How ‘Positive’ Stereotypes Hurt Asian-Americans Like Me

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Reporter Amber Ly is a Cambodian-American teen growing up in San Francisco.
Reporter Amber Ly is a Cambodian-American teen growing up in San Francisco.

There’s a joke that an A minus is an Asian F. It’s a play on the idea that all Asians are smart. We get good grades. We work hard.

Jokes like this can be pretty frustrating for Asian teens. For one thing, it makes us sound like a bunch of high-achieving robots. But, moreover, it’s just not true for everyone. How well immigrants do in the U.S., often corresponds to their lives before they immigrated.

My parents never got a formal education. They came here in the early 1990s from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge. “I come here with nothing. I don’t have English, no English at all,” my mom. “Our family, it’s not like have a good education from the country.”

The dropout rate for Cambodian-American kids like me is actually really high–35 percent. It shouldn’t be a newsflash that not all Asian-Americans do well in school, but the model minority stereotype makes the actual problems in these communities invisible.

For the last 19 years now, my parents have owned a donut shop in San Francisco. My dad carries flour into the back of our shop in 50 pound bags. Both of my parents labor over heavy machinery and boiling oil. They work hard at keeping their business afloat–and by extension supporting our family. So they’re not exactly tiger parents, hovering over my homework. But when I’m at school, my teachers and peers still treat me like I’m supposed to be some kind of genius. And I’m not the only one.

 

Amber Ly's parents own a donut shop in the Richmond district of San Francisco.
Amber Ly’s parents own a donut shop in the Richmond district of San Francisco.

“I feel like I was always expected to be, like, the top student. And in middle school and in elementary school, I worked really hard to meet that standard. Because I felt that was like what everyone expected of me and I didn’t want to let them down,” said Rhea Park, 15.

She explained that the model minority myth can make it harder to get the help she needs at school. “Like even the teachers, whenever I needed help like, they’re like “Oh, it’s okay. You can figure it out,” she said.

I get this too. The pressure I feel about school doesn’t come from my family at all. In fact, my mom doesn’t even know the stereotype that’s supposed to be about her.

“What’s mean tiger mom?” she asked me.

“It’s like you are super strict. Like, “Oh my God, you have to go study right now. No playing with your friends. You can’t go outside. Like you have to study, you have to play piano, do the violin.”

“Oh, I cannot do that. Because I saw you trying to work hard by your homework or your everything, your tests. You always try hard by yourself,” she said.

My mom told me that whenever I talk to her about my grades, I always make it sound like I’m failing.

I’ve spent the last four years in high school, feeling ashamed because I’m a B student. And lately, I’ve come to see that this invisible pressure I feel is the model minority myth at work. This is how racism operates. It erases our individuality. It tells us how we should act, how we should perform in school. And when we miss the mark, we’re failures. That’s how even positive sounding racial stereotypes cause damage.

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