The Stereotypes of Asian-Americans in Literature and Film

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It is estimated that the Asian community makes up an estimated 5.6 percent of the American population, making it one of the largest minority groups that are part of the American society (Asia Society). While the community has been widely regarded as the "model minority"owing to their excellence in academics, business, and hardworking nature. Such stereotypes although well-intentioned, have hindered their integration and participation in the American society. Asian-Americans thus find it hard to express themselves in other areas such as arts and sports where they are depicted in stereotypical fashion. In literature, Kira-Kira

by Cynthia Kadohata and Yang the Youngest and his Terrible Ear by Lensey Namioka are accurate examples of Asian stereotypes promoted in America.

Asians first arrived in the United States in the 1800s as small-scale traders and laborers and initially settled in New York and Hawaii where they sold goods and worked as laborers respectively (Asian Society). However, large numbers of immigrants began arriving during the California gold rush which saw the numbers rise from a paltry 1000 to 37,000 people during a ten-year period, this would eventually rise to over 107, 000 by 1880 (Asia Society). It was during this period that a section of the country began to oppose their immigration through protests and discriminatory laws and policies aimed at curbing immigration.

However, further contact with Asian countries like the Philippines and Japan led to the relaxation of discriminatory immigration policies and laws. This led to increased immigration into the U.S. currently, the number of Asian-Americans living in the United States is estimated to be above 10 million (Asia Society). Most of these individuals have been living in the United for many generations and have thus been accustomed to life in America which has, however, not prevented them from being stereotyped like other minorities.

Asian Americans feel that they are limited to academic and business pursuits which do not allow them to express who they are as a people. Therefore, Asian American participation in the creative spaces of literature and film is limited due to their perceived inexpressiveness which is one of the main stereotypes held by most Americans.

Kira Kira

by Cynthia Kadohata is a book that depicts the common stereotypes about the community in America. The story is about an immigrant family trying to secure a better life for themselves in America and the challenges they are faced with. The book exposes some of the stereotypes about Asian Americans and one of them is that they are meek and polite even when they experience clear social injustices.

 An example is the scene where Mr. Takeshima is denied proper accommodation at a Georgia hotel and does not show his disapproval of this apparent discrimination by accepting to be hosted in the backrooms at an exorbitant price (Kadohata, 10).

This incident reinforces the stereotype that Asians are calm and polite and would rarely cause any trouble even if they are justified to do so as was in Mr. Takeshima`s case. By accepting to be treated like second-class citizens Mr. Takeshima can be said to have reinforced their perceived lower status to the white majority of America to both the reader and his family members such as Katie who is yet to understand what racial discrimination is.

The stereotype that Asians are meek people holds back the Asian-American population in fighting for their rights, can be interpreted as the way they are expected to behave by the white majority. As it is them who would be in a disadvantaged position if the Asian minorities were to become combative and demand to be treated equally.

Another instance in the story that promotes the stereotype of calmness was when Lynn explained to her younger sister that she should expect to be ostracized by her classmates due to her ethnicity alone and is not expected to understand that (Kadohata, 24). Many Asian-Americans find themselves in the same position as Katie whereby, from an early age they are taught to adopt a docile attitude in the face of discrimination.

Although Asians are considered competent in-part due to the fact that they come from similarly advanced civilizations, they are prevented from being too expressive for the fear that they could influence mainstream American culture which has been instituted by the white majority.

Participation of Asians in American society is thus mostly limited to areas that are mutually beneficial and have no cultural impact such as science and technology. In cases when they are allowed to participate in is as a result of conformity to American culture an example of this in the text was when Katie`s mom made curls with her hair in order to resemble those of her white friends (Kadohata, 20).

This conformity is common amongst members of the Asian community whereby; they adopt dress codes that would help them assimilate better even if they do not necessarily reflect their personal preferences. Since attire and personal grooming habits are an important source of cultural identity the community`s identity is suppressed and even after conforming they are not guaranteed social participation.

The book depicts Asian-American families as conformist who cannot hold on and promote their culture since doing so would alienate them from the mainstream society. Conforming as can be seen in the book, does not always result in acceptance as was the case for Katie`s mother who was ignored by other parents despite her best efforts to conform to American social and cultural standards (Kadohata, 22). This puts her and her daughters in a disadvantaged position because they feel that they do not belong in either America or Japan which limits their productivity and contribution in advancing either culture.

In cases where Asians are accepted into the mainstream culture, they are required to compensate by accepting to be held to a higher standard than their white peers and may result in individuals overcompensating. An example of this in Kira Kira, was when Lynn became accepted into a popular group in school after Amber chose to defy the social hierarchy to develop a friendship with her (Kadohata, 34). This friendship may have been due to Lynn`s ability to accept and observe the social hierarchy that existed in her school and community as evidenced by her instructions to her younger sister.

Lynn`s obedience is, therefore, the main reason why she gained the approval of her peers in school and it is thus correct to assume that as a result, she will try even harder to please her white peers in the group. In the long run, this forced conformity is counter-productive as it would result in feelings of resentment as one is forced to abandon their cultural heritage due to its perceived inferiority. Although Lynn may have been happy that she had gained acceptance she would gradually loathe this acceptance as it is not as a result of who she was as a person but a product of deliberate actions aimed at fitting in the society.

