Cracking the model minority myth

When the tragedy at Virginia Tech happened, I expected to feel a lot more direct fallout because Seung-Hui Cho was Korean American. National coverage certainly highlighted that fact in its own indirect way– the nation’s shock that he was foreign-born, a South Korean, a permanent resident who somehow got his hands on a gun. But Cho moved to the States when he was eight years old– I doubt he remembered much of his early childhood in Korea and like many people who immigrate to the US as children, he probably thought of himself as an American. Perhaps a Korean American as well, but an American nonetheless. But his permanent resident status, that he was foreign-born, his yellow skin– it made him easy to make him “the other.” Nobody wanted to own him. I am a Korean American and I don’t want to own him. All I can say is that on one hand, all along the way, there were points that signaled this young man was deeply troubled and we– whether it was a repressed Korean American family and culture, just our general American society or culture, his teachers or counselors, or his peers around him– failed to step in sufficiently and try to pull him out of the hole he was descending into, pull him off the path that led to that awful massacre. On the other hand, I can say that all of it– the shootings, his 1800-word manifesto, the videos– were the acts of a madman, no amount of intervention would have stopped them, and no one is to blame. They were the acts of a madman.

I mention Virginia Tech because, as I said, for months I had waited for retaliation against Korean and Asian Americans in general. People lashing out against anyone that looked like the person who was responsible for the deep pain caused by the senseless shooting of those thirty-two young people. Perhaps because it was not a racially motivated attack, perhaps because the press and pundits were more preoccupied with the gun debate, there didn’t seem to be any coverage of any racial profiling or backlash. But just a couple of weeks ago over graduation weekend, my mother asked casually whether anybody had said anything to me about it. I said no, but she said that the day after the shootings, my father had gone into work and his coworkers had asked jokingly, “Mr. Lee, do you have any guns?” My father’s coworkers joke with him often and when I hear the stories, sometimes I feel like they’re laughing at him more than with him. My mother also said that Korean restaurants in the New York City/northern New Jersey area, whose customers had been about forty percent non-Korean, were empty for weeks after the shootings. Perhaps because I live in the Bay Area, I wasn’t targeted, whether it was dirty looks, dirty words, or dirty acts. So, I guess there was backlash, but it was quiet, almost silent, or in the form of jokes that we smile and accept and let roll off our back. We are, after all, the model minority.

More recently, the Azia Kim story has been getting a lot of press, even nationally– if you haven’t heard, it’s the story of a young woman who had managed to pass herself off as a Stanford student since this past September, squatting in Stanford dorms (using a difficult roommate situation as a cover story to ask to temporarily share a room with some other students) and, in turn, using her alleged Stanford enrollment to take ROTC classes and money at nearby Santa Clara University (since Stanford has not had an ROTC program since the 1960’s). Aside from all of the fallout around how did this student get past all of Stanford’s administrative systems and infrastructure, how did students and residential staff not discover the truth until almost three weeks until the end of the school year (ironically, the ruse began to fall apart when one of the dorms she was staying in was putting together their yearbook), when the issue is discussed, people always point out to me the fact that Kim is Korean American. As the story continues to unfold, many believe that much of Kim’s motivations were fueled by her parents’ expectations to attend a top-tier, prestigious college. It fits so neatly into the Asian American stereotype of filial piety, parental pressures, and emphasis on education– and Ivy League-caliber education at that– and her behavior to fulfill that stereotype shatters the model minority myth all at the same time.

And in the same week, another impostor was caught— also an Asian American, but Japanese this time. Elizabeth Okazaki was found to have no Stanford affiliation, despite attending graduate physics seminars and using offices reserved for doctoral and post-doctoral students at Stanford’s Varian Physics Labs. She’s been banned from campus, but there are no reports yet on what her exact motivations were– stereotypical or otherwise.

Back in January, when Chinese American doctoral student Mengyao “May” Zhou went missing, understandably, nobody wanted to consider depression or suicide. Of course, we all hoped she would be okay. When the body was found, everyone was shocked at what seemed like an apparent suicide. Even now, despite toxicology results, family and students still find it difficult to believe her death was a suicide. So much social stigma surrounds depression and suicide in much of Asian culture. A recent study looks at the high rate of suicide in Asian American women, highlighting the link between cultural stress and suicide. We, Asian Americans, are so insular, and women, in particular, are taught so often to hold in our pain. It’s that “quiet inner strength” that we hold up as something to admire, but that slowly kills many of us. In my own family, I hear bits and pieces of someone, of a story of suicide, but I can never get the whole truth, I never dare ask. To think that we might need antidepressants, to think that we just need help– more help than our family can provide– is unthinkable.

Don’t look now, but from the inside, from the outside, I think that model minority myth is cracking, if it hasn’t shattered already. I wouldn’t worry too much– I never really believed in it anyway.

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