|Model Minority Myth Seen as Driving Some Youths to Suicide|
This article is notable as one of the earliest mainstream media reports of the pernicious effects of the model minority stereotype.
By Joan E. Rigdon
The Wall Street Journal
July 10, 1991
At age 17, Kio T. Konno seemed to fit the stereotype perfectly. Hard-charging, industrious and bright, she was destined for stardom, like so many of her Asian-American "whiz kid" peers.
A senior at this city's prestigious Lowell High School, she pulled a B-plus average, spoke fluent Japanese and snagged national swimming awards. Her Japanese parents cared so much about her education that they moved closer to the school to ease her commute. Brown University was actively recruiting her.
But last October, a week before her 18th birthday, Miss Konno walked into her closet and hanged herself.
High ExpectationsMiss Konno's tragic fate is becoming all too common. Suicide rates among Asian-American teen-agers have risen as much as threefold over the past two decades. A 1989 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that the suicide rate among Chinese-Americans 15 to 24 years old was 36% higher than the national average among that age group. The rate for Japanese-Americans was 54% higher.
The number of Asian-American youths who kill themselves is quite small, of course, but it is the most dramatic evidence of a more widespread emotional distress. "The problem is much more pervasive than many of us think," says Leland Yee, a psychologist who sits on the San Francisco school board. "If you're an Asian who's alive, eating and breathing, you're expected to be a genius. It's not unusual for Asian kids to have nervous breakdowns."
Asian-American youths face many pressures that children of other immigrants don't Many are even born with names that translate to lofty titles such as "Treasure of China" or "Universal Versatility." Many grow up with the burden of carrying on the legacy of their entire ancestry, not to mention the wishes of their immediate families. In school, they are saddled with the "Model-Minority" myth, which says that Asians are bound to excel at whatever they do. Thinking this way, many educators expect Asians to overcome academic and emotional difficulties without help from special programs available to members of other minority groups. Meanwhile, students of other races, goaded to do as well as those of the Model Minority, resent Asians.
Success StoryAsian youths of the U.S. are, in fact, a tremendous success story. They are vastly overrepresented, for instance, in the Ivy Leagues and in prestigious contests such as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. But not all of America's approximately three million Asian-Americans under age 25 fit this mold. Asian youth gangs have emerged as a major criminal force in California and New Youk. Almost 10% of juveniles in detention or on probation in San Francisco are Asian, up from 5.7% in 1988. (Asians are about 30% of San Francisco's population.)
Some talented Asians graduate from high school with top honors, only to flunk out in college. David Rue, a psychiatrist at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, says he sees many cases like these: an Ivy League man who slit his wrists after failing three classes in one semester, and a 16-year-old high-school valedictorian who went on welfare in college and then tried to kill herself to escape her parents' control.
Asian parental pressure for academic success dates back to the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, who influenced other Asian countries with his teaching that the scholar sits at the apex of social hierarchy. Under this philosophy, education is the only route to success.
The result: Some Asian-American parents choke off their children's social lives while expecting nothing less than stellar academic performance. Even star students come under scrutiny. One 17-year-old Korean-American high-school student in suburban Los Angeles was allegedly beaten in May by her father because her A-minus grade-point average fell short of his hopes for straight A's. He has pleaded innocent to felony child abuse.
That case is extreme. More typically, the pressure is subtle, and often unintended. Consider Anthony Shong-yu Chow, a 22-year-old psychology student at San Francisco State University. Mr. Chow's father, who has a doctorate in chemistry, and his mother, who has a master's degree in botany, abandoned academic careers to start a Chinese restaurant to make more money. They eventually set aside some profits to pay for college for Mr. Chow and his older brother. The sons weren't expected to work regularly in the restaurant because school was more important.
Their father, Chak Yan Chow, moved to the U.S. in 1958 at the age of 21. He says he misses his chemistry career, but it is his duty to provide the best education possible for his children. Paraphrasing Confucius, he says, "If a youngster isn't well educated, the parent is to blame."
The younger Mr. Chow is grateful, but he feels guilty. "They say they want you to be happy," he says. "But they also say, 'I'm working for you. I'm sacrificing for you.' Their happiness is us doing well."
Asians suffer many of the same problems that have always faced American-born children of immigrants. They must straddle two cultures. Sometimes that means going to language school to study their parents' native tongue every day after regular school or being pressed into service as translators for their parents. But even here, some Asian-Americans have a special problem: They feel torn between the American emphasis on individuality and the Asian concern with family harmony.
