'Shadow Dance' by Emmanuela Copal de León
Shadow Dance, Emmanuela Copal de León, 2000.


Growing up Asian American with a Disability
by Grace Tsao


Disability is still a taboo topic within many parts of Asian cultures. People with disabilities are often seen as outcasts of society and worthless citizens. In many modern-day Asian countries, the disabled are still regarded as incapable of becoming educated, functioning members of society. Therefore, they are often forgotten and fall beneath the cracks. This old school of superstitious thought teaches that disability is some sort of punishment, and promotes the idea that being different is always a horrible thing.

Growing up as an Asian American female with a disability, I was always fully aware of how my culture played such a significant role in my life. This was especially evident in the way my parents tried to shelter me. I can remember distinct times when I was younger when my parents did not allow me to attend certain functions where a lot of first-generation Chinese, other than family, were in attendance. However, my younger brother could attend. I could not understand the reasoning behind this — after all, I was the eldest. I began questioning my parents. Their response was that they were protecting me from the Chinese elders who would not understand or accept my disability. They told me that these traditional Chinese would gawk at me and gossip about the fact that I use a wheelchair. They would look down on our family because only a family who has done wrong would deserve such a fate and shame. I didn’t believe my parents at first. In fact, I accused them of being ashamed of who I am. They kept assuring me that they loved me no matter what, and that this sheltering was for my own good, because not all people would view disability the way we did. I believed them.

My mother would often tell me that the perceptions these people held about disabilities came from superstitions in Asian culture that bad things could only happen to people who have done wrong. That if you live a decent life and are essentially “good” you are virtually untouchable. Where the distinction or judgment about what is “good” or “decent” comes from is debatable. In my culture, however, being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at age seven meant being seen by some as a form of chastisement or bad karma inflicted on my family for moral wrongs my family may have done in the past or present. In fact, any disability, whether from birth or as a result from an accident, would fall under this category of “punishment.”

Even my grandmother possesses these thoughts. She will often make comments about people who seem to encounter many hardships by dignifying their fate, saying they probably deserved what happened to them. For example, she made a similar comment about a family who had a relative stricken with cancer. These comments are rather harsh, but superstitions are often embedded in a particular culture. And like all superstitions, they can be proven wrong, as people are willing to look at individual experiences and become more open-minded.

This stigma of being a triple minority has followed me throughout life. I have always been fully aware of my existence of as female, disabled and Asian American. I began having negative perceptions about Asians. I had no concept of what Asian American was. All my friends were white; I avoided Asians at all costs. After all, they had negative ideas about me, so why should I try to get to know them? It was not until halfway through high school, when I began to join extracurricular organizations, that I changed my outlook. I met many open-minded Asian Americans who did not treat me as an outcast, and who accepted me. I had a sudden realization: I was prejudiced and hypocritical. I had been judging people based solely on outside appearances and stereotypes. These were the very things I hoped others would not judge me by.

Often, Asian Americans do not grow up with the same mindset as traditional Asians. They are influenced by the whole concept of East meets West, but do not necessarily adopt the traditional closed-minded values. I’m not saying that all immigrant or first-generation Asians are closed-minded Neanderthals, that would be closed-minded of me. No generalizations can be made about any group of people. I also realize that, as people from across the globe are being educated about disabilities, these traditional ideas are slowly being replaced by more accurate perceptions. My thoughts and views are shaped my own personal experiences.

There are many aspects of the way my parents have raised me that would have differed dramatically if I would have been able-bodied. In many ways the situation of me being disabled overshadowed many traditional Asian values they may have held. They did not exert the academic pressures that are common to Asian households, on me. Most Asian families that I knew put constant pressure on their children to be more successful than everyone else academically. Being second best was not enough. Now, some would argue that is not necessarily a bad thing. But telling your child that failure is not an option at any cost can be damaging to a child. I have known Asian kids who feel that they must constantly “be the best,” in order prevent disappointment in their parents. They have gone as far as making important life decisions such what they plan to devote their life’s work to in order to satisfy their parents. In many cases, kids chase their parents’ dreams, not their own. The constant tensions and not pursuing their own dreams may lead to burnout and eventually failure. I know my parents would have pressured me a lot more to succeed academically if I did not have a disability. But, they did care about education and wanted me to succeed at my own pace. Failure was all right if I tried my best. They always expected that I would attend college and receive my degree, despite my disability. They encouraged me to pursue writing, which is often not as lucrative or stable as those fields dealing with science and technology. I feel that my parents’ more lackadaisical attitude than most Asian parents helped me to succeed. I am doing what I want to do in life and on my own accord. I received my Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and am pursuing my Master’s degree with a focus on Multicultural Education. Culture and writing has always been incredible influences in my life.

The subjects of romance and marriage were not an issue because like many people, my parents never thought that people with disabilities were capable of being involved in romantic relationships. So this topic has never really been brought to discussion. However, lately my parents have come to a realization that this is possible. I really feel that they would be very accepting if I were to marry someone Caucasian, because they feel that an Asian man would never be able to look past my disability. If he could, his family probably would not. This is speculation on my part because I really do not know how my parents feel. I can only make inferences. I can see this in the way my mother reacts to my Asian friends. She is almost surprised that someone who is Asian American can look beyond my disability and accept me as their friend. This is due to her own innate prejudices about how people of Asian decent view the disabled. Staying within my own culture concerning issues of relationships and marriage would have also meant more to them. I can see all of this from the extremely different reactions they have on these issues when other relatives or other Asian families are involved. In many ways my parents have become much more open-minded in the way they raised me because of my disability.

Having a relationship at this point in my life is a very touchy subject to deal with. As someone with a disability, it is difficult to find someone special that will look past my disability. In this society where physical perfection in women is so important, I have yet to find someone that will look past my outer shell and into the person inside. Much of this comes from the fact that I am in a very transitional period in my life. I am slowly crossing the gap between late adolescence and into full adulthood. At barely 22, I feel that guys my age have just begun to care less about what others think and are beginning to decide what is best for them. As young people, we are very influenced by what our peers think. Because of my experiences as a triple minority, I know what it is like to be judged by stereotypes and outside appearances so I strive hard not to judge others by the same.

Being a triple minority is a difficult role to play in life. You don’t fit in within mainstream society or your minority in-group. You must also struggle as a female, in a male dominant society. You are not sure where you fit in. I believe that you need to keep an open mind and try to educate others. If you don’t, you’ll go through life on the outside looking in.



Text © 2000 by Grace Tsao

Original Graphic Image, "Shadow Dance" © 2000 by Emmanuela Copal de León

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