A second-generation reflection on the model minority
In accordance with the Pew Research Center this article refers to second-generation as US-born children of immigrants.
It’s a Saturday morning, and the earthy, slightly acrid aroma perks me up as I walk into Philz Coffee in the Mission District of San Francisco with Chris Shih, a good friend and former classmate of mine who, despite having finished most of a pre-medical program, ultimately transferred and obtained a degree in electrical engineering. He now works as a software engineer, using almost none of what he studied in school.
We’re sitting a few minutes later, coffees in hand, and he leans in with a smile.
“You’re really out here, huh? Living large,” he says to me, in reference to my cross-country visit to the area for a job interview.
“Yeah,” I respond with a chuckle. “I feel very lucky to be here.”
I haven’t seen him in quite a while. We were neighbors in college, but he was a bit older, graduating when I was a sophomore before dropping out of his master’s program to enter the workforce.
Chris and I are, at least demographically, quite similar. He’s a second-generation Taiwanese American, and I’m a second-generation Chinese American. We were both born to educated immigrant parents, attended university where we studied engineering and are early in our careers in the tech industry. Barring different Romanization, even our last names are the same.
This is a common archetype for young Asian Americans, describing not only the two of us, but many of our friends and hundreds of thousands of students and recent graduates around the country. It’s accurate even down to the experience of entering college on a pre-medical track — I too wanted to be a doctor, but dropped pre-med to become a software engineer. I laugh every time I tell people this, because it’s such a “typical Asian thing” to have done. Though, to be honest, I’m unsure of why I find it funny.
Chris and I have talked about this before, and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I have at least a dozen second-gen Asian-American friends and classmates who have the exact same story. This can’t be purely coincidental, given the usual image evoked in the public consciousness when we say “Asian”: someone, usually of East Asian descent, educated and economically stable, with a propensity for STEM fields, law-abiding, reserved, unlikely to be politically involved or outspoken and perhaps a bit awkward.
This characterization is usually known as the “model minority stereotype,” a phrase coined by William Peterson’s essay titled Success Story, Japanese American Style published in the Jan. 9, 1966 edition of The New York Times Magazine. The essay describes the relative success of Japanese Americans despite marginalization, citing strong work ethics and family values as factors that prevented the Japanese from becoming a “problem minority.”
Statistically, Asian students are significantly more likely to be in STEM than other fields of study. One of the prevailing hypotheses as to why so many Asian students choose to pursue medicine, law or engineering is the pressure that came from our parents and the Asian cultural values emphasizing education and hard work.
The topic comes up in my conversation with Chris, and I take a poke at it.
“Well, Asian kids have four career options: doctor, lawyer, engineer or failure,” I crack, knowing Chris will laugh.
He does, and his eyes have an inquisitive look in them as he processes the joke. I’m unsure if it’s because he agrees, or because he possesses the same type of cultural understanding that makes it funny for me to have dropped biochemistry for computer science.
Then he responds, “Well, it’s kind of true, right?”
Why does it appear that so many Asian students go into STEM fields? What are the implications of our conforming to the so-called model minority stereotype? I started reaching out to friends and acquaintances with similar backgrounds — mostly second-gen Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean and Indian Americans — to see how they felt about the stereotype and its impacts on the second-gen experience.
“I picked electrical engineering because an engineering degree was practical and just seemed like my best choice,” Justin Jung, a Korean-American senior at Michigan Technological University told me. He was wearing a dress shirt and slacks and loosening a necktie as he spoke, having just come from a job interview in town. He didn’t elaborate much on what constitutes a “best choice.”
“Maybe that was passed along to me by my parents, I don’t know,” Jung said. “They didn’t have any direct influence over my decision. They told me, ‘Do whatever you want,’ but they did suggest engineering, and that was my choice.”
Out of more than two dozen second-generation Asian-American students I spoke to, enrolled in a variety of majors, almost none told me their parents pushed them very explicitly into STEM degrees. It just so happens that most of them ended up there anyway. It seems the tiger moms, caricatures of extremely strict Asian mothers (and parents in general) popularized by Amy Chua’s controversial 2011 memoir “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” are rarer than I thought. I always felt it was a stereotype that Asians have incredibly strict parents, but that wasn’t the case for me and evidently wasn’t for most of my friends, either.
“It’s more subtle than your parents saying, ‘You should do STEM’,” Raghu Arghal said with a thoughtful tone one day over the phone. Raghu is one of my closest friends from home, the child of two educated Indian immigrants, who studies electrical engineering with a focus in digital signal processing.
