Am I Introverted, or Just Asian?

Asian girl "shhh".

The quiet Asian?

“Quiet Asian kid.” Someone called me that while I was in university in Canada. I hate that term, that stereotype. I am introverted, yes. I am Asian, of Chinese descent, yes. But must one necessarily follow the other?

I’ve always been quiet. I was the child reading alone during playtime, the girl hanging out at the library after school, the teenager lost in her own world. I am the woman calmly observing the chatter around her, the one who is garrulous only through her fingers and receives Twitter messages such as “I’m wondering why someone who speaks so beautifully on her blog was so quiet over dinner” from new acquaintances after one meeting.

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 family or background, I thought, since my Chinese Malaysian parents were both extremely gregarious, opinionated people who thrived at social events, and they encouraged me to be the same. But being around people for too long sapped my energy, so I preferred to sit back and observe, and to put those quiet observations into writing.

And so I was perfectly content with my introversion… until my first year of university, when I showed up at a party and a non-Asian acquaintance yelled, “Hey, one of the quiet Asian kids actually made it!”

Quiet Asian kid?! I asked an equally quiet non-Asian friend about this after, and she said that, “Yeah, Asians seem to be really quiet… 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 real 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 take over the best seats in the library.
  • The quiet Asians never hang out with anyone else.
  • The quiet Asians never talk in class, it’s so creepy.
  • Who got the scholarship? That shy Asian guy, of course!
  • The quiet Asians give all Asians a bad name.
  • She always seemed like a shy Asian, but she was so ferocious in bed!

(Well, I thought about the last comment, the quiet ones will surprise you. Me-ow.)

The more I realized that people saw my quietness and Asianness going hand in hand, the more self-conscious I became of how I looked and acted. Do I look as I act, act as I look? I tried breaking stereotypes by being more social, yet failed miserably as an extrovert. While I gave splendid 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,” a.k.a. I escaped to the continent of quiet Asians, first to Singapore on exchange, then to China for my Master’s.

What I learnt from my time in Asia — nothing much aside from “some Asians are quiet and some are loud,” which is true for every race everywhere. Big epiphany. Not.

Yes, there were the typically quiet Asians. During my study abroad year in Singapore, I nodded whenever my fellow exchange students from Canadian universities complained about the “quiet locals” in class, then happily blended in with the (somewhat quiet) Singaporean students during lectures. When I came to China for graduate school, international students from the West had the same complaints about the “quiet Chinese kids” who barely spoke in class, and I hid amongst those (somewhat quiet) students too.

But that’s the key phrase — they were somewhat quiet. Yes, we all know that the education system in Asia encourages rote-learning students who are quiet and submissive 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, the brazen, confident ones who were energized by human contact and destined to become lawyers, journalists, politicians, and whatever careers are not for the meek and quiet. And away from the classroom… well, listen to how Chinese people bargain and resolve a dispute and shoot the breeze with each other, and I dare you to tell me that Asians are a shy, introverted bunch.

A little Chinese girl reading a book inside a bookstore.

I remember happily reading alone in bookstores... Read on, little Asian girl, read on.

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 blog where she writes what she’d never say in public. Maybe what I am is a typical rebellious kid who’s subconsciously found a great way to go against my parents, by being the complete opposite of them, personality-wise. “You’re not quiet because you’re Asian,” says my non-Asian significant other. “You’re just quiet because you’re weird.”

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

Are you a quiet Asian? What do you think of that stereotype?

Christine is an introverted overseas Chinese woman in Shanghai, where she blogs at Shanghai Shiok!

