People who look like me are praised for making innovative electronic devices, and we are also blamed for the “China virus.” We are celebrated for achieving the American dream, and we are regularly told to go back to where we came from. In the eyes of some of our fellow Americans, we are a living contradiction. This is the essence of the model minority myth, and for a long time, I believed it.
Growing up, there was a huge municipal park within walking distance of our apartment in Huntington Beach. Most nights after dinner, my father, sister, and I walked the winding concrete path around the park, stopping at the blue, rusty garbage barrels to look for aluminum cans. My father would fetch and hand them to us. We would flip them over, dumping out the last drops of cola or beer before giving them back to our father, who crushed them, like little metal biscuits, and placed them inside a sticky plastic bag. We performed this evening ritual for a few months in the summer of 1981. The fruit of our labor was enough cash from the recycling center to buy two new baseball gloves. A Korean immigrant father taught his American-born son how to play catch.
When my father came to the United States to pursue graduate studies, he had plans for an academic career that never came to be. Instead, with the proverbial sweat of his brow (and my mother’s), he pulled himself up by his metaphorical bootstraps to build a small business — an SAT prep school geared toward Korean immigrant families — that arguably became the most successful one in Orange County in the 1980s. Their hard work translated into the material signs of the American Dream: two cars, as many dogs, a suburban home in a quiet neighborhood, with highly-rated schools.
If those were the dividends of the immigrant success story, then my siblings and I were the long-term investments. Two of us, I suppose, “paid off,” although perhaps not in the way that my mother had imagined. I became a doctor of history at any rate, and my sister is a talented librarian. Our brother? Well, here is where the paradigm falls apart. His addictions, scams, and incarcerations were the secrets we hid with veneers of prosperity and piety.
Just as within my own immigrant family, the myth of the model minority dissipates with the vagaries of real life, so too among the people I supposedly represent. Every family has its own story, and every Asian and Asian-American community is different. I admit, though, growing up in southern California, in a home infused with a cultural conservatism borne from the homeland, I bought into the myth. We certainly were not like those people — lazy, freeloading, uneducated, unmotivated — or so we believed. Living in the OC and seeing the LA Riots unfold from a safe distance did not help either.
We are collectively hailed as an example, the immigrant success story, because someone else decided to make us the model among the minorities. But as easily as such praise is given, so too can it be taken away. And when they say we are the model minority, they only mean certain Asians. Although some south Asians may fit the stereotype, others do not, even if the ancestral homelands of many Arab-Americans are on the same continent as mine. They, too, are Asian-Americans, but apparently, not the right kind. Those I represent are extolled for our work ethic and docility, admired for achieving the “Dream,” and occasionally welcomed into the exclusive clubs. Still, we are simultaneously ridiculed for the shape of our eyes, conscripted to join lawsuits against allegedly unfair college admissions, and blamed for the “Kung-flu,” the new yellow peril. So which is it? Are we a model or a mockery?
I am certainly not the first to recognize that the myth is a lie, and there are many scholars, journalists, writers, and activists who have worked hard to debunk and resist. The myth is a product, nay, a genius weapon of the system. If we Asians can make it with our determination, hard work, intact nuclear family, respect and deference for institutions, obedience to the law, why can’t they? If we Asians can live the American Dream without a government handout or affirmative action, why can’t they?
The origins of the myth are almost laughable, if not so tragic: Japanese-Americans were idealized as a model to compare with Black Americans. But who put the former into internment camps during World War II? Who created the old Jim Crow, and the new? Who established the matrices of inequality that are so entrenched in the structures of our country? The powerful know that it is much easier to divide and conquer, and so the myth serves as a powerful rhetorical weapon in the panoply of systemic racism. It highlights the supposed “failures” of the other, and so it is used to erase the history of the oppression of Black and brown people in this country.
But we are steadily approaching a time when the majority will no longer be so in terms of sheer numbers. Yes, some of us have been given a few seats at the table, and to be sure, many of us must reckon with our complicity in perpetuating the structures of systemic racism. And we must remember that we are only useful as the “model minority,” as long as it serves the interests of those who perpetuate the myth. The powerful hate giving up power, and we all need to wake up.
Young Richard Kim teaches Classics and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago and is a Public Voices fellow of The OpEd Project.