On the expectation of “Asian” being synonymous to textbook smart

I like Maths. Maths can be quite fun. Shocking, I know. I find there’s an ease to it when you look at a question and you know exactly what they’re looking for and you know exactly what you’re supposed to do. There’s also the comfort that there will be right or wrong answers and whether or not my answers are correct will not be subjective to the person reading it. But for some reason us Asians liking maths (or sciences, particularly physics, or engineering etc) becomes something that eyes automatically roll at: “Oh of course, she’s Asian.” It’s suddenly as though another piece in the universe puzzle has fallen in the right place when people find out that us Asians like these subjects and/or want to pursue a career in these departments.

Not only has the universe decreed that we’re to love these subjects, we’re meant to find it easy. Sure, some things in Maths come quicker to me than most, but Further Maths A Level is certainly not something that’s going straight in my basket. So when I voice my concern or whine about how difficult it is, my discomfort and struggles are dismissed simply with “you’ll be fine, you’re Asian.” Suddenly, being Asian has empowered me with all these super powers to, once in the exam room with my papers in front of me, answer every question with ease and efficiency; that simply being Asian meant I must automatically excel in my exams. Anything otherwise, we “let down the Asian stereotype”. When my friends and I do well in a test, regardless of its difficulty, our “success” is again dismissed because we’re “Asian, so [we] have to do well/always do well anyway,” whereas our peers will get a “Well done!” or a “that’s really impressive!” We are not expected to find any of this difficult.

Is there a reason that I’ve overlooked for being irritated when almost every other group of people sympathised with when finding these subjects difficult and praised when they find it easy? What is it about being Asian that means “hard subjects” come easy to us? Why is there an expectation for us to choose these career paths and the ridiculously hard work of, say, medical students brushed off as something easily achievable?

But this is just me ranting as an annoyed teenager. Perhaps it would be more useful to look at the deeper issue at hand – the kind of pressure this attitude causes. When not only faced with the expectation to excel in class from our parents but from our peers too, the prospect of failure becomes an unbearable burden. Fear of failure manifests itself to the extent where the expectation we place on ourselves might even exceed those around us. Naturally, there will be some people who aren’t affected by these pressures, or are able to handle it well. The down side is that there will also be those who will suffer because of this. And ‘this’ doesn’t stop here. The fear of failure goes beyond pressuring ourselves to potentially unreachable standards; it paralyses us into sticking with the safe option and prevents us from being creative and thinking outside the box. It is toxic. I’m sure many of these comments are made in passing and offhandedly without any malice, but the brashness, carelessness, and frequency of these comments becomes an irritating itch in our daily lives that we just can’t seem to shake off.

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