What was your first impression of me?” I asked my closest Duke friends over the past summer. I vividly remembered the sweltering, August move-in day when I first met them in our freshman dormitory. I eagerly smiled and introduced myself during our first floor meeting, the moment I wanted them to recall. In my self-introduction, I identified “Miho” with the usual: my home state, hobbies and interests. I assumed that their first impressions of me would be an initial response to these three areas about myself. Their first impressions, however, weren’t related to these aspects of “Miho” at all.
Smart. Extremely studious. Goody-goody. Innocent. Non-drinker.
My friends admitted that their first impressions drew from the typical Asian stereotypes of books and brains. Even though I had dressed like a typical college student in an Abercrombie polo and khaki shorts during that floor meeting, and even though I spoke English with no trace of an accent except a southern one, I was not “Miho, hailing from Birmingham with a love for reality television, poker and basketball.” In their eyes, I was “Miho, the Asian.”
No doubt, most first impressions are based on one’s appearance. My jet-black hair and slanted eyes clearly contrasted with the other freshmen at the meeting, as I was the only Asian American on my hall. However, my unchangeable physical traits that defined me as “Asian” and my typical Japanese name immediately gave way to a preconceived personality, as if the intellectual ability, social inabilities and studiousness were as innate as the hair color.
Essentially, “Asian” was not just my ethnicity and a box I had checked on my college applications; it was also a specific type of a personality. I was automatically assumed to stay in on the weekends to study in the library. I didn’t have to state my major or intended plan of study because being Asian meant that I was either a Pratt engineer, pre-med or both. Before I could even shape my own self, I was already dubbed a nerd that rarely partied.
While my friends and I laugh at our wrong first impressions of each other now, I can’t help but think about the strange phenomenon of the “Asian” personality. Not only does this stereotyping force misguided assumptions by non Asians, it also creates a conflict within Asians themselves, who largely do not identify with this cookie-cutter personality. Consequently, Asian Americans place themselves on a spectrum that quantifies just how “Asian” they really are in comparison to these main stereotypes, from the extreme “F.O.B.” (“fresh off the boat”) all the way to the absurd “pseudo-minority,” ethnic by physical appearance but completely whitewashed, whatever being “white” means. Thefacebook.com’s group “Crappy Asians,” which boasts a whopping 77 members, is evident of this conflict.
Even if I don’t boast a 4.0 GPA, even if I’m not pre-med and even if I don’t play the violin, I am no more or less of an Asian American than the next one. And while I’d like to think that the Duke community agrees with me, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received the comment, “You’re so Asian,” when I’ve had to hit the books in Perkins. I’m not “being” Asian; I’m being a Duke student.
My ethnicity is certainly one aspect of myself, but it does not solely define “Miho.” Likewise, Asian Americans are all too often clumped together to be one component of “diversity,” without considering how diverse Asian Americans are compared to each other. The one defining characteristic that all Asian Americans do share is a rich heritage. The Asian Student Association will celebrate a part of this heritage, the Chinese New Year, tomorrow night at 8 p.m. in Page Auditorium through its free, annual Lunar New Year show. The wide range of personalities, talent and perspectives of the Asian Americans, though, will be most evident in the unique dancing, acting and musical performances.
I am: Miho. From an independent day/boarding school. Almost a legal midget. Old Navy shopper. Closet Ashlee Simpson fan. Partier who likes to dance, though not well. A first-generation Japanese American. Loud and obnoxious.
And I hope to see you at Page Auditorium tomorrow night.
Miho Kubagawa is a Trinity sophomore. Her column appears every other Friday.
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