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Fed Up With Being Labeled
Being Chinese doesn’t equal being a math whiz
Austin Kong
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“Psst,” someone whispered. I looked over at my friend sitting next to me.

“What did you get?” he asked.

I pretended I didn’t hear him but he whispered again.

“Sixty,” I whispered back, even though I really got a 57.

“What?”

I answered louder, “Sixty.”

He shook his head. “I thought you got a higher grade than me, I got an 83. You’re Chinese. What happened?”

Masking My Anger

I’d heard that worn-out stereotype so many times. Being Chinese, I was supposed to be a math superstar. And if I wasn’t, then I must be intellectually inferior.

I felt hurt that a friend would make such a mean comment. But I put on a fake face to mask my anger and resentment.

“I don’t know,” I told him in a deep monotone voice.

He snickered in response.

I was sick of the “model minority” stereotype that Asian-Americans study hard and get good grades, especially in math. Sometimes people see this as a positive stereotype that can encourage other Asians. But to me, it feels destructive.

One time I told a guy at school that math is not my favorite subject.

“Wait, what? You don’t like math at all?”

“Yeah, why?”

He scoffed a little. “You’re Asian, man.”

“So?”

“So what kind of Asian doesn’t like solving math problems? You’re made to be good in math. What are you, stupid?”

“What the hell is your problem, man?” I was angry.

“Dude, I was just joking,” he said defensively.

“No. You obviously meant it as an insult.”

“No I didn’t. If I did I would’ve flat out called you retarded. Learn not to take things so seriously.”

After that, I kept my mouth shut to avoid getting into a similar conversation. I wish people could set aside their assumptions and know the true me. If I only did the things that Asians stereotypically do, I wouldn’t be able to pursue the interests that I love—like art.

Artist, Not Math Geek

When I was younger, my parents took me to museums a lot. My favorite was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I love art history and the endless walk of gallery paintings and sculptures. You can learn so much about a culture just by looking at their art.

I remember being with my mother in the Arabic exhibit in the Met. As soon as we went through the doors, I felt a different atmosphere that was exotic and exciting.

In one part of the exhibition, there were little paper canvases that were drawn with bright gold Arabic lettering. The elegant calligraphy and delicate pictures made it hard to believe that someone had painted them by hand. It must have required extraordinary precision.

“Look!” I said, ushering my mother over.

“Wow. It’s beautiful. I can tell you’re an artsy type of person.”

“How can you tell?” I said.

“I just can. Make sure you do something that pleases you in the future. Perhaps it will be art, writing, or designing.”

That made me feel good because I want to be an artist when I grow up. Maybe I’ll get some of my artwork into a gallery someday.

I’m lucky to have supportive and understanding parents. They don’t pressure me to become a doctor or a mathematician. Their attitude is: be whoever you want to be. At home, I feel safe and free.

image by YC-Art Dept

My Friends Don’t Get It

At school it’s different. It’s hard to tell both my Asian and non-Asian friends that I’m the opposite of what they expect, an oddball. How do I tell them that I like doing things other than studying and excelling in math?

When I tried to introduce the subject in the past they said things like, “Why do you hate being Asian?” and, “You don’t like to be smart like all Asians are?”

I feel discouraged whenever I try to talk to my friends. I can’t come up with the right words to present my side of the argument. Yet it’s important to me that they understand my feelings. I want them to accept me for who I am.

Sometimes I’m so frustrated that I want to say, “Hey, it really annoys me when you say those Asian stereotypes and I don’t want you to do it again.”

Saying these words to my friends would be awkward, as if I were making some sort of weird declaration. Right now I’m not comfortable doing that. But I know that it would make me feel better to express what I’m feeling.

Then something unexpected happened at school that changed the way I looked at my friends and myself. It’s also helping me think about how to speak up. I have a friend, Zachary, who recently came out as gay. He didn’t make a big production out of it; he just shared it with a few close friends. Soon word spread throughout the school.

Influenced by My Friend

I felt surprised that a friend came out and boldly said he was gay. At first I was offended I wasn’t one of the friends he’d chosen to tell.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that he was also afraid of being judged and misunderstood, so he chose to tell the few friends he trusted the most. After he came out, people that I knew, including my friends, joked about Zachary’s sexuality behind his back. They made mean comments when the teachers weren’t around.

Still, I thought maybe I should follow in his footsteps so that people will know the real me. I admired that someone like Zachary, who struggled with expressing his identity, had the bravery to say, “Hey this isn’t who I am. You shouldn’t automatically assume I’m straight.”

That’s what I wanted to say: Don’t expect me to be a certain way just because I’m Asian. But I am afraid that I’ll push too hard and be mocked. I don’t want my friends to give me the usual “Dude, just chill out,” treatment.

Open-Minded Friends

Sometimes, I think about dumping my friends altogether since they keep disappointing me. So far I’ve chosen not to since it’s hard to break away from the friends you’ve been with for so long.

Rather than telling them I’m not the Asian stereotype, I talk about who I am—an artistic person.

But I realize that I also need to look for new friends who share my interests instead of spending my energy trying to change the minds of my existing friends. It may be sad to break away from them, but sometimes in order to feel happy, you need to find new people who appreciate you.

By meeting other artists from diverse backgrounds, maybe I’ll finally feel comfortable and safe from judgment. Maybe I can finally be who I am.


Most of us, at one time or another, have been stereotyped; others make assumptions about us based on a certain group we belong to such as our race, gender, or nationality. Often, these assumptions aren’t true. But fortunately, stereotypes can be broken. When we share our stories, like Austin does in “Fed Up With Being Labeled,”
we discover people aren’t the mental picture created by the stereotype. Here are excerpts from stories from YCteen writers who also shared their experiences.

FROM: Stop Following Me

“Excuse me, miss, do you need help?”

“No, thank you. I do not.”

That’s how it often starts. She asks me if I need help and pretends to fix something.

I move, she moves. I stop, she stops. I turn around, she watches. You should be getting the pattern by now.

I am in a store shopping. I am African-American and young, and I think it’s because of my race and age that she, the store employee, thinks I’m going to steal…Yes, I am young, I am black and I want to buy something from your store. I am not going to steal and I feel angry that anyone would suspect me of doing so. —Stephanie Hinkson

FROM: Big and Tall

In 9th grade a teacher’s aide told me, “You know you could be a model with that height?”

In 10th grade I would just be walking through the hallway and all the gym teachers would try to recruit me. “Are you going to try out for basketball? Well if you are here are the dates.”

“Are you trying out for volleyball, softball? Come to the meetings!”

I am 5’ 11½” and I am not skinny. I am pretty big actually. I do not like sports because I am not athletic. I will not be running anywhere, anytime soon. (And even if I wanted to, there’s no time. My schoolwork comes first.) I can’t see myself as a model.

Most of the students are intimidated by my body structure. Several teachers have given me a look that says, “Oh, she is going to be a problem.” Then afterwards they find out that I am a truly respectful student. —Abi Akinrosoye

FROM SPEAKOUT: Challenging Muslim Stereotypes

Ever since the 9/11 attacks there’s this fear that a lot of Muslims are terrorists.

In class once when we were learning about the attacks, Saddam Hussein’s name came up. One of my classmates turned my way and, with a sly smile, joked that I was related to Saddam just because my last name is Hussain. I snapped back “Seriously? Saddam was a dictator in the Middle East. I’m not even Arabic and not all people with the last name Hussain are terrorists.”

I looked straight into his eyes. The classmate who teased me shrunk back in his seat; his face was red and he didn’t say anything else. —Farhana Hussain

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(NYC-2016-03-14)

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