The Model Minority: Asian-American Youth and the Harmful Perpetuation of a Cultural Myth

By T D
2011, Vol. 3 No. 09 | pg. 1/1

My living room piano speaks loudly through its stillness. Drawn to the haunting beauty of its polished black wood, visitors would constantly inquire about the dust on its keys. As its former player, I was expected to replace the quiet with a symphony; only a weak voice would answer. I used to play, but I don’t know how to anymore. They were never satisfied by this reply: Surely, you must remember something!

Instead of sonatas or fugues, what I remember is ten years of conflict. Since the age of five, one of my mom’s greatest goals was for me to become an accomplished pianist. Unfortunately, five-year-olds are not known for their willingness to devote their time to Chopin. My mom went through great lengths to get me to stay at that piano bench. A practice schedule of two hours a day was strictly enforced. She would beg and bargain, proposing peace offerings of ice cream.

When those failed, time-outs, guilt trips, and cancelled play dates abounded. A frequent result was crying and yelling from both ends. Though the ferocity of the battle muted after a few years, any natural love for piano was effectively crushed. I did not ever play for joy or pleasure. Nevertheless, my mother’s pressure to perform became my own. As dozens of recitals and competitions passed, the community praised my talents and congratulatory ribbons accumulated on the walls above the piano.

I must have memorized hundreds of pieces of classical music during my decade as a mandatory musician. After passing the most advanced level of performance exams with highest honors, I had finally accomplished what my mom had wanted. That was the last time I ever touched those keys.

When I share this story with other Asian-Americans, most of them can commiserate. Battles over the piano are a common theme of the first and second generation immigrant experience. Of course, there are slight variations. Instead of the piano, maybe the violin enslaved them; perhaps there was no instrument, and the enemy was mathematics. The specifics of the goal may differ, but an acute and unyielding push to excel lies behind each story.

This conglomerate of societal and parental pressure directly targets academics and extracurricular activities. It percolates outward to affect all aspects of Asian-American life and seeps inward as high standards are internalized. The commonality of this cycle of expectation, external pressure, and assessment has even become a part of cultural myth. Asian-Americans are seen as the “model minority,” a hard-working, ambitious, and prosperous group because of inherent cultural values.

While this is a reductive generalization, their statistical prevalence at top universities and in white-collar professions seems to support this stereotype (Fong 1075). Amidst the distracting decorations of success, one crucial question is often overlooked: what casualties result from this constant pressure to achieve?

I forfeited the piano, but much more is at stake. Many sacrifice their emotional well-being, their passions, their identities; some even give up on life. First and second generation Asian-American adolescents have internalized model minority standards of success with devastating results. Because education occurs during developmental years, these attitudes leave a deep, psychological imprint on involved youth. The idea that self-worth is restricted to quantitative measurements becomes ingrained in their consciousness, building from childhood and peaking during their undergraduate years.

Psychological anxiety and mental health problems are prevalent even amongst those who attain the highest standards. Not only is this constant burden of expectation overwhelmingly stressful, but the myth also stifles individuality and normalizes self-sacrifice during a critical point of development when young adults begin to make independent choices and craft worldviews. The pressure on Asian-Americans to succeed becomes a feedback loop of burden and self-repression, perpetuating the model minority myth by encouraging conformity to its clichés.

De Capo: The Beginning

Asian-Americans have struggled with societal connotations of the model minority myth for decades. The term “model minority” was first used by sociologist William Petersen in a 1966 (Fong 1975). In a New York Times article titled “Success Story: Japanese-American Style,” Petersen praised Asian-Americans as an example that other minorities should emulate.

Citing their academic and economic success, he lauded their ability to overcome obstacles like the World War II internment camps and stated that “every attempt to hamper their progress has resulted only in enhancing their determination to succeed” (Fong 1075). Petersen attributed their perseverance to cultural values of self-help and self-discipline, which are traits that continue to be associated with Asian-Americans today. His article’s explanation for their quantitative achievements gained popularity and spawned further discourse on the subject.

In addition to coining the concept of the “model minority,” Petersen established cultural difference as the basis for their success. This weaves subtle racism into the superficial flattery of the model minority myth. Because Petersen’s definition emphasized cultural disparity, Asian-American success became a foundation for societal separation. Indeed, cultural values play a significant role in Asian-American values because a “majority of them have only been living in America for two or fewer generations” (Iwamoto 80).

