There’s the common racial stereotype that Asians are quiet, and also shy and silent all the time.
Sometimes this is true and there are reasons behind that.
Many of these reasons are due to cultural upbringing stemming from school and class. Cultural upbringing and values also play a part in why some Asians are quieter than others.
I am a quiet person, preferring to lay low as opposed to shouting out every opinion. I was the Chinese Australian, Asian student in class who almost always never talked in class. In all honesty, I don’t mind being the quietest among a group of people.
Thinking back to the younger years of my life and even today, it seems many moments led me to being the quiet person I am today.
In a stereotypical Chinese family, it’s regarded as respectful when you listen. It’s respectful to listen to your elders and don’t speak up against seniority – challenging them is seen as rude and out of place. The traditional Asian mentality is ‘listen first, speak later’ but if you don’t speak up at all, that’s perfectly okay – you’re seen as keenly learning by listening.
Growing up it was considered a sin if I spoke up or interrupted my dad. It was absolute horror if I disagreed with what he or elder Asian men thought. While some might be scared and scarred of piping up because of these experiences, back then I thought it was common-sense to kept my thoughts to myself and not start a fight.
The focus on listening to the teacher and more specifically rote learning in the Asian classroom can encourage quietness. In schools in Singapore and Malaysia, it’s common for students to remain quiet as the teacher teaches in front of the class. It’s common for model-minority students to also remain quiet when the teacher asks if there are any questions at the end of the class.
Being quiet in class for over a decade, chances are you might get used to being quiet for a lifetime.
In Chinese culture, rote learning creates an atmosphere of solitary competition and 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 spend less time with friends. In her book exploring the significance of introverts, writer Susan Cain refers to studies that found Asian students problem-solve better when they remain quiet and argues introverts exhibit ‘quiet persistence’.
During secondary school in Singapore, my class (of Chinese, Malay and Indian backgrounds) sat in silence at our own desks practising maths and chemistry formulas over and over every day. We were allowed to go home when we came up with the answers.
Another reason why some Asians are quiet can be attributed to their sheltered upbringing centred around Confucian morals. In a typical Asian family you are encouraged to spend time developing individualistic skills which means spending time with yourself as opposed to socialising.
According to lawyer and author Amy Chua, Tiger parents 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 practice musical instruments, sports or a craft for hours each day away from the rest of the world.
At the insistence of my parents, as a kid I practised the piano each day after school. These days, my mind concentrates best when no one is around such as when 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 solitary game time at home as this gave me reason to avoid shopping centres. Shopping centres overwhelm me.
Within Chinese culture often a selective collective culture is fostered, a culture where one affiliates themselves with others of similar cultural values. As some of Asian descent have said, there’s a common understanding of each other’s upbringing and perspective.
At university, my international student Asian friends sat together in tutorials and during lunch every day. I joined them as I found it hard to get a word in conversation around my usually louder Western classmates. I guess to non-Asians, we seem quiet and keep to ourselves.
Also, international students might keep to themselves in Australia because they aren’t confident speaking English as their first language. And perhaps they are quiet because they want time to themselves to study (maybe maintain face and pride of working hard too).
There’s also no forgetting that sometimes when you speak up as an Asian person, you’ll be on the receiving end of racism. The fear of facing discrimination is indeed a reason why some Asians choose to be silent on occasions.
Many times here in Australia I’ll walk into a clothes shop, drift past a silent white salesperson staring me down. I’ll then hear them greet someone behind me. I’ll glance around and see a white person walking in, the white salesperson all smiles. I’d drift to the exit, their small talk ringing in my ears. Sometimes I wonder what response I’d get when I open my mouth in front of people who are so different from me.
Being quiet can also stem from our preferences and personalities. Maybe some Asians are quiet because they are introverted and that’s their personality.
Based 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’.
That describes me perfectly. Being an introvert never bothered me. My ideal weekend involves having alone time. As an introvert, it’s natural for me to keep quiet, remain silent in the background and reflect on what’s going on.
Not all Asians are quiet, silent and introverted. Some are more outgoing than others or extroverted during particular moments that matter or excite. For instance 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 at markets in South East Asia.
In a world where the confidently loud and outspoken dominate the spotlight and discrimination is part of society, it can be hard for quiet people and introverts to share their voice. That said, there are introverts who excel as public speakers from practice and researching their audience.
Today it’s encouraging to see more Asian Australian faces in Australian media speaking up against racism and pursuing their ambitions underneath a bamboo glass ceiling. But presumably some of us prefer to stay in the background and live our lives as they are.
Often, the latter is how I feel as an Asian Australian creative and person. After giving a talk on multiculturalism to a high school class, I felt absolutely spent. Responding to comments on this blog can feel overwhelming too though I am humbled to connect with you.
Fellow quiet person and 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 a quiet Asian person doesn’t mean you don’t ever want to speak up, meet new people and make friends. We just take the quieter approach, getting to know each other over time through quiet moments.
This was how I met my wonderful friend, introvert, author and blogger Rebecca Rossi. We met many 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 for lunch. And another lunch and another. Since that day, we’ve shared many more memorable meals and pauses.
It may be nice meeting someone extroverted eager to get to know and finding out you click right away. But it’s something special when you slowly connect with others 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 amazing 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’.
Are you an introvert? Do you know an introvert?