When we speak of introverts, we often think of those who are quiet. There’s the common stereotype that if we’re Asian, we’re quiet and passive, and perhaps introverted too.
I’ve been every bit the introvert my whole life. As a Chinese Australian who feels too Asian to be Australian and too Australian to be Asian, countless occasions I feel I don’t fit in – but ironically I love being on my own.
Being an introvert never bothered me, and it’s interesting seeing how others react to me and the way I am.
The difference between an introvert and extrovert lies in how one prefers to socialise. Building upon Carl Jung’s writings on introversion and extroversion, author Susan Dembling argues introverts ‘gain energy in solitude and quiet, whereas extroverts gain energy in social situations with interaction’. Similarly, the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology defines introversion as a ‘predominant concern with one’s own thoughts and feelings rather than the outside world and social interaction’.
The way we’re brought up plays a part in how we like to spend our time. So does personal preference.
Learning and thriving on one’s own is something we may get accustomed to growing up in a typical Asian household that cultivates the ethos of hard work. In a stereotypical Chinese family, it’s regarded as respectful when one listens, listens to seniority and works towards goals through and through – in part due to maintaining individual ‘face and pride’. During secondary school in Singapore, my class (of Chinese, Malay and Indian races) sat in silence at our own desks practising maths and chemistry formulas over and over every single day. We were each only allowed to go home when we came up with the answers individually.
In Chinese culture, the focus on rote learning creates an atmosphere of solitary competition and so solitary task completion is fostered. In 2005, a study by the University of Michigan found Asian-American schoolchildren academically outperform their Western counterparts because they try harder – and they also spend less time with friends. In her book that explores the significance of introverts in a world where most institutions are geared towards extroverts, writer Susan Cain refers to studies that found Asian students problem-solve better when they remain quiet; she argues introverts exhibit ‘quiet persistence’.
A sheltered upbringing centred around Confucian morals in a typical Asian family encourages one to spend time with themselves developing individualistic skills. According to lawyer and author Amy Chua, Tiger parents often seen in Chinese families constantly push their children to excel at academic and non-academic achievements. As a mark of filial piety, it’s not uncommon for these kids to obediently and repeatedly practice musical instruments, sports or some kind of craft for hours on end, spending a decent amount of time bettering oneself individually away from the rest of the world.
At the insistence of my parents, as a kid I practised the piano each day after school. Though I didn’t enjoy it, I passed several music grades and this skill probably made my memory what it is today. These days, doing something over and over is still how I learn something best and my mind concentrates best when no one is around. For instance, writing inspiration usually hits me at 1am when I’m alone at home, never in a bustling café at midday. At work, I feel most productive on the days where half the office decides not to turn up.
Back then my parents also bought me a Nintendo GameBoy – they rather I stay home and play video games than stay out late. I didn’t mind as this gave me reason to avoid shopping centres where my classmates loved hanging out. Standing in the middle of a busy shopping centre gets overwhelming for me: my eyes often latch on to every movement flickering across my eyes; my mind runs a million miles an hour and friends right next to me seem so far away. Out of place, out of mind.
Aside loving alone time and feeling content with the familiar, according to introvert advocate Jenn Granneman introverts tend to have smaller social circles and generally don’t go to parties to meet people. Notably, among stereotypical Chinese a selective collective culture is emphasised, a culture where one supports and sticks with those of similar cultural mindset and values. As some of Asian descent have said, there’s a common understanding of each other’s upbringing and the feeling everything clicks when hanging out together.
At university, my international student Asian friends hung out together all the time, sitting together in tutorials and during lunch. When I wanted company, I joined them as I found it hard to get a word in conversation around my Western classmates. Over the years, ‘Are there any Asians at work?’ is a question my Chinese-Malaysian parents like asking me, a question which I find perplexing. Many a time the answer has been no, and I’ve never and never felt the need to mention that most of my friends are Asian.
To a degree our personality is dependent on the way our brain works as opposed to just the way we were brought up. Extroverts tend to have a version of the D4DR gene that makes their dopamine receptors less sensitive to dopamine and so need more dopamine and social interaction to feel satisfied and stimulated. Pleasurable activities stimulate the release of dopamine in our brains, and dopamine motivates us to act.
Not all Asians are introverted. Some are more outgoing than others, or extroverted during particular moments that matter or excite. Loud karaoke is a common pastime in Japan. Typical Chinese wedding receptions involve a good number of roof-rattling toasts. Chinese people are no stranger to heated bargaining matches alongside street markets in South East Asia.