Especially in Eastern Asian societies, Confucianism has a strong influence: Its tenets of respecting others and cultivating the self through study and work inculcate a “strong belief in meritocracy” that many immigrants maintain (Li 145). However, the reduction of Asian-American persistence to the mere transplantation of Confucian values from the East to West encourages awareness of distinction (Chou 222).

It enables a perceived dichotomy between hemispheres to develop, representing the myth’s veneer of orientalism and cultural determinism (Chou 218). Binding Asian-Americans to the continent of Asia separates them from mainstream America, reinforcing the idea of otherness. This suggests that “no matter how well Asian-Americans assimilate, they are at best the model minorities instead of becoming part of the majority” (Chou 222).

A stereotype of foreignness emerges from the model minority myth and presents obstacles in the Asian-American pursuit for social acceptance. Although overtly racist policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act are a thing of the past, de facto discrimination is manifested through marginalization and ignorance. An underlying current of exclusion manifests itself daily through questions like “Where are you really from?” or “What are you?,” which Asian-Americans report receiving on a regular basis (Iwamoto 79).

Because Asian-Americans are seen as foreigners, model minority rhetoric sometimes expressed anxiety and “fears of losing strength and the will to lead in the context of Asian domination” on an international and domestic level (Fong 1077). Immigrant success was an occasional source of antipathy for the threatened Caucasian majority, as well as other minority groups who felt denigrated by model minority rhetoric.

Even when achievement did not breed hostility, it contributed to ignorance. Blinded by the façade of success, many Americans dismiss problems in the Asian-American community. Thus, the model minority myth presents Asian-Americans with a burdensome dilemma: Success is the means toward societal acceptance, yet it is also a criterion for exclusion and misunderstanding.

Allegro: My Tempo Must Be Fast if I Want to Keep Pace

The nuanced duality of success as a mode of acceptance and exclusion adds to a feedback cycle of pressure. Cognizant of racism and other societal obstacles, Asian immigrants felt the need to work even harder to improve their condition of life. Because early Asian immigrants were excluded from labor unions and had very few options for employment, they saw “schooling as one of the only avenues left for their upward mobility” (Lee 54).

Relying on the meritocratic systems of their homelands, immigrant parents believed that education was the purest means for their children to attain a better life. Despite the elimination of de jure discrimination, this conviction persisted over time. A 2009 psychological study found that anxiety over a perception of foreignness caused parents to emphasize academic achievement as a “means to achieve higher social status and overcome potential discrimination” (Benner and Kim 873).

Parents perpetuated these feelings by instilling a similar, anxious drive in their offspring. Interviews with Asian-American valedictorians and other top ranking students reveal the commonality of their motivations: “We know we are a minority in this country, and we have to do better than other Americans. That’s the only way we’ll have a chance” (Hsia 92). Excelling in school, attending a prestigious university, and earning a comfortable living in a white-collared profession became the immigrant American Dream.

Sadly, Asian-Americans felt that twice as much effort would be required to attain it. Perceived racism indoctrinated immigrant parents with the pressure to succeed, and this anxiety contributed to the flourishing of a new stereotype: the model minority.

The cultivation of this uneasiness moved model minority expectations from a societal to parental basis, and Asian-American familial structure was especially conducive to this development. Traditional values like “honoring parents, not bringing shame to the family, and placing family before the individual” facilitate molding a disciplined work ethic (Fong 1075). The close-knit “family-centered nature of Asian families” also causes pressure to become an especially consumptive part of the lives of Asian-American youth (Lee 53).

Parental pressure is especially onerous in their communities because the burden of familial honor and advancement is placed on the child. In interviews conducted by New York University, a Chinese-American undergraduate claims that “parents believe that how kids do in school reflects on the entire family” (Teranishi 72). Asian parents view their children as extensions of themselves, so excellence in education is a family affair. The combination of home life and educational expectations contribute to schooling’s omnipresence.

A Harvard student who was interviewed for CNN’s “Asian in America” supports this claim: “I know that family and education were most important in my family. It’s one of the best aspects of Asian-American culture. It’s a double edged sword though…because it can be brutal.”

