By Sally, 19
“A B is an Asian F.” The first time I heard this statement I was in the third grade, riding the bus home from school. Having just recently become fully aware of the fact that I, myself, was of Asian descent, I was surprised to hear the word “Asian” being used as a jeering taunt by my peers. Prior to this moment, I had been in the midst of that wondrous process of discovering my identity — roaming the intricate ins and outs of what it meant to be uniquely me. I had understood that being Asian — or rather Asian American — meant being different from people of other races, but until that moment I had not considered the possibility that others might see my difference as a problem.
After that moment on the bus, I felt confused and hurt, as if robbed of the ability to create my own identity. The people around me had essentially defined what being Asian American meant for them and, sadly, what it should mean for me at the time. It seemed that everyone believed that the Asian-American identity was inextricably linked to two essential qualities: getting good grades in school and being smart. If you did not or could not satisfy those expectations, you were not really Asian. Was I supposed to fit this mold?
I grew up in a predominantly white suburb of Philadelphia. This meant that in a majority of my elementary school classes I was either the only person of color or one of few. This also meant that most of my early ideas about the Asian-American identity were defined by either stereotypes I saw in the media or, as in the bus incident, by other peoples’ words. Since both of these channels seemed to point to academic success as the only path for Asians to follow — I found myself slowly letting go of other possibilities and obediently following suit.
Predictably, this one-dimensionality was suffocating. At the beginning of each school year, we were always asked to complete a “This Is Me” project telling everyone about our unique qualities. And every year in the box asking for adjectives describing myself, the first adjective I always instinctively put down was “smart.” Beyond that, I did not know what defined me. Being a high-achieving Asian with good grades had become my identity. Yet, I also knew that I did not want to be known only for my supposed intellect. When my peers and teachers thought of me, I wanted to be known for greater things like being a loving person or for possessing true kindness and generosity for others. Furthermore, I secretly had aspirations to write down in the “Future Career” box of my “About Me Poster” besides the Asian stereotypes of doctor or engineer. Cultural expectations held me back. What if I wanted to be an astronaut? An artist? Or a United States Senator? If I wrote any of these career options, would I still be accepted?
Perhaps what I wanted most in elementary school was encouragement from my teachers — encouragement to go down a path not presented to me in society, encouragement that I would not automatically fail if I wandered outside said prescribed Asian mold. Most important, I wanted encouragement that I was more than a racial stereotype, more than just “smart.”
As I progressed from elementary school to middle school, insecurities about my Asian-ness and academic worth followed. If I was not particularly interested in science, let alone good at it, was I a failure? Was I intelligent because I was Asian American or was I simply just Asian American and intelligent? Though I had these insecurities, I never spoke to my teachers about them because I also thought I was supposed to live up to another stereotype: the dependable one. Teachers did not have to worry about me because they never thought I needed help or was struggling. If they called on me in class, I was sure to give a correct answer. This is not to say that my wonderfully transformative teachers single-handedly forced the stereotype of the Model Minority onto me. Rather, constantly being told by your peers and society that you are supposed to be smart on the basis of your race and ethnicity acts as both a prophecy and a sentence. Consequently, many young Asian Americans I know, myself included, will do anything to fulfill this demand. So many of us study and work to the brink of exhaustion just to prove that we are capable, worthy, and “Asian” enough — whatever that means.
In high school, I began to realize that I did not have to live up to other peoples’ definitions of what it meant to be Asian American. I accepted the fact that I simply did not enjoy my science courses as much as the stereotype said I should and I stopped forcing a fake interest. I started to almost enjoy the look of surprise when I told people (older, more conservative Model-Minority-following Asian Americans and people of other races alike) that I loved my literature course and that I was going to major in the humanities in college. The raised eyebrows and slightly ajar mouth gave me a glimpse into their almost too obvious thought process: “Oh that’s interesting! I thought since she was Asian she would be more interested in a STEM field….” A freeness and loosening set in. I began to say in class, “I do not understand this,” and ask for help from my teachers on concepts that no one could reasonably comprehend on their own. Furthermore, my peers and I began to discover sides of ourselves in worlds outside of academia. I, for instance, loved rowing on my school’s crew team and playing an active role in student government. Learning and academics still played a large role in my life, but they were no longer my one defining factor.
Coming to college has only increased this feeling of freedom — an openness to following different paths. Since I attend a university with a sizeable Asian population, I also encounter an incredible diversity of views on what it means to be Asian American. There is not one monolith of an Asian identity here. Being Asian does not necessarily mean being the quiet nerd who is only interested in math. If one wants to be the quiet math whiz, that’s fine. But I’m thrilled — and fortunate — to be in a community of so many young Asian Americans who feel free to be whoever they want. A glorious liberation from the standards of society.
Sometimes it feels like the Model Minority Myth is a double-edged sword. As with many race- and ethnicity-related issues, my relationship with the perception of being part of the “model minority” is complex. There is no doubt that I have privilege and receive greater access than other minorities just on the basis of my being Asian-American. But there is also no doubt that this perception starts to inhibit self-confidence and pursuit of different interests early on. Most of all, I wish that I had the comfort, bravery, and adult support to explore interests beyond the confines of academia as a child.
Asian Americans should not have to be held to stifling standards of achievement that repress multi-dimensionality. Since this is not the case, I want to offer some essential advice.
To my non-Asian peers: Your Asian-American classmates do not always have the right answers and thus should not be depended on for constant academic support. The more you can see each of us as individuals, the better we can know and help each other.
To all teachers: Don’t assume Asian-American students learn easily. Proactively offer to help or support and assure your Asian-American students — as you do with other students. And please don’t pigeonhole us as STEM students. We have interests that span the entire spectrum.
To my fellow Asian Americans: Ask for help when you need it. Share your concerns when you have them. Dare to venture down new paths. We, too, are complex, struggling, and beautifully messy people. And we need to support each other.
Note: TO OUR TEACHING COLLEAGUES: WE ARE LOOKING FOR STUDENT PERSPECTIVES AND VOICES RELATED TO RACIAL IDENTITY IN SCHOOL. IF YOU KNOW OF STUDENTS WHO HAVE WRITTEN ON THE TOPIC OR ARE INTERESTED IN WRITING, PLEASE SEND A NOTE TO JENNA@TEACHINGWHILEWHITE.ORG.