Throughout most of elementary school, my parents and I lived in a tiny one-bed, one-bath unit tucked away on the top floor of a house. My parents and I often took turns sleeping on the floor, since there was only one bed, and only room for two; it was a space I often felt ashamed of, a place I never invited my friends over to, a place I pushed away in the recesses of my memories.
I write this because while my parents and I now belong to the middle class, there was a time when we didn’t — and this low-income situation is a lived experience for many Asian Americans as well. It isn’t often talked about in the media, and I myself have only recently begun to be more aware of the economic disparity within this large group of non-homogenous people we call Asian Americans. One definitive reason for this is a socially constructed pervasive myth: the model minority myth.
The myth posits that Asian Americans are the “model” group that all other minority groups should aspire to. We’re supposedly smart and hard-working, and those two characteristics should allow us to achieve the American dream and become successful and wealthy. Nevermind the fact that the myth was created by white people to drive a wedge between Asian American and Black communities during the civil rights era; nevermind the fact that it was used by white people to regain favor with Japanese Americans and Japan after WWII and Japanese internment camps. The myth not only perpetuates divisive, harmful stereotypes against other minority groups, but it also pushes a large amount of Asian American struggles to dark corners—namely, those of low socioeconomic status.
Asian Americans earn the highest annual income out of any group in America—including white Americans. But Asian Americans also have the highest income gap between those who make the most and those who make the least. And those who make the least tend to be the most forgotten or looked-over in the Asian American community: Cambodians, Laotians, Burmese, and Hmong (these ethnic groups, not coincidentally, would also be harmed by the removal of affirmative action, though that’s a different story for another time).
Moreover, though Asian Americans have the highest rate of poverty in New York City, they received 1.4% of the city’s social service funds over a thirteen-year period—again, much of this is attributed to the myths, since there is a lack of awareness about these economic struggles. Age and immigration background play an important role in the income disparities within the Asian American community too, as those who are older and had to flee their countries as refugees tend to be lower-income.
There is a multitude of successful Asian Americans out there, and I don’t mean to discredit their stories, or the fact that Asian Americans do own a lot of wealth in this country. But we shouldn’t forget the fact that these statistics are a lived reality for numerous low-income Asian Americans, who are often overlooked in an already overlooked minority group (though that is beginning to change). I don’t mean to speak for the low-income Asian American community, because I am no longer low-income and our experiences will never be the same across the board (we are, after all, not a monolithic group). But with the recent success of a movie that focuses on crazy rich Asians, it’s important not just to stress Hollywood media representation, but to look at more concerning struggles. We cannot forget or overlook those within our community who are low-income and are left behind because of the model minority myth.