Skip to content

MALIK: Diaspora literature needs to move away from limiting stereotypes, white approval

Column: On the Good Life

Asian Americans are tired of hearing the same "stinky lunch" story in diaspora literature.  – Photo by @JCPSKY /

Diaspora literature has long served as a voice for Asian Americans and other minorities who are part of a diaspora, which can be defined as "people settled far from their ancestral homelands."

Generally, the focus of diaspora pieces is the struggle of being away from the "ancestral homeland," feeling confused about one's identity and balancing alienation from one's homeland while trying to fit into one's current residence. For such a nuanced experience, with so many layers to unpack, current diaspora literature falls humiliatingly short.

One of the most commonly told stories in the diaspora of Asian Americans is the stinky-lunch story. It typically focuses on a child being treated as an outsider due to their pungent, foreign food that causes white classmates to make disparaging remarks. This is then usually followed by the child being upset and wanting to distance themselves from their ancestral identity and simply fit in.

The redemption of the story is that the child grows up to learn and respect their culture and consequently takes more of a role in it. At the same time, the white students now find themselves enjoying the same stinky foods that they once made fun of.

The last part is fundamental to the story, and the victory over the previous perception is always noted. The disdain the child has for the way they were treated is always met with a victory. In a way, the person is still looking for their classmate's approval and is upset event with someone's current appreciation because it moves past the child's suffering.

They believe the classmate's appreciation is unearned without them receiving the pity or apology they believe they deserve. The story practically begs for an apology, and despite having the intent of telling a story of the diaspora, it continues to center on white people and their approval.

Personally, this story was force-fed to me. While I did not have this experience, the Asian American experience practically forces it down your throat as your truth.

This is our story, it says. This is what happens to us here. Are you not sad? Were you not ashamed?

The big problem with diaspora literature today is that it depends on fulfilling the stereotypes consistently given to us by others. The idea that all our fathers are silent, that all our mothers are helpless and all our food is stinky is fed as a truth to us until you yourself start to believe it.

We begin to inhabit these stereotypes and these stories told to us and continue to pass them on, so much so that we do not stop to humanize, empathize and understand the people around us and go past these simple ideas to recognize the nuances present in our lives.

The issue stems from many diaspora social media accounts pointing out silly commonalities with which many can relate. While seemingly harmless, we act to make our family members caricatures in order to have some form of community and connection with others in the diaspora.

But the reality is that my father is not silent, my mother is not helpless and my food does not stink. The stories being fed to us are not true in the slightest once we look for the humanity in the people around us and decenter others' approval of our stories.

Relatability is created through feelings like alienation, not silly commonalities.

In the diaspora, the truly alienating feeling is from the fact that our stories are not our own, nor are they for us. Diaspora literature needs to change to find the heart of diasporic feelings like alienation, confusion and celebration instead of white approval.

Too many of our stories focus on "trauma" without much nuance and without having the strength to tackle the big battles we face of racism and discrimination, so much so that we are always stuck in the lunchroom.

Life is made up of celebration, sadness, confusion and other feelings, all with complex layers. It is time for our literature to represent that.

Sehar Malik is a sophomore in the School of Arts and Sciences, majoring in molecular biology and biochemistry and minoring in French. Her column, "On the Good Life," runs on alternate Sundays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

YOUR VOICE | The Daily Targum welcomes submissions from all readers. Due to space limitations in our print newspaper, letters to the editor must not exceed 900 words. Guest columns and commentaries must be between 700 and 900 words. All authors must include their name, phone number, class year and college affiliation or department to be considered for publication. Please submit via email to by 4 p.m. to be considered for the following day's publication. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

Related Articles

Join our newsletterSubscribe