Chasing the American Dream: A lesson in stereotypes

Growing up in a strict, white middle-class household, I always found myself confused about why my parents thought education was so important. They always made sure to remind me that A was the only acceptable grade to receive, in hopes I would be the first in my immediate family to get a college diploma, as neither of them had. While I credit them with pushing me to become as academically successful as I am today, as a young girl I was annoyed every time I was told to go study or practice my music instead of playing my friends. The drive within my family fundamentally comes from the idea of the American dream; hope for a better life for yourself and your children. Asian- Americans especially find themselves engulfed in stereotypes about being the “smart kid” within the American education system and pushing their children to excel. How does education benefit Asians as a minority group trying to achieve the American Dream? How does Asian-American culture emphasis on education reinforce a model minority theory?

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Author Ha Jin

While the American Dream manifests itself in a variety of ways, job mobility is one of the easiest ways to gain acceptance and make the money the American Dream requires. Author Ha Jin reflects this balance in a short story called Children as Enemies, evoking these sentiments through narrative. Told from the perspective of first generation grandparents dealing with rebellious grandchildren who are trying to no longer be “different” and join mainstream American culture, the traditional Asian grandfather emphasis on education has practical applications. Grandfather asks of American teachers “ How could they make their students competitive in this global economy if they didn’t instill in them the sense of getting ahead of others and becoming the very best?”[1]. Aware of the tools needed for success, grandfather echoes the importance of education to be the best. The push to become the best person possible lies over a need to be accepted in American culture, be that career equals or otherwise. Coming to a land of opportunity, using education as a tool for mobility and opportunity is a great way to become a model minority.

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Every family has its own narrative, yet Asian American face many of the same stereotypes.

This success fuels what is today called the ‘model minority’ theory. Created in 1966, this sociological theory postulates that a group of ethnic or racial minorities have individuals who achieve more success than the mainstream public.[2] Being a model minority is rooted in associations of hard work ethic in all facets of life, including education. This theory fuels stereotypes that negatively affect Asian Americans in particular. With over 50% of Asian Americans having attained a bachelor degree[3] in the United States, traditions of hard work produce access points for being accepted within Western culture, but leave harsh stereotypes spread over all Asians inhabiting the U.S. about intelligence. With the average income of Asian American in the U.S. being $68,780 and the national average only $50, 221,[4] a competitive education is the first step in achieving this upper class quality. Unfortunately, these elements do not lessen the discrimination that comes with stereotypes, and the difficulty Asian-American children have when they do not live up to these high expectations. The grandchildren of Jin’s story illustrate this well, rebelling against the educational expectations of their grandfather and trying to assimilate to mainstream culture at their school and breaking away from being automatically labeled the “smart kid”.

Being the “ smart kid” isn’t genetic. Today’s Asian-American “smart kids” are cultural constructs that have deep traditional ties to a hope for a better life. This American Dream is alive and well; finding a way to achieve it can be a tough road filed with stereotypes and hardships. Jin’s short story relates to all people trying to achieve the American Dream , not just Asians. Breaking down these stereotypes will help us understand each other’s personal narratives and gain respect for other cultures.

While not Asian, I too had a pushy grandfather.

9 thoughts on “Chasing the American Dream: A lesson in stereotypes

  1. I think that the idea of the “model minority” is a fascinating one. I have encountered numerous friends that have dealt with the issue of feeling inadequate in the classroom because of this cultural construct. Why aren’t you good at math? What do you mean you don’t play a string instrument? Interesting enough, I have observed that in my community that these stereotypes exist for Eastern Asian Americans and also negatively impact that more Southern Asian groups as well. Eastern Asians are thought of as “white”, but can never truly assimilate to being “white”, while Southern Asian immigrants or citizens (Vietnamese, Cambodian, Indonesian) are thought of as “black”.

  2. This makes me think of “Glee,” in particular the one episode where the two Asian-Americans, Mike Chang and Tina Cohen-Chang, are discussing grades and they both refer to an A- as an Asian F. Really, Mike was trying to break away from the smart Asian stereotype by following his dream to be a dancer, but even as “Glee” tried to break the stereotype, they were simultaneously perpetuating it all for the sake of a laugh.

