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  • Perry Lu

Answering America’s Stereotypes for Asian Americans

In myriad ways, Chemistry, by Weike Wang, is a Frankenstein of racial stereotypes.

The protagonist narrator is a Chinese-American PhD candidate studying Chemistry at Harvard. Her mother is quiet but strict; she forcibly pigeonholes her daughter into the mold of a life that she, an uneducated immigrant, was never afforded. Her dad? A mathematician who sees Harvard as the bare minimum.

Protagonist (who remains unnamed throughout the entirety of the novel) then goes on to find a fulfilling life beyond the expectations set before her by her parents, after quitting the pursuit of her PhD, falling in love with a white man along the way.

As a first-generation Taiwanese American immigrant, this exposition read like an insult. Despite prolonged efforts to dispel the aforementioned clichés, simplistic plotlines like this permit the clichés to exist in the first place: another story where the white man gives the lost, Asian protagonist strength to break away from the miserable life her parents imposed upon her. Caught within the subtleties of this inherently racist trope is an implied superiority in the supposed freedom of Western culture, often blind to the protagonist while lost in the “inferior” Asian culture she was raised upon.

Perhaps most damning was the fact that an Asian author employed such stereotypes, tacitly endorsing the perpetuation of the crass simplification of culture.

Sinking in my armchair of judgment, waiting for the next painfully-stereotypical trope to reveal itself, the story transforms in an instant.

The main character speaks in the first person:

“We are our own worst propagators of those clichés”

She is watching a cooking competition on TV. A Chinese American contestant is speaking. In the back story cutaway scene, the chef tells her story: her mother was quiet and her father was very strict; cooking could not be further from their expectations from her, yet here she was. The judges clap in unison.

In a quasi-meta self-commentary, it becomes all too clear that Wang knows the trope on which her story unfolds. So why does she do it?

Protagonist’s anger shifts to the judges:

“Why encourage this of us, to constantly rebel, without understanding why some of us do not?”

The question is one most Asian Americans face at one time or another. Asked in a joking manner as an elementary school student whether I was to be a doctor or a lawyer, I hardly understood what it meant. Years later, and it remains commonplace in any educational or social setting: a lingering question of motive behind my pre-law career path that remains insatiable until it is (untruthfully) linked to parental pressure.

A foolish yet ever-prevalent Western worldview rejects everything that lies outside of its narrow perception of people; it is impossible that someone of Asian descent organically wanted to pursue a career in _______. The natural next step, thereafter, is to save you from your misery. After all, what’s the use in suffering to earn a degree in a field of study that society has deemed you were forced to pursue?

All too commonly we find the tandem action of a stereotype-backed assumption, coupled with a white savior complex, that rejects the complexities of an individual in place of a preconceived belief, even outside of this sole example of Asian career trajectories.

Revealing a truly problematic aspect in American society en masse, Wang’s solution is to fill in the details.

Take one of the good days, for instance. Protagonist is called to the front office during class one day in middle school. Her mother is there to pick her up. She tells the teacher it’s for a doctor’s appointment and drives to Bay County Fair, an amusement park, on a whim. She buys lots of popcorn. Today isn’t the day she is told “you are nothing to me without that degree”–that comes far later. Drifting asleep in the back seat, today is one of the good days.

Or take the day of his proposal: Protagonist’s father calibrates proportions of the elements: iron, tungsten, molybdenum, chromium, and titanium, making a ring. He says the metal is strong, that it will bend before it will break. It’s for her mother, in a household where gifts aren’t part of birthdays. In an unexpected instance of tenderness, juxtaposed to his otherwise affectionless personality, a complex character emerges.

Ultimately beckoning a shift in perspectives, Wang tells a story, too human to be mistaken for a set of vaguely Asian parents, transforming stereotype into a home.


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