Stereotype of ‘Model Minority’ Simplifies Asian American Stories Like Mine


“Hope you are not from China,” one patient told me. “You look like you can be.”

As an Asian American doctor on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, I have received several comments like this. Over the past year, I have tried to reconcile these experiences with the difficulties faced by other Asian Americans. I share their outrage at the anti-Asian rhetoric that has done us unbearable harm – but I see a “silver lining” in the fact that Asian Americans can finally have a voice.

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I was born in China to two doctors. My parents grew up during the Cultural Revolution and were victims of its devastating economic and social consequences. Given their academic success, they were fortunate enough to emigrate in search of a better future for me. Leaving their families behind, my parents tied the last of the little money they had in their name to my 4 year old self when we boarded our flight to Canada so that if I was lost in a country foreigner, I would be taken care of.

Limited by language barriers, my mother worked in the household while my father pursued a doctorate. and postgraduate training. We lived in a modest one bedroom apartment above a small Chinese business in Toronto. When my brother was born, we moved to New Jersey. My mother accepted a position as a laboratory technician and my father began his medical residency. He then moved to pursue two medical scholarships before taking his first job as a doctor in Canada just before his 50th birthday. When my dad moved, my mom stayed on to work full time while raising me and my brother.

Thanks to my parents’ sacrifices, I obtained several degrees on the way to becoming a doctor and engineer. My brother is in medical school studying to be a surgeon. We have continued to embody the stereotype of the model minority as successful Asian Americans in STEM, fueled by family values ​​and a strong work ethic. We are a privileged Asian American family with such a fascinating shared history that some considered it the American Dream.

But that old ‘model minority’ narrative oversimplifies our experiences and undermines everything families like mine have resisted. My parents left their families in China and couldn’t be there when my grandparents passed away. My parents spent most of their adult lives separated: my single mom and dad hundreds of miles from his family. My father converted to medicine for two decades before taking his first job. My mother gave up her career and her ambition to raise her children.

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I grew up facing discrimination and xenophobia. I lied when I said I was born in Canada rather than China to fit in. I took on an American name, Leo, when my teachers made no effort to pronounce my real name, Le (etown, Chinese word for joy). I was embarrassed to bring Chinese food to school and to have friends at home. I only spoke Chinese to my parents because I didn’t want other people to hear their accent in English. I acted jaded and “cool”, titillated when I was told that I was “not like other Asians”, fearing to be called studious.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I have treated patients who viewed me as dishonest and accused me of carrying the coronavirus. And despite all that my family has gone through, I am told that my experiences are too ‘one dimensional’, that I need more “personality” to prove that I’m not the stereotype of a work-obsessed “grind”.

“This story of rags to riches diminishes the deep history of Asian Americans, all that we have overcome and the diversity of our experiences.”

Leo Wang

It’s a tragedy how marginalized stories like mine have become under the guise of the model minority. This tale of rags to riches diminishes the deep history of Asian Americans, all that we have overcome, and the diversity of our experiences. He pits Asian Americans against other minorities and suggests that discrimination must not exist if Asian Americans can be successful. It ignores the faulty system that some have succeeded in spite of, not because of.

Three years ago, I was invited to speak at the Chinese New Year Gala at Chinese School HuaXia. I delivered a message about seeking solidarity in the Chinese-American community by embracing and sharing our experiences. With all that Asian Americans have been through in the past year, there has never been a better time to dismiss the myth of the model minority.

As our nation heals, we must remind others that Asian Americans at all levels contribute to the fabric of America. We have a rich history filled with unique stories, and we deserve to tell them. Through these stories, we demonstrate that we share the resilience and triumph of the human spirit. And if we can find these commonalities, we can find a way forward together.

Leo Wang (@LeoWang) is a medical resident and bioengineer at the University of Pennsylvania. He grew up in South Jersey and lives in Philadelphia with his wife. A version of this piece first appearance at NextShark, an Asian-American news organization.


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