Therefore, the example of Lynn successfully integrating into a social group that she was previously not allowed to join based on her race is, in fact, a bad depiction of Asian-Americans as it does not promote their distinct cultural identity. Additionally, this goes against the values of racial equality that are enshrined in the U.S constitution as it can be interpreted to mean that minorities should strive to emulate the white majority by suppressing their cultural heritage.

Yang the Youngest and His Terrible Ear by Lensey Namioka is another book that depicts Asians and their culture in a stereotypical manner such as being good in technical fields and being respectful or peaceful. The story follows a young immigrant Chinese family as they settle in America where they plan to create a better life for themselves and the challenges that they face in their new environment.

In the story, Asians are stereotypically depicted as conformist in that, within a short time Yang had managed to adapt to life in America yet he did not have any training about American prior to their relocation. This can be exemplified by his ability to speak and understand English and urban slang well enough to make a white friend (Namioka, 15). The author in this instance can be regarded as having downplayed the influence and importance of Asian language and culture which is the reason Yang was able to overcome the language and cultural barrier so easily. Asian languages are, therefore, depicted as being inferior to English as they are not challenging to unlearn.

Another stereotypical characteristic of members of the Asian community is their excellence in a certain field which affords them an opportunity to immigrate into the U.S. In the story, Yang`s family members are all extremely talented musicians who easily secure an opportunity to move into America where they are able to find worthwhile activities to engage in. It is a common stereotype that Asian-Americans are extremely talented and that is the reason behind their successful relocation to America.

Even if there is some truth behind this assumption, it makes it increasingly difficult for Asian-Americans to fully integrate as they feel pressured to prove themselves over and above their white counterparts who are considered more competent. The assumption that Asian-Americans are experts in their respective fields puts unnecessary pressure on individuals from the community who cannot live up to the high expectations which are a significant part of the population.

This eventually leads to alienation of a large section of the community`s members who may be isolated from mainstream society which effectively stunts integration into the society because their participation is limited to certain specific areas such as business and technology.

These areas of specialization do not give them an opportunity to freely express themselves and their distinct character traits that would enable them to develop an identity that they can use to adapt to life outside the traditional roles associated with the community. In the story, this can be the reason why the youngest in the Yang family have an easier to fit in America as opposed to the older members of the Yang family who still observe some Chinese customs.

            One of these customs was consuming live fish as opposed to dead and frozen fish as is common in America (Namioka 36). Although the practice is common in Asian countries, it can be considered as a prejudiced depiction of a modern Asian family living in the U.S. because it presents them as being too traditional.

Another common stereotype about Asians advanced in the story is the strict parenting style that is associated with Asian parents who do so in order to instill discipline and obedience in their children. In the story, the youngest member of the family finds it difficult to express his interest in playing baseball instead of playing the violin. Yang`s parents are depicted as strict disciplinarians who seem not to tolerate any challenges to their children`s future who are not allowed to make any choices regarding their trajectory in life (Namioka, 57).

 Even though Yang eventually manages to convince his parents to allow him to pursue his interests, the author promotes negative stereotypes about Asians for they are painted as retrogressive. The parents appear retrogressive as they would rather their children pursue traditional careers for the financial security and prestige they offer rather than sports which are unpredictable career choices.

Strict parenting is thought to be the reason behind the obedience and excellence of Asians in technical careers such as engineering an example of this is the success attained by Yang`s older siblings who have managed to successfully launch their musical careers. Parental obedience is a common stereotype associated with Asians who are perceived to be respectful towards their parents and their wishes like deciding which career paths their children should take.

Therefore, members of the community are seen as conformists who can easily accept and advance other people`s ideas or wishes which occasions incomplete integration since it is based on suppressing one culture in favor of another which is perceived to be more superior.

In the book, the Chinese culture of respect and obedience for elders is portrayed as holding members of the community back. It can, therefore, be interpreted as a deliberate effort by the author to promote American culture and values at the expense of traditional Chinese customs.

This conflict between Yang and his parents symbolizes the misconception that Asians do not pursue or promote careers in fields such as sports due to their unpredictability and are seen to lack the character required to excel.

The misconception may be due to the fact that Asians are thought to lack the ability and skills to handle competitive sports such as baseball. It is such assumptions about Asians that limits their participation and acceptance into the wider American culture due to limited options and exposure. 

Conclusion

Yang the Youngest and his Terrible Ear and Kira Kira advance stereotypes associated with Asian-Americans such as docility and excellence in technical fields. With Asians making up a significant portion of the population, it is important that they fully integrate into the American society so that they can advance the country`s interests as their own. The "model minority"portrayal has led to the development of stereotypes that have hindered their integration. Asians feel pressured to conform by adopting the stereotypical characteristics associated with their community while those that fail to do so become alienated. Therefore, to enhance the community`s integration members should be able to freely express themselves without compromising on their Asian identity.

Works Cited

Namioka, Lensey. Yang the youngest and his terrible ear. Yearling Books, 1992. Pp 15-57.

Kadohata, Cynthia. Kira-kira. Simon and Schuster, 2008. Pp 10-34.

Asia Society. “Asian Americans Then and Now.” Asia Society, 2018. Retrieved from, asiasociety.org/education/asian-americans-then-and-now.

December 12, 2023
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Movies

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9

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2290

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