News / Asia

Chinese Americans: Don’t Call Us 'Model Minority'

People watch the 14th Annual Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade, New York, Feb. 17, 2013.
People watch the 14th Annual Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade, New York, Feb. 17, 2013.

This is part one of a three-part series on U.S. public attitudes toward Chinese Americans. For more on this series, please click here.

What is a 'model minority'?
 
In the last major U.S. survey of attitudes about Chinese Americans, a 2009 report said their fellow Americans viewed them as "educated, having strong family values and [being] hardworking, intellectually bright and committing less crime than other ethnic groups."

Chinese American Student Association members at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New YorkChinese American Student Association members at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York
x
Chinese American Student Association members at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York
Chinese American Student Association members at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York

The opinion poll by the Committee of 100, a New York-based organization of prominent Chinese Americans, also said 57 percent of those surveyed believed Asian Americans "often or always achieve a higher degree of overall success than other Americans."  It said those perceptions were unchanged from a 2001 poll.

A more recent study of Asian American consumers collectively described them as "affluent, well-educated, geographically concentrated and technologically savvy."

The December report by Nielsen, a U.S. market research firm, called Asian American consumers a "powerful economic force that can represent significant growth opportunities for the nation’s businesses."

These flattering characterizations are a major factor behind stereotyping Chinese Americans as a "model minority” group.

But there is more.

Charles Gallagher, a sociology professor at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, says white Americans typically see themselves as embodying the same values as Chinese and other Asian Americans. He says whites, who make up about three-quarters of the population, also feel an affinity with Chinese Americans because both have lighter skin relative to African Americans and other minorities.

 
"Whites and Asians cluster together," Gallagher says. "Since they regard each other as alike, they want to share 'social space' by living in a neighborhood, going to school, riding the bus or working together."

In a 2012 study, the Pew Research Center asked Chinese Americans how their community gets along with white Americans.  It reported that 69 percent of respondents said "pretty well," and an additional 17 percent said "very well."

Gallagher says whites and Chinese Americans also are predisposed to gravitate to each other when it comes to romance. The Pew survey estimated that 26 percent of Chinese American newlyweds in the years 2008 to 2010 married a non-Asian American.

Taipei native Catherine Judson (née Chang) and Virginian Mark Judson at their wedding in Virginia, October 2013Taipei native Catherine Judson (née Chang) and Virginian Mark Judson at their wedding in Virginia, October 2013
x
Taipei native Catherine Judson (née Chang) and Virginian Mark Judson at their wedding in Virginia, October 2013
Taipei native Catherine Judson (née Chang) and Virginian Mark Judson at their wedding in Virginia, October 2013

​"Chinese Americans marry out at a very high rate, and when they marry, they marry into the dominant ethnic group," Gallagher says.
 
The acceptance of Chinese Americans in contemporary U.S. society contrasts sharply with American attitudes toward the first Chinese immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
 

History of discrimination

Error rendering Timeline.

The first significant immigration from China to the United States began in the mid-19th century, when Chinese laborers came to the American West to build the transcontinental railroad and work in other industries, such as mining and agriculture.

Despite those contributions to the economy, many white Americans viewed the Chinese as competitors and racial inferiors.

William Wei, a history professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, says Chinese workers suffered exploitation and violence at the hands of whites, who forced the migrants to live in ghettos and pursue low-skilled occupations such as laundry and restaurant work.

 
"Chinese Americans were condemned as social pariahs incapable of ever becoming culturally assimilated into American society," Wei says.
 
Those attitudes culminated in the U.S. government adopting the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese people from migrating to the United States and becoming citizens. It was the first and only U.S. law to ban a specific ethnic group.

A Chinese immigrant is interrogated at a detention center on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, Calif., in the 1920's. (AP Photo)A Chinese immigrant is interrogated at a detention center on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, Calif., in the 1920's. (AP Photo)
x
A Chinese immigrant is interrogated at a detention center on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, Calif., in the 1920's. (AP Photo)
A Chinese immigrant is interrogated at a detention center on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, Calif., in the 1920's. (AP Photo)

The United States made the ban permanent in 1902. When China became an American ally in fighting imperial Japan during World War II, Washington passed another law repealing the immigration ban.

The 1943 law established quotas that initially permitted only 105 Chinese migrants per year. In 1965, Washington abolished the quota system with the Immigration and Nationality Act, ending an eight-decade barrier to Chinese immigration.
 
Valuing education
 
Frank H. Wu, chancellor of the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, says the selective nature of Chinese immigration to the United States in the initial post-war decades is one reason why Chinese Americans have gained a reputation as highly educated.

 
"The Chinese people who were able to immigrate were talented, they were students on scholarships, they were people who had great potential," Wu says. 

"Both of my parents came from China via Taiwan to the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s because they won scholarships," he says. "They represented the 'cream of the crop.' So some of this [reputation] is what happens when you take the most educated, most promising young people of China and invite them here."

