You’ve seen them on the tennis court, on the ice, in comedy, selling out stadiums, stunning on RuPaul’s Drag Race, starring in movies and television shows, as well as influencing all over Instagram and YouTube. They’re millennial Asians racking up undeniable success, and helping redefine what it means to be Asian-American. Instead of the quiet, deeply studious, obedient, grade-obsessed “whiz-kids,” they’re athletic, funny, popular, fierce, creative, and assertive leaders.
For decades, the definition of success for Asian Americans was limited to a hyper-focus on academics and extracurriculars like music instead of sports; being high achievers in fields like medicine, law, and engineering; as well as an ascension in economic status through hard work and education. This was true of many Asian-Americans, but far from all of them, especially among new immigrants and refugees, whose experiences were often made invisible. Media coverage often focused on these limited examples of success that flattened the huge diversity within Asian-American groups and the history of immigration in the country. This arguably originated in popular thought via a 1966 article for The New York Times Magazine, in which sociologist William Petersen described his astonishment about how more than 110,000 Japanese Americans had “risen above” their crushing experience of internment during WWII. While flattering on a superficial level, Petersen began a persistent trend that used this myth of the resilient, hard-working Asian immigrant to discredit the Black civil rights movement and downplay the real effects of systemic discrimination against other marginalized minority groups. Moreover, while these model minority stereotypes may appear to be a positive portrait, many Asian Americans who do not fit this limited frame often feel like failures or outliers.
A lot has changed since Petersen’s story — including shifts in immigration patterns, strides in representation, and the massive popularity of Asian culture in America. And certainly, data still suggests that Asians are, at least financially, much wealthier than other racial groups in America (2014 data from the US Census Bureau shows the median value of Asian household assets is $156,500, nearly twice the median of all American household assets of $81,850). But many millennial Asian Americans still feel trapped by limited ideas about who they can be, and how they are compared against other people. Ultimately, the continued existence of a model minority stereotype fails to recognize the true humanity of Asian Americans and the diversity of its millions of messy, emotional, complicated and less-than-perfect selves.
It’s a topic often discussed on the popular Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits, which currently has more than 1.3 million members worldwide. “There’s the joke that we’re 'A'sians not 'B'sians,” says co-founder Angela Kang about the academic expectations that their community feels. Studies show this intense focus on grades can come from all sides — parents, teachers, similarly-driven friends — as well as from within. One New York University study found “teachers were nearly three times as likely to expect their Asian-American students to complete college as white students whose parents had been born in the United States.” In addition to jokes and memes, dozens of posts on the Facebook group and subgroups like Subtle Asian Mental Health talk about struggling with depression, anxiety, honoring parental sacrifices, as well as the internalized idea they have to work hard and obtain top marks. And even when they go beyond academics, Asian Americans frequently talk about being workaholics and driven to achieve huge levels of success. The Millennial model minority myth has expanded to places where Asian Americans work hard and excel, where they still find a lack of opportunities and pay equity compared to white peers in their respective categories due to the continued misconception that all Asian Americans are like this.
And while the internet has also made it easier for Asians and Asian American to connect with peers dealing with the nuances of these issues, find role models, and create opportunities for themselves, they can also make the scam of exceptionalism worse. Many of the most prominent Asian-American creatives, like YouTuber Ryan Higa and the Asian-American filmmaking group Wong Fu Productions, have not patiently waited for Hollywood to dole out roles. Multi-hyphenates Anna Akana and Lilly Singh used YouTube and Instagram to build huge audiences for their creative work, which includes popular videos, best-selling books, sold-out tours, a clothing line for Akana, and most recently, a job hosting a late-night show for Singh. But despite their outsize influence and clear business acumen, their entrepreneurship and creative talents are rarely recognized in mainstream media outlets to the same degree as their white peers.
Even when Asian Americans have done well in creative paths that seem risky or antagonistic to diversity, there is a pervasive, compensatory feeling that they must achieve excellence in service to their immigrant parents. Author, editor and journalist Mary H.K. Choi describes it as: “Can my mother have a retort at church that would shut her friends up?”
Millennial social media stars like Singh, actress Constance Wu, and author R.O. Kwon have also spoken publicly about the financial, emotional, and professional costs of trying to advance in their chosen careers while attending to expectations. Choi turned her deep interest in mental health and creativity into a micropodcast called Hey, Cool Life! where she demystifies the difficulty of creative work like hers.
“I'm really fascinated by what it looks like to be exceptional, and how expensive it is to be really honest and truthful, and how stultifying it can be in other aspects of your life,” she said about the impact on health, relationships, and self-esteem. “It takes so much failing."
Choi herself is deeply ambitious and exceptional. In addition to her journalism, she wrote comics for Marvel and DC; published a collection of essays called Oh, Never Mind; works as a culture correspondent for Vice News Tonight; penned the bestselling novel Emergency Contact, and releases another novel, Permanent Record, this fall. But far from making this path look effortless and easy, Choi makes a point to be transparent about the labor and failure involved in her work.
Even though sociologists Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou describe how millennial Asian exceptionalism looks enticing at face value, the concept of Asian exceptionalism is still a paradox and a trap. It ignores the nuances of who people are, where they came from, their experiences, the challenges they’re going through, and the work they’re doing to get where they are.
“We’re all doing our best and it’s fucking hard,” Choi says. “The more we talk about it, the more people can understand where we’re coming from and the more human we can be.”
In #NotYourTokenAsian, we take on the pop products, stereotypes, and culture wars that surround Asian-American identity. Follow along as we celebrate our multiplicity during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.