A 1987 Times magazine cover, titled “Asian American Whiz Kids” became a national sensation in its mainstream representation of Asian Americans—particularly second generation Asian Americans—as the poster children of academic achievement. At a glance, Asian Americans make more money and are more likely to graduate from university— the picture of harmonious immigrant prosperity. However, below the glossy surface of the so-called “model minority” is the ugly truth of the negative consequences of such a confining stereotype. The reality is, not all Asian Americans are wealthy or highly educated.
Despite the widespread assumption that all Asian Americans are high earners, Asians are actually the most likely to be in poverty in cities such as New York City. An estimated 26.6 percent live below the city’s poverty threshold in 2014 (Asian American Federation). Below the surface of the myth, Asian Americans toil under the pressure of being "perfect." Below that surface, the flights of Asian Americans are ignored as they are never percieved publicly as being discriminated against or underpriviliged. Particularly for Asian women and girls, there is a specific box drawn of what they can and cannot be. This confinement of identity in the mainstream narrows the options of what an Asian woman can and cannot be. If she fails to meet such standards, she is deemed a failure by society and her peers. Most devastating of all, she sees herself as a failure, unable to live up to the standards imposed on her since childhood.
"I thought that being Asian was the only special thing about me." Said Philips Academy student Olivia Lai at her school's TEDX event.
Her accompishments and hard work as a student is reduced and discredited by the mere phrase "Oh, its because she's Asian." She is not seen as an individual person who accomplishes much at a young age; she is seen as another model Asian whiz kid, doing what she is supposed to do anyways. Lai speaks that as a high academic acheiver, she conforms to this stereotype. She embodies it, and it follows her everywhere she goes. If she fails to uphold its expectations, she becomes deviant from the norm and seen as an outsider.
For those who do not conform, the consequences are even more devastating.
2019 Miss Califnornia titleholder Eileen Kim voiced that"I have been conditioned to accept for myself nothing less than perfection."
When she fails to meet the meticulous standards of Asian perfection--ideals perpetuated by mainstream America and exacerbated by traditional Asian culture--she turns to self-blame and even self-harm. Her story is not singular; she feels as if she is never good enough unless she can catch up to the model minority. One interesting point she brought up is that in places like California where the Asian American population is larger, the problem is worse as the stereoypes run rampant. Asian Americans themselves accept it as the norm.
Asian women in particular are stuck in a tug of war and limbo, pulled by both sets of standards: the American and the Asian. They are expected to confrom to both, living meticulously and according to the so-called "set path."
Growing up in Silicon Valley, I feel the full force of the Model Minority Myth. My Asian American peers all wanted to be doctors and engineers. Being good at math was a given assumption; those who did not skip a grade ahead in mathmatics were seen as deviant. I was approached by classmates who wanted help with their math homework becuase "I was born in China, so I must be a math whiz."As someone who had little interest in pursueing a career in STEM, I felt like an outlier. Humanities had always been my passion, yet I felt ashamed at times for taking more History and English classes than math and science classes. Subjects and majors were divided sharply into "useful" majors such as Computer Science and "waste of time" majors such as History. As I peer deeper into everyone's stories, I realized that the sudden zeal for Computer Science perhaps did not derive from natural interest; it came from the cookie-cutter minority myth of achievement. This "achievement" only recgonizes a narrow band of want one can accomplish; success in other fields and arenas are often disregarded and invalidated.
The Myth itself does not empower Asian women but instead discredits and invalidates us. Our accomplishments are expected but not praised; our failures are scrutinized and magnified. We are given no room to suceed or fail; we are confined within a box. At its core, the Model Minority myth harms Asian Americans, especially in the younger generations and the generations to come as the competition and fervor for "success" intensifies by the year.
“Epilogue. Model Minority/Asian American.” The Color of Success, 2014, pp. 242–258., doi:10.1515/9781400848874-010.
McGirt, Ellen. “The Asian Glass Ceiling.” Fortune, Fortune, 4 June 2018, https://fortune.com/2018/06/04/asian-americans-model-minority-asian-glass-ceiling/.