Continuing Significance of the Model Minority Myth: The Second Generation

Article excerpt

IMMIGRANT LIFE IS UNDERSTOOD AS CONSISTING OF CONSTANT DOUBT AND JUSTIFICATION of one's presence in a foreign land (see Yoon, 1997). Interviews with the children of immigrants indicate that this insecurity does not end with the immigrant generation. For the second generation, their life consists of constant doubt and justification of their reasons for being in, not a foreign land, but their own land. As part of a larger study of second-generation Asian Americans, I interviewed 88 Chinese and Korean American children of immigrants. One of the more remarkable patterns garnered from these interviews with high school and college-age young adults was how strikingly similar each of their responses were in describing their family's migration experience. Regardless of whether they were Chinese American or Korean American, middle-class, working-class, or upper-middle-class, lived in Chicago, Illinois, or Santa Clara, California, every respondent told essentially the same story of migration. In addition, neither their variation in age during migration, gender, nor birth order had any impact on the basic foundation of their narratives of why and how they arrived in the United States. I was puzzled as to how this could happen. How could the differences in race, class, and region--not to mention the history, culture, and global relationship of China and Korea as two entirely separate countries--not influence these children's retelling of such a seminal familial event?

The respondents shared two basic characteristics in their immigration narrative. First, the children knew very little about the actual experience of their parents' decision to emigrate and their experiences upon arrival. Second, what little knowledge or memory the children do possess is strikingly similar to one another. This article will build upon a more cursory analysis of second-generation migration narratives provided in an earlier work (Park, L., 2005) by further investigating what is absent and what little is present in these children's stories. I approach these immigration stories as a significant source in understanding second-generation Asian Americans' sense of why they are here and consequently, how they "fit" into this country.

It is ironic that second-generation Asian Americans--who supposedly embody the stereotypical measures of a "model minority," including hard working, college educated, law abiding, etc.--feel compelled to constantly justify their presence in the United States, a "nation of immigrants." Few researchers acknowledge this sense of doubt since most continue to believe in the model minority myth. This myth portrays Asian Americans as exemplary models for other minorities based (usually) upon measures of income, education, and public benefit utilization rates (see Cheng and Yang, 2000; Osajima, 2000). However, a number of studies have critiqued these assumptions. For instance, in her study of Indian-American youth culture, Maira (2002) concludes that the presumed Asian-American "model minority" has little relevance for the substantial numbers of working- and lower-middle-class people in their community. Maira's study (2002) points to the growing economic bifurcation of incoming Asian immigrants and their children. Cheng and Yang (2000) also critique this powerful image in their careful study of the vast differences, including class, education, and income, within Asian America.

On its face, the model minority myth is a seemingly positive image that seduces both liberal and conservative political inclinations. The moral "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" lessons regarding individual responsibility and upward economic mobility derived from this imagery continue to hold favor in the current movement to dismantle the social welfare state. The model minority myth wholly endorses the American Dream of meritocracy and democracy with the notion that anyone regardless of race, class, or gender has an equal opportunity to work hard and consequently is justly rewarded for their labor though economic upward mobility. …