The Model Minority Myth and First-Generation Asian Immigrants

Model minority – the term first surfaced in the 1966 New York Times article to highlight the socioeconomic success of Japanese Americans, gradually evolved to all Asian Americans. Yet the identity of the desirable neighbors, the favored friends, the non-threatening kind of people of color hides the toxic truth of the upbringings of first-generation Asian immigrants.

Since the 19th century, a wave of Asian immigration flocked to the coast of the US from the far communist spectrum of the world. From the Chinese Civil War to the establishment of a communist regime to the Great Chinese Famine, the Chinese fled to escape the political unrest; while Viennese left amidst the Vietnam War and the control of the rising communist party. In search of new opportunities and life on American soil, Asian Americans soon rose to be recognized as the model minority. A class of minority preferred by Americans for they are perceived to achieve higher degrees of socioeconomic success. Through this, the stereotype of Asian Americans was born. Yet the overgeneralization of Asians is no glory, for the title masks the reality of socioeconomic disparities and racism among Asians and other minorities. 

A classroom composed of Chinese children in New York, 1900
A classroom of Chinese children in New York, 1900. (Credit: KEYSTONE-FRANCE/GETTY IMAGES)

The model minority narrative attributed many cultural traits: stable family backgrounds, strong work ethic, respecting authority, etc. Some of which are featured in Confucian virtues, while others are credited “tiger parenting” – parents that advocate over-the-top methods in pursuit of academic achievement. The aforementioned was heavily reflected in the parenting and education of first-generation Asian immigrants, generating the notable success that put them on the 1966 New York Times article “Success Story, Japanese-American Style”. However, the truth is lost in the “praises”, placing Asian Americans’ hard work in vain, for it is expected of them to excel. Anticipated to continue to raise the academic bar, yet once struggle to push it forward, fear arises in seeking help. This unrealistic expectation to be high achievers by nature creates additional pressure, subjecting them to a higher risk of mental health issues. 

Image result for first gen asian immigrants to us

Still, those are stories behind doors, the model minority myth covered a greater issue. The origination of the model minority in the 1960s was during the same decade when the modern civil rights movement took shape. This was no coincidence, the narrative itself suggests that racism was nonexistent for a minority demographic could succeed. The direct contrast of Asian Americans’ success to African Americans’ struggle in poverty assumes that poverty of the Black community was rooted in their values instead of systemic racism. The model minority myth was utilized for government denial of much-needed socioeconomic reform to address disparity and racism within the Black community. The prevailing stereotype of Asians as non-threatening and socioeconomically successful solidified conservatives’ stance to discredit African American racial equality movements. Killing with a borrowed knife placed Asian Americans opposite to African Americans whose struggles are rooted in a history of slavery. 

Image result for Chinese Exclusion Act
An Anti-Chinese political cartoon from The George Dee Magic Washing Machine Company depicting the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1886

This was not the only issue that the model minority myth buried. The model minority narrative attempts to erase racism against Asian Americans. A paradox of the model minority as a victim of discrimination. In the past century, the US passed numerous laws and national policies out of discrimination against ethnic groups, from the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 1880s in fear of the “Yellow Peril” to the Japanese internment during World War 2. Often overlooked, the model minority denies the reality of Asian immigrants’ fight for equality, concealing events like the Asian American movement in the 1960s which united Asians of various ethnicities and declared solidarity to the US government. The model minority myth turns a blind eye on history, leaving chapters of it unread, ignored, and forgotten. 

The model minority myth is indeed a myth. A delusional shield for the failure of the US government to recognize humanity. A missing chapter of the first-generation Asian immigrants’ efforts and struggles to create belongingness on American soil for future generations. A fake label that divides America. 




Joy Ng

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