By Aqilah Allaudeen, Medill, Immigrant Connect
Jasmine Chen, a 22-year-old Taiwanese American, spent most of her lunch periods in high school holed up in the library with her friends, many of whom were Asian American. She graduated from Westlake High School, in Austin, Texas, and scored a spot at the prestigious University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). To many, she seemed to fit the Asian American stereotype. She was attending a respected university and pursuing a degree in economics.
However, Chen says that she wasn’t cut out for economics and the academic rigor of UCLA, and made the decision to drop out of school to pursue a career in acting and drama after her freshman year of college in 2015. The decision wasn’t an easy one, and she spent hours talking to her parents about it over numerous phone calls, but ultimately, she knew that it was a change that would make her happy. While her parents, who’d immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan when they were newly married some thirty years ago, were supportive of her decision, her extended family members had doubts about her choice.
“They (the family members) told me to finish my degree first, but I knew that UCLA wasn’t for me,” she said. “It’s almost like they expected me to finish college or to do something more traditional just because I’m Asian and that’s what most Asians do.”
Some of Chen’s relatives told her that if she dropped out of school, all of the sacrifices her parents made for her would go to waste. They told her that she wouldn’t get a “good job,” and wouldn’t be able to support her parents as a result. Hearing this motivated Chen to try harder to succeed along the less conventional route that she had chosen.
Asian Americans are often described as a “model minority”– a non-white group that has achieved economic success and societal acceptance through hard work and conservative values, according to Rhoda J. Yen, an attorney, who wrote about racial stereotyping of Asians and Asian Americans and Its effect on the criminal justice system.. Such a characterization dates back to the mid-1960s, when politicians and the media bestowed Asian Americans with titles like “America’s Super Minority.” Yet, while the model minority stereotype is typically considered positive, it can hurt Asian American communities. Large numbers of Asian Americans don’t conform to the stereotype. Fundamental differences among Asian American individuals belie efforts to look at the entire demographic as a homogeneous one.
Jaemin Baek, a Korean-American who immigrated to the U.S. when he was four years old, echoed these concerns. He emphasized that it’s important for people to realize that not all Asians are the same.
“The fact is that we (Asians) come from different backgrounds, and there is not one stereotype that can fit all of us,” he said. “It’s just like how all White people aren’t the same, and all Black people aren’t the same. They can’t just clump us together as one big group because that’s just not the case. We are too different.”
The model minority stereotype impacts students who fall far from the traditional model minority stereotype the most. By deviating from set norms and expectations of what a successful Asian American should be doing, these students acknowledge that people are often taken aback by their life or career choices. For Jasmine Chen, this meant bearing scorned from family members and knowing that she was the subject of gossip that was spread among relatives and family friends.
“It was like I was the letdown of the family, because to them, not graduating from college is equivalent to failing in life,” Chen said. “But that’s just not the case. I do want to excel, but the school part of it just isn’t my thing.”
Katherine Tan, a 23-year-old Chinese American graduate student at Northwestern University, immigrated to the U.S. when she was 12 years old. She lived in Austin, Texas, until she turned 21, and moved to Chicago to pursue her Master’s degree in biomedical engineering in 2017. Even Tan, who acknowledges that she has always fared well in school and fits the “model minority stereotype” to some degree, has felt discriminated against simply because she was Asian.
The perpetuation of seemingly positive stereotypes can still have a negative impact on many of their lives. It can create an “us vs. them” mentality.
“It’s not necessarily an academic stereotype, it’s more of a ‘you’re not white’ kind of stereotype,” Tan said. “When I was younger and more oblivious to racism and these stereotypes I just felt normal … I was like everyone else. But now it’s a feeling like I’m not a normal person or a normal American. I’m Asian.”
When she first moved to Chicago, Tan said that it was difficult for her
to mingle with White Americans, because they would treat her differently and brush her off when she tried to talk to them, simply because of her skin color. As a result, Tan ended up talking to the other Korean-American student in her class, and bonded with them over the clear divide between Asian Americans and White Americans.
“It’s not like they were rude, but when I tried starting a conversation with some of the white students in my class at Northwestern, they would just try to end the conversation,” she said. “It was just pretty obvious that they weren’t very interested, and only wanted to talk to the other white kids.”
Tan’s learned to cope with the Asian American stereotype by not letting any insult or form of racism affect her.
“Sometimes there are just people who are very traditionally white and they think that anyone who isn’t white is out to get them or to take something away from them,” she said. “But I just look at people who look down on me because I’m Asian as uncultured and uncivilized. Because they just don’t know any better.”