Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Asian American Heritage Month, day 4

Yellow Peril vs. Perpetual Foreigner vs. Model Minority (A Contemplative Look at Asian American Identity) Since Asians first landed on American shores, American perception of Asians have oscillated between fears of Yellow Peril and patronizing treatment as the Model Minority. Initially, when Chinese immigrants first set foot in San Francisco and Hawaii, they were hailed as the salvation of the economic bust threatening the agriculture business should slaves be emancipated. But, for nearly a century following that initial surge of pseudo-goodwill was an overwhelming ostracization as Asians were treated like a hoarde of invading foreigners. Americans simply could not reconcile their image of the culturally white America that had been founded only decades prior with this sudden influx of non-white labourers -- there was a deep-seated fear that Asians and a seething mass of other non-whites would quietly take over the United States. Part of the Yellow Peril fears was a dehumanization of Asians. All Asians were seen as lacking in distinct personality, and in many cases depicted as hungry, monstrous creatures wanting to do violence to white men and rape white women. Yellow Peril became even more heightened and mainstream with the Fu Manchu character which popularized the maniacal and sadistic image of subversive Asia for the masses. Best exemplified with Japanese American internment and recent unwarranted arrests of Asians as suspected spies, the Yellow Peril fears also included a belief that all Asians were 'Perpetual Foreigners' -- that regardless of their nation of birth, citizenship, or stated loyalties, all Asians are first and foremost "from another country and culture" and may even retain obedience to those foreign powers. Many Asian hate crimes are motivated not only by hatred of Asians but a xenophobic fear of Asian countries, such as with the murder of Vincent Chin, who represented for his murderers the loss of American jobs to overseas factories. However, with the recent surge of educated and upper-middle class immigrants since the 1965 Immigration Act, the model minority myth returned. Asians were suddenly seen overachieving in education and socioeconomic status, and with this perceived intelligence came the perception that Asians were also quiet, unassuming, geeky, and (reassuring to white Americans fearing the sometimes violent Civil Rights Movement of the 60's) apolitical. This image was best represented in Hollywood by the character of Long Duk Dong in the movie Sixteen Candles, the hapless, emasculated yet highly intelligent exchange student who pines for Molly Ringwald's Samantha Baker and bends over backwards to appear more American, even going so far as to laugh right along as his ethnicity is the butt of several dinnertable jokes. Modern Asian Americans find themselves trapped between these two stereotypes -- when their ethnicity is the focus of debate, they threaten to encapsulate Yellow Peril fears, or at the very least personify the Perpetual Foreigner (considered no more American than was possiblebefore 1952). However, follow too closely the immigration mentality that demands not rocking the boat or drawing attention to issues within the community lead to the propagation of the Model Minority Myth, in which Asians are 'perfect' minorities with no problems -- so invisible that our unique cultural and communal differences are lost and we are lulled into a false complacency due to the mistaken belief that we are accepted that when we real ize we are not, we refuse to do anything about it. It's hardly surprising that the Model Minority Myth hurts Asians (for more on how the Model Minority Myth is indeed a myth, please see Though initially thrust upon us by white American peers, the Model Minority Myth has come to define how many American-born Asians view themselves -- it suggests that our Asian-ness is unimportant, unworthy of note, and that to draw focus to it is to 'exoticize' and 'politicize' ourselves unnecessarily, and to negatively embrace, in some senses, the Perpetual Foreigner stereotype. When it comes to an understanding of our own identity and community, we are woefully young. Asian American Studies, as an academic field, is in its infancy, and we are just beginning to get off the ground in fields like literature and a decent understanding of our history. We are a community trapped between worlds and between words. We are somewhere between Asian and American. We are somewhere between immigrant and citizen. And we live our lives navigating these conflicting stereotypes: the quiet, unassuming eager to please minority (who is never considered a 'real' minority) who is subject to no racism or oppression, and when they are, causes no White Man any grief... and the angry, vindictive and ferocious Perpetual Foreigner who threatens to overrun the White Man's shores. Perhaps this is the true richness of the APIA identity -- our personification of the dream of common ground that is the multicultralism of North America. Our identity is not one or the other -- we are the struggle to find a way to embody the many backgrounds, cultures, and heritages that we truly are. If there were one word that were to summarize the Asian American identity, we would be the 'hyphen'.


Blogger phillyjay said...

Interesting read.

5/04/2005 09:21:00 PM  

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