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Let’s (Finally) Talk About Stereotypes

Debunking Stereotypes, Bangkok, 2011
Debunking Stereotypes, Bangkok, 2011

“See the car here? Ten to one that the driver is Chinese.”

“Are you sure?”

“Come on! Toyota, covered seats and a box of tissues at the back. Oh, and there is a “福”” hanging from the rear view mirror.”

The car beeps and I turn around to see who is holding the key.

Chinese lady.

Damn, I wish I had played for money.

Stereotypes exist for a reason. Even though we love to constantly dwell on how different and special we are, we are a byproduct of our upbringing, culture, environment and other strong factors that influence us as a group. Sure, as individuals, we have our preferences, likes and dislikes, and we are all different. But if you look at the big picture, there are patterns.

It’s hard to talk about stereotypes. Just mentioning them is usually frown upon. Stereotyping can lead to discrimination (“all [insert specific group] are [insert negative statement]) or self-fulfilling prophecies (“As a woman, I can’t break the glass ceiling”).

But I think it’s even more harmful to deny the existence (and possible validity) of stereotypes. Otherwise, how would you debunk or address them?

In our multicultural household, we generally choose to make fun of stereotypes as a way to celebrate our respective cultures.

For instance, Asians love deals. When a product is on sale, they stock up and clear shelves (and bring what they don’t need to friends and family). I can’t tell you how many times I had the following exchange with my in-laws:

“… Thank you, but we don’t eat (insert whatever food on sale they brought). And not three boxes/five pounds/seven bags of it anyway.”

“But it was on sale!”

And yes, I’m also a stereotype of my French upbringing. Open the fridge and cheese and other dairy products will fall on you. I smoke. I can take me twenty minutes to get to the point and I don’t see being productive as the epitome of life. I’m a bit of a hedonist and I really don’t understand what’s the big fuss about sunbathing topless.

I started to question stereotypes when I first traveled to China. For the first time of my life, I was a visible minority, openly stared at everywhere I went. And Chinese can be quite blunt (yes, I’m stereotyping!) so they would ask me questions that would be taboo or considered as “too personal” in other cultures. Chinese have their own rules regarding politeness but political correctness isn’t part of it.

“How does it feel to be married to a Chinese man?”

“Pretty much like being married to a white man, I suspect,” I explained over and over again. “Except for the fact we have these giant bags of rice in the cupboard.”

“How much money do people make in North America?”

“Some people are very rich,” I admitted. “But many are surprisingly poor. And people don’t save money, they tend to spend it.”

Meanwhile, I was confronting my own stereotypes. Yes, China is a pretty crowded place. No, people don’t spend their time slaughtering dogs and eating them. Chinese can be surprisingly individualistic. They are not easily brainwashed, many people just distance themselves from politics. Food isn’t that weird, really—a few dishes are rather exotic but they are usually rare delicacies, served for special occasions.

In the following years, as Feng and I traveled the world, we verified several stereotypes (yes, the pace of life is slower in Latin America; yes, Argentinians and Brazilians are obsessed with soccer; yes, the Australian outback is a remote as you can think) and debunked many other (Singapore isn’t as clean and orderly as you think; Malaysia, a Muslim country, was very welcoming; not everyone in Mexico is waiting in line to cross illegally to the US).

We were also stereotyped along the way. For instance, mixed couples of Asian men and Western women are rarer than the other way around. And even though mixed relationships are commonplace in North America, if we queue somewhere, unless we are talking to each other or holding hands, we will be treated as two different customers. “We are together,” I often have to say. I don’t take offense—why would I? That said, I was slightly annoyed in Thailand where many locals thought I was renting Feng by the hour…

Stereotypes can be used because it’s so damn convenient when unpredictable human beings fit into little boxes, properly labelled. They are broad generalizations, and they are sometime true. But as long as you don’t treat stereotypes as iron-clad laws that apply to every single person, I don’t see why we should pretend they don’t exist.

So yes, let’s talk about stereotypes. Let’s laugh about them, address them when needed and let’s stop to be so fucking touchy. Just… just ask. Politely, respectfully, but ask.

Ignorance is never the answer.

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