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Unlearning stereotypes from Asians - a re-evaluation of cultural assumptions on 'geeks' and 'nerds'

The article Unlearning stereotypes of Asians - a personal journey about how one person's exposure to different Asian cultures changed his opinions about Asians really resonated with me, because I too had learnt some new things from interactions with Asian friends coworkers. In my case, however, it is not so much that I unlearned stereotypes about Asians, but rather that the perspectives my Asian friends shared with me caused question my own ideas about about non-ethnic stereotypes, specifically the American geek/nerd stereotype.

In American culture, many people (including myself at one point) have the idea that the introvert must be a 'geek' or a 'nerd'. That is, someone whose main hobbies are indoor, solitary activities such as reading, painting or playing on the computer MUST also be socially inept and isolated. More often than not, the introvert has poor communication skills, or so we like to think. The movie Napolean Dynamite based its titular character on the stereotypical high school geek - a person whose primary interests lie with activities that exercise the imagination more than the body, AND who is socially awkward, with few or no friends. I had an Asian Indian coworker R. who seemed to fit the geek stereotype in every way (at least to me) - he was quiet, refrained from socializing at work, and was intensely interested in computers and technology. Once, I was engaged in conversation with another coworker - a Chinese woman - when the topic of R. came up. I wondered out loud if the quiet mouse had any social life at all on the weekends. The Chinese woman Q. said, "Well, for all we know, he might be partying wildly with his friends." I thought the idea of R. being a wild partier was highly unlikely. Q. said to me, "Well, I've seen him engrossed in an extended conversation on his mobile phone during lunch break, so he must have friends out there." She also observed that R. is not at all a shy guy, at least in a professional setting - he has no hesitation about speaking his mind during meetings. He just does not socialize much at work and likes his privacy a lot, that's all.

Q. and I had both seen R. conduct himself at work. I think no one disputes the fact that R. is an introvert, but we chose to read him differently. I ignored the signs that did not concur with my idea of what an introvert should be - that is, if I saw any signs that R. was not a quiet mouse with no social life, I ignored them. Q. on the other hand, saw R. as someone who could be assertive and outspoken, and who possibly has deep friendships and a strong social network outside work. Both Q. and I probably know just as much about R.'s private life - that is, we know next to nothing. But here is the difference: while I saw no reason to assume R. 'has a life' outside work, Q. saw no reason to assume he does NOT have a life. Looking back, I cringe at my condescending attitude towards R. Taking into account of how we have been conditioned by a lifetime of "introverted geek = loser-with-no-life" messages, I hope I can be forgiven (or at least understood) for thinking that way.

After interacting with other individuals from South Asia and East Asia more extensively, I began to notice that Q's view was not unique. That is, most if not all of my other South Asian and East Asian friends did not make the association of 'introvert=shy' or 'introvert=no social life' or 'geek=loser' or 'nerd=uncool'. According to a Chinese friend, there is a higher incidence of extroverted individuals among South Asians (e.g. Indians, Bangladeshis) and Southeast Asians (e.g. Thai, Vietnamese) than among East Asians (e.g. Chinese, Japanese) but the South and Southeast Asians I encountered did not appear to significantly favor the extrovert over the introvert the way American society often does.

Our culture despises and devalues the introvert. Since our school days, we celebrate the athelete and the cheerleader more than we celebrate the studious, bookish type (not that individual jocks and cheerleaders cannot be academic high fliers). In some circles, we even ostracize the academic achiever, so much so that academically-talented kids sometimes deliberately suppress their own grades just so they could fit in with their peers. In contrast, social cultures in India and China generally value academic success. It also happens that in those cultures, there is less, if any, social stigma associated with being an introvert. While Chinese and Indians may find introverts more socially acceptable than Americans do, they do not reject or despise extroverts either. Which really leads me question why American society, which prides itself on 'respect for diversity', is not big-hearted enough to accept and love both the jock and the 'nerd'.

