Tugging at a Few Threads of Truth Behind the Model Minority Myth

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, AAV Contributing Editor

In sixth grade, I was shocked to learn that my good friend, Julia Martinez, was rewarded for every grade on her report card: $20 for every A, $10 for every B, $5 for every C. Rewarded for a C! I was admonished if I brought home an A-minus, punished if I brought home a B-plus.

I did some quick calculations and with back-pay and interest, that added up to hundreds of dollars, easy!


What Other Villagers Said

What value was placed on higher education by your family elders vs. other pursuits – say, happiness, love, money?

Top  – 52.63%
High – 42.11%
Medium – 0%
Low – 5.26%

When I asked my mom about it, though, she just laughed. There was no way she was going to pay me for good grades. I was just supposed to get good grades. That was my job. Period.

Luckily, I liked studying and learning new things, and good grades came easily to me. However, even before I’d heard the coinage “model minority,” I knew there was something different about my family’s attitude toward education, and it became another one of those things I never talked about with others at school, like the fact that we spoke Chinese at home or that we ate weird things like duck’s feet.

I also knew that good grades were not very cool with the other kids, so I always lied about my grades.

“What did you get on your report card? Straight A’s, I bet.”

“No,” I’d reply with a dejected sigh. “I just did all right.”

If you do a search on the Internet on “Asian American” and “education,” you find a host of sites and articles screaming, “Busting the Model Minority Myth.” I agree that it is good to break stereotypes and it is important to help Asian Americans who need more educational support, but sometimes people go too far. I remember one of the first articles I ever read on this topic, many years ago, by a C-average college student who, in Bart Simpson manner, was obnoxiously proud of being an uninspired student and enjoyed torturing her parents with it. She thought it made her better than those quiet model minority geeks.

Stereotypes aside, education is an important value in many Asian cultures. And being well-educated is a good thing, not cause for embarrassment.

In some of our cultures, the value of education comes from a Confucian heritage, which puts scholars at the top of the social hierarchy and reveres teachers. Confucius’ birthday is celebrated on September 28 in Taiwan with a national holiday called Teachers’ Day, with ceremonies, dances, and presents for teachers. Confucius is revered as the first teacher, one who advocated education for all—a radical concept in his time.

In many of our families, education is valued because our parents are educated themselves. Many Asian immigrants first come to America for graduate education and so hold advanced degrees; others would not have been allowed into America without their advanced degrees or medical training. Because of language difficulties, it was easier for those trained in math, science, computers, and medicine to succeed here.

Ah, I see the beginnings of the model minority myth…

In many other families, education is seen as a way out of the hard work and poverty whence spring the parents, or as a means of providing better lives for their children. We’ve all heard stories of parents sacrificing everything to send their children to the best schools. My dad was so impressed by a Japanese-American neighbor who worked in a nursery all his life and still drives a rusty old pick-up truck while his three daughters attended private schools and drove Mercedes Benzes.

But I never really thought about the lengths I would go to in the name of education until I had my own children.

All of a sudden all I could see were cartoon heroes who were average or underachieving students—Bart Simpson, Recess, even Arthur. I was horrified by conversations with Caucasian American parents who wanted to hold their children back a grade because their birthday was just before the cutoff (whereas I was trying to find a way to push my daughter a grade ahead because her birthday was just after the cutoff), who criticized other parents for teaching their kindergartners multiplication (whereas I was impressed and inspired), or who said things like, “They need to have a life” (they are children—learning new things is their life). I became concerned that my children might feel ashamed of being bright or that I would have to hide my ambition for them. I felt like I have to be on guard against American culture’s devaluing of education.

Not that I would want a totally Asian education either, which emphasizes rote memorization and conformity. I want them to learn art and music, leadership and creativity, to ask questions and to think outside of the box, but I want them to have a firm foundation in math and science, too. I want them to have the best of both approaches to education, but not so much in terms of content as attitude. I do not want them to be satisfied with passing, but to always strive for excellence.

When we were house-hunting, I researched all the schools first, public and private. I knew all the test scores, the ethnic breakdowns, the test scores by ethnic breakdown, stories and rumors about the teachers and the atmosphere. I finally decided on the school that had both the highest test scores and the highest concentration of Asian-American children—30 percent, as opposed to the city’s average 9 percent. On the one hand, I feel it is important for my kids to grow up surrounded by other Asian Americans so they do not feel like minorities (or freaks). But as an added benefit, I figured that since most Asian-American parents in my town are immigrants who first came here for graduate school, most of them are going to be pushing their kids hard, especially in math and science. Those are the friends I want my kids to have.

I was a little embarrassed about being so hard core, until I talked to other Asian-American parents and discovered that I was not alone. Many Asian Americans try to buy homes in this area, and if they cannot afford a house, then they move into an apartment. I do not know if I would go that far. But one friend of mine just moved out of a new 2000 square foot, 4 bedroom tract home, and into University of Michigan family housing just so that her children could go to a slightly better public school.

In California, Asian Americans are also concentrated by good school districts: Cupertino, Saratoga, Monterey Park are all at least 50 percent APA. Asian shopping malls sprout up in the surrounding area, after-school tutoring centers are de rigueur, and housing prices rise exponentially.

I start salivating at the thought of it and try to figure out how I could possibly afford to buy a house in those incredibly expensive areas. But then I hear stories about how some Caucasian parents are moving out of those school districts because they feel the Asian-American kids are pushing the curve up too high and their children cannot compete.

Moving away because a school is too good? That sounds almost as crazy, as alien to me as paying a child for a C on her report card.

There is some huge culture gap here that I am just not getting.

Even as I write I am aware of the many generalizations, the spoken and unspoken stereotypes, lurking beneath this surface. I am aware that in speaking of education as an “Asian family value,” I risk appearing to imply that rigorous educational attainment could not also be an African-American, Hispanic-American, Greek-American, Native American, or Irish-American family value as well.

While this is not my intention, I also want to stake a claim for Asian-American education values as being a special if not unique legacy of our Asian heritages. Claiming this at a time of deep teacher shortages and poor public school performance in a country that can be rabidly anti-intellectual is worthy, perhaps necessary.

In the strict sense of maximizing our education, the “Model Minority” may be one stereotype that we—and Americans of any ethnicity—should not only accept, but might do well to embrace.


Related Readings

  • School Daze- The Smart Asian Syndrome
    By Gil Asakawa, Nikkei View
    Aren’t we all supposed to be smart, especially in math and science?
  • AAV Education Special: September 2001 Back-to-School Edition
  • IMD Education Special: Diversity in Education – Where We Are


Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is currently an acting editor for IMDiversity.com’s Asian-American Village, where she writes most frequently on culture, family, arts, and lifestyles topics. Her articles have appeared in Pacific Citizen, Asian Reader, Nikkei West, Sampan, Mavin, Eurasian Nation, and various Families with Children from China publications. She has also worked in anthropology and international development in Nepal, and in nonprofits and small business start-ups in the US. She is also the Outreach Coordinator of the Ann Arbor Chinese Center of Michigan and a much sought public speaker. She has four children. She can be reached at fkwang@aol.com.

IMDiversity.com is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.