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Two Asian-American Editors Unpack The “Model Minority Myth” (& How It’s Affected Their Lives)

This piece is part of a franchise called 'Not Your Model Minority,' where we highlight individuals pushing away from that racist rhetoric and changing the narrative of what it means to be Asian American.

The “Model Minority Myth” is exactly that—a myth, and a problematic one that stereotypes Asian Americans as having more academic, social and economic success compared to other minorities because of their shared traits of being smart, hard-working and polite.

It’s particularly insidious because it’s couched as a positive, but the reality is that it places unspoken expectations on Asian Americans, and further distances us from other marginalized groups in the country. It also doesn’t account for how diverse the Asian population is.

As of the 2020 Census, there are 20.6 million people who identify as Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander with roots “that can be traced to more than 20 countries in East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, each with unique histories, cultures, languages and other characteristics,” according to the Pew Research Center.

So how do you even begin to describe the complexities of being an Asian in America? As I’ve found in even trying to write this introduction, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, but it’s something my colleague Marissa Wu and I wanted to explore together as we reflect on our identities during APAHM month.

I am a 35-year-old Korean American and daughter of immigrants, who moved to the States in their 20s, where I spent most of my formative years in a racially homogenous city in the South. I am also the beauty director here at PureWow. Marissa is a 26-year-old third-generation Chinese American who grew up in a diverse suburb of San Francisco. She is currently our lifestyle editor.

At first glance, Marissa and I seem to have more differences than similarities. And yet, over the course of our nearly two-hour long conversation, we connected over the core experience of feeling like we lived in liminal spaces throughout our lives. Despite our different upbringings, we both know the feeling of not being seen as Asian nor American enough.

What you’ll read ahead is a condensed transcript of our conversation that took place over Zoom earlier this month.

How the "Model Minority Myth" Impacted Our Identities

MW: I never knew about the “model minority myth” until I wrote my sophomore thesis critiquing Fresh Off the Boat in college. I felt I finally understood why the Asian community valued certain things, and why society had expectations that we be a certain way. It changed my perspective because my whole life I wondered why Asians were stereotyped as being good at math. I’m terrible at math. It seemed there were all these societal expectations on me, and I had no idea why. After learning about it, I had mixed feelings. At first, I was proud that we are so highly regarded as the paradigm of what an immigrant “should be”. But then I started learning more about how it was a fabrication of the government used to pit minorities against each other. I realized it works against me too. I’m expected to conform to this mold that I’ve never fit. Now it’s a burden.

I feel like most of the pressure I felt was from my peers because my parents aren't immigrants. I'm a third-generation Asian American, and I identify more heavily with American culture. My parents are not ‘tiger parents’ and they never told me I had to be a doctor or anything  along those lines. However, my whole family is very STEM oriented. My dad was a biomedical/electrical engineering major and my mom was an accountant. Growing up, I very much felt like the odd one out because there’s a certain language that you speak when you are creative vs when you’re in STEM. My family and I didn't share the same vocabulary. All the while, my friends were in fields like finance, consulting and medicine. It made me question, should I be doing something like that, too? 

JJ: For me, the idea of “model minority” has come up a lot more in recent years. And it’s made me reflect on how it's played a part in my life. I think the ways that it showed up for me are that classic, “put your head down and work hard” mentality. Don’t complain. Don’t speak up. Don’t be a squeaky wheel. It’s something that I am actively trying to unlearn now or at least find a better balance.

As I’ve gotten older and progressed in my career, I often find myself in meetings with people in leadership roles, and I’m trying to find my voice in those rooms. It’s not something that comes easily for me. I’m the type of person who won't say something unless I’ve really thought about it. Sometimes that bothers me, because in our jobs, I think that we're very much rewarded for being outspoken and showing off what we know and the things that we're working on. I’ve been in many brainstorms throughout the years where I see some of my colleagues spout off all the half-baked ideas that come to their minds with zero hesitation. Meanwhile, I’m usually quiet because I’m deep in thought, poking holes in my own ideas. I think, well, that wouldn't work unless we did X, Y and Z. The flip side of this is that by the time that I’ve come to you with an idea, I've already thought through the steps of how to make it happen, which takes a beat.

Overcoming Other’s Perceptions

MW: I went to journalism school in Boston and I felt like an outsider there. The students were mostly white or non-Asian, and there were a handful of wildly wealthy foreign students who were there to get a degree but didn’t necessarily need to make a career out of it. The faculty members weren’t diverse, either. It was mostly white male professors. For the first time, I realized the dichotomy between my perception of myself versus what other people saw.