A salient example of the overwhelming parental pressure exerted on first and second generation Asian-Americans, New York Times bestseller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother describes one mother’s merciless integration of home life and academic expectation. Exalting a harsh parenting style as typical of the “Chinese way,” Yale Law School professor Amy Chua proudly shares the secrets behind her daughters’ success. Pushing her children to excel in all subjects, she finds that it is “crucial to override their preferences” because “nothing is fun until you’re good at it, and to get good at anything you have to work” (Chua 43).

She talks about excoriating her daughters publically to yield better piano performances, admitting that she even withheld bathroom privileges until one child could adequately play a difficult piece. To counter those who are shocked at her austerity, she maintains that everything is done in her daughters’ best interest: “Chinese mothers believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away” (Chua 182).

In her explanation for why such harsh parenting is necessary, she conveys why hard work, education, and anxiety over the future are underlying Asian-American themes in the push for success. She has raised her children in this manner since they were young, and this trend toward accomplishment at all costs only increases as higher education approaches.

One of the most significant ways in which Asian-Americans evaluate availability of future opportunity and achievement is college prestige. In a 2009 survey, researchers polled Caucasian and Asian parents and children to assess what factors influenced their decision in choosing a university. While parents and children of the same ethnicity tended to value the same ideas, this study found a striking difference between races.

University prestige was the number one factor for Asian-American parents and children 52% and 42% of the time; contrast this with Caucasian parents and children, who valued rankings as paramount only 10% and 9% of the time (Dundes 139). This places significant pressure on children to attend a high-ranked university.

An Asian-American high school senior says, “I’m expecting myself to get into a top ranked college – I mean, the greatest colleges there are. I’m shooting for a Harvard or an MIT” (Teranishi 40). When asked why prestige had such weight, Asian-Americans cited reasons like educational value, job opportunity, and financial security (Dundes 139).

Unfortunately, the perceived societal obstacles that prompt Asian parents to worry about the future may not be a figment of imagination. Given the emphasis on attending a selective college, an especially poignant example is alleged discrimination against Asian-Americans in elite university admissions.

An article in the Washington Post proposes the possibility of a “deluge of Asian-American applicants” causing “the nation’s most elite colleges to try to keep their numbers down through secret ceiling quotas and/or racially discriminatory selection policies” (Gervasi). The model minority threat has caused concern that schools like UC Berkeley are becoming “too Asian” and infringing on the “time-honored ideal of campus diversity” (Gervasi).

Although the Deans of Admissions of several Ivy League colleges deny racial bias, Asian-American admission rates are still lower than those of the general population and continue to decline each year due to the number of Asian-American applicants (Hsia 93). This has contributed to a mindset in which these students feel that they are fighting for select spots that are allotted to them at these elite institutions. As prestige frenzy worsens, the academic quality of minority applicants increase; thus, the level required to remain competitive is growing higher (Hsia 127).

While societal exclusion sets a rapid pace for success, parental pressure intensifies the beat of the metronome. Even though tiger mothers have disciplined their children to practice until perfection, key notes are being missed. A second generation Asian-American hints at the looming storm of discordance: “Our mother is proud because [we] are excelling in respectable post-secondary institutions, but the price of success was our severed relationship” (Nguyen 36).

And while college life generally marks a decline in parental influence regardless of agreement, model minority expectations no longer need to rely on society’s betrayals or a tiger mother’s criticisms to exist. The burden of entrenched perspectives doggedly follows Asian-Americans to university life and beyond. Since messages of expectation and assessment have been drilled into their minds since childhood, Asian-American undergraduates inherit these high expectations and begin to apply them of their own accord. 

Crescendo: The Pressure Inside of Me Is Increasing

Adopted model minority pressures assume a life of their own and continue to build during the college years. While young adulthood is wrought with tension and anxiety for adolescents of all ethnicities, racialized expectations add to the pressures that Asian-Americans face. Caught within the expectations of American society and Asian heritage, adolescents feel a “restricted sense of identity and limited choice” for everything from personalities to occupations (Yoo and Burrola 116).