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  • Xiao_hei_hei

    You write beautifully! I agree with you, you can not judge a whole by the actions of a few, however there is a very apparent difference that separates students from Asia in general- not students of Asian decent, with their western counterparts. In my experience the amount of encouragement young people are given to question/ investergate answers in say China compared to say Britain, differs hugely. This creates a noticable difference, for example, on how in general, a Chinese student and an English student view being a diligent student, all-round. Naturally this would develope a different classroom etiquette, and since we generally make friends in school based on their behaviour in class, in turn it’s likely to contribute to who becomes friends with who. In other words, quite with quite, loud with loud. Although, you are right, of course, there is still diversity within a group, and of course a nation. The foreign students that came to mylasia and china should have been clued up enough to acknowledge the obvious cultural differences between these countries and their own and thought before they made ignorant comments.

    It’s not your genes, it’s your culture. You can choose to be different, but why? There are so many loud mouths at the moment that don’t think, we need more thinkers ;-)

  • http://blog.taiwan-guide.org David on Formosa

    I don’t think Asian people are more or less introverted than anybody else. However, I believe East Asian cultures tend to value introversion more while Western cultures see it as a negative quality. This is where the clash of cultures arises.

    • Tommy

      So you don’t think more Asians strive to have the values their culture values?

    • Soldano

      I see a lot of Chinese students everyday and as it turns out, they’re FAR from being introverted. They used to be,but the new generation likes to speak up, and LOUD, laugh, have fun in class and is quick to adapt to the ‘give your opinion’ system.

      However they are useless when it comes to write it down in a research paper.

    • Frilly Kneesocks

      Often times the question is,…is it introverted behaviorism or is it just simply being CONSERVATIVE. Asian culture tends to be very conservative…

  • Yellowman

    Yawn! Same old shite different day.. I wish the google season would start again then there would be something decent on to read

  • Dawei

    Everyone likes to pigeon hole everyone else, its the shorthand we unfortunately live with. Over here (In China) apparently all Laowai love sweet and sour pork, drink only coffee, would never take a public bus as this is for poor people, have plenty of money thus should pay more for things while the rich Chinese next to them gets the discount, or they are all English teachers stealing our women and so on. The degree of stereotype applied is inversely proportional to the exposure that person has had with that racial group and their education level (proxy exposure). I also find some people use stereotypes as a form of bullying, to exclude or control a person. Personally I take amusement from it all that way they never can really get to you, navel gazing never really solves much in my opinion.

  • Bill

    Quiet vs shy:

    I’m a 57 yr old American white guy. Back in about 1981 when the influx of Chinese just started (both from Taiwan and a few scholars from the mainland), I met a young Chinese lady at work who had immigrated from Taiwan via Australia. She was a quiet lady, but the thing I remember thinking about her is that she was not shy – just quiet. I thought this because of the way she engaged me one-on-one. Compared to other caucasions in the office who were much noisier than her, she seemed to actually be less shy than they. She made and held eye contact better than they and seemed to have a certain self-confidence about her.

    Just an impression that stuck with me.

  • Capt. WED

    You look like a little girl. Do asians all look like little girls? Is Chinasmack full of pedos?

    • http://www.shanghaishiok.com Christine

      That photo isn’t of me. I’m shy, remember?

  • http://www.east-west-connect.com Tait

    I’m from Canada too (Edmonton) and I’ve never heard this quiet stereotype before. I have heard the stereotype that Chinese students are quiet, but that’s specific to Chinese people from China and in an English-language classroom, not asian-canadians.

  • asfdafd

    I don’t like this whole introverted-extroverted dichotomy in general. People can be introverted in some situations but extroverted in another, you know?

    It might not even be introversion, but just culture clash or differences in interpretation of human behavior. Example: polite and quite, vs loud and rude? But just because someone is quiet doesn’t mean they’re being polite, etc.

    Personally I feel that if students are talking during class, it’s rude behavior towards the teacher. Some people feel the same but others probably feel differently. But then the more quiet people get shoved into the category as being introverted.

  • chinese guy

    damn you are hot christine

  • http://www.shanghaishiok.com Christine

    Note: Photo is not of the author.

