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Stereotypes of East Asians in the United States

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Title: Stereotypes of East Asians in the United States  
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Subject: Ethnic stereotype, Stereotypes of Asians, Graduados, Stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in the United States, Dick Young (sportswriter)
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Stereotypes of East Asians in the United States

Stereotypes of East Asians are ethnic stereotypes found in American society. Stereotypes of East Asians, like other ethnic stereotypes, are often manifest in a society's media, literature, theater and other creative expressions. Stereotypes of East Asians have been largely collectively internalized by society and these stereotypes have mainly negative repercussions for East Asians and East Asian immigrants in daily interactions, current events, and governmental legislation. In many instances, media portrayals of East Asians often reflect a dominant Americentric perception rather than realistic and authentic depictions of true cultures, customs and behaviors.[1] East Asians have experienced discrimination and have been victims of hate crimes related to their ethnic stereotypes, as it has been used to reinforce xenophobic sentiment.

Orientalism, mysticism and exoticism

According to Edward Said, orientalism refers to the manner in which West interprets or comes to terms with their experiences and encounters with the foreign, unfamiliar Orient, or the East. Said claimed that "the Orient" was a European invention to denote East Asia as a place of exoticism, romance, and remarkable experiences and also as a concept to contrast against Western civilization.[2]

The effects of orientalism in Western cultures includes the "othering" of East Asians and East Asian Americans; their cultures and lifestyles perceived as "exotic", in stark contrast to "ordinary" Western customs.[2] While Western cultures are perceived or believed capable of change and modernization, East Asian cultures are considered ancient in contrast.[3]

Stereotypes of exclusion or hostility

"Yellow Peril"

1899 editorial cartoon with caption: "The Yellow Terror in all his glory."

The term "Yellow Peril" refers to a White apprehension, peaking in the late 19th-century, that white inhabitants of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, or the United States would be overwhelmed and swamped by a massive influx of East Asians; who would fill the nation with a foreign culture and speech incomprehensible to those already there and steal jobs away from the white inhabitants and that they would eventually take over and destroy western civilization, their ways of life, culture and values. The term has also referred to the belief and fear that East Asian societies would invade and attack Western societies, wage wars with them and lead to their eventual destruction and eradication. During this time, numerous anti-Asian sentiments were expressed by politicians and writers, especially on the West Coast, with headlines like "The 'Yellow Peril'" (Los Angeles Times, 1886) and "Conference Endorses Chinese Exclusion" (The New York Times, 1905)[4] and the later Japanese Exclusion Act. The American Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of Asians because they were considered an "undesirable" race.[5]

Australia had similar fears and introduced a White Australia policy, restricting immigration between 1901 to 1973, with some elements of the policies persisting to the 1980s. On 12 February 2002, Helen Clark, then prime minister of New Zealand apologized "to those Chinese people who had paid the poll tax and suffered other discrimination, and to their descendants." She also stated that Cabinet had authorized her and the Minister for Ethnic Affairs to pursue with representatives of the families of the early settlers a form of reconciliation which would be appropriate to and of benefit to the Chinese community.[6] Similarly, Canada had in place a head tax on East Asian immigrants to Canada in the early 20th century; a formal government apology was given in 2007 (with compensation to the surviving head tax payers and their descendants).[7]

Perpetual foreigner

There is a widespread perception that Asian Americans are not "American" but are instead "perpetual foreigners".[8][9][10] Asian Americans often report being asked the question, "Where are you really from?" by other Americans, regardless of how long they or their ancestors have lived in United States and been a part of its society.[11] Many Asian Americans are themselves not immigrants but rather born and raised in the United States.

