Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

On the underrepresented 'model minority'

Business signage in L.A.'s Koreatown, January 2008
Business signage in L.A.'s Koreatown, January 2008
Photo by turbowombat/Flickr (Creative Commons)

report released late last month by Pew Research Center on Asians becoming the nation’s fastest growing new immigrant group is still drawing reaction, not so much for what it reported, but for the complexities it didn't. The report highlighted various aspects of Asian American life in the United States, and on its face, it read like good news. Asian Americans were depicted in general (this is key) as doing pretty well, attaining high educational achievement and earnings.

Soon, though, Asian American community and civil rights groups began criticizing the report as painting a highly diverse group with a broad brush as a "model minority," and not being sensitive to deep disparities that exist among and within Asian immigrant groups in terms of education, earnings, health care, representation and other factors.

But there's more. KPCC's social media editor Kim Bui took the Pew report to heart, and shares her own thoughts below about how tricky being part of a so-called model minority can be.

There's been plenty of debate about the repercussions, excitement, and also disappointment that came out of a recent Pew Research report on Asian Americans, which pegged us not only as the country's fastest-growing immigrant group, but in general terms, as its most accomplished.

Something larger needs to be pointed out here, and this is as good a time as any.

In an op-ed essay that followed the report, the Los Angeles Times' Gregory Rodriguez wrote about the backlash that could plague Asian Americans as they are cast in "model minority" light, as critics of the Pew report said they were. And perhaps Rodriguez is right. Maybe as Asians continue to grow as a racial group in the United States, we'll face the same sort of backlash that has followed the descendants of European Jewish immigrants who prospered, as his essay suggests.

But one of the wrinkles that comes with being part of a so-called "model minority" is that it's sort of a double existence. The Pew study was criticized by those who pointed out that for all the high achievers, there are Asians and Pacific Islanders who struggle with education, jobs, health care. I have seen plenty of fellow Vietnamese fall far below middle class.

At the same time, in some instances, Asian isn't even considered "minority" anymore. In his piece, Rodriguez pointed out that there is "grumbling about the number of Asians gaining admittance to the public university system." I went to college in Iowa, and I heard the same grumbling. I heard people grumbling about how universities gave preferential admission to a race that wasn't even really a "minority," that being Asians.

Closer to home for me: When we talk about diversifying media, what I fear we mean is "add Latino voices," especially in California. When we say "Let's represent Los Angeles and California better," I worry the actual intent is, "Let's add a nod to the growing Latino population, not Koreatown, Thai Town or Little Saigon." I know we are trying, but journalism, as a whole, has a long way to go toward representing our audience better.

To some extent, we play a role in our own lack of representation, especially as a diverse group that has its privileged and underprivileged. An anecdote: My mother, who is nowhere near a recent immigrant, still believes that most Latinos are Mexican. And that they are very good at gardening. She thinks "we" are nothing like "them." She thinks we are better.

She is proud that although some Asians do not reach model minority social status, that we aspire, and that our cultural image is high, intelligent and accomplished.

As Asian Americans grow in number, some perceptions need to change. We may be a model minority to some, including some of our own. But we are diverse, and we need to count as such.

Kim's previous posts for Multi-American including a a personal take on interracial dating and a list of Lunar New Year superstitions.