Speaking the Model Minority Myth Out of Existence by Telling our Stories

The Power in Uncovering and Reclaiming our Narratives

Melody Liao-Chamberlain
Jun 18 · 5 min read
Photo by Quân Nguyễn on Unsplash

Years ago, one of my professors at UCLA turned to me while listing paper topics and said in an unassuming manner, “you can write about the model minority stereotype!” I knew he was addressing me because he was making eye contact with me and I was the only Asian American in the room. The moment felt surreal — a blip that lasted a few seconds until he resumed discussing the guidelines for our final paper. I remember taking no offense at the time, excusing him as another elderly person who was raised in a different era — one where microaggressions could be given as compliments.

The term “model minority” first debuted in 1966 in the New York Times Magazine to compare racial differences between Japanese Americans and African Americans. The model minority stereotype — which perpetuates the image of Asian Americans as being industrious, law-abiding, and high-achieving — grew in popularity during the Civil Rights movement as a way to shift the blame for injustice and inequality in the black community. Ironically, within a century prior, “Yellow Peril” anti-Asian sentiments dominated depictions of Asian-Americans — fueling the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the internment of Japanese Americans from 1942–1945.

The purpose of this post isn’t to put my professor on blast, but to process how the model minority stereotype has shaped the way that I see myself.

To preface, while I hate the stereotype, I have a difficult time challenging it. In so many ways, I embody the stereotype: I am ethnically Chinese and I speak Chinese. In eighth grade, I tested into ninth grade math. I took piano lessons through childhood.

The Asian Dad Meme reminds me of certain aspects of my childhood

I once got an A+ on an extra-credit assignment for a high school English class without even knowing that was possible.

In my undergrad at UC Berkeley, I joined a theater group called “Theatre Rice” to be silly and have fun. In performing together in sketch comedies, improv, and skits, we also aimed to challenge perceptions of Asian Americans through the act of being on stage. Yet, I still lived with this gnawing guilt that my existence perpetuated the very stereotype we were aiming to dismantle.

Periodically, I would wonder: c’mon man, is the stereotype even that bad? Getting schooled by my peers has been a blessing in delivering me from being an ignoramus. I now see how the stereotype hastily lumps together entirely different people-groups with ancestry from earth’s largest and most populous continent and promotes their docility to our dominant culture. I recognize how the stereotype permits turning a blind eye to the needs of individuals and communities who are Asian American with drastically different narratives by presuming that they are all doing just fine. For example, I think of the Cambodian youth I met in Long Beach, California who inherited intergenerational trauma from their parents and family members who survived genocide and came to the United States as refugees. I also see how the model minority stereotype hurts black, Native, and Latinx folks. By pitting an Asian American stereotype against them, they are held to absurd standards and penalized whenever they don’t do things like getting straight A’s like the “model minority” would — as if structural inequality, oppression and racism were written out of history.

Eventually, I thought I had considered every facet of the stereotype and buried it in my mind as an outdated idea that would fade into obsolescence — a hunch that was confirmed at each new release of a film starring an Asian American cast showcasing a different narrative: Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), The Big Sick (2017), Gook (2017), Crazy Rich Asians (2018), Searching (2018), Always Be My Maybe (2019), etc.

Randall Park and Ali Wong in Always Be My Maybe (2019) telling the story of relatable people, in which Asian American actors play people and not ”Asian” characters. For example, “Asian” characters might include: the kung-fu fighting guy who speaks choppy English but kicks lots of ass, the nerdy guy with nerd glasses, or the exotic sexy lady who doesn’t have any lines.

The concluding thought I had lived with was that the model minority stereotype conveniently hurts various racial and ethnic groups while benefiting the dominant culture.

But, I never thought about how it obscured my own narrative.

What is my narrative?

I learned over the years, from trips to visit my grandparents in Taiwan or hearing family spill out the hidden stories of the past that our background, was one interwoven with war, loss, grief, separation, instability, and resilience against the odds.

My grandma grew up in Kinmen, a small island off the coast of China in the Taiwan Strait that was governed by Taiwan. Her family farmed peanuts and she was one of the few girls in her village who went to secondary school.

My grandpa grew up in the countryside of Henan Province in China. When the Chinese Civil War broke out in 1946 between the Kuomintang (or Nationalist Party), led by General Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communist Party of China, led by Mao Zedong, my grandpa joined the Nationalist Party to fight in the war. He was 16. Little did he know, by fighting for the Nationalists, he would never see his family again. When the Communist Party took over the capital of Beijing, the Nationalist Party fled from China.

My grandpa was sent to Kinmen because it was a strategic point between China and Taiwan. There, during his down time, he met my grandma through teaching a singing class at the middle school my grandma attended. By the time the Communist Party began bombing Kinmen in 1954 to bolster its position in the Taiwan Strait, my grandma and grandpa had started a family together. Their daughter and son, my mom and uncle grew up to the sound of bombs being fired from China to Kinmen and other islands in the Taiwan Strait.

I have yet to hear the story of my dad’s side in its entirety. All I know is that both my parents were birthed out of war and along with their families, built a future from the ground up. My parents and their siblings sought a bright future in the U.S. The values they equipped my cousins, brother and I were stability, security, safety, and financial success — and education was the means to those ends.

At the age of 31, I had an “aha” moment when I arrived at that point of education being a means to an end, given the instability of my grandparents and parents’ upbringing. It felt like I was stumbling upon something so obvious that it was obscure. It didn’t make sense why it took so long for things to make sense. Nonetheless, I felt free. There is a larger story that explains why I am the way I am! I’m not just a mere stereotype of a straight A’s math replica! I am a human and I have a story too!

Like the impact of any stereotype, the model minority stereotype had reduced my perception of self into a flat one-dimensional trope, masking the larger context of my background. In fact, by not challenging it, I had allowed myself to be written out of existence.

But there is hope! Even someone like me, who fits the stereotype word for word, can find freedom in breaking out of it years later in my thirties.

And it takes uncovering and reclaiming our narratives.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +477K people. Follow to join our community.

Melody Liao-Chamberlain

Written by

I am a Taiwanese-American daughter of immigrants and born and raised in the Bay Area. I like libraries, juicy plums, and playing music with my partner.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +477K people. Follow to join our community.