What does 'Asian' even mean?
To ask for someone who looks Chinese is to ask for someone who looks American. Should an American be white and blond and tall, or an African American, or an eagle? (original post)
In this post, I'll mainly be talking about stereotypes that urban Han Chinese face, although some of these are applicable to other East Asian countries. Besides, the general philosophy is applicable to all kinds of ethnic diversity.
Let's talk about some major Chinese stereotypes.
1) The really smart Chinese kid. Mishma has talked about this before, on why we need diverse books. The smart Chinese kid can do logarithms in their head, memorise three history textbooks without even trying, and in fact knows all the coursework already. Yay!
Haha, I wish. The truth is, we work hard for those results, and more often than not our results are ... well, normal. What I really dislike about this stereotype is how it often associates 'Asian' with 'inherent genius', which I personally feel dehumanises us as robots that only excel at blind academic pursuit, but have no creativity.
How to prepare? Memorise a set of texts, and you're all set.
The idea of hard work and diligence through rote learning is internalised in our culture. Of course, that's not everyone and our education is changing, but let's also remember that any Chinese stereotypes would be based primarily around high-flyers who had the opportunity to continue their education abroad. So of course it's the smartest, most hardworking Chinese people whom Westerners first based their opinions on.
2) Related stereotype: the tiger mum.
Again, let's take a step back. You are a mother in an ancient Chinese family. Your husband farms for a living. Your husband's ancestors have always farmed for a living. But wait! If your kid memorises a lot of Confucius, he might get a government job with a steady income!
Would you not hang your hopes on your children and prod them to study?
Clearly, the situation has changed slightly in our country now, but the fact remains that doing academically well opens doors. This is hardly confined to China, but when you combine the historical element with the hierarchal family structure where parents have almost absolute authority + decision making power, it's not really a surprise many parents have high academic expectations of their kids.
Funnily enough, traditional gender roles mean that the father was normally the one doing the prodding, and the mother played a much kinder role. While modern values mean both parents have equal chances of prodding nowadays, it doesn't mean that these parents don't love their kids, or that there aren't laidback parents.
I'm going to repeat this again: yes, there are cultural reasons that these stereotypes were formed. No, it doesn't mean everyone's like that.
3) The gorgeous Chinese lady.
If not nearly naked, almost always wears a qipao (despite there being many options for traditional Chinese clothing). Sometimes she's the villain, other times she's the innocent daughter of the mafia crime boss. Occasionally appears in those annoying website ads.
It should be fairly obvious how exasperating it is to have half our country's population sexualised. Add that to the problem of people calling us "exotic", and just *facepalm*.
Apologies, land of freedom and equality, but female martial artists are pretty common in Chinese legends and literature. Our women played important roles in history and politics, too. Not to say that China was (or even is) not a misogynistic institution. But adding Western feminism ideas in this way has already been done in our other literature.
(And our lady martial artists have a higher probability of wearing practical clothing, too. Even in period dramas with the worst CGI.)
For another example of Western feminism that doesn't fit in Chinese media would be Mulan. The truth is, while the Western view of Mulan is "young feminist kickass girl", the Chinese version is more "young super-loyal-to-family kickass girl". For those interested, grab my translation of the original and judge for yourself , but IMO, it seriously was not author intention.
While author intention is not everything, I do believe that said intention matters a great deal when it reflects an entire culture's ideologies.
So if media avoids stereotypes ... they should be fine, right? RIGHT?
I mean, it's cool if a person of colour (POC) doesn't speak with an accent, doesn't act like a caricature, and basically just has the appearance + name of their culture. That is already a step forward, especially for fantasy or sci-fi worlds.
BUT. Skin colour and name and language are only starting points. POC aren't going to able to see themselves in characters of colour if the characters are only colour, no culture. Besides, what about white-passing POC, or POC with Anglicised names?
The extent to which a POC is affected by their ethnic culture, of course, varies from character to character. As a fairly local girl from Hong Kong, I'm probably much more Chinese than your average American-born Chinese, and far less than anyone from, say, Tianjin.
Stop being fixated on the stereotype. As readers, let's look for characters who are not only their culture, or completely separated from their culture, but a part of their culture with their own identity.
Stereotypes are not okay. Three-dimensional characters which conform (or subvert!) cultural norms are okay. There is a difference between the two.
It's not easy telling that difference, but it wouldn't be fun if it were easy.