Asian Americans have been perceived, treated, and portrayed by many in US society as "perpetual" foreigners who are unable to be assimilated and inherently foreign regardless of citizenship or duration of residence in the United States.[12][13] A similar view has been advanced by Ling-chi Wang, professor emeritus of Asian American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Wang asserts that mainstream media coverage of Asian communities in the United States has always been "miserable."[14] He states, "In [the] mainstream media's and policymakers' eyes, Asian Americans don't exist. They are not on their radar... and it's the same for politics."[14]

According to Jose Antonio Vargas, writer for the Washington Post, there's a game he likes to play called WTAG: Where's the Asian guy? In 2007, Vargas considered Daniel Dae Kim, co-star of ABC's Lost to be the only significant Asian male character.[15] A study by UCLA researchers for the Asian American Justice Center (AAJC), Asian Pacific Americans in Prime Time, confirmed that there had not been a tremendous amount of progress for Asian-American actors, on network TV. While Asian-Americans make up 5 percent of the US population, the report found only 2.6 percent were primetime TV regulars. Shows set in cities with large Asian populations, like New York and Los Angeles, had few Asian roles.

One out of five people in the New York City borough of Queens is Asian, but CBS's The King of Queens had no Asian regular characters through its nine-season run.[16] This is a series that had over 13 million viewers at its most popular and had been released in over 29 countries.[17] Another television series that was well-known and popular was The O.C. a show that was set in an American state known for its thriving Asian population and communities, but throughout it run the show had no prominent Asian characters. This was taken notice of by actress Ming-Na who stated, "I don't know what Orange County that show is representing, but there is not one single Asian in that show and I'm sorry, that is just wrong. It would be like having a show take place in China and not having one Asian represented."[18]

Model minority stereotype

Asian Americans have also been stereotyped as a "model minority"; that is, positive traits are applied as a stereotype. Asians as a whole are seen as hardworking, politically inactive, studious, intelligent, productive, and inoffensive people who have elevated their social standing through merit and diligence. Some theorize that this can be attributed to Asian's worldwide disproportionate business success as a middleman minority, as discussed in Amy Chua's book World on Fire. This label is given in contrast to other racial stereotypes which routinely accuse minorities of socially unwelcome traits: such as laziness or criminal tendencies.[19]

However, some Asian Americans believe the model minority stereotype to be damaging and inaccurate, and are acting to dispel this stereotype.[20] Scholars, activists, and most major American news sources have started to oppose this stereotype, calling it a misconception that exaggerates the success of Asian Americans.[21][22][23][24][25] According to those trying to debunk this belief, the model minority stereotype alienates Asian Americans from other minorities and covers up actual Asian American issues and needs that are still not properly addressed in America today.[26] For example, the widespread notion that Asian Americans earn higher-than-average income obscures issues such as the "bamboo ceiling" phenomenon, where advancement into the highest-level managerial or executive positions is blocked,[27][28][29] and the fact that Asian Americans must acquire more education and work more hours than their white counterparts to earn the same amount of money.[30]

The "model minority" image is also seen as being damaging to Asian American students because their assumed success makes it easy for educators to overlook Asian American students who are struggling academically.[31][32][33][34]

For example, 25.2% of Asian Americans over age 25 hold a bachelor's degree compared to only 15.5% of the general American population, thus giving the impression of Asian American success. However, only 6.9% of Cambodians, and 6.2% of Laotians in this age group in America hold bachelor's degrees- albeit attributed by researchers due to poverty and severe mental health issues due to these nations' civil war.[35] [36] Despite this stereotype of supposed Asian American success, there is a high 80% unemployment rate among the Hmong Americans and other Asian Americans groups from refugee backgrounds.[30]

Asian Americans commit crimes at a disproportionately lower rate than other racial and ethnic groups in America.[37] However, examples of criminal and unethical behavior are in contrast to the model minority construct.[38][39] In 2007, Asian Americans were implicated in cheating scandals, shooting sprees, and political corruption. Most notable is the Virginia Tech massacre by Seung-Hui Cho, which led to the deaths of 33 individuals, including Cho himself. The shooting spree, along with Cho's Korean ethnicity, stunned American society.[40] Other scandals which made headlines were the arrests of Norman Hsu, a former campaign donor to Hillary Clinton, Ed Jew, the former San Francisco Supervisor, and Kim Kyung Joon, a former Los Angeles City Commissioner who served as a business partner to former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak. Also in 2007, 34 MBA students, primarily of East Asian descent, were caught in a major cheating scandal at Fuqua School of Business of Duke University. Of those 34 students, 9 were permanently expelled, 15 were suspended for one year, and the rest received failing grades.[41]

