So Well Spoken: Japanese-American Stanford Student Deals With Stereotypes
Yoichi Shiga is a Stanford grad student of Japanese, Italian and Croatian descent. (Vinnee Tong/KQED)
So Well Spoken is a KQED News series on how to communicate better in situations where race and culture are factors.
Suppose you were introduced to someone of Japanese, Italian and Croatian descent. How would you strike up a conversation?
Hopefully, you would say the same things that you would say to anyone else. But for Stanford grad student Yoichi Paolo Shiga, his Japanese first name often overshadows his other attributes, making for some awkward encounters.
"Typically, people approach me, they find out my name and they bring up some reference to either Japanese language, (or) start speaking to me in Japanese," Shiga says. "To be honest, for me it's so awkward, I rarely know what to say."
Shiga says he considers himself more Californian than Japanese: He was born in Japan but left at age 2, growing up in Rohnert Park, and he doesn't speak Japanese. Few people realize just how blended his cultural background is -- an increasingly common area of confusion in a highly multicultural state like ours.
"My dad's Japanese," Shiga says. "My mom, her mother is, I guess, Croatian ... and her dad is Italian. I kind of grew up in this weird pasta-and-rice-eating family. A lot of carbs."
What happens to Yoichi could happen to anyone who is different from others in a group -- or at least, who seems different. There are many other things to know about him: He just got married, for example, and his research at Stanford involves measuring carbon in the atmosphere. Of course, people find that out only if they inquire about him, rather than making assumptions.
"It seems like they're interested in talking about something they know or they're into. And it doesn't really dawn on them that, oh, this person doesn't share that or that this person isn't this made-up idea that I threw on them."
Stereotypes can be hard to get around, even for people with the best of intentions. How do we build connections across cultures, without making the other person feel drafted into being an ambassador?
UC Berkeley psychology Professor Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton can relate to this somewhat, regarding that "R" in his first name. Eventually, he got so tired of hearing people overemphasize it by rrrrrrolling it dramatically that he just took up the nickname "Rudy."
"I think it's certainly helped me, in the sense that I don't have to constantly be bombarded with the Latino announcer kind of voice from everybody," Mendoza-Denton says. "And then constantly having to be reminded of that ... divide that can sometimes come between people."
Still, some people are genuinely curious, from a good-natured place, about people from different cultures or backgrounds. Mendoza-Denton, who is Mexican-American, suggests that it may be inappropriate to dive in by trying to satisfy your curiosity immediately. That makes the interaction about you, rather than about both of you.
Mendoza-Denton draws a parallel between Yoichi's situation and Race Together, the ill-fated campaign from Starbucks to encourage conversations on race between customers and baristas.
"One's cultural identity is not really part of that equation. So to bring it up is kind of forcing an issue or a conversation, or a side of a person that is not necessarily relevant even to the particular context," Mendoza-Denton says.
Bottom line: Treat people like individuals first, and beware of layering stereotypes over them. Our ignorance about someone's background can be an uncomfortable feeling, but it's OK; learning more about someone's culture works best when they become comfortable with you and give you permission to go there. For Yoichi Shiga, culture has been a fluid thing in his life ... even in his appearance.
"When I was younger ... I looked like an Asian baby," Shiga says. "I think now I look more like my mom. ... My facial features are looking more like her. It's been a funny transformation throughout life to see (who) you identify with, because you change how you look throughout your life."