Four Chinese American girls carrying ice skates in Chinatown, New York City (April 27, 1965)Four Chinese American girls carrying ice skates in Chinatown, New York City (April 27, 1965)
x
Four Chinese American girls carrying ice skates in Chinatown, New York City (April 27, 1965)
Four Chinese American girls carrying ice skates in Chinatown, New York City (April 27, 1965)

Wu, who blogs about Asian American issues for the Huffington Post, says even after U.S. immigration laws were relaxed in 1965, the new wave of Chinese migrants continued to have high rates of college attendance.

"So there is truth to this notion that Asian Americans value higher education," Wu says.

 

Asian Americans – foreign and U.S.-born – number at least 18.3 million, accounting for almost 6 percent of the U.S. population as of 2012, according to the Census Bureau. That’s up from less than 1 percent in the 1960s.

The nation's 3.7 million Chinese Americans have led the modern immigration wave from Asia for the past 60 years.

Wu says some Chinese Americans take pride in being seen as a "model minority."

"They proclaim that they are 'tiger mothers,' " who impose traditional strict parenting on their children, "and call on others to follow their lead," he says.

But, Wu says his community should not embrace an image that also tends to contain resentment.

Drawbacks of a ‘positive’ stereotype

"Imagine someone standing up and saying, 'my race is better, you should be like me,’ " Wu says. "In a diverse democracy like the United States, I can't think of a worse way to invite other kids to beat your kids up than to say, 'yes, we really are the model minority.' "

LaSalle University's Gallagher says the idea that Chinese Americans are overachievers also creates problems for those who do not live up to that image.
 
"When an Asian kid enters my class, some students will think, is he going to be good in math? That is true for a subset of the Asian population, but it is not true for everyone that is Chinese or Asian American. So what happens if you are a Chinese American and you don't do well in school?"

He says people may wonder, "Are you not Chinese?"

Helen Zia, a Chinese American former journalist and author of Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, says the "model minority" stereotype has another harmful consequence for less fortunate ethnic Chinese citizens.

"It leads American policymakers to think they do not need to worry about the health problems or poverty of Asian Americans, because we are seen as so diligent that we will overcome everything on our own," Zia says.

Other impacts of the ‘model’ image

Historian Wei says the stereotype also is damaging to non-Asian minorities in the United States.

"Some Americans say: ‘Look what we did to the Chinese. We discriminated against them, committed violence against them, excluded them from the country, yet they still have achieved (success). Therefore, if your minority has not succeeded in our land of opportunity, it is clearly your fault.' "

Wei says such thinking leads people to blame racial prejudice and discrimination on the victims themselves, rather than the perpetrators.

Zia says the notion that Chinese Americans can overcome adversity feeds into another key stereotype of the community: that ethnic Chinese U.S. citizens are "foreigners" with sinister intent.

"If we are perceived as being able to endure everything, it also means that we can be perceived as being able to take over everything," she says.

Timeline and graphics by Idrees Ali. Additional research by Haleema Shah.


Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

You May Like

Australia-Cambodia Resettlement Agreement Raises Concerns

Agreement calls for Cambodia to accept refugees in return for $35 million in aid and reflects Australia’s harder line approach towards asylum seekers and refugees More

India Looks to Become Arms Supplier Instead of Buyer

US hopes India can become alternative to China for countries looking to buy weapons, but experts question growth potential of Indian arms industry More

Earth Day Concert, Rally Draws Thousands in Washington

President Obama also took up the issue Saturday in his weekly address, saying there 'no greater threat to our planet than climate change' More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?i
X
Steve Sandford
April 17, 2015 12:50 AM
Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Sierra Leone President Koroma Bemoans Ebola Impact on Economy

In an interview with VOA's Shaka Ssali on Wednesday, President Ernest Koroma said the outbreak undermined his government’s efforts to boost and restructure the economy after years of civil war.
Video

Video Protester Lands Gyrocopter on Capitol Lawn

A 61-year-old mailman from Florida landed a small aircraft on the Capitol lawn in Washington to bring attention to campaign finance reform and what he says is government corruption. Wednesday's incident was one in a string of security breaches on U.S. government property. Zlatica Hoke reports the gyrocopter landing violated a no-fly zone.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.
Video

Video Sidemen to Famous Blues Artists Record Their Own CD

Legendary blues singer BB King was briefly hospitalized last week and the 87-year-old “King of the Blues” may not be touring much anymore. But some of the musicians who have played with him and other blues legends have now released their own CD in an attempt to pass the torch to younger fans... and put their own talents out front as well. VOA’s Greg Flakus has followed this project over the past year and filed this report from Houston.
Video

Video Iran-Saudi Rivalry Is Stoking Conflict in Yemen

Iran has proposed a peace plan to end the conflict in Yemen, but the idea has received little support from regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. They accuse Tehran of backing the Houthi rebels, who have forced Yemen’s president to flee to Riyadh, and have taken over swaths of Yemen. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA, analysts say the conflict is being fueled by the Sunni-Shia rivalry between the two regional powers.

VOA Blogs