Part I: Model Minority
Ms. H, Mr. J and I
Everyone has one teacher they consider as having changed their life. Mine is a high school English teacher named Ms. H. She was your typical hardass - so ruthless in her feedback that you’re often left in stunned silence as you stare down at your mark, seething with feelings of injustice (until you’re distracted by some banal high school obsession like Caramel Macchiatos or push up bras). The heavens opened up when Ms. H graciously decided to feed you some praise, leaving you in the warm embrace of the literary criticism cherubs.
I credit Ms. H for helping me discover my love for writing, which I thanked her with a daily onslaught of insufferable word vomit. I once led a discussion on Kate Chopin's The Awakening that was so promiscuous she had to shut it down. In my defence, I was a sexually frustrated 17-year-old whose primary fixation at that point was to reconcile my fascination-fear with male genitalia. Ms. H made it very clear that this reconciliation would have to wait until the lunch.
Aside from the awakening I experienced in Ms. H’s class, she also shared with us the concept of Model Minority, or the notion that minority populations in a society should act in a way that promotes a positive image as a means to combat discrimination. In a nutshell: get into a good school and make a shit-ton of money so the people who have stereotyped perceptions look like the losers. The traditional interpretation of this concept has been demystified because the Asian American experience is diverse. Asians don’t always graduate on time, they don’t always have white collar jobs, and they don’t always live above the poverty line.
What empowered me about the notion of Model Minority is the idea that my identity didn’t have to be bound by stereotypes. While most may took to idea of being able to combat negative misconceptions such as reclusiveness, cheapness, opium addiction or what have you, I decided that the best way for me to counter these stereotypes would be to be an pariah of Asian society - a contrarian to an ancient culture. I decided to be an aggressor, not submit to anyone, and do whatever the fuck I wanted, which has both worked in and against my favour since.
While I may look like I spent last night drinking virgin margaritas while dancing to Taylor Swift in my living room with my sexually frustrated Asian girlfriends named Leslie (sometimes there's a Stephanie in there), I’m actually way past that point in my life. Like any Asian American who studied Political Science and curses like a scurvy-ravaged sailor, I fell out with the Leslies pretty early on, and have done some things since that would make Leslies of the world recoil, shuffle off, and immediately text their Moms.
My loss of innocence came earlier than some of my counterparts, which made me feel more like an enigma than I already felt being an Asian who once got sick because of a Maths test in the 6th grade (yes, I was such a failed Asian when it came to numbers that I would literally vomit at the sight of them). Around the time I first high school, I thought it was perfectly acceptable to stay in my friend’s room while her and her then boyfriend went at it on the floor out of fear of waking her parents. Yes, they had sex while I lay under the covers not two feet away thinking about what I’m sure was along the lines of the hobo who sleeps outside the Burger King or premature balding or Ross from Friends - anything to distract myself from the shock-horror of my invasive presence and admittedly, the adrenaline I felt at that moment. In other words: I didn’t want to get turned on.
I still remember the dense scent like it’s Sweet Pea from Bath & Body Works; how the windows of began to fog after a few minutes from the damp humidity permeating from the two writhing bodies (another reason why Titanic is so damn legit). We were at an age where getting boned or helping your friends get boned was as sacred a task as getting to third base with a banana in full view of your health teacher. This was before my own sexual encounters, and I was willing put up with perverse levels of awkwardness to get an inch closer without being penetrated myself. Leslie would not have approved.
The main reason my crossing of the threshold earlier than my peers was a consequence of attending boarding school. My boarding school experience was not what you’re envisaging because I was living in a developing country at the time. There were no uniforms, no Hogwarts-like dining halls, and definitely no caring warden to mentor you through your most confused years. We did have a bitter woman who snuck her daughter and mother into the dormitory to live with her in the 20-square-foot room, which reeked of medicinal herbs. The sad abode was stuffed with stained cardboard boxes from floor to ceiling, containing what can only be assumed as her deep, all-consuming resentment of having to look after pubescent children.
The only thing she loved more than telling us about her failed marriage was prying away any bit of comfort we could salvage from the shabby corridors we called prison. It was during my first semester in boarding school that I met a Blasian (i.e. Black-Asian) who for a time was that comfort. I used him to fill the void left in my soul from moving country during what I thought the peak of my life. Mr. J was the ultimate dream boy to my 15-year-old self. Not only did he rock the drop-crotch look, he went above and beyond Blasian expectations and occasionally sported a do-rag. He spoke in a soft, melodic voice like a late-teens Justin Bieber and had a smile that said ‘I smoke weed to take the edge off my deep resentment towards authority, which stems from my complicated relationship with my father’. I thought he was perfect.
As we embarked on our badass romance, which at the time I likened to Biggie and Faith Evans, I was innocently unaware that it would turn out to be just as doomed. The warden, after witnessing our sweaty-hand-holding after school strolls on the track, proceeded to call my parents to tell them that, not one month into the school year, I had already gotten myself involved with the school gangster and will likely end up pregnant or dead.
After a couple of frantic, scolding phone calls and too many teenage tears to count, I broke up with Mr. J. What I was most furious about wasn’t how my parents found out about his constant run-ins with staff or contempt for our predominantly Christian school, but the anecdotes the warden had told about his past sexual escapades, which you can probably now guess were legendary in a school full of boys whose Moms still did their clothes shopping. My teenage self could not bare the shame of having to admit that my parents knew about his ex-girlfriends before I did, or that I fell for his so-called routine. How the warden knew and why she even cared remains a mystery. Our fragile sophomore relationship couldn’t handle the drama, and that was the end of that.
