Shyness has been a hot topic this year with most notably the publication of the New York Times piece. Shyness is something that affects the majority of us. It can sneak up on us when we least expect it, or become a dreaded addition to anticipated social interactions. Shyness is also a highly cultural.
I would be the first to say that shyness is something that is culturally ingrained in Asia. It is a sign of modesty, and modesty in both genders is applauded. Of course this isn’t always the case and you will find people of all stripes wherever you go. But for the most part, I’d say that being quiet and reserved is preferred to loud and outgoing.
In North America, and in America more so, being outgoing is encouraged. When I arrived in Canada six years ago I kept getting called ‘shy’ and ‘quiet.’ Although I’ve been called polite and well mannered in Hong Kong, I had never been called quiet or shy. Of course, like every awkward teenager I had my moments of ignoring strangers and refusing to talk. I also had moments of intense shyness, exhibiting the inability to converse in a normal fashion. Like many who have been through puberty, this has mostly abated, or so I thought. When I was perceived as being shy in North America, it became a self fulfilling prophecy and I delved even further into the state of shyness. In my third year of university, I realized that in order to survive in this world, to make contacts, to make friends, to strive for what I want, I had to become more outgoing.
I realized the full detriment of what was perceived as ‘shyness’ after an interview for an internship at an English language magazine in Asia. The editor was white American, and I thought the interview went fairly well. Imagine my shock two days later when I received an email clearly forwarded to me in error that spoke frankly about my interview. “Here is someone you might be interested in,” he wrote to the Arts editor of the magazine. “She’s quiet but has an arts background.”
I was put off by the unprofessional editor, and also was surprised that he thought I was ‘quiet’ and felt it was necessary to mention it to the other editor. This started off a train of thought which culminated in something like this: One’s race does very obviously affect how one is perceived. It is a stereotype of Asians, particularly Asian women, to be quiet and unassuming. How many movies depict Asian women as quiet? Most recently I rewatched The Brothers Bloom where Rinko Kikuchi, playing the pyromaniac weapons expert Bang Bang, is given no lines. She is a plot device who is not given a single word to utter throughout the entire movie.
I saw this in my own life as well. Asian women who do not speak are relegated to the background. I have had people often remark that they ‘forget’ that the quieter Asian women in my classes are there. Of course, it is entirely possible to forget that a quiet white woman is there, but the stereotype of the quiet and shy Asian woman is imprinted in the cultural imagination through historical depictions during colonalist times. A quiet Asian woman is seen much more differently than a quiet Caucasian-looking woman. How many times do the Vietnamese women in The Quiet American speak up? Their stories are told for them by their white partners. A quiet Asian woman becomes a convenient iconic representation of a country and culture – speaking would shatter that illusion. But what if the Asian woman speaks? Even when an Asian woman breaks away from the shy stereotype, there are plenty of opportunities for her to be shunted back into the pigeonhole assigned to her. This was clear in the post-interview email, and remains clear every single time a person tells me that I’m quiet. Perhaps, maybe, our quietness is not unintentional. As the old Chinese saying goes, “Speak more, make more mistakes.”