Successful. Intelligent. Polite. Growing up Asian American often comes with expectations to embody these traits, ultimately leading to significant stress and the perpetuation of something called the “model minority myth.”
What it is
On a basic level, nursing freshman Maryglyn Yamba said the “model minority myth” is the stereotype that all Asian Americans are smart and hardworking.
But it’s important to look closer at the historical significance of the myth because it’s an oppressive tool that categorizes Asians as submissive and tolerant to hardships, which in turn normalizes racism against them, she said.
According to the University of Southern California’s Pacific Asia Museum, Asian Americans often fall under the stereotype of being studious, smart and successful, which sets them up to excel academically and fulfill the “American dream.”
Because of this, Asians as a whole are sometimes seen as the “model minority,” consciously or not.
After moving to the U.S. in middle school, Yamba quickly learned about the model minority myth. She said at first, it sounded like a good thing for Asians to be considered intelligent, but she soon realized that such assumptions are harmful long-term.
Home and culture
The myth has existed for decades, Yamba said, because immigrant parents often have a hard time assimilating when the language they speak is mocked or they’re made fun of. When given a seemingly positive role, they sometimes embrace it, thinking it will make life easier.
Nursing junior Jeana Souksanith said growing up, she went to a program to get better at math on the weekends.
Souksanith recalls competing with her peers to see who could get the fastest times when filling out multiplication worksheets. It was traumatizing, and the only enjoyable thing about the experience was when you were the one with the quickest time, she said.
At the time, she thought everyone went to weekend school and got special tutoring. But when she asked her friends what they did on the weekend, she was surprised to hear they went to the mall or had gone swimming.
Souksanith remembers asking why she had to do division and multiplication practice when other kids her age were having fun. It put a lot of expectations into perspective for her at a young age, she said.
The idea of Asians being the “model minority” could tie back to the culture of bringing honor to one’s family, Souksanith said. It’s just the way many Asian Americans are raised.
Doing extracurriculars or becoming valedictorian is something Asian Americans might do to appease their parents, rather than trying to fit into the idea of the “model minority,” Souksanith said. But through this approach, they may end up fitting the trope anyway.
Expectations and pressure
Yamba said there were times when she was struggling in school, but her teachers would brush her off, saying she would eventually figure things out.
Instances like that were harmful because they ignored her struggles and made it harder for her to ask for help, she said.
During Yamba’s senior year of high school, Asian American students were expected to do more than just make good grades for applying to colleges, she said. They were urged to participate in extracurriculars and volunteer opportunities because it was a default expectation for them to have good grades.
You couldn’t just be “any other Asian” doing good in school, you had to portray yourself as even more well-rounded, she said.
Nursing junior J David Tebio said growing up, his older brother would remind him that as an Asian American, they were expected to be smart.
Tebio said from grade school through high school, the pressure of that expectation followed him. The bar is already set high, and when those expectations aren’t met, it causes disappointment, he said.
The expectations set by the myth can be a double-edged sword for many Asian students. If they don’t fit the stereotype of being exceptional, they can get made fun of, but if they fit it too well, they can still be mocked.
With pressure both in the household and from peers at school, the model minority myth might make Asian students feel like they can’t catch a break, Souksanith said.
Why it’s harmful
Yamba said the model minority myth puts Asians in a box and overlooks their struggles, but it hurts more than just Asians — it pits different minority groups against each other.
There’s an idea that if Asian Americans can endure their own oppression and still be successful, then why can’t other minorities, she said. It’s damaging because different minorities have different struggles that can’t be compared.
Souksanith said she wished she had heard about the model minority myth when she was younger because it might have taken some of the pressure off her shoulders to know that she wasn’t alone or imagining things.
It’s helped her see that she doesn’t have to always fit the mold that other people have made for her. Now, Souksanith feels less pressure to be a “human calculator” or the smartest person in the room.
It’s good to want to better yourself, but it should be a personal choice rather than something done to please anyone else, she said.