In 2013, the model minority image further took a hit with the numerous arrests of college educated Asian American students, including three Asian American students from Harvard arrested for separate incidents. One of the individuals, Eldo Kim, was arrested for calling the Harvard University campus for a bomb threat. His motive was to get out of taking final exams. Eldo's arrest made national news.[42] In addition, recent University of Michigan graduate Bosung Shim was sentenced to federal prison for hacking into a medical admissions website in an attempt to alter his MCAT scores.[43]

Another effect of the stereotype is that American society may tend to ignore the racism and discrimination Asian Americans still face. Complaints are dismissed with the claim that the racism which occurs to Asian Americans is less important than or not as bad as the racism faced by other minority races, thus establishing a systematic racial hierarchy. Believing that due to their success and that they possess so-called "positive" stereotypes, many assume they face no forms of racial discrimination or social issues in the greater American society, and that their community is fine, having "gained" educational and economic equality.[44][45]

Archetypal East Asians in American fiction

Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan are two important and well-known fictional East Asian characters in America's cultural history. Both were created by white authors, Sax Rohmer and Earl Derr Biggers respectively, in the early part of the 20th century. Fu Manchu is a sardonic, intelligent, yet evil Chinese murderer with plots of world domination, an embodiment of America's imagination of a threatening mysterious East Asian people. Charlie Chan is an apologetic submissive Chinese-Hawaiian detective who solves cases while politely handling the many racist insults hurled at him by white American characters, and represents America's archetypal "good" East Asian. Both characters found widespread popularity in numerous novels and films.[9]

Fu Manchu: "evil" East Asian

Modern twist on Fu Manchu

Thirteen novels, three short stories, and one novelette have been written about Fu Manchu and Sir Denis Nayland Smith, the British agent determined to stop him. Millions of copies have been sold in the United States with publication in British and American periodicals and adaptations to film, comics, radio, and television. Due to his enormous popularity, the "image of Fu Manchu has been absorbed into American consciousness as the archetypal East Asian villain."[9] In The Insidious Doctor Fu-Manchu, Sax Rohmer introduces Fu Manchu as a cruel and cunning man, with a face like Satan, who is essentially the "Yellow Peril incarnate".[46]

Sax Rohmer inextricably tied the evil character of Fu Manchu to all East Asians as a physical representation of the Yellow Peril, attributing the villain's evil behavior to his race. Rohmer also adds an element of mysticism and exoticism to his portrayal of Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu contrives unnecessarily elaborately creative and cruel methods of murdering his victims, replete with allegedly East Asian methods or elements in his murders such as: "death by silk rope"- none of which have any basis in reality. Despite Fu Manchu's specifically Manchu ethnicity, his evil and cunning are pan-Asian attributes again reinforcing Fu Manchu as representational of all East Asian people.[9]

Blatantly racist statements (not considered so at the time the novels were published) made by white protagonists such as: "the swamping of the white world by yellow hordes might well be the price of our failure" again add to East Asian stereotypes of exclusion.[47] Fu Manchu's inventively sardonic methods of murder and white protagonist Denis Nayland Smith's grudging respect for his intellect reinforce stereotypes of East Asian intelligence, exoticism/mysticism, and extreme cruelty.[9][48]

Charlie Chan: "good" East Asian

Warner Oland, a Swedish-American actor portraying Charlie Chan, a Chinese Hawaiian detective.

