Manic Pixie Asians: My Mother’s Guidelines

There are several rules to being the perfect Asian in the United States, many of which I have adopted from my—and other—immigrant Taiwanese mothers. In adherence to one of her many lessons, I will keep these rules as brief as possible and present the condensed outline version instead. 

1. Brains cannot coexist with beauty. 

There exists the classic nerd whose pile of books is always being knocked over by a bully in the hallways. That nerd was me: Asian with round glasses, braces, plastered with acne, and always dressed in my cousin’s hand-me-downs. At my best, I had a group of five friends and was always placed in “gifted and talented” programs. Like the majority of millennials, I successfully transformed after puberty and blossomed into someone with body issues—not as confident as I wanted to be, but not as ugly as I felt at the age of thirteen. I experimented with beauty products and became skilled enough that I recently had the honor of doing a friend’s hair and makeup for her wedding day. Most days, I felt extremely proud of my progress regarding my relationship with my body until: 

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re too girly to be a scientist/outdoor enthusiast.” I bat my fake eyelashes twice in confusion. My stomach was an anchor ripping through the foundation I had built myself in hopes of embracing my appearance. As the customer I was helping walked away to seek the advice of someone wearing zip-off cargo pants, I scolded myself for my vanity. So what if wearing makeup makes me happy? Even though my workplace had no dress code, how dare I choose to dress in a way that insinuated that I was anything other than a wildlife biologist? Was it worth people disregarding my opinion because pretty girls simply could not be smart or resourceful? My mother’s snarling voice followed me as I went into the break room.

2. Don’t be too loud. Men will not like your boldness.

If I make a reference to Mulan, I think most people would understand it. The entire number titled “Honor to Us All” is based on the Chinese traditions which uphold patriarchy. Matriarchal figureheads are seldom found, and somewhere in my early twenties, I had found the matriarchy I was looking for! I landed an incredible opportunity to work with the bear management team at a famous national park, and what a whirlwind of a time. Our days were often about managing people rather than bears, so it meant that sometimes our encounters with park visitors looked like this:

“The majority of the wildlife management team is women? Must be why all the animals are wreaking havoc.” The man getting into his red pickup truck (laughing at his retort) could not bear the thought of an entire team of women chasing bears, sometimes handling non-lethal weapons, and patrolling the valley in a lifted F-350. He sought to disparage the idea that women should ever be so confidently efficient in a male-dominant field. I walked back to our team truck and questioned my place as a minority woman of small stature; would a man be better suited to run after animals? Aren’t men genetically disposed to being stronger, faster, and smarter? After all, the team could use some gender diversity—my mother always told me it was best not to threaten a man’s position of power anyway.

3. Befriend and idolize white people in this country. 

The Golden State was always golden—strangely, the Golden Gate Bridge was not. Regardless of the nomenclature, San Francisco was bustling with (segregated) diversity and a surprising amount of unique flora and fauna which existed within the Golden Gate Park. Some of my favorite days were when we worked with volunteers to restore native landscapes. One day, when the technicians were being introduced, my name was left out. I confronted the speaker, and she simply stated it was because I was not fit to answer anyone’s questions yet. This sounded like an agreeable concern, so I conceded. 

“For an Asian girl, you’re pretty stupid.” This couldn’t be racism, could it? Not when she was questioning my Buddhist beliefs. Not when she was yelling at me in the car for touching the radio. Not when she was scrutinizing the mundane things I did. Not when she was vehemently insisting that her acupuncturist, skilled in Chinese herbal medicine, did not need to credit Chinese acupuncture as a part of Chinese culture. Definitely not when she asked if my Chinese name was “Won-Ton” or “Pork Fry Rice.” The microaggressions she spewed were becoming so frequent that I had normalized them. Maybe I should have tried harder; maybe I should not have stood up for myself; maybe I should have been less sensitive. My mother would have encouraged endurance and silence, so I did. Eight months into enduring the abuse and using my mental health days to cry, still unsure of whether or not I could call the treatment racism, I was sobbing at the lobby asking for directions to the HR office. 

4. There is no way you can achieve all of that – limit yourself.

One of the best parts of living in Hawai’i was not the beaches or the beautiful weather. It definitely was not the self-righteous tourists. It was the comfort in knowing that, for the first time in my life, I was not a minority. I was seeing people who looked like me in positions of power and influence—despite all of my superiors in conservation being non-BIPOC. This was one of the best years of my life; many of my closest friends were made during this time period. I was telling one of my friends about work I had done in Peru, and she stopped me:

 “Are you sure you’re not lying about your resume? This seems like too much.” Have you ever been unsure about whether a friend was truly a friend? Uncertain if she was teasing me, complimenting me, or putting me down, I let out a nervous chuckle. Growing up, I was on a sports team, played violin, learned three different languages (pro tip: be first-generation and you will automatically be bilingual), sang in church choir, and eventually obtained two Bachelor’s degrees. I thought that a fellow Asian-American would relate to being an overachiever. I had worked so hard to prove my place in the sciences—yet my own brethren were going to deny my experiences. I was going to discover that she was privy to upper-class white tendencies because her parents were well off. She was able to get her experiences in conservation without going to college for the subject—she simply had to pay her way in. 

Meanwhile, she found my experiences unrelatable. How could I have achieved all of that yet have been so poor growing up that scraping mold off of bread became a habit well maintained into adulthood? My mother worked hard to crowd my schedule so that she could attest to my obedience. Instead, she created the kind of monster who would compulsively work in hopes that my best efforts would propel me forward in life, simultaneously dismissing the accompanying exhaustion and depression. 

 “So, what do you do?” 

I used to tell people I was lucky to have gotten so far in my field and felt bliss in admitting so. The reality that I am embracing now is that I have worked hard to succeed as a Taiwanese woman working with wildlife. There is not a single experience list
ed on my science-oriented resumé, which was not met with racial, classist, or sexist barriers that I had to overcome. When I progressed to someone I could be proud of, it was not only too dramatic for my Asian mother, but it was too much for everyone else because the entirety of my being did not validate their stereotypes of Asians.  

In recent years, Harvard Business Review published an article titled “Asian Americans are the Least Likely Group in the U.S. to Be Promoted to Management.” Being Asian Americans, we are prone to enthusiastically facing our peers as they eagerly commend hard work in lieu of a promotion. It is suppressing the resentments we feel when we bravely overcome our anxieties to share innovative ideas only to have our peers take credit for them. It even manifests as me brainstorming these stories for an entire week, afraid to share it on a public platform lest it be perceived as “too critical, too hostile,” or “too opinionated.” 

The reality is we are the manic pixie minority. We exist solely as side characters with no purpose outside of assisting others’ growths. We lend a hand to our superiors, begrudgingly complacent in our positions as silent, hard workers. We do this so much that our group identity has been erased, allowing non-Asians to dismiss the discrimination we face.

During the exile, we withstood together in the midst of the horribly mislabeled “China virus,” I hope that we can see that this system was not made for us either. I hope we begin to recognize that while Asians hold a large percentage of positions in STEM, many of these positions are stagnant. I hope we break our parents’ toxic cycles of appealing to their white counterparts. I hope that for someone reading this, you feel a sense of companionship because this is relatable. I hope that you voice your opinions and take ownership of your ideas. I hope for someone; it means that you will pursue that leadership position you have been too anxious to apply for; you are as qualified for it as your non-Asian competitors. 

And finally, Asian American STEMinists are not your manic pixie dream girls. 

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

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