If I had more time, I would celebrate Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month by writing a post about every Buddhist Asian American who has a great story to share. I would write about issues that affect the lives of Buddhist Asian Americans. I would essentially do all the things that I try to do every day on this blog.
So this year I did something different. I made a collage.
I was surprised. I’d never seen Buddhist Asian Americans presented like this before. Placed together are the portraits of the first 16 Buddhist Asian Americans whose photos I could find with Google image search. Here you have writers, activists, politicians, consultants, professors and Dharma teachers. I could have gone on, but I need to rest before running the Bay to Breakers in a few hours.
This image reminds me that there’s still so much more to write about Buddhist Asian Americans. The portraits remind me that we cannot be described by the coarse stereotypes of Oriental monks, superstitious immigrants or banana Buddhists. We have incredible stories to share with you—if only one takes the care to look for them.
Buddhist Asian Americans are often surprised to encounter so many stereotypes about us. For all the claims we mostly keep to ourselves in “ethnic enclaves,” there seems to be a rather thorough set of stereotypes about people whom most white Buddhists claim to barely know. Worse yet is that these stereotypes are routinely cited as solid facts.
These stereotypes fall into two or three categories. You are probably most familiar with the Oriental Monk and the Superstitious Immigrant, but there’s another emerging icon that I’ve seen with increasing frequency: the Banana Buddhist. Call it a typology of Asian American Buddhist stereotypes—or a stereotypology, if you will.
He came from Asia, where he became an authority in authentic Buddhism sometime in the distant past. He has no family to hold him down, so he’s come here to be your guru. He’ll sit in the zendo, cross-legged in his Oriental robes, and teach you in his accented English that “authenticity” resides in your heart, not in what you say or do. Sure, there’s a lot about the modern world he isn’t familiar with, but that’s fine because his sole purpose is to pass along the authority and authenticity of his teachings so that you can make Buddhism better, more modern and more relevant in a way that he frankly never could.
She came here from some war-torn Asian country and settled down in a nice little ethnic enclave with other people like her. Not only does she believe in gods and spirits, she prays to them daily to ensure that her kids get top-notch test scores. Oh, sure she may “speak” English, but only just barely. You pretty much already know what she thinks and believes about Buddhism—what you don’t know of what she thinks you can look up online or isn’t going to be real Buddhism anyway—so why bother to even ask? Just take some photos of her around the temple with your DSLR. You can sell those photos to Tricycle.
She’s basically a white person who happens to be Asian. She speaks English surprisingly well and barely a word of whatever Asian dialect her parents spoke. She cooks non-ethnic food, uses the dishwasher and crosses her chopsticks. She may have been raised by Superstitious Immigrant, but she’s renounced that backwards and foreign worldview. She probably doesn’t even identify as Asian. You can find her at yoga Thursdays and your zendo’s weekend sits, where she’ll sit quietly in the back and not make much of a fuss. It really doesn’t matter if she doesn’t speak up because whatever she says isn’t going to be any different from what the white Buddhists are saying.
Remember, I’m listing stereotypes, not describing Buddhist Asian Americans. These stereotypes’ salient characteristics are rooted in what has been said and written about us and are often taken as fact by those with limited exposure to the real diversity of Buddhist Asian Americans. After all, most of us are neither Oriental Monk, Superstitious Immigrant or Banana Buddhist—although some of the characteristics may pick at our insecurities. (I use the dishwasher.)
It’s important to be mindful of these stereotypes and how they shape our own perceptions. If you choose to think of us as Superstitious Immigrants, you will never accept us as real Americans. If you choose to think of us as Banana Buddhists, you then trivialize the value of our heritage. The best way to uproot these stereotypes is first to stop perpetuating them, to encourage others to stop perpetuating them, and then to actually start spending some more time getting to know Buddhist Asian Americans for who we really are.
My New Year’s resolution for this blog is to read Jane Iwamura’s Virtual Orientalism. I’ve listened to a podcast interview with Iwamura on New Books in Religion (thanks, Danny!), and I’ve read an article by her in Hyphen Magazine (thanks, Barbara!). I’m intrigued with how Iwamura writes about the “Oriental monk” icon. I would even argue that one cannot properly understand Buddhism in America without understanding this icon.
Note that my resolution is to read this book, not necessarily to write about it. My writing has trailed off over the past few months. I don’t expect ever to publish as frequently as once a month. But if you are inspired to read, question and discuss this book, then I hope you share your thoughts by leaving a comment below. (Just remember the comments policy.)