It’s one thing to be introverted, and another thing to be shy, and another to be antisocial. Introverts generally dislike extroverted activities while shy people fear these activities and undesirable judgement. Antisocial behaviour is commonly understood as unusual, non-typical ways of socialising. Admittedly, I’m these three traits now and again: unlike many others, I find solace in going to concerts and the movies alone and eating alone. My ideal weekend is one where I get the house to myself and hibernate indoors watching YouTube, read non-fiction and stare out the window with the company of my own thoughts.
Since having therapy for my social anxiety, today walking into a shopping centre is less daunting. However these occasions still remind me of the introvert in me. Countless times I’ll walk into a clothes shop, drift past a silent white saleslady staring me down. I’ll then hear her greet someone behind me. I’ll glance around and see a white girl walking in, the white saleslady all smiles with her. Heart hammering in my chest. The desperation to be alone again making me flush all over. I’d drift towards the entrance, their small talk ringing in my ears louder by the second.
All of us are own unique personalities built upon the individual stories that we live. Our stories and personalities are constantly changing. At different times in our lives we may be more outgoing or extroverted. We may go through phases where we are more comfortable being an ambivert, one of the four different kinds of introverts (social, thinking, anxious, restrained), fitting a certain Myers-Briggs personality or fitting any other character in between.
In a world where the confidently outspoken dominate the spotlight and discrimination is part of society, it can be hard for introverts to share their voice. That said, there are introverts who excel as public speakers from practice and researching their audience. Today there are more Asian Australian faces in Australian media speaking up against racism and pursuing their ambitions underneath the bamboo glass ceiling. It’s encouraging for minorities who are introverted or shy and desire to speak up. But presumably some of us prefer to sit back, stay in the background and live our lives as they are.
Often, the latter is how I feel. A year after starting this blog, I was invited by a high school to talk to one of their classes about my written work on multiculturalism. Towards the end of the one hour talk, I felt absolutely spent in front of an excited culturally diverse class asking question after question. Also, responding to comments on this blog feels overwhelming as much as I am humbled to connect with all of you.
Although pursuing writing and sharing it with the world gives me a sense of purpose, it’s the quiet moments where I just kick back alone at home with no expectations of what tomorrow will be that brings me the most peace. Fellow introvert Lani over at Lani Cox sums up the dichotomy of being an introvert:
‘Sometimes I feel like (being introverted is) a curse: needing space, being touchy and hyper-sensitive. Other times, I simply drink in the silence and solitude, and luxuriate in living my own universe.’
Being an introvert doesn’t mean one doesn’t want friends or like meeting people or like meeting other introverts. Introverts interact more comfortably sans crowds and are more inclined to connect when conversations run beyond small talk. A study on interpersonal closeness in 1997 suggests introverts have a harder time bonding with new acquaintances compared to extroverts, but are capable of doing so. Given introverts relish solitude, it’s a wonder how one meets an introvert, or how introverts meet each other and stay connected – these are more or less unexpected moments, sliding into each other’s lives when you least expect it.
This was how I met my wonderful friend, introvert, author, highly sensitive person and blogger Rebecca Rossi. We randomly met some years ago when I went for a job interview and she was on the panel. I didn’t get the job; Rebecca started commenting on my blog and I wrote back despite feeling she was stalking me.
This went on for about half a year, and she suggested we meet up. Apart from writing, we had nothing in common. She is vegan, I love my meat. She likes fiction, I prefer non-fiction. She is of Italian heritage, I’m Chinese. Eventually I agreed to meet during peak-hour lunchtime at a cramped café despite every fibre of me screaming ‘No!’. It turned out to be a nice lunch with quite a few pauses between our chats. Since that day, we’ve shared many more memorable meals and pauses.
It may be nice meeting someone reserved (or anyone really) and eventually finding out you have things in common, but it’s something special when you actually connect with each other, especially over silence. After all, collective silence or sharing a space of silence with another allows us to escape social conventions and see each other as we really are. One of my best friends happens to be of Asian background and she’s outgoing, loves hanging out with others all the time unlike me. Once she said to me, ‘I like how when we hang out, we don’t always talk with each other’.
Reflecting on our friendship over the years, we’ve shopped, hiked, ate and celebrated together as two people from similar backgrounds with very different personalities – one loud, one quiet but always making it fun, honest times together. Taking each other for who we are, that’s when we connect, and keep connecting.
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Who we are is simply because of who we are. That’s a choice we make and feel within us, sometimes alongside the values we grew up with, sometimes not.
Truth be told, I’ve encountered more extroverts than introverts over time. For most part, I’ve never felt part of a crowd big or small. Often it feels like I’m my own island in the middle of nowhere. Certainly out of place. But never so sure about where I’ve come from and where I am right now, Asian, introverted, quiet and all.
Are you an introvert/do you know an introvert?