Surrendering to Scarecrows

Originally posted 2011-12-26

I’ve always thought of myself as being naturally timid. My typical response to uncertainty is to hang back and wait for more information. There’s nothing particularly unusual here - everybody has these moments, perhaps not as frequently as I do. But whenever these moments happen, I tend to think, “Argh. I’m doing it again because I’m Asian. If I weren’t Asian, I’d be less timid”.

I’ve realized that this thought pattern is wrong in several ways.

First, there is only one person in control of me: myself. Therefore, being Asian is irrelevant; whenever I’m timid, it’s because I’m being timid. The first step to being less timid is simply to be less timid.

Second, this stereotype is actually false. I argue via analogy to the Chinese Zodiac. If the Chinese Zodiac were in fact true (that is, if birth year predicts personality traits), then classroom teachers should expect the overall personalities of their classes to change almost schizophrenically from year to year. Obviously this doesn’t happen; therefore, the zodiac can’t be right. Similarly, if the Asian timid stereotype were true, you’d expect Asian countries to never get anything done, since all of their citizens are so timid. Yet anybody with a passing familiarity with Asian history knows that Asia has had its fair share of intrepid, bravehearted individuals.

I argue that the timid stereotype arises via mismatches of cultural norms. In Asian culture, you are not supposed to make eye contact with elders; you are additionally expected to pay respect to your elders, most commonly in the form of bowing your head. Even American-born Asians will have been taught these cultural expectations by their (often) first-generation immigrant parents. Asians may seem timid as judged by their public social interactions, but it is not because they are intrinsically more timid; it is because there are different cultural expectations. Asians themselves (myself included) misinterpret this stereotype, believing timidity to be an intrinsic quality, rather than a cultural artifact.

Third, this way of thinking is self-defeating. It is now a commonly accepted finding that students who perceive themselves as having earned their achievements through hard work will continue to improve themselves, whereas students who perceive themseles as having been awarded their achievements because of their intelligence will stagnate. Similarly, somebody who externalizes the blame for his faults will never fix them; somebody who internalizes the blame will do something about it. To believe in the Asian stereotype is a self-defeating, self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’ve been surrendering to scarecrows until now. No longer.