This careless misrendering of an Asian name of the Pure Land Buddha is but one of the myriad problems in Douglas Todd’s Vancouver Sun piece on Canadian Buddhism (“As Buddhism grows, two ‘solitudes’ emerge”). Todd attempts to stuff Metro Vancouver’s Buddhist diversity into a Two Buddhisms framework, and in so doing he misrepresents both Asian Buddhists and Pure Land Buddhist traditions by perpetuating common racist stereotypes and sectarian aspersions.
Todd’s Two Buddhisms are dubbed “ethnic Buddhism” and “Westernized Buddhism,” and he describes each group by their usual stereotypes. Ethnic Buddhism, for example, is “practised mostly by Asian immigrants, most of whom cannot speak English.” This assertion is incredible. According to the Canadian Census, the vast majority of Asians in British Columbia speak English, so why does Todd propose that Asian Buddhists are so much more unlikely to speak English than their non-Buddhist counterparts?
Of course, these überforeign ethnic Buddhists “generally meet in large extravagant-looking temples throughout the city.” Another cavalier assertion that can be inspected a little more closely. I went to British Columbia’s listing on the BuddhaNet World Buddhist Directory and ran Google Street View on the addresses of “ethnic” temples listed in Metro Vancouver. Mostly residential and office buildings turned up. I have a hunch that most Asian Buddhist congregants in Vancouver regularly attend services in buildings on the same order of “ordinary-looking” as the Gold Buddha Monastery that Todd described visiting.
Last, but not least offensive, is Todd’s depiction of Pure Land Buddhism in Vancouver as basically a bunch of Asians praying to get to Buddha heaven. The forms of Mahayana Buddhism practiced in Vancouver involve much more than just Pure Land practice. They even include meditation—just like those white Buddhists! Even congregations which identify primarily as Pure Land, such as the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temples of Canada, would probably surprise Todd with their approach to Pure Land philosophy. That’s worth a whole post on its own.
If by chance Todd cares to amend any of the numerous errors in his article, it may be best to start with a spell check. For example, the largest Buddhist school is called Mahayana—not Mayahana. Wow. My iPad’s autocorrect just tried to fix that one.
OkTrends, the blog and data crunching arm of the dating site OkCupid, came out with a hot post on race and stereotypes. Working with the self-defined race and profiles of 526,000 users, the analyst(s) parsed text, crunched the numbers and identified the most distinguishing features of each racial group.
Using this kind of analysis, we were able find the interests, hobbies, tastes, and self-descriptions that are specially important to each racial group, as determined by the words of the group itself. The information in this article is not our opinion. It’s data, aggregated from the essays of half a million real people.
OkTrends’ yardstick of “statistical distinction” is relative frequency—how much more a term or phrase is used by one group over others.* As they explain, “[f]or example, it turns out that all kinds of people list sushi as one of their favorite foods. But Asians are the only group who also list sashimi; it’s a racial outlier.” OkTrends then goes on to make a number of Racial Stereotypes, such as the following:
White women show off their eyes (mascara is #5 on their list). Black women show off their lips (lip gloss, #7). Latinas show off both (mascara, #18 / lip gloss, #22). Asian women, however, show off their practicality (lip balm, #48).
And thus we could also conclude that Asians like sashimi, right?
Although the numbers are in their own way intriguing, the final writeup suffers from the unfortunate analytical scourge that the economist Bill Easterly refers to as Reversing Conditional Probability (see here and heretoo). That is, the writers took one conditional probability—“If [your profile says] you like sashimi, then you are Asian”—and flipped it around—“if you are Asian, then you like sashimi.”
This logical fallacy is worth explaining with an extended analogy in another domain. Consider the following relative frequency:
Vietnamese are two to three times more likely than white Americans to be of the type B blood group.**
In other words, if you collected blood samples from equal numbers of Vietnamese and white Americans, then you’d end up with two to three times as many samples of type B blood from Vietnamese as from the white folk. Assuming a 3:1 ratio, that probability looks like this:
We can take this example one step further. Suppose you pick up a random type B sample. Given what we know about the equal sample populations in our hypothetical example and the proportion of type B blood in Vietnamese versus white Americans, we can then make a reasonable guess that this anonymous type B blood sample most likely came from a Vietnamese donor.
So if someone is Vietnamese, then they likely have type B blood, right?
This question makes the mistake of reversing the conditional probability. I took a simple relative frequency—the type B rate for Vietnamese is much higher than for white Americans—and inferred another probability—a random type B sample is likely from a Vietnamese donor—which itself depends on certain conditions, namely that the sample populations are equal. But this conditional probability can’t be logically reversed. The percentage of Vietnamese with type B blood could be anything from 90% to 3% of the whole Vietnamese population—all we know is that they’re more likely to be so than white Americans.