Charlie Chan, a fictional character created by author Earl Derr Biggers loosely based on Chang Apana (1871–1933), a real-life Chinese-Hawaiian police officer, has been the subject of 10 novels (spanning from 1925 to as late as 1981), over 40 American films, a comic strip, a board game, a card game, and a 1970s animated television series. In the films, the role of Charlie Chan has usually been played by white actors (namely Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, and Roland Winters).[49]

In stark contrast to the Chinese villain Fu Manchu, East Asian American protagonist Charlie Chan represents the American archetype of the "good" East Asian.[9] In The House Without a Key, Earl Derr Biggers describes Charlie Chan in the following manner: "He was very fat indeed, yet he walked with the light dainty step of a woman. His cheeks were chubby as a baby's, his skin ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanting."[50] Charlie Chan speaks English with a heavy accent and flawed grammar, and is exaggeratedly polite and apologetic. After one particular racist affront by a Bostonian woman, Chan responds with exaggerated submission, "Humbly asking pardon to mention it, I detect in your eyes slight flame of hostility. Quench it, if you will be so kind. Friendly co-operation are essential between us." Bowing deeply, he added, "Wishing you good morning."[50]

Because of Charlie Chan's emasculated, unassertive, and apologetic physical appearance and demeanor he is considered a non-threatening East Asian man to mainstream audiences despite his considerable intellect and ability. Many modern critics, particularly Asian-American critics, claim that Charlie Chan has none of the daring, assertive, or romantic traits generally attributed to white fictional detectives of the time,[51] allowing "white America ... [to be] securely indifferent about us as men."[52] Charlie Chan's good qualities are the product of what Frank Chin and Jeffery Chan call "racist love", arguing that Chan is a model minority and "kissass".[53] Instead, Charlie Chan's successes as a detective are in the context of proving himself to his white superiors or white racists who underestimate him early on in the various plots.[9]

The Chan character also perpetuates stereotypes as well, oft quoting supposed ancient Chinese wisdom at the end of each novel, saying things like: "The Emperor Shi Hwang-ti, who built the Great Wall of China, once said: 'He who squanders to-day talking of yesterday's triumph, will have nothing to boast of tomorrow.'"[54] Fletcher Chan, however, argues that the Chan of Biggers's novels is not subservient to whites, citing The Chinese Parrot as an example; in this novel, Chan's eyes blaze with anger at racist remarks and in the end, after exposing the murderer, Chan remarks "Perhaps listening to a 'Chinaman' is no disgrace."[55]

Stereotypes of East Asian men

Emasculation and asexuality

In the mid-1800s, Chinese laborers were given an emasculated image due to their physical appearance, and the fact that they did what Americans considered to be "women's work." The Chinese workers sported long braids (the "queue hairstyle" which was compulsory in China) and sometimes wore long silk gowns.[56] Because Chinese men were seen as an economic threat to the white workforce, laws were passed that barred the Chinese from many "male" labor-intensive industries, the only jobs available to the Chinese of the time were jobs that whites deemed "women's work" (i.e., laundry, cooking, and childcare).[56]

In the documentary The Slanted Screen, the Filipino American director Gene Cajayon talks about the revised ending for the action movie Romeo Must Die, a retelling of "Romeo and Juliet" where Aaliyah plays Juliet to Jet Li's Romeo. The original ending had Aaliyah kissing Chinese actor Li, which would have explained the title of Romeo, a scenario that didn't test well with an urban audience.[57] So the studio changed it with the new ending having Trish (Aaliyah) giving Han (Jet Li) a tight hug. According to Cajayon, "Mainstream America, for the most part, gets uncomfortable with seeing an East Asian man portrayed in a sexual light."[57] Asian men are often portrayed as feminine or sexless in American media.[58][59]

Predators of white women

American anti-Japanese propaganda poster from World War II depicting a Japanese soldier threatening a white woman

East Asian men have been portrayed as threats to white women[60] in many aspects of American media. Depictions of East Asian men as "lascivious and predatory" were common at the turn of the 20th century.[61] Fears of "white slavery" were promulgated in both dimestore novels and melodramatic films.

Between 1850 and 1940, both US popular media and propaganda before and during World War II humanized Chinese men, while portraying Japanese men as a military and security threat to the country, and therefore a sexual danger to white women[9] due to the perception of a woman's body traditionally symbolizing her "tribe's" house or country.[62] In the 1916 film Patria, a group of fanatical Japanese individuals invade the United States in an attempt to rape a white woman.[63] Patria was an independent film serial funded by William Randolph Hearst (whose newspapers were known to promulgate threats of the yellow peril), in the lead up to the United States' entry into World War I.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen portrays the way in which an "Oriental" beguiles white women. The film portrays Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) coming to China to marry a missionary (Gavin Gordon) and help in his work. They become separated at a railway station, and Davis is rescued/kidnapped by warlord General Yen (Nils Asther). Yen becomes infatuated with Davis, and knowing that she is believed to be dead, keeps her at his summer palace.


