OPINION | Truth and consequences: Struggling with the model minority myth


When I went to my first lecture for a Creative Writing class, I wasn’t expecting much. I thought I’d only be treated to “professional” writers tooting their own horns at us poor, inexperienced college students.

I was pleasantly surprised when we were introduced to our speaker for that day: Bao Phi, a Vietnamese-American poet.

You might ask what is so exciting about that.

Well, he’s Vietnamese-American.

“So what?” you might say. It’s not that amazing.

Let me tell you, as a Chinese-American child growing up in white-dominated America — yes, it is that amazing.

When you imagine an Asian, what do you think? They’re bad at English maybe, they’re probably from China or Korea, they’ll grow up to be doctors or lawyers or they’ll go into business.

Bao Phi is the first Asian-American artist I have met.

Why? Let’s talk about societal and cultural expectations.

Ever since day one in school, Asian-Americans are bombarded with expectations. We’re supposed to be smart, quiet and submissive. Other students think they can go to Asian-Americans for homework because we’ll know all the answers. Unless we can’t speak English, then best not talk to us.

Asian-Americans are shown that we should excel in math and science, but things like art? Well, we can play piano, flute or violin, but that’s all.

The pressure, to some extent, starts at home. A good portion of East Asian immigrant families move to the U.S. out of ambition. The child born in the land of opportunity is expected to shoulder the responsibilities of that ambition.

My natural knack for learning has made pressure an unnecessary exertion, but that is not the case with my sister, for instance, who has to struggle to meet my parents’ academic expectations.

On TV, Asians are always the “smart best friend” or the “eccentric shop owner” or “the guy that knows kung-fu”— that is, when they’re shown at all.

None of my favorite authors or TV characters were Asian. None of the pretty women I saw in magazines had dark hair and almond-shaped eyes like me. I became, by standards of the community in which I grew up, physically undesirable.

I wanted blonde hair and blue eyes, like the TV stars and models. But my parents wouldn’t let me dye my hair or buy blue contacts — I had to be a bland, unpretty Asian. So I thought that, if I couldn’t be pretty, I could be smart.

For the three months when I visited Taiwan each summer, I felt differently. There, the beautiful women on the billboards and selling makeup in the department stores all looked like me. It was a place where the whole range of options – being an artist, a doctor, an actress, a political leader – seemed open.

History of the myth

Compared to other ethnic stereotypes, being considered “the model minority” – smart, disciplined, docile – might seem like a good thing. Not if you look closely. The origin of the term “model minority” stems from a 1966 issue of The New York Times Magazine, in an article by William Petersen entitled “Success Story: Japanese American Style.” He praised Japanese Americans for their virtues, in particular, their ability to adapt to mainstream American culture.

The 1960s were marred by racial tension, and to some historians, the creation of the model minority myth during that time period is not a coincidence. According to Guofang Li and Lihshing Wang, who wrote “Model Minority Myth Revisited,” the stereotype “divert(ed) attention away from the problems faced by Asian Americans, and … pitt(ed) Asian Americans against other groups of color.”

Like any stereotype, the model minority label erases the reality of individual differences. At home and at school, Asian-American kids are told that they have to be intelligent and get good grades.

But what if they aren’t or can’t? Let’s face it, not all Asian kids are smart, and the ones who lag behind suffer for it, psychologically and emotionally. They feel as though they aren’t living up to expectations, and they’re ashamed to seek help from their teachers. They become disappointed in themselves and their self-confidence drops.

Even if an Asian-American student is smart, very few will recognize it unless the student does more than what is expected of his or her class.

Michelle Tran, community relations specialist at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minneapolis, often encountered trouble in her school years due to how teachers viewed Asian-Americans.

“I’ve had teachers or professors who have a certain stereotype of Asian people as being quiet, and in some ways that can become a self-fulfilled prophecy,” Tran said. “It was very frustrating for me when I was in a classroom and I raised my hand and I was always speaking up, but the teacher felt like I was being quiet.”

Oftentimes, Asian students have to go above and beyond their classmates in order to be noticed, she said.

“It takes a little more to fight against that, and to make a larger point of having to be louder than other students,” Tran said.

She was delighted when Jeremy Lin, the first American of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the National Basketball Association, briefly ignited “Linsanity” with the New York Knicks last spring.

“There is that stereotype that Asians don’t participate in the great American sports. Then there’s the stereotype that Asian people are small. I think that’s why people were captivated by him because he broke a lot of those stereotypes,” she said.

Ironically, when Asian Americans excel, it can sometimes be held against them. Elite universities are often accused of discriminating against Asian-American applicants because they don’t want one ethnic group to be too dominant. As recently as 2011, Asian-American applicants filed complaints against Harvard and Princeton, alleging that they were rejected due to race. To counter this, some people no longer mark their ethnicity in their applications.

Who is Asian?

Then again, what does it even mean to be Asian-American?

Asia is a huge region, sweeping from Japan in the East to the Philippines and Indonesia in the South to India and the Middle East in the West. Everyone who lives in that area is called “Asian,” but the truth is that Asia is a highly diverse continent.

That’s also reflected economically, with Asian-American families obtaining a higher median annual household income than the rest of the American population. But a lot of Asian and Asian-American families also live in the lower class.

Many of the poorer Asian kids I know are children of Hmong parents who’ve recently immigrated. The model minority stereotype ignores these people — the recent immigrants from Southeast Asia, whose education and income levels are lower than the average American. As a group, they also remain a numerically insignificant part of the nonprofit sector.

Dispelling stereotypes

All stereotypes are bad. There are no exceptions. Anyone who forms part of the population regularly stereotyped by mainstream media knows the feeling of being objectified.

“It’s telling us that others are controlling how we define ourselves,” said Kang Vang, a filmmaker and director of programming for Asian Media Access, a non-profit in north Minneapolis.

“You become like a product. You become like Chinese food.”

For me, the model minority stereotype feels like being put in a very small box — a box for Chinese take-out — with very little room to move.

I’ve already somewhat settled on my future; I want to go into international relations and help develop partnerships with other countries that are based on deeper understanding of their cultures and history. But I also love to draw and write.

Sometimes I wonder if I weren’t branded as a “model minority,” would I be an English major instead?

I want other Asian-American children to see that they do have room to be who they want to be – to have Asian-American characters to look up in their favorite movies and TV shows, to see Asian-American women and men modeling outfits and advertising perfume.

I want them to have every door flung wide open for their choosing and for them to step bravely through whichever ones they choose.