by Tran Dang
“You have to worry about yourself first. Don’t worry about anything else,” my mother told me over the phone one evening last November, in response to my attempt to explain the protests that defined the campus. Although my Vietnamese often splinters under the weight of topics with substantial social commentary, my mother had gotten the gist of it, and she swept what she did understand under the rug. Instead, we went through the usual checklist. Did you do laundry? Yes, I did it yesterday. How is the food in the dining hall? Good. How are classes? They’re OK, chemistry is hard. Did you get the flu shot? I got it two weeks ago, and you’ve asked me five times since.
What she doesn’t ask and what I don’t tell her is that I had stayed up until 4AM the previous night to help my suitemate take pictures of women of color and post them on a bulletin board on Cross Campus. The thrill and pride of bringing together women of color, running through campus, and stapling every single picture cumulated into one of the best nights I’ve ever had at Yale. I don’t tell my mother that I was one in over a thousand students who gathered on Cross Campus in the March of Solidarity. I don’t tell her that on the night of the election, I could not open a single powerpoint lecture to study for my biology midterm.
My parents’ key to success is to stay at home and keep your head away from “drama.” I find this attitude echoed by the parents of many of my Asian peers, this idea that as long as you take care of your own health and success, nothing else matters. For instance, a friend shared that her mom continued to text her the daily “What did you eat today?” for days following the election, until my friend had to ask her mom if she knew that Trump was elected. Another friend jokingly told her parents she was going to Canada, and her mother’s response was, “We won’t send care packages all the way to Canada.” With every political or social crisis, there comes a nagging prescription from an Asian parent to avoid it.
This sentiment is best attributed to first generation Asian immigrant parents, and we must take into account the history of their past experiences in order to understand why the sentiment exists. Some immigrants were able to come to America under auspicious circumstances, but many others were forced out of their countries for being on the losing side of social or political unrest. For many immigrants, being involved in activism was a threat to education and livelihood. For my mother, activism had meant that she wasn’t allowed to attend college because her older brother was a soldier for the southern Vietnamese army. Similarly, millions of other Vietnamese citizens would be discriminated against if their family records showed any connection to the losing side of the Vietnam war.
When Asian immigrants came to America, they were no longer on the losing side of political turmoil. they were on the winning side. They were seen as the model minority. Supposedly, Asian Americans were the model minority because they were able to attain academic and professional success by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, working hard, and being law-abiding citizens. This narrative of Asian immigrants in America is often used as justification for the meritocracy of the American Dream. If my mother knew of the concept of the model minority, she would revel in being one, because for her and for my father, it is long-deserved validation for the sacrifices they’ve made to live in this country. They can give you every reason to defend their position as the model minority. My parents have had stable income ever since we’ve been in America. No one in my extended family has a record of criminal history. All of my cousins and my sister are enrolled in or have graduated in college. And with my enrollment at Yale, it seems as if my family has finally made it on the winning side of social inequality.
I believe my parents feel that participation in activism isn’t necessary, and at times, can be harmful, because we have already found success within the social and political structures that are currently in place. This is why my parents perpetuate the survival and isolationist rhetoric that “you will be successful as long as you study hard, stay healthy, and mind your own business. Only worry about yourself.”
However, the reality is, contrary to what my parents would like to believe, the model minority doesn’t exist. In fact, my family epitomizes the contradiction to the model minority. Although we have been in America for over a decade, we have not made it outside the bracket of “low-income.” Although my parents extol the values of education, they themselves are blue-collar, unskilled workers. And although I am the younger daughter who goes to one of the top universities in the country, I’ve had to sit my mom down and tell her that my sister needs an extra year and a half to graduate from the local college at home.
Perhaps my own family can be waved off as anecdotal evidence, but deeper research will show you that many Asian Americans aren’t on the “winning” side of inequality. The model minority concept fails to account for the complex makeup of the Asian American demographic, which ranges from end to end of the socioeconomic ladder. The model minority does not include the history of Asian immigrants that have died while building this country’s infrastructure. The model minority doesn’t hear the racial slurs and discriminatory stereotypes that are casually thrown about in elementary school classrooms, down city sidewalks, and on television screens. Asian Americans still have very much to fight for, and we can’t let success blanket into complacency.
The model minority is as much a myth as is the supposition that this generation of Asian-Americans can find success with an isolationist and survival rhetoric. Perhaps this rhetoric worked for our parents or grandparents under the circumstances they had to face as immigrants, but we have privilege that they did not. We have the privilege of living in the current American society whose members who are resolutely fighting for not just integration, but for inclusivity. We have the privilege of seeing the first Vietnamese-American woman elected to Congress and the number of women of color in the senate rise to a record-breaking four. We have the privilege of being old enough to understand the ramifications of a Trump presidency.
Furthermore, we must realize that there really is no such thing as the “winning” side. When inequality exists, there are only losers. The fight for social justice is not a zero-sum game. The success of one ethnic minority does not have to come at the expense of another’s. Now, more so than the decades previous, solidarity among minorities is necessary, and the voices of Asian Americans are not only requested, but demanded.
This isn’t to argue that Asian-American activists don’t exist, because that isn’t true. They do and to not acknowledge them in this narrative is to undermine their work, from Yale to across the nation. I have seen Asian American activism in many forms, in Architecture of Rain, a Yale student production that was written and performed by Asian American women, in the works of Mary Lui, the first tenured professor in Asian American Studies at Yale, in the art of the Sad Asian Girls Club, a group and movement that aims to tear apart stereotypes that burden Asian American women.
But we can do more. In November of last year, there was a call for solidarity from Asian American student groups, and it was left sorely unmet. The response from Asian American Yalies was described as “disunified” at best and “apathetic” at worst. Indeed, I recall sitting in a board meeting for the Vietnamese Student Association, debating on what to include in our statement of solidarity, and never reaching a conclusion. We moved on to planning for Pho Night. Pho Night happened as planned, but a statement was never released, and as an organization, we found ourselves asking what more we can do than just food events.
I realize that write this with the privilege of a Yale student who will have relative security in her professional and financial prospects. I write this with the privilege of an American citizen who does not have to worry about her family’s safety under the forthcoming presidency. I write this as an Asian who benefits from “racialized privilege” that is not afforded to other groups of color. There is a limit on the views that I can truly understand and the perspectives that I can relate to.
I cannot tell you what is enough. I cannot tell you it is to make a declaration of solidarity. I cannot tell you it is to sign a petition or attend a demonstration. But there are barriers of the model minority that are still intact but surely can be torn down. You can still pursue engineering, medicine or law, if you’d like, but you can also write poetry. Or if writing isn’t your forte, you can read poetry, share poetry. Listen to a black poet when she stands in front of the crowd with a microphone and shares her vulnerability and pain. Or understand that when your friend wants to transfer to Pauli Murray College, it isn’t just for “a name on a diploma.”
Still, I fall critically short of being a dynamic participant of social and political activism, because I often find myself boxed in by the ideals of the model minority. I find myself buried beneath piles of science textbooks, where the fear of mass deportation is a distant reality. I find myself ticking off the same checklist with my mom, even when I forget that some of my closest friends are weary of leaving their suites, because they do not have the privilege of being the “model minority.” If you find yourself in the same position, realize that you may not be doing your part or even have a good understanding on what the problem is. Realize that you are not an isolated presence on this campus nor in this country, and you cannot just worry about yourself. We have to worry about others, lest we want America to be a country that others will have to flee, like our parents once did.