I’ve spent some time lately examining further the “model minority myth” and especially how it wedges itself between Asian Americans and Black Americans, propagating the idea that Asian American “success” somehow illustrates that racism can be overcome by hard work, discipline and cultural values, or that the “success” of Asian Americans means that antiblackness, whiteness and racism isn’t an issue. Specifically here, too, I want to talk about the complexity of the “model minority myth” for a Chinese adoptee’s experience.
There are so many problems with adopting this myth as reality, a couple primary ones being that 1) the Black experience of slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, mass incarceration and structural racism is very different than a certain Asian American experience — which also includes racism and discrimination — in forms such as internment camps or restriction of citizenship — but that you cannot compare/contrast the experiences to in any way defend or explain a history of racism in the US and 2) “Asian American” means SO many different things and is a broad term for dozens of ethnic, racial and cultural groups in America, many of whom have experienced tremendously unequal access to opportunity, privilege and wealth. Japanese Americans and Sri Lankan Americans probably have as much, if not more, of a different experience in the United States than Americans of different racial groups. Or, perhaps two different Japanese American families living in different areas of LA have even more of a varied experience compared to each other than a specific Sri Lankan American and Japanese American family. Who knows. The biracial or mixed race experience means something completely different for someone who is half-Black, half-Chinese than it does for someone who is half-Chinese, half-white, for example. One may be seen as “black,” one may be seen as “white” — yet both are Asian American. There are LAYERS to the Asian American experience.
So many people have written on the “model minority myth” already, so I’d encourage you to do some research or look for books on the topic if you’re interested. I want to focus more specifically here, however, on the complexity of the Asian adoptee experience — and even there, I can’t broadly generalize, I have to be specific. The Vietnamese adoptee experience is different than my experience, as a Chinese adoptee. Our histories and stories are different, individually and as part of an ethnic group with a certain history.
I was talking to my mom this weekend because I’ve been working on a memoir about my adoptive journey to date and I need to include some pieces on my parents and their journey to adopt me. It would be nice to say that international adoption is the pinnacle of the “model minority myth” — we were “saved” or “rescued” by white, Caucasian families from fates that we couldn’t imagine, given resources and opportunities that we didn’t deserve and couldn’t have received in our native countries, given the chance to grow up in wealthy neighborhoods with more access to educational, travel, extracurricular, etc. experiences than we ever could’ve imagined elsewhere.
In many ways, this is TRUE of my story, and I am beyond grateful for it.
I fully accept that I was given a new chance at a bright, well-resourced, well-educated, privileged future because of my adoption. However, there are layers to this as well, and I’m trying to wrap my head around it all the time.
For example, the truth also is that I was born in a country that completely rejected me and tried to get rid of and abandon me — this is also true of the Chinese adoptee story. China had an infamous One-Child Policy for decades, where likely my birthparents felt economic, social and political pressure to have a baby boy instead of a girl because they were only allowed to have one child and the son would be able to carry on the family name and take care of them financially when they were older. As a result, China has faced, still faces and will continue to face a highly sex-skewed population and uneven population demographics, with many more elderly than are able to be provided for well by their families or communities. THIS is a part of my history and it’s sad to me.
I’ve also felt disconnected from my cultural heritage and the nation of my birth. I don’t have family who share that heritage; I don’t have a grandma to tell me stories from the Cultural Revolution or aunties to make dumplings and noodles with. I have always felt drawn to people who look like me, but I always feel a bit disconnected because our family histories are different even though we look the same.
That sort of disconnect is unique to my Asian American adoptee experience; definitely uncharacteristic of a “model minority myth” that draws upon Asian ideals like filial piety or tight-knit family structure as one cause of “success” — I do have a tight-knit family but it has absolutely nothing to do with Asian cultural values.
I don’t have a clear way to move forward from the “model minority myth” entrapment, for either Asian Americans in general or Asian American adoptees; those books may be more helpful in doing so. I do have encouragement though, as I’ve continued to think through my own story.
I am trying to understand more of the Asian American experience in the US, because another truth is that it is not any less my story than another Chinese American girl’s who grew up in the US to Chinese parents. Whether or not I have a grandma to tell me stories of her childhood in China or the US, I come from a certain group of people with a certain history, both in China and in the US. I can learn both about a Chinese American history and a European American history — because technically I have pieces in both — no one is to say my dad’s family’s German background isn’t also “mine.” My first steps are to recognize and dismantle aspects of a myth that labels and boxes me into “belonging” in a certain way. Asian Americans have many times throughout US history stood on the side of racial justice instead of accepting that for whatever reason, some of them could reap benefits of white privilege. The dark side to that is that I also need to recognize that my Caucasian family has reaped enormous benefits of whiteness and I’m right in the middle of that as well.
There are layers upon layers of things to consider here, but that’s part of the point. Asian Americans can and never should allow ourselves to be “boxed into” a certain way of either conceptualizing ourselves or allowing others to conceptualize us. We have always, individually and collectively, been much more complex than that. The “model minority myth” is way too simplistic, if it intends to categorize and lump us into a subgroup of success, discipline, quietness and wealth — all seemingly great things, that we worked really hard to achieve. Why would we ever let those things pit us against racial justice and against the ongoing fight for racial equality and against systemic injustice?
I was granted privileges that I never deserved, to grow up in a nation and a family where I can say what I want, worship who I want, believe whatever I want, talk about it, choose whatever career I want, etc. With those resources and opportunities, I think, and the gift of growing up in the US, comes further responsibility as well. As Asian Americans, we are Americans, so we too inherit a responsibility, not only to ourselves but to the well-being of others. MLK Jr. once said that “one cannot be free until we all are free,” and that comes with being an American too.