The Model Minority Myth

4 12 2009

No blog on Asian Americans is complete without a post on this: the model minority myth. My post about Anne Fadiman’s book “The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down” about the Hmong people from Laos, creates a segue way to talk about how this model minority myth about Asian American marginalizes less successful Asian groups like the refugees from Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

East and South Asians have come a long way since settling in American in the late 1800s. From working as laborers on farms or in factories, to running laundries and ethnic restaurants, to what we see today, a demographic associated with the highest education levels and income per household thanks actually to immigration from the best and brightest from the region during the 60s. Asians, the Chinese (HK, China, Taiwan, Singapore), Japanese, Koreans and Indians in America have become known collectively as the model minority. They have infiltrated into almost every aspect of society, from politics, to the arts, and of course, carve a niche in science, technology and engineering. The nobel prize winners for science are typically Chinese.

Outside America, the rise of Asia also contribute the model minority image. Japan, in particular, rose to great heights and is now looked upon with envy and admiration by Western countries. The Asian Tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, HK, and Singapore) followed suit, though not as visible. And China is making rapid steps into increasing its living standards. Asians in Asia have solidified their image as a model group – hardworking, industrious, clever, and civil.

This image however belies and aggravates some very real and painful problems this demographic is facing. First, it masks the dire situation South East Asians in America are impoverished backgrounds. Second, it gives undue pressure on young Asians in America to perform above and beyond expectations resulting in mental health problems.

Fadiman’s book describes how the Hmong people faced immense difficulty assimilating into American culture. Coming as refugees from war-torn countries, the Hmong have little or no resources to start with and are stuck in a cycle of poverty just like the poorest of blacks and Latino households. Other groups like the Vietnamese and Cambodians too have similar problems with upward mobility, however the model minority stereotype causes society in general to have the false assumption that all Asian groups are doing fine, thus neglecting this demographic.

Even for East and South Asians, this model label creates problems. In 2006, a Cornell University news article reported that since 1996, 13 of the 21 – 62 percent – of all Cornell student suicide victims were Asian or Asian-American. Asian-Americans, however, comprised a mere 14 percent of the student body. The school became so concerned with this issue that it established a special mental health-oriented Asian and Asian American Climate Task Force to address this problem.

The task force found that the overbearing pressure to constantly outperform one’s peers due to the “model minority” stereotype had been a significant factor affecting the state of the mental health of Cornell Asian and Asian American students; the devastation from the failure to meet academic expectations led to suicidal thoughts.

Joel Wong, IU assistant professor of counseling psychology, said that Asian-Americans have elevated levels of perfectionism which creates undue pressure to do well in college.

“This is a result of number one, expectations of others, including classmates and parents,” he said, “and number two, pressure when it (the belief) is internalized – Asian-Americans setting unduly high standards for themselves.”

Many other Asian households, too, emphasize this mantra. They passed onto their children the belief that in order to be distinguished in America one has to be academically exceptional and have a high-flying career. Hence, when Asian students do not meet expectations, or do not have talent for fields in science, math, medicine and engineering, there is heightened shame and condemnation for their perceived incompetence.

Additionally, Asian students tend to avoid voicing their concerns even when they are at their wits’ end. According to a report, “Suicide Among Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders,” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Asian-Americans do not access mental health treatment as much as other racial/ethnic groups do due to strong stigma associated with mental illness.

Because of the model minority myth, suicide is not normally associated with Asian-American college students. But the recent Virginia Tech killing and suicide of Seung-Hui Cho in 2007 and the decapitation of an Asian graduate student by another Asian graduate student at the same school this year illuminate the reality that Asians and Asian-Americans are in need of mental health services to mitigate the tremendous pressures they face from this model minority label.


Book Review: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

24 11 2009

Anne Fadiman’s book is a medical non-fiction story which dramatizes the clash between a Hmong family against their American doctors in saving their 3 month old Hmong refugee girl, Lia Lee, who suffers from frequent bouts of epilepsy.

The Hmong, an ethnic group from Laos, were used as a proxy fighting force by America during the Secret War in Laos, and fought against the communist-nationalist Pathet Lao. When the communist emerged triumphant, the Hmong fled to countries like Thailand and the USA.

