My father seems to represent the classic rags to riches story: from an impoverished immigrant to a well-respected doctor. And then there’s me and my sister, the self-motivated straight-A private school students with big aspirations for the future. Collectively, some might consider us to epitomize the model minority stereotype. That’s a compliment, right? Not exactly…
But what even is the model minority?
This The Atlantic article defines the concept as “a group whose hard work, initiative, personal responsibility, and success offer proof that American meritocracy works as intended.”
In actuality, the concept is a myth fabricated by a very complicated relationship with history, as outlined in this Washington Post article and interview with Ellen Wu, a historian and author of The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority.
The model minority stereotype is often considered to elevate the status of Asian Americans; however, it also fails to account for the diversity within the Asian and Asian-American communities, often only including East Asians (Chinese, Korean, and Japanese) and South Asians (Indians), while excluding groups like Burmese, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Laos, etc. Furthermore, recent research (e.g. this Boston University study) is evidence of the duly detrimental effects of model stereotyping on the mental health of many Asian-Americans.
My father’s life story seems to fit perfectly into the stereotypical anecdotes advertised by proponents of the model minority myth.
- Immigrated to the United States sans English knowledge? ✓
- Lived in a run-down trailer park? ✓
- Family worked multiple blue-collar jobs? ✓
- Became fluent in English and graduated as valedictorian? ✓
- Earned a full scholarship to college? ✓
- Became a doctor? ✓
- Bought a nice house? ✓
- Daughters have a quality education? ✓
This myth reduces the select stories and real struggles of people like my father and many others, who meet these items on a checklist, into flat stories of “success” used to attack other minority groups. An NPR article debunks the concept and explores how the myth is used as “a racial wedge between between Asians and blacks.”
My father and his story are much more than a handful of bullet points.
As a college student, my father visited the dentist for the very first time, and the dentist exclaimed in marvel at the complete absence of cavities. My grandfather owned a humble sewing shop, and he would embroider hand towels for his children’s teachers to thank them. My devoted great-aunt worked multiple jobs, but she climbed out of bed each morning to wait in line for government provided bread and cheese. My father’s greatest wish for Christmas? New socks.
The tenacity demonstrated by my father makes him one of many that continues to inspire me. Despite his humble beginnings, my father climbed up the social and economic status ladder. However, my immense respect for my father and the countless others who have faced similar hardships in no way equates to a desire to perpetuate the harmful stereotyping of the model minority myth. As the child of parents who, on the superficial level, may seem to embody this stereotype, I am also faced with unique pressures.
I was born in this country, yet I at times find myself conflicted with my identity. I’m often stuck in a limbo–too Asian for America and too American for the Asian countries of my ethnic heritage.
The rapidness with which some negate my hard work and accomplishments because of my ethnicity is at times disheartening. Some of the stereotypes I face now are eerily similar to those my parents faced. The “oh, it’s because you’re Asian” comment is all too familiar. I’m “good” at math? Must be because I’m Asian, not the hours I spent studying. If I enjoy school for the sake of learning, I’m probably just another a geeky Asian.
I am acutely aware that this model minority myth has afforded me benefits foreign to other minorities.
The efforts of my father, my mother, and other family members have paved the way for my current path. My educational environment has provided countless opportunities that I am undoubtedly grateful for; it is in part thanks to this privilege that I am now able to use my voice for advocacy.
I do not attempt to elevate the issues faced by Asian-Americans above those of other minorities. However, I do believe it is critical to spark discussion about this stereotype to approach a clearer understanding of minority identities in our society.
The model minority myth revolves around the idea of “success.” To perpetuate it is to succeed; to refute it is to fail.
So what am I, a second-generation Asian immigrant and American student, to do in light of this antithesis?
Dedicated to my father on this Father’s Day.
PS – Please sign and share this petition I started to protect foreign language programs in our schools in light of the Trump administration’s proposed education budget. http://bit.ly/2s70GHu
This post was also published on RISE by Young Asian Leaders of America.