My Experience with the Three Prongs of the Asian Model Minority Myth
Byline: Agnes Tseng, Sr. People Ops Advisor at Bloom
Asian Heritage Month (back in May) was fraught for me. All I saw in the media were attacks against Asian people from misguided souls. That alone made it darker than usual, but seeing yet another Asian stereotype play out in the media reopened a lifelong question: how do Asian stereotypes play out in, and affect, my life as an Asian woman?
In my role at Bloom, I talk about inclusion with major brands on a regular basis. But as an individual, I struggle to reckon with the stereotypes associated with my identity, in particular, the Asian model minority myth.
My understanding of the Asian model minority myth
The idea of the “model minority” is not exclusively about Asian people, so here’s what I mean when I talk about the Asian model minority myth:
- First, it’s the assumption that Asian people are naturally numbers or science people.
- Second, it’s the pressure we face (and put on ourselves as a community) to keep our heads down, work hard, stay out of trouble, and never take a risk.
- Third, it’s the requirement — often hidden from how we present ourselves publicly — that we take care of families above all else. Very often, this means supporting them financially.
For many Asian people, there’s also a fourth element of being an immigrant, which exacerbates the myth ten-fold.
Three ways the myth impacts me as an individual
The myth impacts all Asian people to varying degrees. As an individual, I personally see and experience the myth via three distinct prongs.
Prong 1: External pressure
External pressure typically comes from one of two sources: Corporations + the media and family.
As an Asian woman, corporations and the media expect me to be bubbly, quirky, whip-smart, never have a bad day, and fit the norms of what North Americans view as a “pretty” Asian girl. If I look too frumpy, “too Asian,” or appear unintelligent (without being a very specific type of “ditzy but sexualized-and-pretty-enough Asian girl”), I run the risk of being cast out. There is no mediocrity or failing upward for Asians in business. On top of all this, the discourse around “diversity hires” in the D&I space means that no matter how qualified I am for a job, there’s a lingering question of whether I was hired as a token.
Family presents an odd dichotomy. I’m expected to get that promotion to reach the Western ideal of financial success, but I shouldn’t take career risks that will risk my security. I have to take care of my family above all else, but I am expected to be out and networking so I can build my career. I know all of this comes from a place of love, but it’s a lot to process sometimes.
Prong 2: Internal struggle
The external pressures are made more painful by the internal pressure I feel to do everything I can for my family. As the child of immigrants, I am grateful beyond words for how my family left their home country to come to Canada for the chance of a better life. Because of their sacrifice, I was given the opportunity to learn and eventually to land a great job with solid pay that helps me save money and afford an enjoyable life.
But below the desire to support my family is the realization that I have passions beyond compliance to a myth. This leaves me with a key question: When is it my time to live the life I want to lead?
I — along with many Asian friends — feel the tension between fulfilling our parents’ desires while living out our own dreams. How do I balance my desire to see my parents live a long and healthy life with my desire to lead my own life? And why is that the choice I’m forced to make?
Prong 3: The tension about whether you believe the myth yourself
In my more personal moments, I notice the third prong: wondering if I should just believe in the myth and start chasing it.
After all, is there something bad about being whip-smart, bubbly, and making a lot of money so I can support my family? Honestly, it sounds like utopia some days.
But a small voice in me says that I want — and am capable of — different things. It’s not that I don’t want to support my family, earn money, or whatever. It’s that I have a deep human urge to break free, chart my own path, and accomplish my definition of success.
The weird part is that my definition of success looks a lot like the model minority myth come to life: I want financial success, physical health, career success, and to be able to support my family. Which is why this tension is so difficult because the part of me that wants freedom begs me to do things my way but my rational mind says I technically achieve the same end, so why make things difficult?
The never-ending question
I have a hunch I won’t ever sort this out fully, so I apologize to any reader who was expecting this article to be my top 10 ways to bust Asian stereotypes. Some might say that by not offering solutions, I’m giving in to the myth. But I think of it a different way: the myth presupposes no one else will help me or want to understand me — and that most people are actually out to get me. So when others listen to my experiences and show up with their best, inclusive selves, we all get to climb just a little bit higher. And that’s a big f*ck you to the myth if I’ve ever seen one.