Growing up, I remember my mom saying, “In China, school is rote memorization. The kids do better on tests, but American schools teach creativity”. Her words echoed a larger sentiment perpetuated by western media onto Asian American students themselves. An example of where this emerges is an controversial article published by Maclean’s, initially titled Too Asian: Some frosh don’t want to study at an Asian university. Although readers are assured that “”Too Asian” is not about racism”, Maclean’s characterizes Asians at University of Toronto as too competitive, not socially adept, insular and segregated, thus rendering University of Toronto unpalatable to white students.
Beyond merely propagating the model minority myth, Maclean’s article is symptomatic of larger discourse on Asian Americans, Asian-ness, and achievement. Orienting Asian Americans as too robotic, socially inept, and pressured by their parents to stay ahead academically, a construction of Asians (and therefore, Asian Americans) as abusing their neoliberal freedoms emerges through both white media discourses surrounding universities and college admissions, as well as through internalized racism in Asian Americans themselves. In this blog post, I work through personal experiences and media articles in order to examine what purpose this rhetoric serves.
In high school, I remember being told by white friends several times that of course I got an A on the test – I’m Asian. My high scores were expected and the norm, while theirs merited hearty congratulations. At the same time, the Asian-ness that had apparently won me A’s was also something to be hidden. The Asian American students (and there weren’t many, in my high school) talked about being less Asian, both in an attempt to be accepted by our white peers, and colleges. Instead, they wanted to be cool, popular, well-rounded, and extroverted – all apparently antithetical to ‘Asian-ness’. They didn’t want to develop a friend group that was ‘too Asian’, and felt heavy pressure to break out of the Asian stereotype.
Mean Girls, 2004.
A Boston Globe article extends this rhetoric to college admissions. “Appear less Asian”, in order to get into top universities, college counselors say to Asian Americans. The article emphasizes leaving off badminton and highlighting musical theater and avoiding essays on their immigrant families. ‘Asian-ness’ in this discourse is simultaneously the reason for the success of Asian American students as well as their downfall. While the article seems to be under the guise of assisting Asian Americans on college admissions, it capitalizes on racist, stereotype-reinforcing rhetoric, from equating most Asian American students as “grade grubbers”, to positing Chow’s family as exceptional for embracing liberal arts, to highlighting that Asian Americans don’t refer their friends to college consulting firms for fear of competition. Asian Americans are casted as perpetual foreigners, bringing their ‘too Asian’ ways to college admissions. Civilization centering is prevalent in this discourse, with ‘uneducated’ Hispanics and African Americans at one end, and ‘too-educated’ Asian Americans at the other, in order to center whites as optimal and the norm.
In both the Boston Globe and Macleans article, the rhetoric on Asian Americans often serves another, more insidious purpose – a way for white media to attack affirmative action laws in the guise of ‘fairness’ for Asian Americans. While attacking affirmative action for whites is more easily coded as problematic, doing so for Asians is far more acceptable. George Leef of Newsweek weaponizes the discourse of high-achieving Asian Americans being ‘wrongfully’ denied acceptance to top colleges, arguing that admitting students from minority groups weakens universities and does nothing for the learning environments.
As with all stereotypes, ‘Asian’ is limiting and confusing. Asians are smart due to their ethnicity, but only in rote memorization and repetition, and thus not smart in the right ways. Asians are socially inept, introverted and lack extracurricular participation – except when they’re outgoing and participatory in the wrong ways, with too many Asian friends and Asian hobbies. The high scores of Asians are due to their over-involved, competitive parents except in the discourses of affirmative action – then, these students are smart individuals whose hard efforts merit them a spot at top colleges. While neo-liberalism touts individuality, it renders Asians as the perpetrators of ‘segregated’ Asian communities rather than merely partaking in their own culture and making friends with common backgrounds, and ignores insular white communities. The idea of ‘Asian-ness’ regulates how individuals perform their Asian identity, and task Asian Americans with ‘breaking out of the stereotype’ in order to be worthy Americans. These ideas have real, material consequences, with college admissions on the line. This rhetoric on Asians centers whiteness in order to quell burgeoning fears of Asian nations as economic superpowers.