They are expected to shine academically, but once they do, they aren't free to choose their own life paths. For instance, when Lina Han, a Korean-American, graduated from Yale this spring, she planned to move to San Francisco with her non-Korean boyfriend and work for a few years before studying to become a liberal arts professor. But "my mother put her foot down, " Ms. Han says. Her mother, who lives near Cleveland, urged her to break up with her boyfriend and go straight to medical school. For Asian parents, many of whom are scientists because a 1965 change in immigration laws barred the entry of most others from Asia, the science field promises financial security, prestige and less discrimination.
When the 22-year-old Ms. Han balked, she says, she and her mother got into terrific screaming matches. The rebellion was out of line with Korean tradition. "Our parents grew up in households where they would bow their head when giving dinner to their fathers and then walk backwards out of the room so they would never turn their back on them," Ms. Han says.
During the fights, Ms. Han's mother became bedridden with a previously diagnosed heart condition. "I felt very responsible. It came to the point where I had to make a compromise," Ms. Han says. The truce: Ms. Han is breaking up with her boyfriend and will work at a law firm in New York for a few years before going back to school. But she won't go to medical school. Instead, she will study law, which satisfies both her mother's concerns about prestigious work and her own preference for liberal arts.
Lina's mother, Jane Han, says she appreciated the compromise. "I cried with her a lot," she says. "I told her thank you a number of times.....
"When I was Lina's age," she says, "I had my own ideas, my own hopes and my own dreams. But they didn't mean much because I just followed what my parents told me to do." Mrs. Han says she went back to school six years ago partly to understand America -- and its children -- better. "I know I'm in a different generation here," she says. "I'm still trying to accept the fact that I'm in a different world." One change: She agreed to allow her younger children to attend their high school proms. But she says she's not willing to budge on issues concerning education and interracial marriage.
Says Dr. Yee, the San Francisco psychologist: "You have to understand that the primary identity is always family. It's as if they say, 'We'll give you a leash and it can be as long as you want. But you always have to know who the master is.'"
Society adds more stress by stereotyping Asians. Even though Asian encompasses countries as different as high-tech Japan and rural Cambodia, many people expect Asians to be the same: shy, brainy nerds who are especially good at math.
The nerd perception prompts some teachers to grade Asian students more easily and misinterpret their confusion as deep thought or timidity. In some cases, teachers refuse to call on Asian students in class, figuring they know all the answers anyway. "I got away with a lot," says Ms. Han of Yale. In high school, "My teachers singled me out and treated me with kid gloves. In their eyes I couldn't make any mistakes -- even if I did," she says. She recalls teachers "fudging" her grades to give her the benefit of the doubt on quizzes. "My work got less rigorous attention," she says.
Ming Leung, a 27-year-old Chinese-American project manager for the San Francisco-based Asian American Health Forum, recalls being the butt of the math stereotype in numerous settings. In high school, his counselor tried to get him to study chemistry and physics instead of government and psychology. When he went out to eat with friends and the bill arrived, he was often nominated to figure out who owed what. And at an officers' election for a school committee in San Diego, Mr. Leung cringed when the chairwoman suggested that an Asian volunteer for the post of treasurer for "convenience's sake."
The stereotype comes wrapped in resentment. In high school and college, Mr. Leung endured several acerbic remarks about Asians. "People used to say that there's a correlation between the grading curve and the slant of the eye," he says.
Other Asian-Americans recall similar treatment. Says Sang Do Bae, an 18-year-old Korean-American biology major at Cornell University: "Whenever I scored in the 80s, there was always someone saying, 'Oh, you mean you didn't beat the A-minus mean?'"
The stereotypes "pit one group against another," says Bernard Wong, an anthropology professor at San Francisco State University. "And it's being used as an excuse not to give help to Asians when they need it." He adds: "I've sat on committees when they say, 'Oh, you don't need any help. You're the model minority group.'"
What can make all this especially difficult for Asian-American youths is that they are generally less likely to seek professional psychological help than others. "Asians aren't accustomed to venturing to ask for help outside," say Sookyung Chang, a Korean-American psychologist in Los Angeles. In Korea, for instance, people seek counseling only when they have a mental breakdown. In China, there is no word for mental illness. Says Mr. Leung: "You're not supposed to tell people your personal business."Quote this article on your site
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