How I benefitted from the model minority myth

Caleb Wong

“I want to change my last name,” I told my dad as I walked into his office late that night.

At 16 years old, I enjoyed the trappings of my family’s financial success: a McMansion, my own car, a laptop. But I resented the family name that went along with it. I fumed at the schoolyard stereotype that my last name, Wong, meant I was smart — and only smart. I was always reminded that my dad had moved from from working in his father’s Chinese kitchen to going to college to becoming a dentist in the Air Force. But reading Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” in high school, I imagined myself riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle burning “like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

Passion seemed more compelling than hard work.

But beatniks don’t change the world; people who burn candles late in the office do. As I’ve grown up and had the opportunity to intern in New York and Washington, D.C. at prestigious institutions, I’ve come to appreciate the power of a positive stereotype: that hard work, not innate ability, leads to success.

While some may chafe at this stereotype common among Asians known as the “model minority myth,” it manifests itself in reality. A 2014 study, which measured academic achievement by grades and teacher surveys about students’ willingness to work, shows that Asians tend to do better than whites in the classroom — regardless of family income.

But Asians aren’t smart because of their last names. Teachers interviewed in the study said it’s because of their hard work, because they see success achieved through academic effort, not through innate ability.

The study says success in the classroom is reinforced by their parents, who “hold higher educational expectations for their children than white native-born parents.” I have experienced this firsthand. Whenever I talk to my Chinese grandmother on the phone, she always asks me, “Are your grades good?”

That positive peer pressure is a good thing. American society often casts stereotypes as a bad thing, as something to overcome. They’re seen as an impediment to being seen as a whole person, as a human being with different interests. They perpetuate the status quo. And if high expectations are the status quo, if they’re plastered and stereotyped onto the hearts and souls of Asians, I’m proud of that.

My parents and extended family thought I was capable of more than I thought I was. I’ve always been grateful to my family in the way that most kids are grateful, but I should have also thanked them for holding me to high standards. Hard work made passion possible in my own life.

Although I have benefitted from positive expectations, it's impossible to ignore how stereotyping lowers expectations for others. For example, black children, even with comparable test scores, are half as likely to get into gifted and talented programs that provide individual learning plans and accelerated classes. In other words, these students are robbed of high expectations because these programs don’t identify them. Compounded by problems like income inequality, educational inequalities leave these children behind, generation after generation. 

Positive stereotyping makes a difference in Asian communities. Most other minority communities don’t have the benefit of having their communities and even strangers expect great things of them. Thinking more of them, of believing in their potential, would be a start.  

Caleb Wong is a Plan II and government junior from McKinney. Follow him on Twitter @calebawong.