“We subconsciously develop these notions partially ingrained in us that history or the arts are not as useful as something like engineering,” Raghu said. “As a kid at some point, I remember thinking, ‘Why would I study art?’ The implicit value system around education for most Asian immigrant parents boils down to more education is better than less education, and technical education is better than non-technical education.”
The consensus among my peers was most Asian immigrant parents, rather than explicitly demanding it, more actively encourage their kids to get As, or to want to become a doctor or to do math workbooks in the summer (like I used to) instead of encouraging them to practice arts or play sports.
For some of us, it works out. As my understanding has grown over the years, I’ve come to genuinely love working with computers and software, even though my decision to study computer science wasn’t much more of a thought than “the intro class was kind of fun and I know there’s a job market.” And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get pleasure from knowing my parents must be, by stereotypical Asian parenting standards, proud of me.
Generally, immigrant Asian parents aren’t very verbal with their affection but they have no difficulty letting out an offhanded “Ling a-yi’s son got into Harvard,” or a more pointed, “You should get As.”
Though it’s expressed in a language that’s sometimes hard for us to understand, we are loved. We know it because know our parents struggled in ways we do not know how to imagine, and in return, we try — sometimes under tremendous pressure — to succeed.
But sometimes, the sacrifices I made to compete as an engineering student rendered my personality one-dimensional. I pushed my other interests aside for years and I have more than once been the person talking about class and work at parties, eliciting eye rolls and dirty looks from those nearby. I’ve listened to my friends in similar positions divulge their frustrations with studying “safe” subjects they weren’t passionate about, and wondered if my passions for writing and music might have taken off if I was brave enough to take the leap.
It’s safe to say our childhood experiences and our parents’ philosophies are phenomena of broader social trends. At least in the body of second-generation Asian students I’m acquainted with, usually one or both parents are highly educated and hold a professional occupation. That’s because most of us are here with direct ties to the passage of the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which allotted 170,000 immigration visas annually, with per-country quotas and preferential categories for skilled laborers and those with family in America.
With Hart-Celler, immigration in America changed. Before 1965, more than two thirds of immigrants to America came from Europe or Canada. However, between 1971 and 1991, for the first time in history, Europeans did not constitute the largest group of immigrants. During that period, in which immigration constituted about 40 percent of the population growth in the U.S., more than one in three immigrants was from Asia. The demographic landscape of America was changing rapidly.
For this wave of first-generation Americans, education and professional skills were the way to a better life, the realization of their American dream. The story of the American immigrant is rife with challenges, sacrifice and, out of necessity if nothing else, faith in hard work. This is a big part of why Asian parents want the best for their kids, to the point of sometimes being incredibly harsh about it.
“We know our parents came here with next to nothing, and gave up everything for us to have a prosperous life,” Toraki Maehata, a second-generation Japanese-American student at Michigan State University, told me. “I don’t really think I met my parents’ expectations, or fit that ‘smart as hell’ Asian stereotype. But those sacrifices still motivate me to succeed.”
As one of the major cultural influences of today’s second-generation Asian Americans, the Asian immigration boom was a natural catalyst for the development of the generalized notion of Asian-American identity that exists today. In many ways, Asian immigration became an extension of the already developing model minority stereotype in America.
The notion of the model minority reflects a partial truth, in that certain subgroups of Asians in America have achieved high degrees of socioeconomic success, but as a generalization, it boasts negative social implications. The perceived socioeconomic success of Asians is based on income, education, low criminality and stable family structures.
Yet, today, about one-third of Bhutanese Americans live below the poverty line and approximately one-fourth of Hmong Americans over the age of 25 do not have a high school diploma. No other group of Americans has a larger income disparity than Asian Americans, with the top tenth percentile of Asians in America earning a startling 10.7 times the income of the bottom tenth percentile.
The reality is Asian identity in America is a nebulous thing, with Asian Americans and immigrants from many cultures contributing vastly different experiences at vastly varying levels of representation. While there are some overarching experiences and challenges faced by overlapping subsets of Asian Americans, it’s difficult to point to any singular artifact that is common to all Asians in this country.
Generalized notions of “Asian successes” and “Asian struggles” don’t take this into account. Imagining all Asians in America as one group essentially projects a singular pan-ethnic identity onto them, and the perception of this identity has been shaped by the portrayal of only a few ethnic groups. While this monolithic identity has provided a vocabulary for conversations around race in America, it has also caused entire communities to be unrepresented in the mainstream Asian-American narrative.