This feeling of internal conflict is usually generalized under the umbrella term of stress, which the Society for Research into Higher Education defines as an “imbalance between environmental pressure and the capacity to meet that demand” (Fisher 2). This feeling of overwhelming anxiety is perceived whenever there “is a low personal control or jurisdiction over the physical, psychological, or social environment” (Fisher 2). These demands include society’s expectations, parental anticipations, and internalized drive, with each perpetually nagging voice always expecting the best. This model minority environment contributes to the second component of stress: a feeling of powerlessness.

Because internalizing societal and familial expectations results in constrained individualities and perceptions of narrow choice, Asian-Americans feel like they have little control over life decisions. Driven to attend the most prestigious colleges, students assume similar pressures when choosing undergraduate majors and professions.

A psychological study found that “Asian-American college students were the most likely to have their major or career choice influenced by parental views, even when not explicit” (Tewari 468). Asian immigrant parents had a tendency to indoctrinate their children with the idea that science, business, or engineering fields were superior. Students swallowed expectations to pursue these areas of study, which were successively linked to a push for careers that had higher social statuses and more promise of economic stability (Li 41) In an essay detailing his conflict over declaring a philosophy major, a Korean-American college student writes that “I resisted thinking of myself as an “English” person as opposed to a science person largely because it would have been hard to square with a sense of self-worth centered on intellectual proficiency and academic commitment” (Patrick S., 42).

His cultural programming had caused him to downplay his intelligence and interests, resulting in inner conflict. A Vietnamese-American undergraduate shares a similar story of how he had always thought of medicine as his “preordained profession” and had become so accustomed to the idea that he was at a loss for any other calling (Nguyen 22). A lack of control over external demands results in stifling and overwhelming amounts of stress.

This inner struggle between model minority expectations and individual desires causes psychological damage in Asian-Americans at rates higher than the general population (“Asian in America”). A study conducted on first-generation undergraduates found an “achievement/adjustment paradox” because “Asian-American students report poor psychological and social adjustment” despite their external markers of success (Qin, Way and Mukherjee 481).

Frustration and alienation, elements inherent in the teenage experience, are intensified due to unique standards placed upon the Asian-American community. Recent evidence indicates that Asian-Americans “were more likely to be depressed, to feel hopeless and to have contemplated suicide” than their Caucasian counterparts (Thompson 22). Even more grievously, Asian-Americans are more likely to attempt suicide, and a statistical analysis of campus deaths finds that “suicide accounts for a larger proportion of the deaths of 20-24 year-old Asian-Americans than for European Americans” (Leong 417).

Though cases of suicide may be extreme, their relative statistical prevalence deserves attention. At Cornell University, whose student suicides are as well-known as their strong engineering program, the high percentage of Asian-American victims has prompted university officials to install a special task force targeting their mental health.

A psychologist on this panel addresses the connection between accumulated pressure and the prevalence of mental illness: "The stereotype for Asian and Asian-American students is that they are academic machines, but we see a lot of emotional pain here. We see the human side of that and those stereotypes cause hurt and keep people from seeking care” (Ramanujan). Model minority stress is both a source and perpetuator of suffering.

Pressured to hide imperfections, Asian-Americans conceal psychological damage and do not receive desperately needed treatment. Studies have shown that they are “at greater risk of not seeking help to deal with their personal academic and mental health problems” (Yoo and Burrola 116). Because suffering and working hard are accepted parts of Asian cultural values, discussion of psychological health is not only tense, but actively discouraged. In CNN’s “Asian in America,” Dr. Sanjay Gupta explains how “In Asia, any time we talk about depression, it’s a sign of weakness.”

Just like academic success reflects on a family’s reputation, the stigma of mental illness as a flaw impacts their honor: “Asking for counseling is very embarrassing for the whole family, because whatever you do, it represents the family’s name” (“Asian in America”). A student interviewed in an academic study echoed this idea, believing that “admitting his academic and personal failures would cause his family to lose face;” he struggled on his own, which eventually “left him feeling isolated and depressed” (Lee 61).

