One Asian Person’s Perspective On The Foreigner Stereotype

May 4th, 2012 | Categories: Race

Recently, my blog has been a place for some interesting discussion about Asian identity and how it is viewed in the United states. One recurrent theme in comments is the Asian as foreigner stereotype. To explore Asian identity and this stereotype further, but from a personal first-hand perspective, I’m posting anonymously one person’s reflection about an experience in which this stereotype was communicated. Each time I read the essay I am struck by the intensity and variety of the emotion that one “little” question evoked.

I went to the doctor’s office to get treated for a cold. After some time in the waiting room, I saw the doctor. His first question to me was “So, what brought you to this country?” Although this inquiry appeared innocent enough, this question hurt me because it was a stereotype. To me, not only did it state that I was a foreigner, but it also meant that I was not American. I knew the doctor did not mean to hurt my feelings because he only was trying to make conversation. Like many people, the doctor misjudged my name since it was not like other American names like “John,” “Mike,” or “Jack.” Nonetheless, the stereotype had a detrimental effect of me, offending me to the point that I immediately answered “New Jersey”, remaining [mostly] silent throughout the entire examination. The doctor apologized for his mistake, but it was too late. The visit was surrounded by a cold, silent atmosphere. Thus my doctor’s visit was a prime example of the harmful consequences of a stereotype.

In my mind, the doctor was trying to use the stereotype in a beneficial way by opening communication and breaking the ice. By having some form of conversation, the silence and awkwardness of meeting someone new is lifted. Especially when talking with a medical professional, being open and comfortable is extremely important to describing the ailments affecting a person. However, the intent of the doctor’s stereotype backfired because it was [a] wrong judgment based on weak evidence (my name). Instead of being more open with the doctor, I held information back. Thus, in a sense, the stereotype did not really have a beneficial aspect to me.

This stereotype, which labeled me as a foreigner, offended me, although I knew the doctor did not mean to hurt me. Sarcastically responding “New Jersey” to his question, I proceeded to tell the doctor of my aliments, even though the stereotype placed a barrier between me and the doctor. I no longer felt comfortable, mentally or physically. Although I was angry at first, I also felt depressed because I knew the doctor did not mean to offend me. Like many people before him, the doctor made a mistake in judging my name because it sounded foreign. Although my name has foreign origins, what common American name doesn’t? Many American names like “Mike” or “John” have origins in Germanic or Celtic languages and cultures, both of which are foreign It would thus seem to be a mistake to judge people by their names alone. Yet, this mistake is prevalent in my life in the form of this foreign, un American stereotype.

Although my response did produce an apology from the doctor, it led to a cold social atmosphere that was surrounded by silence. Still recuperating from the effects of [the] stereotype, I made no attempt for small talk, and the doctor, followed suit. Except for the actual examination, in which the doctor checked my ears, throat, and heartbeat, the rest of the proceedings consisted of silence. Seemingly the doctor noticed the effect of his question, and remained quiet to lessen any more damage. This relationship was far from what I came to expect from a doctor patient relationship, where communication was open and both patient as well as doctor enjoyed each other’s company. In the end, the silence was broken when the doctor told me about my prescription and I left with a low, unenthusiastic “thank you.”

[F]or a person who views himself as an American, in spite of [a] foreign sounding name, stereotypes can challenge self concepts and create conflicts between these images [of self]. It is no wonder that I sometimes feel like I am an alien to the world.

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  1. May 4th, 2012 at 21:14

    Very good post! I felt so sad and angry that the patient had to stay in the room with the doctor after the first exchange. I work with many people of “Asian heritage” do I try to be sensitive to these nuances. As I’ve also lived in Japan I know what it feels like to be stared at and labelled foreigner. When I was 11 living there I actually was a foreigner so that’s different. I have a Korean colleague who works at a psychiatric outpatient program and gets all kinds of weird comments as people can’t “tell” she is Korean and make assumptions about her background. Her experience is a little different as she is not American anyway. I also have 3 half Japanese American cousins but have not heard them complain about this sort of thing. It would be interesting to ask them about their experience..

  2. May 4th, 2012 at 23:52

    Natasha, thanks so much for your comment. It was well done too. In a small space you were able to demonstrate the complexity of identity while qualifying what you said to be accurate to each person’s experience as well. Thanks!

  3. Mei
    May 5th, 2012 at 07:09

    Great one Stacy. As you know, I am an American by identity. (“Asian” by birth name. Chaotic by marriage name.)…and identity crisis when walking with the rest of the family. Lol.

    By trade, I am trained to be sensitive toward issues as such. The doctor should have evaluated the situation before making comments like that…especially if the person does not have any foreign accent.

    You know me. I am big on culture and identity of people who are of mixed heritage or who have “foreign” looks or names. It would probably be safe to ask what the foreign name meant. Followed by something like, “Were you born there?”

    You should probably do something on being Jewish next. It is a religion and people associate that as being an Israeli or being white.

    Thanks for the good read. –Mei

  4. Steve
    May 9th, 2012 at 00:09

    What is they key to identity? I guess for different people it is different. It could be nationality, ethnicity, religion, a way of living… or indeed a combination of these or other things.

    When one says one is “American” what does that mean? US nationality? Living in the US? Acceptance of “American values and way of living”?

    In an increasingly globalized world, so many people are immigrants or within a generation or two of immigrants. So many people spend part of their lives living in a different country. So many people have mixed ethnicity.

    It is a very interesting topic, and one I have grappled with personally. Thank you For a thought provoking post.

  5. Carolina
    May 16th, 2012 at 14:45

    I can absolutely relate to this stereotype. I’ve dealt with jokes about my last name for as long as I can remember. I’ve come to terms with it and I love my name, but we live in a world where stereotypes make the best jokes and the ones who take it seriously need to “lighten up”. It’s gotten to the point where I am able to joke around about it and sort of “beat them to the punch”, but it’s only because I was pushed to that. I get that the world isn’t going to be filled with butterflies, unicorns and rainbows and everyone will be equal and unified, but does it mean that those who are constantly joked on or fit into this stereotype have to buck up and deal?

    And just as strange as it was that her doctor asked her “what brought her to this country”, I find it awkward when people ask me where I’m from. Whenever I answer “New Jersey,” they’re immediate response is, “No, but like really…where are you from?” I think it’s a matter of people just having to rephrase their question so they can keep from sounding like a complete moron.

    I can’t even begin to tell you about people assuming I’m a foreign tourist. Every time I walk into a retail store, I get the dirtiest looks. Then people are completely stunned when I open my mouth and some Asian accent doesn’t come pouring out turning my l’s into r’s.

    I know this isn’t one of those things that’s going to change overnight and that’s okay. But would it be okay if I snapped back at you with “jokes” on all the stereotypes I’ve set you under?

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