One year, I was at a conference, and I went to introduce myself to the department head. Everyone always had good things to say about him. I wanted to shake his hand and see what all the hubbub was about. The first thing he said after I introduced myself was, “You speak English really well.” I wanted to punch him. That was the first time I’ve ever really wanted to clock someone. But what could I do? He was such a bigwig in the department. I brushed it off in the moment, but that interaction opened my eyes to the fact that my professors might have a perception of me that I wasn’t even aware of. They probably believed that I was a foreign kid who was there to get a degree, peace out and go back to my “home country” after graduating. They didn’t see me at the Boston Globe news desk. It made me question whether I was capable or less expected to make it in the media because I don’t look like a typical journalist. It was a huge culture shock for me.

JJ: My parents immigrated to the States in their 20s with my brother in tow. We moved around a lot because my dad is a professor. I spent most of my childhood in New Orleans, where I was literally the only Korean kid in my school from kindergarten through eighth grade.

My grandparents came to live with us when I was eight because my dad moved back to Korea to take another job. That was a turning point for me because I was a banana until then—in every sense of the word. (Banana refers to someone who is yellow on the outside, white on the inside. It’s certainly not the most elegant or PC term, but it was a commonly used reference growing up.) I didn’t speak any Korean. I didn't know much about the culture. I don't think that I really took pride in it either. At that age, I desperately wanted to be the same as everyone else in my class, which was white. But my grandmother opened my eyes to the world of K-Pop, Korean dramas, food and culture. I fell in love. That's how I started learning the language and I quickly became immersed.

My dad eventually came back to the States, which prompted another move for our family. After a short stint in California, we ended up in a small town in Maryland during my sophomore year of high school. It was a conservative town and not very diverse. I have this appalling memory of when my class did senior superlatives. I was given “hottest import,” and I had to accept the award in front of the entire student body. Along with a certificate, they gifted me a bag of rice and chopsticks. All this to say that I’ve been in many different environments throughout my life.

Looking back, I never felt like I fully belonged anywhere or to any one group. I recently went to Korea, and even if I'm wearing Korean clothes and I'm speaking the language and I'm with my Korean friends or relatives, people can still tell that I'm from America. I asked my cousin about this once. “How can you tell?” “It's just the way that you carry yourself. It's the way you walk. It's even in your facial expressions. Americans are more open and expressive when they talk.” It was an interesting realization, to feel so proud of my Korean culture and heritage, but to visit “the motherland” and people could tell right away that I'm not from there.

I’ve come to peace with this though. I am as Korean as I am American, and I love being able to pull different parts from each culture into my work, into my relationships and in all the ways I show up in the world.

How We Looked for Permission to Break the Mold

MW: I always wondered why there weren’t more Asians in the arts. Because it's not a typical field that people who have come before us in our familial circles or friend circles enter into, those doors weren't really open for us. It's not a world that we were exposed to often either, so it didn’t really feel like it was in the realm of possibility as a future career path. Instead, you're young and on your own, knocking on everybody's door to see who will take a chance on you. 

It wasn't until I took my gap year after college that I felt empowered to pursue a creative career. I was feeling sort of lost and discouraged when someone gave me permission to be creative. It feels dumb to say I needed permission to do something, but when you're surrounded by a certain way of thinking your entire life, sometimes you need someone to actually tell you that you can be an artist, which is exactly what happened to me. I was crying on this thrifted Persian rug in the Sorbonne at an interactive art installation and the artist approached me and gave me a cookie. She said, “You can be an artist.” I was incredulous. My first thought was “I don’t know if I can be.” Now, four years later, she's one of my most treasured friends—we even did an art exposition together. 

JJ: Whenever the adults in my life would ask me what I wanted to become when I grew up, I would tell them that I wanted to be a K-Pop star. They didn't necessarily say I couldn’t do it, but they certainly didn't encourage it either. They just thought it was something I’d eventually grow out of, and they told me as much. I wonder if that’s where the initial seeds of imposter syndrome were sowed. That feeling of not being “good enough” for something. I would always be in these spaces, like choir or talent shows, and I was always good enough to make the team or get a solo in the song, but I never felt like I was the best at it.

You mentioned earlier that your friend gave you permission to be an artist. You also said that, maybe unsurprisingly, she's not Asian. To her, it seems like an obvious thing. Of course you can be an artist. But for you, it was revelatory at that time because that’s not what you saw around you growing up. I've thought about that a lot. I see people who grew up with the messaging that you can be whatever you want to be. The constant affirmation of “you're so talented” from their parents at an early age and how it's shaped their view of the world and their confidence in how they show up in it. I have friends in my life who seem to move through life without questioning whether they're good enough to do something. They have a built-in confidence that I often wish I had, but you know, I recently heard someone say that confidence can be built in the doing of something. “You are what you consistently do.” I am a writer because I consistently write. I am a dancer because I consistently dance. I think that's been a big part of my work as an adult—giving myself permission to do the things I love doing without worrying so much about how good I am at them.

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