Following the Boston Marathon bombing, an Onion headline famously read, “Study: Majority of Americans Not Informed Enough to Stereotype Chechens.” When it comes to Asian-Americans, however, it often seems as if people know just enough to be dangerous. While I’m pleased by the increasing numbers of Asian-American characters in YA novels by non-#ownvoices authors, I’ve been dismayed by how many are based on tired tropes.
There are always people who fit any stereotype, at least superficially. However, quality writing provokes us to understand the world more deeply—and books in which Asian-American teens are the oppressed victims of rigid, dictatorial parents do exactly the opposite even though they seem to be created with positive intentions.
Firstly, Asians have lived in North America for centuries (there were South Asians in Colonial America), and there are many Asian adoptees raised by non-Asian families; millions of Asian-Americans are fully culturally assimilated, just like long-established European-Americans who may have beloved traditions from the old country but are Americanized in their values.
With more recent arrivals, some of what seems like “Asian parenting” is (and always has been) common to immigrant communities from all over. Some exerted striving is in response to the all-too-real bamboo ceiling: Not having to try hard to secure a place in society is a privilege many do not have, no matter when their families arrived. Additionally, the model minority myth hides tremendous disparities—vastly different backgrounds, including a multitude of religions, languages, and education levels—among Asian-Americans.
Sometimes misperceptions are based on not recognizing that some Asian parents view cultivating study skills as an integral part of character building rather than perceiving a dichotomy between the personal and the academic. The prevalence of the growth mindset in Asia relative to the West is another frequently overlooked element influencing behavior.
Why does this matter? Because in many novels the expression of the individualistic self is equated with happiness, while considering family or community expectations is framed as oppression. What does it say to teen readers from collectivist cultures when overcoming their families’ values is defined as success? And do we really want to convey to mainstream readers that their values are the “best”? Additionally, stereotypes of underrepresented groups carry disproportionately more weight than those of mainstream groups: White characters get to be individuals, while Asian-American ones stand in for entire communities.
Our Asian-American reviewer praised the portrayal of Henry in Love à la Mode by white author Stephanie Kate Strohm (Nov. 27) for showing “a third-generation Korean-American with fully-fleshed, complicated parents, [who] is at once recognizable and original.” It’s proof that a thoughtful portrayal of an Asian-American family is not incompatible with a light, feel-good romance. An #ownvoices book that shows the huge diversity and complexity of an Asian-American community is Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert (Apr. 10), populated with characters who spring to life from the page as complex individuals shaped by their circumstances.
The bottom line? It’s all about context: Context brings characters to life in ways that tired shorthand references do not. Look for it when you read.
Laura Simeon is the young adult editor.