Myths: From the Rise of the “Model Minority” to the “American Decline”

In honor of Women’s History Month, I was invited to speak at the African American Museum and Library in Oakland last Friday about My Mom is a Fob. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan’s daughter, Lailan Huen, joined us as well as others from various backgrounds, so we had a great discussion about our cultural (and generational) similarities and differences growing up.As expected, Amy Chua’s name came up again, and a gentleman from the audience actually assigned me homework, namely to watch Charlie Rose’s interview with Amy Chua and read his lengthy commentary (written under the pseudonym “worldwatcher”). Here is my response organized into three overarching themes.

On Parenting
Labeling a certain parenting style as “Chinese” or “immigrant” (from an ethnocentric perspective) is flawed and about as accurate as generalizing that everyone born a certain month exhibits similar astrological traits. We can only assume that since immigrants start off at a disadvantage (not knowing the language or having no connections), we simply work hard, value discipline, and believe that we have to count on ourselves to succeed.

With that said, Amy Chua really puts my own mother to shame while flaunting her upper-middle class privileges and emphasizing her personal sacrifices. She drives hours on end to world famous teachers’ studios, oversees all music lessons and practice sessions, hires extra tutors for her kids when she’s teaching Yale law students, even buys her daughters expensive gowns for performances then rents out entire rooms in upscale hotels for lavish reception parties. Those who think Chua doesn’t show her kids enough love probably haven’t actually read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and those who complain that she should give her kids more freedom seem to be comforting themselves for not even putting in half the energy she has into her kids, into their own kids. Just sayin’. Chua does exhibit obsessive-compulsive tendencies that no mother should aspire to mimic, though. Children can develop resentment towards parents who set unrealistically high expectations and experience psychological instability when nurtured with conditional love or placed under too much pressure.

Considering how many Americans have turned out okay thanks to all types of parenting methods (from all types of cultures), there is no magical formula for producing successful kids; our parents probably tailored our upbringing on a case by case basis, so I don’t feel like there is much to debate here. I would, however, like to add that socioeconomic privileges should not be confused with any sort of ethnic “superiority.”

On the “Model Minority Myth” and Success
“Worldwatcher” brought to my attention last Friday that Whites are using the Asian “Model Minority” argument to point fingers at African Americans and Latinos saying, “If they can do it, why can’t you?” There are a few problems with such an argument. First, you simply can’t group war-victimized Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotians who came here as refugees with highly educated Chinese, Taiwanese, Indians who came later to fill Silicon Valley positions (not saying there aren’t Vietnamese engineers here). Lumping all Asians together masks the poverty and academic difficulties of some subgroups while denying them much needed assistance programs or affirmative action. Likewise, Asian groups heavily represented in selective colleges shouldn’t be held to higher admissions standards, though that’s probably already influenced through quotas for competitive high schools that are predominantly Asian.

Second, using one ethnic group against another (or against oneself, considering how broad Asians are) can cause tension and possible backlash. As Amy Chua illustrates in World on Fire, market-dominant minorities in other parts of the world experience severe ethnic hatred (Chinese in Southeast Asia, Whites in Latin America, Jews in Russia…), though thank goodness the US is diverse enough that this should never happen here (even if Americans are considered market-dominant minorities in other countries). Perhaps using this illustration was a slight exaggeration (considering that Asian Americans will probably never take over Wall Street), though I thought it was still worth mentioning.

This academic paper supports some of my claims and brings up a few other valid concerns, such as how the “Model Minority” stereotype not only fosters resentment in other minority groups but also contributes to anti-immigration sentiment (positioning us as “foreign” and a threat). Couple that last notion with recent fears of the US losing our global dominance to China… and Chinese Americans (viewed as Chinese) could really become the target for potential hate crimes.

On a less frightening (though equally frustrating) note, journalists and pseudo-academics really like to try to “explain away” why Asians are “so successful.” Malcolm Gladwell’s argument that the Chinese are disciplined and skill-oriented because our ancient ancestors cultivated rice paddies is ludicrous — correlation does not imply causation, just as you can’t attribute everything to nature (genes) when nurture (our unique environment and upbringing) is part of the equation. Matthew Syed’s book, Bounce (on the science of success), reads annoyingly like Gladwell’s Outliers — full of assumptions — though both do emphasize the importance of preparation in the form of “purposeful practice” (Syed) or the “10,000-hour rule” (Gladwell).