In addition to preserving familial honor, the value placed on self-sufficiency is a factor in emotional subdual. A second generation undergraduate who struggled with depression explains the Japanese concept of meaku kakatera dame, which directly translates to “Do not unnecessarily burden yourself onto others” (Hirashima 104). She says that she deferred seeking help because “there’s a mentality among Asians to be tough and to not let other people see that you actually have feelings – to cover up pain, anger, frustration, and depression” (Hirashima 104).

This dangerous theme of suppression extends beyond psychological health. In multiple ways the Asian-American melody is lost in a cacophony. Because personal expression is forced to harmonize with external and internal pressures, an original composition becomes undetectable. Afraid that they will “risk the shame of not living up to the model minority myth,” Asian-Americans tune themselves to match the expectations placed upon them and relinquish their independence and creativity in the process (Yoo and Burrola 116).

This compliance carries the greatest implications for the future. To blindly struggle toward model minority expectations is to conform to its limited ideals, to gloss over its grievances, and to perpetuate its hostile existence. Depriving them of voice, the myth forces Asian-Americans to compose their own undoing.

Sotto Voce: My Music is Not Heard

Pressured from all sides, Asian-Americans have been taught that self-repression is model behavior. Their silence has become anticipated and rewarded: Because racism’s specter continues to haunt the Asian-American experience, mainstream society has encouraged conformity by punishing difference and praising assimilation. Compensated by recognition and high marks for performing like model minorities, young students “censured their own experiences and voices” to gain “acceptance from the dominant group” (Lee 9).

Internalizing expectations from this early age, they continue to believe that their status would rise if they “lived up to standards,” and others admitted that they have “silenced behaviors and experiences that failed to measure up to the model minority standard” (Lee 117). This stereotype survives because “it tells Asian Americans how to behave” and convinces them that it is in their best interest to “pose no threat to the White establishment, to take things quietly, to not complain, and to not fight back” (Li 184). Programmed to equate conformity with success, Asian-Americans strive to please others at the expense of their own expression.

Because Asian-Americans are consistently pressured to fit expectations, silencing individuality has become normative. Taught that she was “never supposed to raise her voice,” a college student realizes how passivity has become ingrained in her nature (Hirashima 96). Asian-Americans opinions have been discounted at all stages of development, and they have come to accept this as ordinary. Compare the following statistic: Caucasian students valued “happiness” and “fit” most when selecting a university 67% of the time, but only 28% of their Asian-American counterparts ranked their own well-being as highly (Dundes 139).

Individual desires are always the first sacrifice in the calling for success; they are a necessary casualty in the quest for something higher. Nevertheless, this mission never ceases. Even for those who have been accepted into a selective institution, they must “pursue a particular degree to please family members rather than to advance their own interests,” a pattern that holds truth for vocational choice as well (Li 26). Each sacrifice surrenders a part of the self until there is nothing left. A first generation undergraduate laments that “You tend to be what they expect you to be and you just lose your identity. You just lose being yourself and become part of what someone else wants you to be” (Lee 59).

Even for those who realized that the model minority myth was negative, a study demonstrated that its internalization can still “significantly influence stereotypic-consistent behaviors regardless of personal belief” (Yoo and Burrola 124). Although dissociation from one’s environment is difficult, silence only strengthens its hold. A revolution of sound is needed to reclaim identity and break the institutionalized cycle of pressure. 

De Capo Al Fine: Starting Over from the Beginning

An old friend of mine is familiar with this struggle. With over 230 strings under a combined tension of twenty tons, the piano is no stranger to pressure. The correct amount of force produces the notes that make beautiful music possible, but too much stress will make the strings snap. Already at a disadvantage for not being cast from high carbon steel, people flirt with the same danger: They need to speak when this pressure is too great.

Because adjusting tensions is unique to each piano and dependent on the variant interactions between notes, Asian-Americans must direct their own fine tuning. At an especially critical juncture, first and second generation young adults control the continuity of the model minority myth in their hands. They can rewrite the composition, replacing its disharmonious song with music of their own conception.

The polished black wood calls out to me in stillness, and this time I answer with a liberated will. No one is there to tell me what or when or how to play. I choose to sit in the old chair, and my fingers run tentatively over the keys as my soul begins to stir. At first it is a shaky melody, but then it grows louder, gains momentum, becomes unstoppable. Sounds imbued with my individual heart and flair echo off the walls, banishing the silence once and for all.


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