Growing up in an Asian household, the “model minority” myth was an omnipresence that hummed in the background of my childhood. It applauded me when I won awards, but scolded me when my grades fell short. It celebrated when I got my university degree, but berated me when I chose a career in the arts. It was also there during my mental health struggles, surrounding me in a cloud of silence, shame and embarrassment.
I didn’t realise its impact until my early 20s; the myth is insidious like that. Subtle. Sneaky. And something every Asian has experienced to varying degrees. Born into a Filipino family that migrated to Australia, my experience of the model minority stereotype can be summarised in a few key sentences: Be highly educated. Be a doctor, lawyer or engineer. Be a good, upstanding Australian citizen. Work hard. Assimilate. Stay quiet. Stay in your lane. It’s what was expected of me, from my own family and from everyone outside of my community who caricatured me as “good”, “hardworking” and “uncomplaining”.
Add to the equation the conservative culture and community mentality usually upheld in Asian communities, and you’ve got yourself a very complicated can of worms. But with the rise of racially motivated attacks during COVID-19, particularly the rise of Asian hate, and social movements like Black Lives Matter, it’s a can that needs to be opened if we are to make progress towards a more positive and inclusive society.
One for all
I spoke to Adri Lozano, the NSW convener from the Asian Australian Alliance (AAA), a grassroots network that advocates around issues concerning the Asian Australian community. She explains that while the myth was institutionalised under an American lens, the experience is much the same regardless of geography. The myth treats Asians as one mass entity, rather than seeing them as separate nationalities, which births the generalised expectations we are burdened with.
“With mental health, typically we look at Asians as one monolithic group,” she says. “It was palpable during 2020, when we were creating resources for people who were experiencing racially motivated violence as a result of COVID-19. All the materials being provided were for people of Chinese descent.”
But when the organisation launched its incident report last year, statistics showed the racism inflicted on Asians wasn’t just towards Chinese individuals, but across the spectrum. A recent study from the AAA and Osmond Chiu reported 377 incidents of racism towards Asian and Asian Australian people between April and June 2020 alone. Sixty per cent of racist incidents involved physical or verbal harassment.
“The idea that the COVID-19 virus is just from Wuhan means that all resources, particularly regarding racism, have been targeted at people who are East Asian. But you look at the statistics in Australia and it’s racism against Asians full stop — that it’s Asians generally who have brought the virus here,” says Adri. “It’s a huge failing in the system when you look at the practicality of what’s actually happening and the extent at which racial discrimination and racial violence happens.”
Code of silence
Even as a child, I picked up on the hushed tones and quick dismissals around mental illness, quickly realising that it was a taboo topic within my community. The situation around mental illness is worsened by the notion of “saving face” — the pressure to maintain a “perfect” image for one’s family and to hide “shameful” circumstances that go against it.
The model minority myth emphasises the idea that we are privileged to simply live in Australia, and while the claim holds some merit, it encourages Asian Australians to stay quiet or reject support when they need it most. In other words: suffer in silence.
Adri believes it’s the reason why struggles in the Asian community largely go unreported. “We don’t want to be bad guests in this country that we’re in, so things go unreported because we don’t want to seem like we’re being difficult,” she says. “It’s a complex mix of family and community pressures, on top of the mental health pressures, which Asian Australians internalise as a result of the model minority myth.”
The myth creates a toxic battle between individuality and conformity. We yearn to create a fulfilled life, but feel pressured to live within the confines of what our Asian community deems acceptable and to the standards everyone else sets for us. If you’re not rich, successful, academically qualified or working hard enough, then why are you even here?
In internalising these standards and stereotypes, Asian Australians are forced to rely on the validation of others, rather than recognising our own individual success. It’s a vicious feedback loop that oscillates between pride and shame.
The next steps
While it’s widely acknowledged that COVID-19 brought forth global pandemonium, a silver lining is the spotlight it has shone on just how harmful the model minority myth is. Adri believes that having important conversations, like ours, is one of the best ways to dispel these myths.
“The more we share these stories, the more we can challenge those deep-seated assumptions about Asian identity, and also how Asian Australians challenge those internalised stereotypes,” she says.
Indeed, these tough discussions have been agents of change. Organisations including the Black Dog Institute have launched digital initiatives like myCompass — a personalised tool to aid mental health. Likewise, Lifeline has partnered with the Bridging Hope Charity Foundation to better support the mental health needs of Chinese-Australians.
“There’s a long way to go, but there is hope,” concludes Adri. “We can be buoyed by the fact that there are actions being taken, that people are listening and things are changing slowly.”
Aleczander Gamboa is a freelance writer who tackles topics from skincare to sustainability. When he’s not writing, you can find him feeding his retinol addiction. Read more of his work at aleczandergamboa.com and connect with him on Twitter @aleczzzander for yarns about pop culture.