In short, practice and hard work still trump innate talent and all the hidden advantages and cultural legacies both authors try to make cases for. Another good point Syed makes is the need for intrinsic motivation, which Daniel H. Pink explains in detail in his book Drive (or this video). The fact that Asian Americans have such high rates of depression and suicide could be because grades, test scores, status, appearance are all extrinsic motivators — they don’t satisfy our inner desire for autonomy and mastery of something that fulfills a deeper purpose. I don’t think it’s possible for someone to be intrinsically passionate about piano or medicine if it was enforced onto the person, even if since childhood.

In many ways, my high school was the quintessential “Model Minority” public high school with a 70% Asian student body consisting of mostly affluent Chinese, Taiwanese and Indian Americans. With a class less than 500 people, 23 tied as valedictorians, five went on to Harvard and fifty to Berkeley. Some of our ancestors could have possibly been rice farmers, but I think it’s much more relevant to mention that our parents graduated the top of their class, had families to support them and companies lined up to issue H1B visas. We also studied for the SATs by going through every single workbook on Border’s bookshelves and taking additional tutoring classes, which our parents willingly paid for.

My parents weren’t very strict but the unintended pressure my friends put on me inspired me not to fall too far behind. Because we were relatively homogeneous, we were also able to identify with one another — jocks did not rule the school as we didn’t even have a real football team, the nerds set the curves and so they did. Economic professors George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton make the case in Identity Economics that students who obey authority and try hard to graduate do so because they identify with the school. Those who don’t (because teachers don’t seem to care about them or other students reject them), rebel (Akerlof, 64-67). I’m not sure how this explains the token Asian kid at a predominantly white school who graduates as the valedictorian, but I’m sure he/she probably receives incredible support (or pressure) from the parents.

On Identity and the Fear of “The American Decline”
As previously mentioned, some Americans are afraid that our glorious days are over and soon the Chinese or Indians will take over, simply because of their sheer numbers, exploding economies, and rising talent. I hate to mention Amy Chua again, but in her book, Day of Empire, she explains why hyperpowers become what they are and actually argues that America will not likely lose its global dominance because we are relatively more tolerant than any other nation and thus attract the world’s top scientific, technological, and creative talent. To stay at the top, we just need enough common “glue” to hold us all together.

As “worldwatcher” has pointed out in his seventh point (in his first post), America wasn’t always so glorious and enviable. We stole the land from Native Americans (first displacing them then decimating their numbers), robbed the Mexicans of more territory, enslaved African Americans for centuries, denied women the right to vote, subjected Chinese immigrants to bigotry while they built our railroads, confined Japanese Americans in internment camps… not to mention all other enemies we’ve created through numerous wars.

Yet, somehow, we managed to become the top destination for newcomers because we have no rules on religion, a very capable democratic system, and an opportunity-filled free market (Chua, 250-251). America is an immigrant nation built up by a diverse immigrant population, despite xenophobia and unlawful immigration acts of our past. To separate “us” Americans from “them” or “those” immigrant “outsiders” is so hypocritical. People like Alexandra Wallace perpetuate this notion of nativism (“white superiority”… “and the good manners my momma taught me”) when there isn’t even an indigenous American culture to begin with.

At a workshop in Stanford, one girl asked me what I thought of the term “white-washed” because I was using the term “fob.” “F.O.B.” was once a derogatory acronym targeted at Asian immigrants who were seen as unwelcome outsiders. I’d like to think that our generation has softened and embraced the term, considering that we now call the peace sign the “fob sign” and Hello Kitty paraphernalia “fobby cute.” I suppose “white-washed” came about as a reaction from people who felt like outsiders in response to people who have done a better job assimilating into dominant culture. In Identity Economics, the authors quote how some minorities feel the need to “keep it real” and not be posers in order to keep their dignity. This notion of dignity becomes very important; how do we stay true to ourselves and be proud of our own heritage and culture and share a common identity with all other Americans?

I will actually argue that assimilation is a good thing and minimizes social tension; “The massive influx of Europe’s ‘poorest and least fortunate’ — almost a million Italians, Poles, Russians, Finns, Jews, Germans, Czechs, and Hungarians annually between 1900 and 1914 — had created enormous social strains in America. The relatively closed-door interwar years provided a respite, allowing these immigrant communities to be absorbed and assimilated (Chua, 253).” How then, do we assimilate into a common culture that all Americans can accept and be comfortable with?

I believe that we should actually encourage interracial relationships (not just as couples, but also business partners, academic research partners, and so on) and create a dominant culture that is less “white”, more tolerant, and more educated about various cultures. (This means that many groups will have to let go of antiquated beliefs of “ethnic purity”, caste systems, and other notions of social hierarchy.) Only then will we be able to share a common American identity, keep attracting top talent into our country, dominate economically, and stay at the forefront of technology and military might together.