Fadiman coins the term “differently ethical” to explain the Hmong’s system of beliefs and how this system are worlds apart from the American system. This stark cultural difference becomes the source of miscommunication between Lia’s parents and her doctors, and ultimately contributes to Lia’s tragic suffering and future semi-vegetative state. For the Hmong, their distinct set of beliefs posed a major obstacle to the American medical professionals whom, at this time during the 70s, had little or no experience treating patients like the Hmong who were so deeply entrenched in superstition and rooted in customs considered primitive by Americans.

Through Lia’s case, Fadiman raises the need for better cross-cultural communication in the American medical community when treating immigrant patients. What was needed in Lia’s case and most other cases involving Hmong, in general, was cross-cultural exchange that went beyond simply displaying deep sincerity and sensitivity under the one’s cultural framework of understanding. The solution offered by Fadiman is to adopt another culture’s way of thinking and act according to that framework to engage a new demographic.

Taking Woodstock

17 11 2009

“Taking Woodstock” hit the screen of Whittenberger Auditorium at the IMU last weekend and I decided to check the movie out primarily because of the film’s director Taiwanese-American Ang Lee.

In an interview with Stephen Colbert for the Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, Lee shared how he tried to promote Asian culture through the film. That nugget of information really fired me up to want to see the film. Initially, I had been a little hesitant to spend about 2 hours on what might be a film about getting high, sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll.

However, with assurance from Lee, I went to watch the film with eager anticipation trying to spot how he brought in Asian culture to this very American cultural event. I was disppointed to say the least when the only thing Asian presented was merely just references to Mao, traditional Indian dance, and the Korean war.

This being a Hollywood film about an important American cultural event, I probably should not have expected much…

Dumbing Down English

10 11 2009

A New York Times essay by author Emily Parker titled “Is Technology Dumbing Down Japanese?” caught my fancy over the weekend. In the commentary, Parker writes about how communications technologies have changed the written Japanese for better or worse.

She highlights a viewpoint from author, Minae Mizumura, who claims in his book, “The Fall of Japanese in the Age of English,” that the written Japanese language has spiralled down in its quality due to the pervasiveness of English thanks to the Japanese education system that emphasizes the importance of this language at the expense of Japanese, and the Internet which is predominantly an English medium.

Parker then shares about the popularity of cellphone text novels which are embraced by Japanese women through this excerpt:

Some of the most dramatic transformations have been taking place on cellphones, where writers, often young women, type stories into their keypads and readers consume them on their screens. Sentences tend to be short, and love stories are popular. The phenomenon peaked in 2007, when five out of 10 of the year’s best-selling books were written on cellphones.

These novels rely on this hybrid Japanese language and the implication here is that this medium of storytelling might change the traditional form of novel.

In a contrasting viewpoint, however, Parker shows the viewpoint of Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami, who says:

My personal view on the Japanese language (or any language) is, If it wants to change, let it change. Any language is alive just like a human being, just like you or me. And if it’s alive, it will change. Nobody can stop it.” There is no such thing as simplification of language, he added. “It just changes for better or worse (and nobody can tell if it is better or worse).”

She ends on a positive note that the way the Japanese language is being simplified might help for more people to comprehend the language, which is especially helpful in the future when Japan might see an influx of immigrants.

In my J201 class, we learn about writing for the Internet. In many ways, simplification – easy structures, short sentences – is the key to writing for the medium. And as more and more engage the Internet as a primary source for information, would written English adapt to this new simplified version so much so that quality goes out of the window?

I’m sure there are tons of scholarly papers on this issue, but in general I feel that simplification of the written language is a great thing. In this day and age, having a literate populace is great for productivity. You need a society that can read to energize the economy. By simplifying the language, China pulled billions out of illiteracy and ramp up its economy.

Nevertheless, like Murakami says, language is always evolving and it would be exciting to see how the Internet changes the writing as a whole.