With the development of the model minority stereotype, we see a story of one of the fastest turnarounds of racial perception in American history. The first major wave of Asian immigration to the mainland United States was in the late 1840s, when migrants fleeing harsh economic conditions in southern China entered through San Francisco to find work in railroad construction, mining and agriculture. They faced extreme racial discrimination, being cast pejoratively as “coolies” and contibuting to the subjugating “Yellow Peril” in the American zeitgeist. After being segregated into enclaves like San Francisco’s Chinatown, in 1882, the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act barred any further immigration from China. The passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 included the Asian Exclusion Act, and severely limiting all non-white immigration to the United States.
Less than 20 years after the passage of the Asian Exclusion Act, the modern model minority stereotype began with pro-Chinese propaganda in the 1940s, a diplomatic gesture toward China, who was America’s wartime ally in the Pacific theater. The contemporaneous internment of Japanese Americans seems to indicate this was a matter of national convenience and not of racial equity.
When the war ended, Chinese and Japanese Americans cited their military service as appeals for acceptance as Americans, and Chinese community leaders in the ’50s touted Confucian values to frame their communities, especially their children, as law-abiding, hard working and studious. The appeals around Confucian values in particular intended to lessen the vitriol of racism at a time when juvenile delinquency was one of the major concerns of the American public.
The Hart-Celler-era immigrants worked hard to be seen as constructive members of society. Jeff Guo, a journalist focused on economics and Asian-American affairs, wrote in the Washington Post, “The model minority myth as we see it today was mainly an unintended outcome of earlier attempts by Asian Americans to be accepted and recognized as human beings. They wanted to be seen as American people who were worthy of respect and dignity.”
For us who do fit the stereotype, the up-and-coming generation of the model minority, there are consequences to the cultural balance we find for ourselves. If we have children who look like us but whom we cannot teach the language, the food and the culture — children who may have little to point to but their appearance in claiming Asian identity — how do our identities, the culture we’re building today, affect what it will mean for them to be Asian-American in the future?
We who cheered fervently for the representation “Crazy Rich Asians” brought us — a depiction of wealthy East Asians, attractive by Western standards and portraying all ethnically Chinese characters — might want to ask some questions. How does our growing “Asian” spotlight affect the undereducated, poor and largely unseen war refugee? What does it mean for Asians as an umbrella group when Harvard is being sued for alleged anti-Asian discrimination, apparently having too many qualified Asian applicants to let them in fairly, when the median Hmong American doesn’t have a high school diploma?
People like me bear discrimination, assuredly. The elementary school lunchbox moments (“You eat that? Gross”). The surprised remarks of “Your English is so good!” and the almost innocuous “Where are you from?” Being picked for group projects presumably for our math skills and then being excluded socially. The reminders of the shape of your eyes and your funny name. Discrimination in admissions to elite schools, in getting promotions at work and in participating in the housing market are commonly cited grievances and legitimate concerns.
But these are marked improvements over the days of the Chinese and Asian Exclusion Acts, the brutal treatment of Asian railroad workers, the zoning policies and segregations into Chinatowns, the internment of Japanese Americans, the Los Angeles race riots and hate crimes like the senseless murder of Vincent Chin. When I asked my Asian friends, ones who, like me, bluntly fit the model minority stereotype, about the challenges faced by Asian Americans, many said we were faced with stereotypes and discrimination in general, but few could point to specific institutional or structural problems.
For the Asian Americans who get the prized stable jobs and the comfort that our immigrant parents worked so hard for us to have, what comes next? It’s socially myopic to stop asking questions about Asian identity and community once our own needs are met. When you look at the history behind the experiences, stereotypes and behaviors that have shaped our identity today, it is clear that our experiences, stereotypes and behaviors today will shape what it means to be Asian American tomorrow. And that being the case, I’d argue the most important stereotype we have yet to break is that Asians are socially unconcerned and uninvolved. If we want Asians to be taken seriously and seen as a diverse group of people with culture beyond making grades and pulling paychecks, we need to start speaking up, making ourselves visible and pointing out that the story isn’t so simple.
I don’t think it’s naive to believe social change begins at the individual and the community level, but it’s going to take time and serious effort, not only on the part of Asian Americans, to build a new Asian-American identity — one that’s perceived as nuanced, genuinely American and unabashedly self-aware and conscious of gaps in status and representation in our home country.
The stakes are ultimately higher than understanding why so many second-generation Asian Americans live up to the model minority stereotype. They involve understanding the social factors that make it so others don’t have the opportunity to be “model” and indeed reduce entire races to “problem minorities.” And if those are the stakes at play, let’s be conscious of them, and be, in a new way, what we supposedly are: models.