If you thought all Asians were good at math, you probably haven’t met me. And if you know me, you know I can churn out emails, articles, columns, essays and media releases on the daily like a printing press but can barely multiply two numbers in my head or add tip without a calculator.
In elementary school, I was placed in the highest reading groups but relegated to a middle-tier math class. At an impasse, my parents (who both work in STEM fields) would insist that I study extra problems to improve and that my statistician father sit with me through my nightly math homework.
Unsurprisingly, these tutoring sessions often culminated in tears of frustration and I would eventually slink back into my room to peruse novels, hating math with a stormier passion after every passing day.
Throughout high school, the more math and science classes I took, the more apparent it became that I was far from the idealistic STEM-savvy prodigy poised to be an Apple software engineer or to make this century’s biggest medical breakthrough. Instead of chemistry club meetings, I spent my afternoons piecing together the week’s newspaper, my lunch breaks interning as an aide in the school’s writing center and my weekends entering in art and creative writing contests.
I soared through every English, journalism and social studies course my high school offered, never earning below an A, while I floundered in my math and science classes. Nevertheless, every year, without fail, I signed up for more and more upper-level STEM classes regardless of whether not I enjoyed them. However naively, I bought into the myth that I needed them on my transcript to make myself more marketable to colleges. More than that, I needed to prove that I was who I was supposed to be.
I remember a New York Times column that circulated through my social media sphere sometime during my junior year of high school. It was called “The Asian Advantage” by Nicholas Kristof, and described cultural factors for disproportionate Asian scholastic success, particularly in STEM fields. Kristof cited the vehement perpetuation of “positive stereotypes” as an underlying reason for academic excellence based on the “Pygmalion effect.” Basically, Asians become good at math to live up to what society already believes about them as a cultural group.
This may explain why the Asian American community places greater emphasis on the sciences and memorization than on the arts and creativity. But why wasn’t I experiencing Kristof’s self-fulfilling prophetic phenomenon? For those of us whose comparative strengths lay in writing not science, these so-called positive stereotypes present a double-edged sword that create a greater burden and pressure to prove ourselves to society, to our peers, to our parents and to ourselves.
I sheltered my graded calculus tests from prying eyes in shame, fearful of the snide comment, “I thought Asians were supposed to be good at math,” while my half-joking disclosure that English isn’t my first language yielded shock when our A.P. literature essays were returned. It seemed like everyone around me — namely, the other Asian students at my school with whom I was arbitrarily grouped — was gearing up for careers in medicine and engineering. Meanwhile, all I wanted was to read books, write books and to never step foot in a science laboratory ever again. I simply didn’t fit the mold and I felt alienated from my peers.
This isn’t to say I was ever bad at math; on the contrary, in retrospect, I have always been a bit above average and earned relatively decent grades. It was just that I never quite seemed to be able to measure up to the Asian standard — which seemed like the only norm against which I could be fairly judged. Although the “all Asians are good at math” formula is meant as a compliment, I have not always perceived it as such. Rather, it plays into the myth of the model minority that labels Asians with archetypes that aren’t overtly offensive yet still perpetuate a form of discrimination. What’s more, it lulls the entire Asian American community into complacency or urges it to manifest cliche traits so long as they remain seemingly positive.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized how trivial all my worries were. Slowly but surely, I’m learning to see myself for who I am and form an identity independent of that assigned to me based on my ethnicity. I have met like-minded people who share my passions for arts, media and politics and, in both my major and minor, I am pursuing not only what I know but also what I love.
I may not fit a stereotypical Asian mold, but I am more than the rigid mainstream portrayal would have you believe. I am, and always have been, a writer — and that’s perfectly OK.
Catherine Yang is a sophomore majoring in communication. She is also the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Catharsis,” runs every other Wednesday.