Hard-working, quiet, submissive, ‘makes no trouble’… These are some of the words often used to describe the East Asian community at large. And at surface level, there’s nothing to be annoyed about. These are all societally accepted, ‘positive’-seeming traits.
The problem is, these are stereotypes ingrained both inside and outside of the East Asian community, and there’s a dark reason behind it.
The model minority ‘myth’ is something I first came across many years ago. As a late teen and young twenty-something, I came across this theory and didn’t give it a second thought. I’ve been raised to know that good things come when you work for them, and that nothing in life is truly free. So I didn’t question that Asians, us Chinese included, were seen as a hard-working bunch that kept themselves to themselves. I didn’t think about it on a more microscopic level for many years more. And at its’ heart, the model minority myth is difficult to grasp (it’s been hard for me even now to confront how it has shaped my path and in hand demonised others), because it is so deeply entwined with simple, societally accepted personality traits.
From a young age, a severe lack of representation of my ethnic minority in the UK (my home country) meant that I subconsciously assimilated to British ways very quickly. It was things like watching the cartoons my school classmates did, instead of Sailor Moon, Hello Kitty and Chibo Maruko-chan (小丸子), and working incredibly hard at learning English in primary school, letting it overtake my native Cantonese. As the years went on, the bias in UK education would lead me to constantly question my place here, for there was never a Chinese person mentioned. Perhaps I didn’t belong here after all, even if I had convinced Mum to begrudgingly cook chicken nuggets and turkey dinosaurs — instead of steamed sea bass, Hong Kong-style sweet and sour pork and garlic-steamed choi sum — for my friends when they came round for tea. More and more, I’d find myself desperate to erase, or hide, the overtly Chinese parts of my identity in public. I’d be popular if… I wouldn’t be bullied if… I’ll be successful if… Looking back, was I subconsciously conforming to the model minority myth? More than likely.
The model minority ‘myth’ began in America, although I’d say it’s widespread throughout the West and any white-centric populations. To those [immigrants] who’d moved in the hope for a better future than war-torn countries, the American Dream beamed brightly. Desperate to keep ‘their jobs’, many white people would push a thought that those who worked hard, complied with local laws, and were unseen and unspoken would be rewarded. Of course then came the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Rock Springs Massacre, the California Alien Land Law…
Effectively, these ideologies were put into place to force East Asian immigrants to assimilate to white ways, exploiting them for labour and using them against other ethnic minorities. African-Americans. Black people. Chinese and East Asian immigrants were encouraged to become law-abiding in exchange for power, rights and titles, and shown as an example that ultimately kicked others down. Now that I know this, I feel deeply ashamed and pawned in a game of white supremacy.
So, what’s next? We’re still in the flux of a racism pandemic. We have been since 1619. No longer can I stand idly by whilst my identity is used to degrade Black people. No longer will I stand idly by as white people absorb all of the best parts of my Chinese identity and community and erase the rest. I will not accept being complicit in a corrupt system that deliberately constructs walls between us all. On a more active level, this means unlearning the ways you may be set in. Rejecting the labels you’ve been assigned your entire life, and speaking out against injustices — even when and especially when it doesn’t involve you. Ensuring there’s always room on the table for Black people. Speaking up about anti-blackness in East Asian communities (yes, this includes remarks about tanning and becoming so dark you look [insert any darker-skinned race here]). Working hard, but speaking out about unconscious bias at work that leads to overworking for no title gains. It means examining every part of how we currently live.