Two labels, two meanings

Cal in Color

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My whole life, I’ve played a game of tug-of-war with two labels: ‘model minority’ and ‘Asian American.’

This game began in fifth grade when I was sitting on a piano bench, ready to play my rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” After weeks of very pointed advice for my future from my Asian aunties, my mom had signed me up for the nearly universal Asian American experience of taking piano lessons. That day, I was finally auditioning to become a student of one of the best piano teachers in our area.

I had spent weeks on my piano bench at home, marveling at the possibility that I could have control over the large, looming piano. The same teacher that would hear my (hopefully) astounding piano skill had taught my sister and many family friends songs ranging from “Hot Cross Buns” to waltzes and sonatas filled with the most beautiful, luxurious sounds. Maybe, I thought as I practiced, that will be me — standing in a concert dress, surrounded by applause, a piano prodigy.

The day of my audition, fright flooded through me as I urged my stiff fingers to sound out the cheery melody. As I sweated over the elementary rhythm and stumbled over the notes, the piano teacher smiled politely, waited for the song to end and offered me a strawberry candy.

Soon, the candy turned sour in my mouth as my mom quietly told me that I was not invited to become one of her students.

At that point, disappointment hit me, a brutal slap of reality. How was it possible? I was not good enough to even be taught. I had not reached the standard of practically every other Asian American kid who was taking lessons from this teacher. Also, I worried that my mom might have to tell the other aunties that “Bella actually failed the audition, so she won’t be taking lessons from her.”

I hadn’t realized it then, but a lot of those feelings were attributed to the Asian American mentality that my worth increased as a direct result of every accomplishment and opportunity. Subconsciously, I had started to believe it.

This belief had stemmed from my pride and desire to be seen. In typical Asian gatherings, the sharing of one’s family’s accomplishments is almost a way of greeting others, a fleeting and subtle introduction to establish some credence. “My son’s heading off to college — Harvard, actually,” one might say, or “My daughter just started running for fun; she placed No. 1 in the nation last month.” Over the years, I grew to want to become part of that humble brag, to introduce myself as my best prizes and awards. I wanted to become the model daughter my parents could show off.

I knew that I couldn’t show off my effort or my failures. This fact gave me an expectation that started driving all of my actions: If I didn’t win, then I hadn’t tried hard enough.

Meanwhile, outside of the Asian American community, my determination to succeed was recognized as typical. My peers would describe me as dedicated, detail-oriented — basically every antonym of ‘relaxed.’ I was seen as just another hardworking Asian girl, and it started to become embarrassing to me that I was mimicking the stereotype.

As I grew older and pressured myself more and more, I noticed that both the American stereotypes and the demand to succeed stemming from my background made non-Asians see me as a typical model minority. This sort of mentality toward Asian Americans has become so common that the labels of ‘Asian American’ and ‘model minority’ have begun to blend together to the point where people now expect that Asian Americans are naturally motivated and smart.

Our culture’s synonymous usage of the ‘Asian American’ and ‘model minority’ labels does not just pose a problem for Asian Americans, but for all Americans. It’s become a natural reflex in America to assign people to stereotypes — a habit that seems to be as old as time itself.

Even historically, the ‘model minority’ label stems from the late 1800s when Chinese people were finally accepted into America because they were seen as a quiet and obedient race that would not upset white privilege. In stark contrast, the label of ‘Asian American’ was coined by Asian UC Berkeley undergraduates in the late 1900s to unite and advocate for all Asians living in America.

While one label is a fact, the other is not. While one began to establish the racial hierarchy, the other was created by Asian communities in America to fight this same hierarchy. They are not the same title. It’s our job to actively avoid associations between the two.

Though Asian success is something that is praised and envied, I think it’s more important to say that this success is due to a very results-oriented, and not necessarily healthy, culture. On another note, though Asian American success perpetuates a lot of the implications behind the ‘model minority’ label, the ever-present association between Asian American and accomplishment fits Asian Americans inside of a box that is not representative.

I know it will take me a while to truly recognize these facts myself. Some part of me still faces every rejection and letdown the same way as when I was a little girl: with disappointment, anger and shame.

I’ve come to understand that this is a narrow-minded view. Both my successes and failures are mine to own.

In the end, I am Asian American — not anyone’s model minority.

Bella Chang writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.