What did I do after this incident? I went on to date one of his best friends, naturally. Not among my best decisions, but one I felt accurately reflected my I-don't-give-a-fuck persona. Leslies cry about their failed relationships, and I move on.
♞ ♞ ♞
After years of playing my version of the Model Minority game, I came face-to-face with a situation that involved a bit more composure and a lot less flirting. As many may know or have deduced, I'm Chinese-American. The key here being Chinese. Mainland Chinese. For those unfamiliar with Chinese History, let me give you an abridgement (skipping the Pre-Qing Dynasty Era):
The story begins in 1842 following China's defeat by the British in the Opium War. Hong Kong was ceded to Britain as its colony - then an island plagued by pirates and you guessed it, opium. In 1898, the British signed a lease agreement with China at the Second Convention of Peking, which awarded them control of Hong Kong for a period of 99 years. Despite Hong Kong's humble beginnings, it flourished as a pivotal player for trade in the region and became a centre for finance and shipping. Under British rule, the city evaded China's Communist Era and developed its own unique culture and way of life, completely separate from their Northern neighbours. In 1997, the lease was over, and Hong Kong was shakily handed back to China under a "One Country, Two Systems" policy, which allowed Hong Kong to retain some degree of its previous political separation.
Of course this has not gone down well in a city that has been virtually independent for more than century - a disconnect so pronounced and pervasive that Hong Kong doesn’t even really speak the same language. Yes, technically they speak a different dialect (i.e. Cantonese), but they might as well be speaking Kingon to Mainlanders. The transfer of sovereignty in 1997 embittered a large portion of Hong Kong residents, who immigrated in large numbers to Canada, America, and Australia in hopes to escaping China’s rule. The outcome is still to be determined, but what we're dealing with now is widespread rejection of any Chinese influence, culturally or socio-politically, and in extreme cases Chinese presence altogether.
Protests and even violence in response to major decisions are commonplace, ranging from serious issues like universal suffrage to somewhat pettier ones like hating on Chinese tourists - a complicated situation to say the least. As a Chinese-American, I really didn't know my place or whether I should even have an opinion, so I stayed quiet. The world doesn't need another American projecting their shrill voice and even more offensive opinions in a conversation they have no business being in.
Even though I was Chinese, I found it quite easy to sidestep any potential conflict by speaking English everywhere I went, which worked well to disguise my background. But I was often left feeling disheartened by the disparaging and even abusive language against Chinese people in popular culture and by people I knew. I remember so many uncomfortable conversations with classmates when they said things like "Mainlanders should only be allowed into Hong Kong if they can manage to not shit on my MTR (Hong Kong's subway system), which they can't seem to do". I think it did happen once or twice, but that's not the point.
This discomfort eventually turned into frustration for one specific reason. I am, like most people, very protective of family, and became enraged after my parents were treated with disrespect during a trip to Hong Kong to visit me whenever they spoke Mandarin. The tone and attitude of waiters, taxi drivers, and sales assistants would immediately change whenever they heard us speaking Mandarin, after which they became patronising, inattentive, and sometimes straight-up rude. I hoped my parents wouldn't notice, but when they started speaking more English, which I realised was their way of avoiding poor treatment, I lost my shit. I questioned why I was living in a city that pretended to be a forward-thinking metropolis, but outrightly chastised people based on the dialect they were speaking. I thought I would forever feel marginalised by a society that thought my family didn’t deserve the same respect as the majority.
I agonised over this issue for some time before I realised that not only was I a failed Asian, but that I failed Ms. H. I never even took the time to understand what it means to be a Model Minority because I wasn't entirely convinced it was still relevant. Admittedly, I treated it like a joke to put it lightly, and took an epic crap on it to be accurate. And there it was, staring at my privileged life in the fucking face. I had believed the battle was won, and that I could combat stereotypes by being my own person and having a strong sense of identity, etc. Only when I was faced with real discrimination did I realise how fragile my identity was. I couldn't handle even the slightest display of inequality, and would allow a deep sense of injustice to bubble up over every side-eye or snarky remark.
We're told discrimination comes from a place of fear, and while I knew this, I didn't really know it until I had to deal with discrimination and try to understand it. They fear the future under China’s rule, and what could happen to their home - the thing that means everything to a person. In this case, Chinese tourists represent that fear of subjugation, and they respond with bigotry, as irrational as it may be at first to the rest of us.
While I'm still working through how I feel about everything, I've since toned down my aggression. I'm learning what Model Minority really means, and how to actualise this concept in my life. I'm not going to evade speaking Mandarin, and should I feel unwelcome when I do, my current strategy is to 'kill them with kindness' instead of my usual strategy of out-bitching them. Not more 'can I speak to the manager', no more 5% tips, no more slamming the taxi door so hard the shame doesn't leave me for hours.
Being a Model Minority is not about being a contrarian to stereotypes projected onto you, but being a contrarian to the other side’s expectations. While I still won't be reaching out to Leslie anytime soon, at least I recognise that I can probably learn a thing or two from her.