Model Minority

I have been a minority all my life. As the only girl in a neighborhood of boys, a downtrodden East Los Angeleno in a fancy-pants law school or a Chinese-American expat in the Netherlands. As minority experiences go, however, I can’t really complain. My kind doesn’t make trouble and so trouble rarely rains down on our heads. We are the model minority.

shades of gray

The concept of a model minority is a deeply racist one. it assumes (many) other minorities who are less desirable. A good immigrant is pliable and studious, hard-working and high-achieving. Only a good immigrant is eligible for a slice of the American Dream.

My father’s first glimpse of the American Dream was in Knoxville, Tennessee.  He arrived in 1950 to study mechanical engineering at the University of Tennessee. He worked as a farmhand to earn money for room and board. It must have been hot work. He told me about the time he wanted a drink of water. There was a set of water fountains, side by side, one for whites and the other for coloreds. He stood there for a long time. Then a black man got out of line and plopped Dad in front of the white folks’ fountain. That’s yours, the black man said.

model suburban homes
Brighton Hills West. Brochure courtesy of my grandfather’s archives

In Los Angeles, my parents wanted more of the American Dream. They wanted to buy a house. Yet each time they found one they liked, the house was no longer on the market. Or, so they were told. We moved instead into a new development so far east of downtown that the freeway didn’t connect. My brothers and I played in the scrub hills across the street with the other boys from the neighborhood. I learned to love tortillas heated over a gas flame, slathered in butter and rolled up tight. We lived among other aspirational yellow and brown families on the edge of the barrio.

the wave

My brothers and I were the only Chinese at our Catholic elementary school. By the time we reached high school, the demographics had changed. Successive waves of refugees came to California: Cambodia, Laos and  Vietnam. I became friends with Japanese-Americans whose families had been interned at concentration camps in Manzanar and Heart Mountain. It slowly dawned on me that the Chinese were not the only Asians in California.

Yet altogether we constitute one model minority. Never mind the wars we’ve fought against each other and the very different circumstances of our arrival in the US. Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee who came to the United States in 1975, said it beautifully:

I came to understand that in the United States, land of the fabled American dream, it is un-American to be a refugee. The refugee embodies fear, failure, and flight. Americans of all kinds believe that it is impossible for an American to become a refugee, although it is possible for refugees to become Americans and in that way be elevated one step closer to heaven.

In Europe, I’ve felt unwelcome. When border guards in Spain pulled me out of line and made me show them my return ticket. When another border guard screamed at an old Indian academic to produce his conference invitation or be refused entry. And here in the Netherlands where I’ve been assured that I won’t be deported because my kind behaves itself.

Again, Nguyen said it best. Americans and Europeans:

fear the different, the refugee, the immigrant. In its most naked form, this is racism. In a more polite form, it takes the shape of defending one’s culture, where one would rather remain economically poor but ethnically pure. This fear is a powerful force and I admit to being afraid of it.

yellow fever

Just the other day, I learned of a new subset of the model minority. This one offers safety of a very particular kind. Audrea Lim writing for the New York Times observes:

The white supremacists on the far right have “yellow fever” — an Asian woman fetish.

Lim says that many leaders of the alt-right movement in the US date and even marry women of Asian descent.

As a commenter wrote on an alt-right forum, “exclusively” dating Asian women is practically a “white nationalist rite of passage.”

illustration of girl
Anime. Image source: Pixabay

Lim believes that two racist myths are converging here. First, the myth of the model minority so sufficiently well-behaved as to assimilate.  Second, the myth of the subservient yet hyper-sexed Asian female, a hangover from the days of American GI’s on R&R in Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia.

minority vs majority

ground floor and upper galleries of Pitt Rivers Museum
Interior of Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Last week I was in London and Oxford, marveling at the ethnic and cultural richness. On the streets, you can see every shade of skin color or style of head covering. British museums bulge with ancient artifacts and contemporary works from their former Empire and well beyond. All these sights made me wonder how empty Britain would become if and when Brexit becomes a reality. Yes, ethnically pure and immeasurably poorer.

FILTH is an acronym for Failed in London, Try Hong Kong.  In the 1980s, the term referred to Brits who landed cushy jobs in Hong Kong on the barest of credentials. Then came the handover in 1997 when the UK relinquished its last colony to China. Since then, bankers have been losing their jobs to Mandarin speakers and those with strong connections with the Chinese mainland. The acronym now refers to Brits and other expats who’ve taken on the menial jobs the locals disdain. The colonial masters are now the coolies.

Since 2015, California has become a minority majority state. No single race or ethnic group constitutes the majority of the population. The largest group is Hispanic/Latino at 39%.  This demographic fact may help the Democrats tilt the legislative balance sheet in favor of racial equality. But the signs are not encouraging. With the one year anniversary of the first Muslim Ban coming up and the recent creation of a new category of shithole countries, aspiring to become a model minority is the best we can do for now.