying to block out the narratives in which I’ve framed my story for so long; by spending years of my life trying to rebel against stereotypes, I have afforded more power to them. Today, I attempt to exist as Asian American, without the expectations of being Asian American. This is far from a perfect solution — being cognizant of stereotypes is necessary for combating them — but it is the scaffolding I am relying on to pave my path of self-discovery.

Contact Lena Han at lahan ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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