    1. It is interesting to me with this example, as well as the example of the “pushy grandfather,” how much Asian-Americans enforce the stereotype. I was in orchestra with two Asian-Americans who were very gifted at the violin, music being another area where they are pushed to excel. The two always made jokes and accepted other jokes about how they were Asian-American, so of course they were amazing violinists. I wonder now what kind of pressure they faced at home to live up to the cultural standard of the “model minority.”

    2. I also thought of Glee. That is my frustration with the show. They try to address really big issues, but then revert back to using the gimmick they just dismissed for the sake of ratings. Drives me nuts.

  3. Interesting to bring up this stereotype – it affects so many people in a very deep way. I do not think it is bad to push children to excel in academics but to automatically assume their interests and talents lie in certain areas because of their ethnic background is where the trouble comes in…

    1. I agree jenna. Pushing your children to be successful in a highly competitive society often seems neccessary. There is a difference between trying to help mold your children into a successful and happy adult and pushing them into a role they may never have wanted for themselves. In the short stories we read today, the pain of not living up to parental expectations is something that many peoply can relate to, but when an ethnic sterotype is thrown in, another level of “why can’t you be like that?” or “why don’t you fit that commonly held ideal?” makes for an all-together more painful experience. Not only are some parent’s pushing their children like this, the children are feeling that pressure from friends and peers as well.

  4. It is a gross stereotype that Asian American students skew a class’ grade curve with high scores, spend all their time in the library studying, and are “naturally” good at math and science: but it’s also ingrained in the culture, thanks to ancient China’s creation of the civil service exam, which young men had to pass in order to gain prestigious jobs within the imperial service. In turn it created a culture of scholar-administrators who were expected to be not only well-read in literature, history, and law, but skilled in the arts or at least had an appreciation for them. Japan, Korea and other Confucian/Sino-influenced nations later emulated this system, though they were often faster at embracing Western science and medicine than the larger, less mobile imperial China.

    The Asians who emigrated to North America in the 19th century however were often refugees from war or famine, and did not come from families who could afford to send at least an oldest son to school. My grandparents, who came from rural villages in the 1890s, could barely read and write in their native Japanese. They also spoke in a rustic dialect that separated them from the more urban immigrant Japanese, and it was a class marker they couldn’t never quite overcome. Following World War II and their release from an internment camp, their son, my father, became an auto mechanic. I was the first in my family to graduate from college, but I had to defy another aspect of traditional Japanese culture—girls weren’t worth sending to college, because they would end up getting married anyway. I had to break from my family in order to attend university, and in a number of ways it hampered my progress: without support from one’s parents, it is difficult to succeed in school.

    At any rate, my point is that like all stereotypes, the “model minority” one attempts to simplify and disparage the Asian American struggle for equity in the United States. Success in this country and under the current economy is not easily gained, and is never a given for those who aren’t born to wealth or American culture and language.

  5. Sometimes breaking down stereotypes seems like such a Sisyphean endeavor. Prior to WWII, Asian Americans were viewed in actively negative ways, seen as backward and treacherous by most white Americans on the west coast (and in America in general, to be quite honest – look at my avatar). In combating these views, Asian Americans were able to wrest the full rights of citizenship from Congress in 1952, yet it seems as if they changed one actively negative stereotype for one passively negative stereotype.

    The “model minority” stereotype comes hand-in-hand with the “effeminate, non-threatening” stereotype. Quite erroneously, many Americans view citizens of Asian Pacific descent as androgynous or not masculine. I hate referencing reality TV, but look at the George Takei/Paul Teutul conflict on Celebrity Apprentice this season [http://goo.gl/P4JoX]. I have a friend from College, Stephen Martin, who is Japanese American and the guy is an engineer in the Marines. I would NEVER question his masculinity, and never would have even before he entered the Marines. But, beyond this, the truly detrimental aspect of all stereotypes is their penchant to proscribe areas of activity. Subjects of stereotypes are allowed to succeed, but only in areas that make members of the dominant culture comfortable.

  6. Hi,

    I read the post and was hoping you would be interested in reading a piece of my own. A Reasonable Man, a short story, explores the unforeseen reality of the American Dream as it depicts the conflict between sacrifice and success.

    The story can be read free HERE (http://www.scribd.com/OscarHughes)! It is also available free on iPad, Nook and Kindle.

    Best,

    Oscar

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