When we look at the overall blood group percentages by ethnic group, it turns out that for both Vietnamese and white American populations, any given individual is most likely to have type O blood. Only about 20%–30% of Vietnamese are of type B. If you happen to meet a Vietnamese person, they probably have type O blood, even while they are up to three times more likely than white Americans to have type B blood.
Reversing conditional probabilities is the nuts-and-bolts of “data-driven” stereotyping. It’s where we jump from “Vietnamese are more likely than white Americans to have type B blood” (fact) to “Vietnamese have type B blood” (fiction). Or from “terrorists in the news are more likely to be Muslim” to “Muslims are terrorists.”
What makes OkTrends’ post so potentially damaging is that they hold up their findings as empirically based reflections of the world as it is. Yes, their findings are both data-driven and not entirely useless, but their faulty conclusions-rolled-up-as-stereotypes have no logical basis. Their data simply don’t allow a logical progression from “the term lip balm occurs most frequently on profiles of Asian women” to “Asian women show off their practicality.”
Where this issue applies to this blog in particular, and to the Western Buddhist community more generally, is when we run across stereotypes rooted in the very same mistake of reversing conditional probabilities. Elsewhere in this blog and on Dharma Folk, one commenter happened to make this kind of claim. Not only did his comment imply that certain individual Vietnamese practice a superstitious Buddhism (stereotype), he also attempted to justify his statement with relative frequencies based on anecdotal observations accumulated through the substantial period of his life spent in Asia (reversing conditional probabilities). This stereotype further becomes racist when one’s supporting evidence/anecdata has no relation to Vietnamese Buddhists other than the tacit assumption that they must be like all the other Asians one has met. You just don’t know enough to assume that any given Asian Buddhist practices superstitious Buddhism.
That’s not to say that this particular commenter is either racist or irrational. Very smart people can make logical mistakes, and well-meaning individuals often say things that come out completely wrong. I get the sense that we base our understanding of the world on relative frequencies, and often operate with the mistaken base assumption that our experiences are reflective of the wider world. We all have at one time or another probably fallen prey to the seemingly innocent mistake of reversing conditional probabilities. But it’s still wrong.
And I will be all too happy to call it out when I see it.
* I’m actually not sure if OkTrends’ stats measure relative to the overall average frequency or to the frequency of all other groups.
On his blog, Ajahn Sujato was asked if the sexism he described in the English Sangha Trust reflected an Asian British mentality—“That’s the only configuration that I can imagine would create this governing body. The women’s rights movement took birth in England.” Ajahn Sujato responds:
The EST is not comprised of Asian British, it is an old-school organization which has, so far as I am aware, always been made up primarily of ‘English British’.
This is an important point, for it is often misunderstood that ‘Asians’ will be less interested in a fair go for women, and that the socially progressive movement will be stimulated by the West. This is very far from the case. I know several Asian women whose active support for bhikkhuni ordination was stimulated by their shock at seeing how discriminated the nuns in England were.
For most of the Asian Buddhist world, bhikkhunis are a normal part of life. They are an integral part of Buddhism in lands east and north of Thailand, and have become widely accepted by the Sri Lankan people (who, may I add, are among our major supporters here at Santi).
There is a popular racist argument that assumes that the West couldn’t possibly be sexist, that the bhikkhuni issue is really an Asian problem. This notion can be defended by anecdote. I have personally witnessed sexism as an entrenched issue within several Asian societies, and I also recognize the great advances in the West towards gender equality over the last century. My mother was raised to find a husband and pop out kids—when she retired, she was making more money than my father. But that’s not to say that Asia is sexist while the West is post-gender. (Tell that to Hillary Clinton!) There are anecdotes, there are trends, and there are racist conclusions—it is important not to confuse these. Best to steer clear of the latter.
Islamic mystique diverged from the pattern somewhere in the 20th century. The value of the white mediator became not so romantic. Racialization of Islam swelled to truly amazing proportions. Today in the United States, the negative stereotypes of Islam I listed above are not just applicable to Muslims; they stretch to Sikhs, Arab Christians, anyone who looks vaguely Middle Eastern. On the other hand, the positive stereotypes of Buddhism do not extend to East Asians! East Asian cultures are still stereotyped as repressive towards women, lovers of hierarchy and haters of individuality, unchanging and ahistorical, superficially clever but not really innovative, etcetera.
Should you read the piece, keep in mind that the audience is “predominantly people of color who are not Buddhists.”