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Speaker Says Self-Discovery the
Way to Deal With Stereotypes
October 11, 1999

Being true to yourself is the best way to respond to racial stereotypes, according to Phoebe Eng, author, attorney and business woman. But first, she says, each person must pursue a journey of self-discovery.

Eng's presentation in the Student Union Ballroom October 4 marked the beginning of a month of events celebrating Asian American Heritage Observance.

Building on the theme adopted at UConn for this year's events, Matrix: Decoding Asian America, Eng alluded to the movie "Matrix," which depicts a world where computers rule and humans are not allowed freedom of thought.

"A matrix is a pre-set pattern by which we are taught to think," she said. "It doesn't allow for creativity or freedom of thought or expression." Eng said a matrix is another way of talking about stereotypes: "It's an analogy for all questions of race as we approach the turn of the century."

Eng described three common responses to stereotypes about Asian Americans, each of which she had tried at various times in her life.

Some try to fit in. Eng, who grew up in the 1970s in Long Island, said her parents tried to be "true red-blooded, baseball, hot dogs and apple pie Americans" and they discouraged her from speaking Chinese. "They didn't want our differences to hurt us," she said.

But this approach "doesn't acknowledge who you are and where you come from and the entirety of what you bring to the table," she said.

Another approach is to bask in "the power of the only one," she said. "In a sea of faces, if you're the one that sticks out, you get to answer all the questions for your group," she said. For her, the questions have ranged from how to use chopsticks to being invited by the major television networks to comment on the rising economies of the Pacific Rim, an area in which she is not a specialist.

Eng said the best response to this is to refer the questions to someone who truly is an expert: "Don't forget that you have a network."

A third strategy in response to ethnic stereotypes is to be fierce, she said. Asian American women are expected to be like Madame Butterfly or Suzie Wong - to shrink behind the fan, get the tea, or take notes, she said. The fierce woman, she said, "doesn't agree with anybody ... she knows that if she lets up, people will go on with the stereotypes."

Yet being fierce "is absolutely chronically fatiguing," she said. "You're always batting at ghosts." Nor does it put an end to stereotyping: "You are still held victim to the stereotype by having to react to it."

Eng, whose family is of Chinese origin, described how she accepted an overseas post with her law firm in the 1980s and went to work in Hong Kong, in pursuit of her identity.

She soon realized she didn't feel at home there, either. The Asian clients who hired her law firm expected to work with an American attorney, yet she didn't fit their preconceptions.

So she turned to Chinese women in search of sisterhood, but the only other women in the office were secretaries who were much older than her. When she gave them assignments, they felt insulted.

Eng said she found that China was not "home" for her. What that told her, she added, is that "home is right here." And although it may not be a perfect fit, she is now trying to make a home for herself here.

That means speaking up and not being passive, and being willing to discuss the stereotypes openly: "The bottom line is participation."

Her experience, she said, could apply to the life story of any non-white person in America. "When we have the idea that our stories are all common," she said," then we've got the building blocks for community."

The event was cosponsored by the Asian American Cultural Center, the Asian American Studies Institute, the Women's Studies Program, and the Women's Center.

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu