While the Model Minority identity for Asian Americans in the U.S. appears positive at first glance, its manifestations are often sinister. I didn’t fully understand this until moving back to China.
Top illustration by Frankie Huang
From official MATH merch to jokes about knowing a lot of doctors, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang has built the perception of Asian Americans as “Model Minorities” right into his historic campaign. This has earned him both supporters from across sectors as well as sharp criticism from progressive people of color, who accuse him of promoting a caricature of East Asian people to win the support of those who believe these stereotypes. During a meeting with Asian American writers, activists, and media personalities, Yang, who has a record of criticizing anti-Asian racism, said he didn’t believe his jokes about Asians and math and doctors are harming anyone. Sadly, that just isn’t the case.
The term “Model Minority,” first coined by sociologist William Petersen in 1966 to describe Japanese Americans, is perhaps not well known to many outside the East Asian American community. But stereotyping East Asians as being disciplined high-achievers — often in contrast with “problem minorities” who are labeled lazy and disruptive — has been part of the American social fabric for decades. While the Model Minority identity appears positive at first glance, its manifestations are often sinister. It has led many East Asians to confuse academic prowess for an ethnic trait, as seen in the Harvard affirmative action case, and helps construct a “bamboo ceiling” that diminishes Asian achievements beyond the scope of Model Minority behavior, as seen when screenwriter Adele Lim was offered a fraction of her white male co-writer for working on the Crazy Rich Asians sequel.
For all that I now understand about the harmful nature of the Model Minority myth, there was a time when I embraced it wholesale as my path to success in America.
When I moved from China to Kansas in the third grade, my parents wasted no time explaining to me what my yellow skin represented to the people around me: that I am Chinese, and therefore hardworking, disciplined, smart, and courteous. Even now, I can still hear my mother’s voice in my head, warning me not to slack off: “We are transplants here. Chinese people are harder-working and less trouble than anyone else. Only when you can do twice the work of everyone else and twice as well can you get hired. Otherwise, bosses would hire an American instead.”
My parents were both the hardest-working employees at their respective workplaces, and I know they never complained. They used our immigrant identity to motivate me by never letting me forget that our sense of belonging in America was incumbent on our usefulness and productivity. At age nine I was already taught to think of myself in relation to the mainstream — which in Kansas is white, with middle American values. Because I could not be more American than my peers, I became worried that if I couldn’t be “useful,” I might not be qualified to live in America.
But there was another side to this. For years, I felt rather upbeat that things could have been worse. Having been exposed to the negative stereotypes which the mainstream attach to other ethnicities, I reasoned that if I was anything other than Asian, I’d have to defy societal expectations several times over before respect was bestowed. And there it was again: seeing the world through the lens of a well-defined majority. The insidious nature of the Model Minority stereotype is that it discourages Asian Americans from “being themselves,” even though that message lies at the heart of so many American coming-of-age stories.
Another trap of being tokenized for positive traits is that one can mistake it for respect. Even though I struggled with STEM courses, I was desperate to appear good at these subjects, and went so far as taking on the lion’s share of work on group projects just because people expected it to be easy for me. I ended up doing other people’s work just to seem like the perfect partner. Dr. Jennifer Lee, who teaches sociology at Columbia University, refers to “the promise of being viewed through the lens of a positive stereotype that leads one to perform in such a way that confirms the positive stereotype” as stereotype promise, something that can push Asian Americans like me to excel, but at the cost of enormous self-esteem drop and outsized feelings of failure when high standards of success are not met.
Once I became accustomed to the pleasures of being accepted not as a person but as an Asian™, the fear of tarnishing that brand became constant. Every imperfect grade and every failure to overachieve felt like an affront to those who’d expect better from an Asian. I was afraid of being exposed for a fraud and having the stereotypes of Asian excellence taken away from me. I was motivated to work harder, but I lacked confidence and focus, because I could never shake the shame of pretending to be a perfect Asian.
There were other ways to give people what they wanted as well. As I got older, it wasn’t hard for me to pick up how my Asianness shaped the kind of male attention I received. My classic East Asian features signaled some combination of submissive, bendy, and exotic, to be coveted. In my insecurity, I leaned into these stereotypes, because at the time I couldn’t picture having it better than being sexy just for existing. When men told me how aroused they were to have “their first Asian,” I was anxious to deliver on their fantasies, afraid that they might be disappointed by their “Asian experience” with me.
Performance anxiety permeated every aspect of my life. What others wanted from me mattered far more to me than what I wanted for myself. By my mid-20s, I felt utterly lost. Many Asian Americans I knew seemed to be living their best Model Minority lives, holding advanced degrees, working high-powered jobs. I was jealous of how they seemed to know exactly what they were doing, but I didn’t really want their lives. I became convinced that I was a faulty Asian, that I would amount to nothing, and that I deserved misery.
My turning point came six years ago when I was unexpectedly offered a job in Shanghai, where I was no longer an exotic racial minority but, as a Han Chinese person, a member of the majority. The transition felt like I was a 2-D image popped into a 3-D figure.
The Asian stereotypes I used to embrace now seemed absurd in a society where nearly every role was filled by a Chinese person. Even though China has serious restrictions on personal liberties, the plurality of identities I witnessed dazzled me with its richness. I was essentially discovering how white people navigate racial identity in the U.S. — namely, what happens when skin color doesn’t factor into how life paths are determined.
In Shanghai I became both more seen and more invisible all at once. Other Chinese people didn’t presume to know my qualities on sight, as I was just another face in the crowd, undefined and nothing special. Mainland Chinese people aren’t exactly famous for being warm and friendly to strangers, but I never felt more physically relaxed in public, knowing I had control over making an impression or no impression at all. If I wanted to recede into the background, no one would give me a second glance. The ability to choose to be invisible or stand out may seem like a small thing, but it made me feel powerful — and it was the first time I had that ability.
While there are plenty of stereotypes I battle as a woman in China, the stereotypes that make up the Model Minority myth have no legs here; my Asianness is self-evident, and means nothing. My Asian identity is perceived very differently in the U.S. and China, even though I am the same person. The stark contrast is eye-opening, to say the least.
The experience of living as a member of the majority in China freed me from the constant need to uphold a false monolithic view of what Asians can or should be. Once I no longer saw myself as a collection of stereotypes and cliches, I truly understood the smallness of that prior existence. I stopped keeping my head down during discussions and became vocal in sharing my own ideas at work; I no longer took on extra workloads just to be more useful; I stopped suppressing my creative side and began thinking seriously about making art for a living, something I have always loved in secret.
When the paltry rewards of being a Model Minority no longer mattered, I finally saw clearly how little I settled for in the past, and how much I debased myself in exchange for scraps of acknowledgement. No one should have to move across the world and to be among faces that look like her own to understand the feeling of being treated like an individual.
Though old habits die hard, these days I often remind myself to reject any caveats to my personhood. I am done engaging with the narrow, reductive terms of “Asian excellence,” and I am done presenting myself as a commodity. Being Asian is my pride and honor, but it shouldn’t create expectations in other people, against which my accomplishments will always be measured. After 20-odd years of bearing the weight of the myth, being Asian no longer confines and stunts my identity, and now I can take flight.