On Being Quiet and Asian

I’ve always been quiet. I was the child reading alone during playtime, the girl hanging out at the library after school, and the teenager lost in her own world. Growing up, I was confident in my quietness. It was just my nature, a personality quirk that made me me. It had nothing to do with my cultural background. My Chinese-Malaysian parents have always been gregarious and opinionated people who thrive at social events, and throughout my childhood they encouraged me to be the same. “You have to put yourself out there,” they said. “Go on, make more friends.” But being around too many people for too long sapped my energy. I preferred to sit back and observe, and to put those quiet observations into writing.

I was perfectly content with my introversion until my first year at Queen’s University, when I showed up at a party and someone yelled, “Hey, one of the quiet Asian kids actually made it!”

“Quiet Asian kid?!” I ranted to a Caucasian friend afterwards. Abby was just as quiet as me, if not more so; in fact, we became friends when I walked over and introduced myself to her after noticing how quiet she’d been that first day in our first philosophy class. “A kindred spirit,” I thought, and I was right. So why was I the one who deserved that kind of remark?

“Yeah, well, Asians seem to be really quiet,” she said. “So much that sometimes, I wish I were Asian so I would have an excuse to be introverted.”

Having quietness attributed to my skin color shocked me into silence. After that, I took note of any remarks conflating quietness and Asianness—and those comments were more frequent than I thought:

  • The quiet Asians are always studying, and they take the best seats in the library.
  • The quiet Asians never hang out with anyone else.
  • The Asians never talk in class—it’s so creepy.
  • That quiet Asian dude got the scholarship. Of course.
  • She always seemed like a shy Asian, but she was ferocious in bed.

(“Well,” I thought about the last comment, ”the quiet ones will surprise you.”)

The more I realized that people saw quietness and Asianness going hand in hand, the more self-conscious I became of how I looked and acted. I tried subverting the stereotype by being more social, but I failed miserably as an extrovert. While I managed to give great presentations in class and joined clubs and societies like everyone else, I started breaking out in a nervous sweat at parties and twisted my tongue trying to make small talk.

After a while, I couldn’t take it and went on a “journey of self-discovery.” In truth I escaped to Asia: first to Singapore on a year-long study abroad, then to China for my Master’s.

Here’s what I learned from my time in both countries: some Asians are quiet. Some are loud. The same as everywhere else.

Yes, there were the typically quiet Asians. In Singapore, I nodded whenever my fellow exchange students from North American universities complained about the “quiet locals” in class, then I happily blended in with the (somewhat quiet) Singaporean students during lectures. In China, international students from the West had the same complaints about the “quiet Chinese kids” who barely spoke in class, and I hid among those (somewhat quiet) students too.

But that’s the key phrase—somewhat quiet. Yes, it’s well known that the education system in many Asian countries encourages rote-learning students who aim to score high on standardized exams and are less used to classroom discussion and debate compared to their Western counterparts. But amongst those quiet(er) Singaporean and Chinese students I studied with were the talkative ones, who asked questions and challenged professors. They were the noisy ones at the center of attention. They were the brazen, confident ones who were energized by human contact and who would go on to become lawyers, journalists, PR execs, TV personalities, politicians, or whatever professions are not for the attention-averse. And away from the classroom… Well, listen to how Chinese people bargain, resolve a dispute, or shoot the breeze with each other, and I dare you to tell me that Asians are an inherently shy, introverted bunch.

So no, I don’t think I’m introverted because I’m Asian. After all, I was raised by two Asian extroverts in the West, and here I am, a quiet woman with her nose in a book and a career allowing her to write things she’d never say out loud in public. Maybe I was just a typical kid who subconsciously rebelled against my parents by being the complete opposite of them, personality-wise.

“You’re not quiet because you’re Asian,” says my extroverted husband. “You’re just quiet because you’re weird. You’re you.”

I’ll take that over the racial/cultural explanation any day.

This story was reprinted by permission of the author. 

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