By Kiki Yang
I’m going to go out on a limb and say some nationalities really are particularly good at certain things.
The Germans and Austrians have historically been really good at classical music. The Italians are known for their fine arts and design. The French and Russians have stellar ballet dancers, among other things.
I once heard a joke that pretty much sums up the Europeans.
Heaven is a place where:
the chefs are French;
the police are English;
the lovers are Italian;
the engineers are German;
and the whole place is organized and run by the Swiss.
Hell, on the other hand, would be a place where
the chefs are English;
the police are German;
the lovers are Swiss;
the engineers are French;
and the whole place is organized and run by the Italians.
Not very politically correct, I know, but it's equal-opportunity, and I find it pretty funny. For purposes of this article, though, let’s just focus on the nice part of things, such as sleek German cars and buttery French croissants.
These days, it’s obviously a big generalization to say that Chinese people are good at math and African Americans are good at basketball. Yet one would be a fool not to draw certain statistical conclusions once you’ve visited the MIT campus and the lecture hall is filled with kids with black hair, or you’ve watched a few NBA games on ESPN and it's only certain people who are consistently scoring…
I’m a bit baffled when people get offended by positive stereotypes because someone is actually complimenting you and your kind. The proper response should probably be to just say thank you.
Personally, I don't mind when people say Asians are smart because I am part of that gene pool, and even if it isn’t true of me, maybe they’re referring to my cousin. It makes us all look good. Even if I suspect they’re implying that we’re nerdy, I just choose to ignore it because at least they said it in a nice way, and quite frankly, a lot of nerdy people are out-earning a lot of the jocks. It all comes out in the wash, as they say.
Now, if someone said to me: "Asians are brilliant athletes and it's simply a joy to watch your glistening muscles rippling in the sun as you sprint across the field," I don't think I'd mind that too much either. In fact, I'd say I don't think I hear that nearly as often as I should.
Now, if someone just says: "Oh, you're so Chinese," that might not be so great. Because unless you're fighting to pay the bill at the end of a meal with someone as Chinese people are wont to do as a way of being polite, it's probably going to mean something like: "You're being really loud or stingy (or both) right now." Either way, it's not a good situation but it's easily rectified with some self-reflection and slight adjustments in behavior.
The only time I really get worried is when my mother gives me a knowing look and says: "You're such a Western child." (Of course, to Chinese parents, you will always be a child.) What she's really saying is: "I hope no one blames your father and me for letting you become the self-centered, inconsiderate brat that you have apparently turned out to be. We've tried, but clearly we are powerless in the face of this overwhelmingly egotistical and individualistic Western social environment."
But I digress.
Positive stereotypes are fascinating to me because they are as much a reflection of what a society values as what conditions are available to them. For example, the British may not be known for their cuisine, but they are known for their glorious body of literature. And we must remember that just because a group is good at one thing doesn't necessarily imply it's terrible at another. There are obviously some impressive French authors, but perhaps they linger just a a little longer at the dinner table before sitting down at their typewriters.
It turns out there are actual physical reasons behind some of these stereotypes. Like the Africans have dominated the sport of endurance running for a long time now. But we are hard pressed to find an African in the Olympic swimming events, and it’s not entirely due to the paucity of swimming pools in sub-Sahara. Apparently Africans and African Americans have the highest bone density in the world — by far. That's not an opinion; it's measurable and documented. That would explain why they can be so strong in sports that require a lot of running and jumping. But such dense bones make it harder for them to stay afloat in the water. Hence, not so many excel at swimming. Fascinating, no?
The Americans, of course, are good at a lot of things. But there, it’s not really that fair because it’s such a mish-mash. Not only are they (we) the current superpower, but they also absorb some of the best and the brightest from the world over. They do make some pretty good movies. And they’re particularly good at their indigenous form of football (especially since no one else plays it, except maybe the Canadians, in a halfhearted way). Soccer, not so much.
As China plays a more and more prominent role in the world, and hopefully one day becomes more of a free society, it will be interesting to see which things it starts to dominate. Cuisine might be a good bet because Chinese people really, really know their food (myself excluded, which is one reason I’m fake Chinese).
Another reason I'm fake Chinese is because I’ve been told I’m part Mongolian, somehow leading all the way back to Genghis Khan. So even though it may only be a few drops of Mongolian blood, I share that delightful morsel of information with anyone who will listen because I think it gives me a cool, edgy barbarian-vibe. Maybe people will now see me as someone who is really good at riding across the open plains on a very small horse, and they will fear to cross me.
Anyway, I think we as any nationality should embrace our positive stereotypes rather than be offended by them, and maybe spend a little more effort boosting the parts we’re weaker on. Or not.
There’s something to be said for comparative advantage. Maybe the Swiss brain and temperament are more suited to managing financial databases than writing weepy operas. So maybe the Italians can hire some Swiss people to help them figure out their finances and then the Swiss can pay to go listen to Italians singing as they die of consumption on stage. If the New Zealanders are good at raising sheep and they’re happy doing that, then let them raise sheep. I’m certainly not going to start doing that anytime soon — I have some quadratic equations I have to solve.