    • anon

      You would’ve had me fooled! Same general posture, one arm raised, albeit in a different position and gesture, both with glasses albeit one smaller than the other, one with longer hair than the other, red-ish upper garment. Granted, you look more like a drawing in one than the other but…

      Anyway, enjoyed reading this post.

  • dim mak

    Stereotypes aside, when I was growing up most of the Asian kids in class WERE more introverted than the non-Asians. Including myself. When I got into university I realized shyness was doing me no favors and opened up to be come more sociable. This is what some people do. The other path, which many unfortunately take, is to make up for their shyness by being snarky and defensive all the time. The saddest part is how some Asians consider themselves superior “purists” and look down on Asians who are happy and socialize with everyone as though this kind of behavior is not supposed to be Asian.

    • anon

      I think that dynamic where some Asians consider themselves “superior ‘purists’” (not sure what that means really) only happens in multicultural environments where other Asians are not like them. But, if you think about it, its really just an extension/subset of trying to comfort oneself for one’s differences or shortcomings relative others. It’s like sour grapes. It’s like the emo kid who thinks she or he is more “real”…or whatever.

  • Andy Ho

    “You’re not quiet because you’re Asian,” says my non-Asian significant other. “You’re just quiet because you’re weird.”

    Hahaha I like that last line =]

  • Mr. 24/24

    It’s funny. If you’re shy, quiet, and reserved you’re considered a typical Asian. However, if you’re an Asian and you exhibit non-stereotypical Asian traits such as bein’ Loud, Talkative, and abrasive you’re considered a white-washed Asian. Funny how that works out. Big ups Chris. Enjoyed your style of writin’.

    J

  • asr

    Interesting and well written! I’m from malaysia as well but live in Europe. I think that it’s partly because of us being different and partly because of the culture we are raised in. As a foreigner (loosely used term) you will need ways to coop with those different from you. I’ve noticed that some foreigners become real loudmouths while others like ethnic chinese become more quiet in most cases.

  • Okl

    Quiet ? They talk very loud in Singapore public places like in train…!!

  • may

    i’m not asian, i’m a latin girl, and well, people think i’m introverted, but…it’s because they don’t understand that I live in my own world, and i’ happy :D

  • Nick

    I am not sure what to think about the stereotype of the “shy Asian girl.” I happen to be dating one, and she is by FAR the shyest-quietest person I have ever met, especially around strangers. Around friends she can be just as boisterous as anyone I know.
    I think being introverted and having Asian parents (and being a girl) all correlate to being a better student. Perhaps this compounded enough to make shy Asian girls stand out as a significant population at universities.
    Some countries have reputations for being gregarious, and some don’t. I’m currently living in Brazil and find it strange to be among so many extroverts. When my father went to Japan he commented that he felt like his normal voice seemed louder to him by comparison.
    I think China as a whole might be more introverted than the US. In the US I feel my introverted-ness pretty sharply, but when I’m in China I feel more comfortable in this regard. More average, I suppose (although I stick out for being a westerner).

    Thanks for the great blog!

  • http://gudule-a-shanghai.over-blog.com/ Gudule

    When I was studying in England (I am French) in a huge University, I thought like everybody else around me that Asians were quiet and shy. Always stuck together, going to bed early and never joining the other student’s parties, well… never joining other ethnicities for anything actually. So, I totally understand the reaction of the Canadian guy to told you that. And it was nothing about your personality but just the way most Asians behave when they are abroad. But now I live in China, and definitely, shyness and introversion is NOT Asian. And to be honest, now it is me who is shy and introverted and sticking together with Western people. From young students who never travelled in Asia in their life, i totally understand the confusion between skin color/shyness… even if now I see that it is not true. And real enough, shyness depends on personality as well as the context : people we are with, country you are in, cultural background… I am shy in France and loves reading books… but I am very extroverted when I am in England with new friends…

    • Jing

      i don’t think a person can totally change their personality introverted to extraverted. Its just not possible becuase it in-born. As a Chinese American i know growing up i’ve always been introverted. There is nothing wrong with being introvert. The only problem is introverted people are expected to conform so much to a extraverted society that people look down on introverted indivisuals. People just gotta be who they are.

