A Bill Moyers Special - Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

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Challenging the Stereotype

"This whole notion of model minority is a fantasy that Chinese Americans didn't create."

by Helen Zia

Throughout American history, the image of Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans has veered from positive to negative and back again. Too often, these images have been grounded in stereotypes. The most recent stereotype to emerge is that Asian Americans as a whole are a "model minority", achieving success in record numbers due to some inherent cultural characteristics. The stereotype is a myth. While sociologists and others have observed that Chinese Americans are more likely than other Americans to have gone to college, to have advanced educational degrees and to have low rates of divorce, alcoholism and imprisonment, the stereotype assumes that these statistics hold true for any individual Chinese or Asian American. It does not account for the complexity of the Chinese American immigrant experience. For many years, only merchants and students - educated and relatively affluent - were allowed to come to America in significant numbers. Today's wave of immigrants range from the highly educated to the poor and unskilled, many of whom find themselves in difficult jobs with low pay and little advancement. Like other groups of Americans, the Chinese American community is not a single community; it is many. Some individuals are highly successful while others still struggle at the margins of American life. Helen Zia, author of Asian American Dreams, explores how this stereotype evolved and how it is damaging.

The whole concept of model minority is so laden with all of the social and political meanings that came out of its creation. It only emerged in 1966 in the middle of the civil rights era, after World War II, after the Korean War, after this new involvement in Vietnam, suddenly this enemy was being treated as though we were the good minority. We were the quiet minority. We were the ones who would work quietly just for our own advancement without accepting a welfare check. That's what the newspapers and magazines at that time said. The whole notion of model minority was a social and political construct to place Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans in complete contradiction and conflict with African Americans and the civil rights movement.

At the time, it was a creation; it was a fiction. Certainly, there are examples of Chinese American science winners and kids who come with nothing. In my own family, we were children of immigrants and could go on to college and try to make something of ourselves. But that doesn't capture the complexity of who we are. Supposedly we are the minority that doesn't have any problems, the minority that doesn't ever need to speak up about anything, the minority that has the road paved in gold ahead of us. That's simply not true at all.