Don’t let labels limit your personal growth

Marcella Park

Pandas irritate me.

It’s not the animals themselves, or even the abundance of Internet GIFs they occupy. It’s the species’ close, tangled connection to Asian stereotypes that irritates me.

Pandas originate in Asia, yes, but I don’t understand how they say so much about Asian-Americans or their character that practically every Asian-American teenager has been compared to one of these creatures by someone they’d call a friend.

Type “panda” into any Facebook search bar, and you’ll find Asian people who’ve even factored this idea into their names, their identities. Almost every school in the greater Los Angeles area has one of these. I think of that one guy (well, there was more than one) from the public middle school I attended who had dyed, side-swept bangs that covered his eyes, terrible posture, glasses and his own trademark pose (cheeks and lips puffed out, both hands making cute little peace signs), all of which made him “Asian” enough to be adored merely for his “Asian-ness.” The way his (Caucasian) friends called him “adorable,” “panda” and nothing else made me wonder whether he had any other qualities going for him.

The truth was, and still is: we’re more than just cute. Or brainy, or hard-working, or socially awkward, or submissive, or artsy, or wise, or sexually attractive, or asexual, for that matter. Sometimes we’re not any of these things at all. And whatever we are, it’s not just because we’re Asian. Even without all of the term’s implications, who qualifies as “Asian,” anyway? And if we can’t define a group, how can we make judgments about it? Too many others before me, “Asian” or not, all the same human, have had to say the same things.

This is not just a middle school problem that plays out only in middle school scenarios. Even now, even here, a friend asked me and a few other Korean peers whether, since he hung out with us, he could be an “honorary Asian.” It wasn’t an egregious crime like the ones others experience because they’re found different, so it didn’t hurt me. It just annoyed me a little. We’re lucky to be in a relatively accepting place and time.

Still, it’s a serious matter that in talking about ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” the first Asian-American-centric comedy to air since 1994, critics have spent so much time asking about things like whether or not the cast used chopsticks on set instead of characters and plot.

To be honest, even though I know I shouldn’t, I get afraid once in a while that my career will just be that of a hard-working Asian sidekick to some dynamic, white hero-boss, the kind of casual genius who’d feel at home with the stars of shows like “House” and “Suits.”

As for fetishization, I don’t think I’ve experienced it outright, but talking with some of my friends reminded me that my father has told me he doesn’t want me to marry a non-Korean — not because he doesn’t like non-Koreans, but because he doesn’t like the idea of men who like Asians just because they’re Asian.

When my debater brother had model minority discrimination as a topic, I did roll my eyes a little as he spouted out grievance after grievance. But he was right. There are grievances.

As a twisted result, when I catch myself with weaknesses that coincide with negative stereotypes of Asians, I think of myself as fulfilling them and feel worse than I would about other negative qualities. Even with something as small as realizing I should speak up more in meetings and classes, I feel ashamed.

The good news about this part, though, is that I can fix it myself. The key for me, I think, will be to be comfortable in my own skin, ignore stereotypes, no matter how much they might matter to others, and go on improving myself as I would otherwise. Just because I’m Asian and some people mistakenly think Asians in general aren’t great speakers doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have to work on my own communication skills. It also doesn’t mean I should feel worse about my weaknesses because I’m Asian, or that other Asians have the same weaknesses that I do. I won’t wallow in inability just to protest negative labels others may put on people like me. It’s the same reason why I try not to get sucked into reading about negative stereotypes of Asians or Asian victimhood online. That’s what I hope others who find themselves in similar situations will do.

I don’t purposely avoid other Asians as a way to “break the mold.” In fact, most of my friends are Korean or Chinese. And we spend a lot of time in the library. If that happens to be a “bad” thing about Asians, oh well.

I think it’s all right to point out “Asian-ness” once in a while. I do it, and I’m not too hurt when my non-Asian friends do it. I wouldn’t call them friends otherwise. I’m lucky to be saying that in the bubble that is Harvard-Westlake, for the most part, stereotyping Asians doesn’t get devastating or extremely hurtful, just irritating, and in the end, tired. So that’s all for now. Let’s let pandas be pandas and people, people.