Singapore: Blogging Nation

3 11 2009

Jeff Yang noted in his column “Blogging Asia” for the SF Chronicle that if Singapore has an advantage over Hong Kong, it is that the country has better blogs and bloggers. Yang quotes Simon Masnick, an Aussie based in Hong Kong:

“Singapore and Hong Kong are well-known rivals. Usually, Hong Kong has the upper hand. But when it comes to blogging, Hong Kong is, let’s be honest, woefully behind Singapore. Singapore blogs have bigger readerships, are more diverse and more interesting.”

Indeed, ask most Singaporeans, and they would gripe that Hong Kong out-paces their city/state in categories such as the economy, public transportation, sea port, and the media.

But when it comes to the blogosphere, Singaporeans embrace their bloggers.

Singaporean blogs has some of the highest standards internationally. Blogs like, Kway Teow Man, From a Singapore Angle, The Online Citizen, Techxav, Xiaxue, ClapBangKiss, Balderdash cover everything from politics, satire, technology, pop culture and sex, and have collected numerous Web accolades such as the Webby Awards, Asia Blog Awards, and others.

The blog that really first drew me to this medium was a blog by Gayle Goh, now a college student, who as a junior college (JC) student ran a political blog. In Singapore, due to the stifled air of political views in government-controlled mainstream media, this blog really opened my mind to what it really meant to live in a democracy. I think what made Goh’s blog so accessible to myself and other young Singaporeans was not only her superb writing, the fact that she was a student herself help many relate to her.

Similarly, the blogger who runs, Lee Kin Mun, can be heralded as the Jon Steward of Singapore. His “mai hum” podcast poked fun at the Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, and collectively made the nation laugh at their PAP leaders who are known to tirelessly crack down on criticism. If you have time for one blog, check It is the de-facto Singapore blog.

Union Board Lectures presents Lt. Dan Choi

27 10 2009

Union Board Lectures presents Lt. Dan Choi
Date: Monday, November 2, 2009
Time: 7:00pm – 8:30pm
Location: Whittenberger Auditorium, IMU

I’m really enthused about this: Lt. Dan Choi will be here at IU Bloomington to speak about gay rights, particularly through his fight against the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the US Armed Forces. DADT was implemented during the Bush era whereby soldiers were told that if they were gay, they could serve provided they don’t admit to their sexuality. During an appearance on the Rachel Maddow Show, however, Choi announced that he was gay and was subsequently discharged from the military. Since then, he has vociferously voiced out against this rule.

Choi graduated from Westpoint Military Academy with degrees in the Arabic Language and Environmental Engineering. He served in the Iraq War and speaks Arabic fluently. The event is FREE and open to the public and is sponsored by Union Board, Asian Cultural Center, GLBT Office, and Young Democrats of Monroe County.

Chinese cool

20 10 2009

America’s fear of a rising Chinese world presence is really slapped all over mainstream media. But I would argue however that the world run by China would be no different from America. In fact, being Chinese was once cool in America.

First, to answer the question why a world with China as the overlord would be no different from US, we need only to have a closer look at both cultures historically.

China and the US are actually really similar in so many ways:

1. Both are meritocracies. Historically China has always put talent ahead of class, heritage, ethnicity, and even gender, though much rarely. China is probably the first civilization to endorse one man’s ability over anything else.

2. Socially northern Chinese share many characteristics to Americans in terms of being more expressive and vocal, and perhaps even physical attributes – they’re alot bigger.

3. Both Chinese and Americans are very entrepreneurial. If there is one thing common about overseas Chinese communities, it is that they always control their country’s finances: Indonesia, Malaysia, Hawaii. Singapore is a Chinese majority country and it is the richest in South East Asia. The Chinese have historically been very adept at business.

4. While America might claim itself to have a moral high ground with it’s roots deep in Christian beliefs, the Chinese too are all to keenly aware of a strong moral code, thanks to a Confucian culture.

As far as I’m concern, the only difference with China as an overlord would be that I would have to brush up my mandarin. As for Chinese being cool… When China became a republic and allies with America against Japan, that was the time when anything Chinese was embraced.

That was a time when Chop Suey was high culture dining; when the Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck portrayed the Chinese as a virtuous everyman; when Hollywood used Chinese culture to exoticized and promote their films. It’s hard to imagine those kind of times when what we’re seeing is the term Chinese now as a highly politicized term representing Chinese nationals from the People’s Republic of China.