Another stereotype of East Asian men is that they are misogynistic, insensitive, and disrespectful towards women. They are commonly portrayed as male chauvinists. [64] Although Amy Tan's book, The Joy Luck Club has been widely praised by critics, it has also been criticized by noted Chinese-American author Frank Chin for allegedly perpetuating racist stereotypes.[65][66] Chinese-American director Wayne Wang was impressed with the story and managed to create a film version of the novel.[67] Guy Aoki of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) said that in The Joy Luck Club, white men were presented as more suitable romantic interests than East Asian men.[68]

Changing perceptions of East Asian males

More recent media depictions of East Asian males are at a seeming variance with traditional stereotypes. Study findings from an analysis of the TV show Lost suggest that increased globalization is responsible for providing a more multidimensional and complex portrayal of East Asian males in televised media.[69]

Stereotypes of East Asian women

The Dragon Lady

East Asian women have been portrayed as aggressive or opportunistic sexual beings or predatory gold diggers using their feminine wiles.[70] Western film and literature has continually portrayed such stereotypes of East Asian women: depicting East Asian women as cunning "Dragon Ladies". This is contrasted with the other stereotypes of servile "Lotus Blossom Babies", "China dolls", "Geisha girls", war brides, or prostitutes.[71]

In contemporary times, the Dragon Lady stereotype is personified by Ling Woo, a fictional character in the US comedy-drama Ally McBeal, (1997–2002) portrayed by American actress Lucy Liu. Ling was a cold and ferocious[72] Chinese American lawyer who spoke Mandarin[73] and was knowledgeable in the art of sexual pleasure unknown to the American world.[73][74] At the time, she was the only significant representative of East Asian women on television[74] (besides news anchors and reporters),[75] leaving no one else to counteract this prominent stereotype.[74] Thus, the portrayal of Ling Woo attracted much scholarly attention.[75] University of Wyoming Darrell Hamamoto, Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis, describes Ling as "a neo-Orientalist masturbatory fantasy figure concocted by a white man whose job it is to satisfy the blocked needs of other white men who seek temporary escape from their banal and deadening lives by indulging themselves in a bit of visual cunnilingus while relaxing on the sofa." Hamamoto does maintain, however, that Ling "sends a powerful message to white America that East Asian American women are not to be trifled with. She runs circles around that tower of Jell-O who serves as her white boyfriend. She's competitive in a profession that thrives on verbal aggression and analytical skill."[76] Contemporary actress Lucy Liu has been accused of popularizing this stereotype by characters she have played in mainstream media.[77]

"China doll" stereotype

According to author Sheridan Prasso, the China [porcelain] doll stereotype and its variations of feminine submissiveness recurs in American movies. These variations can be presented as an associational sequence such as: "Geisha Girl/Lotus Flower/Servant/China Doll: Submissive, docile, obedient, reverential; the Vixen/Sex Nymph: Sexy, coquettish, manipulative; tendency toward disloyalty or opportunism; the Prostitute/Victim of Sex Trade/War/Oppression: Helpless, in need of assistance or rescue; good-natured at heart."[56][70]

An iconic source of images of East Asian women in the 20th century in the West is the 1957 British novel and 1960 American film, The World of Suzie Wong, about a Hong Kong woman.[78] UC Berkeley Professor of Asian American Studies Elaine Kim argued in the 1980s that the stereotype of East Asian women as submissive has impeded their economic mobility.[79]

Another is Madama Butterfly (Madame Butterfly), an opera in three acts (originally two acts) by Giacomo Puccini, with an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. It is the story of a Japanese maiden (Cio-Cio San), who falls in love with and marries a white American navy lieutenant. After the officer leaves her to continue his naval service away from Japan, Cio-Cio San gives birth to their child. Cio-Cio San blissfully awaits the lieutenant's return, unaware that he had not considered himself bound by his Japanese marriage to a Japanese woman. When he arrives back in Japan with an American wife in tow and discovered that he has a child by Cio-Cio San, he proposes to take the child to be raised in America by himself and his American wife. The heartbroken Japanese girl bids farewell to her callous lover, then kills herself.

