Notes of a Native Tiger Son, Part 1


by Oliver Wang

Don't worry. [1] This isn't a post about Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother ... not exactly. For one thing, Julianne Hing thoughtfully explored that ground last week and I have no interest in revisiting the arguments of the book.

For another, like most of you, I'm completely over debating the parental philosophies espoused in Chua's book and at this point, but more interested in exploring the overwhelming reception that's followed it.

Before I get there, let me lead with this:

It's a weird time to be Asian-American.[2]

Up until recently, we've had to contend with being a relatively invisible part of American mass media and popular culture. One could argue that there's a demographic logic to that—we're a fairly small minority—but the problem is that what "visibility" we did attain, was almost never on our terms.[3] As a result, throughout my childhood—and most of my adulthood—we mostly contended with a slim parade of different, sometimes contradictory, caricatures: lotus blossoms and dragon ladies, math nerds and martial artists, refugees and gang-bangers. Ad nauseum.

The most pervasive—and arguably pernicious—of these stereotypes was the Model Minority Myth. Forgive the brief history lesson here but it's relevant to where I'm trying to go:

The MMM basically suggests that Asian Americans are the ideal, assimilation-focused, education-geared, upwardly mobile, ethnic group. There is a historical basis for this gross over-generalization: the Immigration Act of 1965, partially responding to the pressures of the Cold War/Space Race, didn't just abolish racial quotas, it also created preference categories for science, math and engineering-trained immigrants to come over. That included my parents—especially my father, then pursuing graduate work in mathematics and statistics—as well as tens of thousands of other well-educated immigrants from places such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, the Philippines and India ... countries which were producing a surplus of college-educated adults but lacked a sufficiently developed domestic economy to adequately absorb them.[4] The 1965 Immigration Act, in trying to bolster America's own domestic needs, inadvertently helped absorb that surplus.

Not only did this massive wave of post-1965 immigrants change the demographic composition of Asian America, it also influenced the American perception that Asians were somehow naturally gifted in math and science because there was a disproportionate number of immigrants coming from Asia with those skills. What was lost was the knowledge of the specific social/legislative/political forces that gave science-minded immigrants a fast lane to a green card. If, instead, the U.S. had built in preference categories for dancers and sculptors, I'd wager the long-standing American stereotype of Asians might be that we're all good on our feet and with our hands.

The Myth worsened when it reverberated back into parts of our community. Since being good in math and science proved a boon to our parents, they, in turn, figured it'd be good for their kids. Combine that with a middle class immigrant's aspirational drive and those are some of the forces that resulted in what seemed like a generation of Asian "whiz kids" popping up by the 1980s.

You could call it a case of a "self-fulfilling stereotype" except that it hardly applied to Asians across the board. "Model Minority Asians" always were a narrow band in a larger spectrum and the contrast could be quite stark: different Asian American ethnic groups are among both the most likely to go to college and the least likely, for example. Moreover, those expectations have exacted a heavy toll on my generation, including high rates of suicide, particular amongst college-aged women.

Ok ... so this all provides some context for what it's been like to be young (under 40) and Asian-American over the course of the '90s and 20-aughts. For those of us disinterested in fulfilling the MMM's precepts, it meant trying to fight off the perception of both society-at-large and often times, our own families, that our predestined path was to be over-educated, over-achieving robots. And lo and behold, over the course of the '00s, you began to see the striking emergence of Asian Americans into pop culture who've begun to reshape "who we are" and "who we can be."

I don't know how to write this without making it sound like I'm spreading things a bit thick but seriously, it's been a big frickin' deal to see such changes as the Asian American casting for network hits like Lost , Glee or Hawaii 5-0[5], the breakout musical success of Bruno Mars or Far East Movement, our domination of [Asian] America's Best Dance Crew or how we're running the YouTube game. Heck, we might even get our very own Jersey Shore.[6]

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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