I wanted to do it perfectly: how the myth of the model minority affects me and other Asians

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This first-person play was written by CBC Saskatchewan reporter Florence Hwang.

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I’m 12, in a classroom at Judge Bryant School in Regina. Our grade 6 teacher, Mr. Clark, asks us to take out our books to discuss what we were instructed to read. I freeze, even though I’ve done the homework ahead of time.

I hope and pray that Mr. Clark does not call me. I try to think of what I might say if he does, then I think of all the negative responses I might have, then I decide not to bother to speak at all. I breathe a sigh of relief when I escape any question.

I still remember that moment in 6th grade. But the pressure to look smart caused me great anxiety during class discussions throughout school and even college. I didn’t realize it, but I felt the effects of the “myth of the minority model”.

The term model minority myth was coined in the 1960s to refer to the so-called positive stereotypes of Asians, such as work ethic, emphasis on education, and the desire to be successful, to be smart and rich. Studies have confirmed that such stereotypes can make Asian students feel good about themselves and fixate on their shortcomings.

According to the American Journal of Health Studies, Asian students are more likely to suffer from mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and isolation. As a result, they can lack confidence and self-esteem.

I never felt like a model minority. I didn’t think I would fit in as a Canadian either. My sanity suffered as a result.

I struggled with school as a young student, partly because of a delay in learning English (I first learned the language by watching Sesame Street).

I wondered why I didn’t fit this stereotype of being “smart”. I thought I was just a “dumb” kid because I was an average student until grade 3. Fortunately, my teacher, Ms. Nicholson, gave me extra homework to improve my comprehension skills.

Hwang (right) says she struggled in her youth feeling like she was ‘stupid’ even though she was an average student. (Florence Hwang)

In grade 5, my dad taught me to study more effectively. It was a lot of work, but it paid off. He taught me that doing well in school was not just about intelligence, but also hard work.

Learning to study didn’t mean I was suddenly at the top of the class. It helped my academic success, but it also stressed me out. I wanted to please my parents and do well. I wanted to do things perfectly. I often stayed awake at night with eager thoughts about the schoolwork I had to do the next day.

High expectations combine with discrimination

The myth of the model minority ignores the problems that Asians face when it comes to discrimination.

Growing up in Saskatchewan, most of my classmates were white. Although they were generally cordial, I didn’t have many friends. I haven’t experienced much racism, but I was still called “Chinese,” a term that left me more confused than offended. I was not a man and I was not born in China.

I would overanalyze why I didn’t fit in. “Why don’t people talk to me,” I asked myself. “What did I do to offend them?” What can I do next time?

Anguish kept me awake until midnight. Then when I saw how late it was, I would stress myself out trying to fall asleep or being afraid to sleep. I would often be tired and had a stomach ache.

High expectations combine with discrimination to cause psychological harm to Canadians of Asian descent. There has been some research on this, but I believe the aspect of the myth and its effects on mental health needs to be looked at further. I believe that there are complicated cultural factors that have not been taken into account.

Like any diverse population, Asians are not homogeneous.

Mainstream media is starting to include more Asian experiences with shows like Kim’s convenience, and movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Always be my maybe. I think there still needs to be more nuanced representations of all types of Asians, not just typical tropes, but at least that’s a start.


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