There has been much controversy about the opera, especially its treatment of sex and race.[80][81][82] It is the most-performed opera in the United States, where its rank as Number 1 in Opera America's list of the 20 most-performed operas in North America.[83] This popularity only helps to perpetuate the notion of the dominant white male over the subjugated East Asian female who can be cast aside and treated as easily dispensable[84] according to Sheridan Prasso in her book, The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient published in 2005.

A contemporary example would be Miss Saigon, a 1989 musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, a modern adaptation of Giacomo Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly. This musical has been criticized for what some have perceived as racist or sexist overtones. Criticism has led to protests against the musical's portrayal of Asian men, Asian women, and women in general.[85] It banked a record $25 million in advance ticket sales when it was opening on Broadway.[86]

Stereotypes of physical attributes and traits

Darrell Y. Hamamoto argues that a pervasive racialized discourse exists throughout American society, especially as it is reproduced by network television and cinema.[87] Critics argue that portrayals of East Asians in American media fixating on the epicanthic fold has the negative effect of caricature whether this ocular feature furnishes the basis for describing the Asiatic eye positively as "almond-shaped" or negatively as "slanted" or "slanty." Even worse, these critics contend, is the common portrayal of the East Asian population as having yellow or brown skin tones (which the critics reference as colorism). This colorist portrayal negatively contrasts "colored" Asian Americans with the white Europeans of North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. East Asians are also negatively stereotyped (or orientalized) as having straight dark (or shiny "blue") hair usually styled in a "bowl cut" (boys) or with straight overgrown bangs (girls). They are often homogenized as one indiscriminate monolithic conglomeration of cultures, languages, histories, and physiological and behavioral characteristics. Almost invariably, it is automatically assumed that a person of East Asian descent has genetic origins in China, Japan, or Korea.[88][89]

Cultural critics also point out that East Asians are often stereotyped as having inherent skill in martial arts;[90][91] as having poor English language skills;[90][92] and as being inherently bad drivers.[93] East Asians are also stereotyped as lacking social skills, or as being asocial (to some Indo-European language speaking people like Westerners). They are also stereotyped as academic overachievers who are passive, submissive, intelligent, industrious, technologically savvy, self-disciplined, self-sufficient, and law-abiding.[94] A 2010 study found that Asian Americans are most likely to be perceived as nerds. This stereotype may be socially damaging due to histories of Asian exclusion.[95] One study has shown Asians as being perceived as less masculine than Whites and Blacks.[96]

East Asians are stereotyped as being athletically inferior to other races.[97] This stereotype has led to discrimination in the recruitment process for professional American sports teams where Asian American athletes are highly underrepresented.[98][99] Such was the case with professional basketball player Jeremy Lin who believed that race was one of the reasons why no NBA teams drafted him in 2010.[100] This belief has been reiterated by sports writer Sean Gregory of Time magazine and NBA commissioner David Stern.[101] Although Asian Americans comprised 6% of the nation's population in 2012, Asian American athletes represented only 2% of the NFL, 1.9% of the MLB and less than 1% of the NBA.[102]

A psychological experiment conducted by two researchers revealed in their findings that East Asians who do not conform to common stereotypes and who possess qualities such as dominance in the workplace are "unwelcome and unwanted by their co-workers" and can even elicit negative reactions and harassment from people of other races.[103]

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External links

  • Hollywood Chinese Hollywood Chinese, a 2007 documentary film about the portrayals of Chinese men and women in Hollywood productions.
  • The Slanted Screen The Slanted Screen, a 2006 documentary film addressing the portrayals of Asian men in American television and film.
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