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

By T D
2011, Vol. 3 No. 09 | pg. 2/3 |

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 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 is usually generalized under the umbrella term of stress, which the Society for Research into Higher 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 , 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 p 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.