      • Melanie

        A person can’t be 100% introverted or otherwise, if not he or she is a lunatic. Whether behaving introverted or extroverted, I think it is mostly due to personality factor, regardless of ethnic background, culture or environment because no matter where a person is, he or she may always have the tendency to get energy within him/herself (introverts), means does not having the tendency to socialise much, or can’t stay alone because they need energy from others(extroverts).

  • Plinio

    I am from South America and we are ALL supposed to be noisy, good dancers, heavy drinkers and have big families. I do not do any of these “latin things”.

  • Andrew T.G.

    I’m an American that married a Cantonese girl. I have lived in Shaoguan city for 3 years and teach English from my home. When I stayed in Hong Kong, most people there are very quiet, but in Guangdong… they always yell. Out of the 30 students I teach, I don’t think a single one of them could be quiet for 5 minutes, even if their very life depended on it! (Ages 12-25)

    Also, the people outside always play Mahjong and Poker 24/7 and constantly yell, even at 4am. After learning how to speak Cantonese, I listen to what the people around me are saying in the street. It seems not only are they loud, but they are very outspoken. They are not afraid to call me old ghost and fat very loudly in Cantonese or English.

    So for me, I would love to have quiet Asians around me that are introverted and can control what they think and say. People that don’t constantly blurt out insults or obscenities. You should visit Shaoguan or HeYuan city, I’ll give you 5,000 RMB if you can find a quiet Asian in 24 hours, but since you won’t… I have nothing to worry about.

    I went back to visit my mom in the US for 3 weeks in October, and she had to remind me to be quiet and use my indoor voice all the time. After living in China, I am now too loud too! Haha.

  • Jing

    Being Asian doesn NOT mean you’re introverted. Growing up both my mom and dad (Chinese) were really outgoing, social , gregarious. I think what you just wrote on your blog is a typical stereotype.

    And there is nothing wrong with being introverted. I’m also an introverted indivisual (INFJ) there are qualities of being and introvert. For example, introverts think BEFORE we talk, less distracted by external stimuli, able to focus and concentrate on their future goals)

  • Milaaa

    I’m a Vietnamese girl from Europe. People from school know me as the ‘quiet girl/asian’. I’m just like you, I was always observing the chatter. but also I was really shy/timid and was always avoiding attention.

    But to be honest, i blame my parents for being like this. When I was younger, I never got to go somewhere. We never went on a trip, i’ve never been on a holiday, we never go out and eat or go to an amusement park. I was always at home and had no friends to play or communicate with.

    So school was a hard time for me, people couldn’t understand me and they always asked ‘Why are you soo quiet?’ I actually could go to school and ‘don’t talk’ the whole day. But i did have 1 best friend where i could be myself, with her I was less introvert and the chatter. But when there was a big group of people surrounding me I was just quiet and observing.

    I think i just have my own comfort zones. It gives me confidence when people are making an effort for trying to know me. It gives me the feeling that they are interested en want to be friends with me. With those people I was less introvert. But for the other ones i’m just the quiet girl.

    But all in all, i don’t think it’s specifically ‘asians’ who are the quiet ones. It might be your parents or friends who raise or influence you.

  • affiq

    from an introvert to another introvert,no to be forgotten..an Asian and a Malaysian as well…just enjoy be yourself..good luck

  • http://www.facebook.com/liz.rosales.catpaw Liz Rosales

    Like. I’m very happy for you that you felt ok in your self growing up, it took me 30+ years to get to that point. I wish people wouldn’t stereotype so readily, I really really do.

  • justlikeeveryoneelse

    but at the end of the day its all about accepting who you are, doesnt matter if its introversion or etroversion, be happy and peace with your true self, and never reject or deny yourself because your ego tells you to do so.

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