Non-Asian Americans tend to stereotype East Asians in particular as geeks and nerds with no social life. I understand that many Americans of East Asian descent find this stereotype racist and offensive. While I too think the stereotype is unfortunate, I am of the opinion that some of us might hold this stereotype not out of racial malice but because of cultural misunderstanding. Take for example a typical Monday at work with people making small talk about how they spent their weekends. My Japanese coworker almost never volunteers information about his weekend activities or private life in general. Sometimes, the most I can drag out of him, is "I stayed home and rested" or "I did some personal projects on the computer." Doesn't sound like much of a weekend to the average American, who would assume that if you say nothing, it means you did nothing. At first I too had the idea that the Japanese guy was another shy boy with no life. But after a couple of years, I began to see hints here and there that he did have an extensive social network and lively schedule outside of work. He simply chose not to talk about it. Some East Asians are simply more reluctant to talk about their private life than the average American. Unfortunately, in our culture where open communication is prized, this kind of silence gets misread as 'shyness' or 'anti-social behavior' or 'not having a life.'

A Chinese friend L. tried explaining this cultural difference to me. He made the caveat that this is just his personal opinion and other East Asians might not agree with him. He said that in East Asian culture, the difference between 'friend' and 'non-friend' or 'in-group' and 'out-group' is more marked. Coworkers, if they are not considered friends, are not expected to be interested in one's activities outside of work. Even between friends, sharing of information on one's social activities is limited. For example, if A is a friend of B who is a friend of C, but A and C are not close associates, then B is not likely to talk to A about the time he spent with C except perhaps in passing, and if he does describe say, a vacation with C in any detail, the activities would be emphasized more than the person in whose company the activities occur. After all, A might be interested in what his friend B did on vacation but A has no interest in listening to talk about a non-friend C. Most likely C will appear in the account as the anonymous 'friend'. If A and C are strangers, then they may not even know of each other's existence through B at all. In contrast, Americans may describe a friend in great detail to another friend who does not know the first friend. It is less likely for a Chinese to be able to say "I've heard so much about you" to a new acquaintance introduced by a mutual friend. Part of the reason for this 'secrecy' is the 'mind-your-own-business' mentality. The Chinese have a saying "Only sweep the snow in your own doorway and ignore the frost on your neighbor's house." The other reason is 'saving face' - if A and C does not know of each other's existence, then B will never have to deal with the awkward situation of A asking, "By the say, how is your good friend C?", only to be told by B, "C and I are no longer friends."

More than once, I've seen individual Americans interpret this lack of information about an East Asian friend's social life to mean that person has no friends and no life. I too have made that mistaken assumption before. Just because people don't tell us stuff does not mean they are not doing stuff. From what I gather from L., many people in big Chinese cities are wilder partiers and swingers than the average American who prides himself/herself on a healthy social life. From what my friends from China told me, the range of entertainment options and people-meeting opportunities in major Chinese cities easily exceeds the social opportunities afforded by similarly-sized American cities. Another interest thing L. told me is that concepts such as "getting a life", or being "happening" or the importance of having a busy social weekend as a sign of 'coolness' and 'healthy social life' are alien to the average Chinese. It is not that people in China do not have interesting private lives or busy social schedules - it is just that they typically do not use it as a frame for measuring of personal success.

I have noticed that when some individuals decide someone is a 'geek' or 'nerd', they tend to ignore new revelations about that individual which challenge their assumptions. They would rather stick with their initial stereotype. This is why I also found the article Imagined subtexts: Westerners read sexism into Chinese narratives interesting. While it talks about a different issue on the surface, deep down it is about the same problem of people being blinded by a stereotype to the point where they ignore any experience or information that does not conform to their perconceived notions. Such stereotypes do not necessarily have to be ethnic - they could be about any group or identity. It is sad that sometimes those of us who see ourselves as 'open-minded' let our stereotypes, ethnic or otherwise, color and choke our relationships with individuals instead of seeing people the way they are.