Look at me. I’m Asian – Korean, to be precise. And my entire life, from primary to high school, I’ve had perfect grades.
I’m good at math. I’ve played the piano since I was three – oh, and swimming is my life. My childhood dream? Becoming an engineering professor at Stanford University.
With this success comes a price – for one, may heavens forbid my parents sending me off to a sleepover. However, in compensation, they offer me my favorite food everyday: rice. All of this is no surprise to any of you, of course. After all, Asian-Americans are stereotyped as a model minority, which means we’re thought to achieve a higher degree of success than the average population. We have tiger moms, study day and night with no rest, play instruments like virtuosos, treat anything less than an A as an F.
It’s expected of us. And for many at a first glance, it may seem like a good thing. I mean, shouldn’t it be something to be proud of – to be stereotyped as hardworking, smart, and successful? I started thinking about these questions a few of years ago, and I found that this model minority stereotype pervades the lives of Asian Americans far beyond a superficial level.
I remember vividly this one time I had to play at a violin concert. Near the opening of the piece, I made a mistake, and I remember just feeling like utter crap. And although it was only just enough to be noticed, it seemed like my world came crashing down – I couldn’t even focus properly on the rest of the piece. The problem was that the layers and layers of expectations stacked up against me were too high. My mind had been “molded” to accept only – and only – perfection.
There was no space or time for mistakes, failures, or shortcomings. And this is a sad reality shared by so many of my Asian-American peers. I’ve seen the devastated looks of shame on all too many classmates from not doing well on a school assessment, math competition, or standardized test.
Such standards are set so incredibly high, merely as a result of the model minority stereotype and are often overwhelmingly stressful. Students suffer emotional, psychological, physical and even academic costs. We learn to correlate our self-worth with quantitative measurements – with SAT scores, university acceptances, and rankings. We normalize self-sacrifice, such as studying and practicing harder and longer, forgoing our social and personal lives. Why? Well, such decisions stem from the immanent belief that the less you reach the “expectations,” – the less you “accomplish” – the less valid you are. One of my good Asian-American friends who moved to the U.S. recently competed in a state level math competition and was expected to pass and qualify for nationals.
She told me about the pressure she carried, not because of the math competition itself but because of what was expected of her. She said that on the harder problems, she panicked and questioned her every pencil stroke – her every answer bubble. She ended up missing the qualifications for nationals by just two points. Afterwards, she spent hours and hours wallowing on her bed, guiltily mulling over how it could have gone differently – how she could’ve lived up to what was expected of her. Our emotional well being really does suffer under this burden of expectation. Failing to meet the standards of academic achievement – or any form of accomplishment at that – can lead to feelings of shame and inadequacy.
People are even often surprised and may even take glory in being better than you. Personally, I’ve experienced that all too much, whether it’s from the pressuring crowds of people demanding to know my test scores or the much too familiar, “Oh my gosh, you got that wrong? I got it right, omg I’m so smart!” And so when Asian-American students need help, they can be reluctant to seek assistance. For the longest time, I rarely, if ever, asked teachers for help, even if I really needed it, because to me it seemed like admitting failure.
I thought that I wasn’t supposed to need help. The model minority stereotype creates a false illusion that Asian-Americans are perfect kids at school, and the needs of these students are often neglected or ignored. This creates an environment of emotional isolation and can lead to mental illnesses such as the common depression or anxiety. As a result, according to the American Psychological Association, Asian-American students are significantly more likely than their white counterparts to have suicidal thoughts. Furthermore, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention affirms that a shocking 18.
9% of Asian American students surveyed had reported considering suicide. Clearly, this is an incredibly toxic mindset. Especially because education occurs during the developmental years, these attitudes leave a deep psychological imprint – but it doesn’t have to be this way. In order to help alleviate these burdens on Asian-American students, we must first raise awareness – just like any problem. We must speak up – share stories – about the very real and imminent dangers of the model minority stereotype. Our voices must no longer be silenced by complacency. Next, we must turn to the media, news – the global community – and demand more representation of Asian-Americans in movies, TV Shows, literature – whatnot – that aren’t just of smart alecks or short, stubby sidekicks.
We must create support networks for each other, so we can talk or just have a shoulder to lean on. And finally, and most importantly, we must redefine success. You are not your transcript report, grades, test scores, number of club leaderships, or variety of extracurriculars. I know we’ve all heard it before, but it’s time we truly believe it. Negating the effects of the model minority stereotype certainly will not happen overnight. It may even take years or generations. But if we start now, one day our grandchildren, or even our children, can be free to be who they want to be. We must realize that we need to be willing to embrace risks and challenges – to take that extra step despite the possibilities of “failure” or burden of expectations.
After all, judging people doesn’t define who they are. It defines who we are.