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Asian American "nerd" experiment: a lesson in intolerance

STANFORD -- Growing up as one of the only Asian Americans in predominantly white Tallmadge, Ohio, Harry Duh always felt that he had to work much harder than the other kids to fit in.

"I shed my thick glasses for contact lenses, joined the school athletic teams, bought all the fashionable clothes, and got into fights to prove how tough I was," said Duh, now a Stanford junior majoring in biological sciences.

"I had been taught that whites were superior and Asians inferior, that whites were beautiful and Asians ugly, that whites were strong and Asians weak. Even worse, I had allowed myself to be convinced that these ideas were true."

By the time he entered Stanford, Duh (pronounced "do") had gained pride in his ethnic heritage and confidence in himself. Yet he still wondered: Would his fellow Stanford students still like him - and would he like himself - even if he were a stereotypical Asian American "nerd"?

To find out, Duh last spring tried an unusual experiment: He mussed up his "obsessively well-kempt hair" so that it stuck up in various places. He replaced his contact lenses with a pair of thick-lensed glasses, wore a long-sleeved plaid shirt buttoned to the top, and filled the pockets with paper, pens, a calculator and a transistor radio. He completed the look with a camera and a full backpack slung over both his shoulders.

"As I began to walk around campus, I noticed that people would shift their gazes downward as they passed me," he said. "As I encountered more and more people, I detected increased amused glances, and I began to hear whispers and giggles as students passed by in groups."

Shopkeepers refused to treat Duh as a competent adult. "As soon as I began speaking in my accented voice, people would treat me as they would a child," he said. "In two different bookstores, the cashiers explained the cost of my purchases in an extremely patronizing voice and then proceeded to help me count out my money."

Perhaps the most humiliating experience was when he went to the student weight room.

"For the first time ever, I was asked to present my student I.D. in order to enter," he said. "I walked over to some free weights and proceeded to remove all of the plates from a bar. I pretended to exert much effort toward benchpressing the bare bar, grunting and muttering to myself in Taiwanese.

"After a while, a group of three rather large gentleman walked over to me. One of them asked sarcastically, 'Hey, muscles, mind if we work in?' Speaking in heavily accented English, I agreed, and I laughed along with them in order to assure them that I didn't comprehend that I was being ridiculed."

Duh acknowledges that a white student, behaving in a similar "nerdlike" manner, might have received the same treatment. He believes, however, that race played a role in his experiment.

"I don't think the weightlifters would have made so much fun of me had they known I could speak English," he said.

And Duh was most surprised by the reaction of other Asian American students to his "nerd" performance.

"They were the ones that turned their faces away the fastest," he said. "When they passed by in small groups, they sometimes openly jeered at me as if to reassure themselves that the same stereotypes did not apply to them at all.

"My experiment served to remind me that, despite any rational defeat over racism, I, as well as many other Asian Americans, have probably unconsciously internalized white racism more than we realize." Duh's account, "Adventures of an Asian Nerd," appears in the inaugural issue of Asian/Pacific Islander Magazine, a new publication written, edited and illustrated entirely by Asian American students at Stanford.

Asian American student groups raised more than $5,000 for the magazine, which includes articles showcasing the ethnic diversity within the university's Asian American community.

"Our goal," the editors note, "has been to present different perspectives on Asian American issues which represent voices and opinions not necessarily reflected by the community as a whole."

Other articles in the winter issue include interviews with prominent Asian American community leaders; the "coming out" story of a gay Filipino; a discussion of Asian American identity; a historical account of the detainment of Asian immigrants at Angel Island in San Francisco; and stories on Stanford Asian organizations and artists.

A second issue is scheduled for May 1; financial contributions and writers' queries are welcome. Copies of the magazine may be obtained by contacting Duh at 497-2489.



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