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I am not a Model Minority: Unpacking Asian American Health

May 11, 2023

First and foremost, I would like to extend a deep thank you to Samantha Tan and Gita Jaffe, my inspiring and visionary collaborators on the Global Alliance’s newest policy brief. After two years of navigating personal challenges and needing to place this brief on the back burner, I could not be more grateful to have found such a supportive and empowering team to bring this to fruition. Fighting for Asian American mental health was never meant to be a solo effort, and I am most honored to have experienced this first hand.

What does it mean to be Asian American? More often than not, but especially in May, I find myself reflecting upon the myriad of elements that constitute the vast, heterogeneity of the Asian American experience. The term itself, “Asian American”, is one that spans tremendous social topography—a term that unites the national identity of the United States with the ethno-cultural roots of the largest continent in the world. Yet, Asian Americans have historically faced a hard-spun reality: one that reduces, minimizes, and erases our individual and collective struggles under the pressures of the “model minority myth” and often negates the battles we fight against xenophobia, racial prejudice, and social alienation.

As Asian Americans, we each draw our roots to a unique blend of history, tradition, and heritage– steeped in both hardship and victory. To assume that all Asian Americans share a singular experience, or can be stereotyped through monolithic caricatures, is an affront to the incredible richness of our differences and contributes to the lack of emphasis on promoting Asian American well-being.

My journey to writing this brief is the fruit of my own experiences navigating mental health as a second generation Asian American immigrant– one in which the “model minority myth”, covert and overt racism, intergenerational trauma, and navigating clashes between stark cultural landscapes run front and center. While certainly not the case with all Asian Americans, I was raised in an environment that upheld self-sacrifice and obedience as the highest virtues and strongly encouraged academic achievement over creative exploration. The consideration of poor mental health, let alone its treatment, was heavily taboo and viewed in opposition to culturally-pervasive, stoic philosophy.

As a neurodivergent Asian American woman living with chronic, physical disability, I found immense challenge in navigating heavy cultural stigma, engaging with limited avenues of culturally-competent care, and finding self-acceptance. In school, at home, among peers, in the doctor’s office, and within myself, I felt at odds with race-based expectations of innate aptitude for unilateral “success” and isolated by the scant representation of diverse Asian American narratives. These challenges, and the ways in which I have grown from them, are the driving forces behind my dedication to a path that combines cross-collaborative, psychiatric research, policy, and practice in the promotion of equitable, accessible, and accountable mental health care for all. It was on this path that I had the incredible honor of interning with the Global Alliance in 2021, where I was able to connect my passion for Asian American mental health with tangible efforts to promote change under the mentorship of some of the most phenomenal minds in global mental health.

Throughout the process of writing this policy brief, I discovered how incredibly proud I am to call myself Asian American. This identity comes with the acknowledgement that I belong to more than one land and culture, and that I am a product of the beauty, chaos, and discovery that comes from this overlap. In 1992, my father immigrated to the United States—the same year that the U.S. Congress passed Public Law 102-450 and commemorated the month of May as Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. To a man barely out of his teenage years, an education in the United States represented a shining opportunity to forge a new path: it was a land that promised freedom and limitless possibility – thousands of miles away from a familiar homeland. My mother arrived five years later, a new bride in search of her own destiny. Their faith, their fortitude, their favorite childhood lullabies, and their determination to raise children in this land of promise traveled with them.

My parents are but two of countless Asian Americans who made this journey across multiple oceans and continents–by boat, by plane, and by any means necessary– in pursuit of the legendary “American Dream”. Yet, what awaited each hopeful traveler was not always a quiet, suburban life tended to by the gold hand of capitalism. The legacy of Asian American settlement spans several centuries, and the very first Chinese settlers who crossed the Pacific in search of gold and a new life were forced to reckon with racial hostility, ethnic scapegoating, and limited socio-economic mobility– all of which continue to impact Asian Americans today.

From ethnic exclusion and forced internment to racial fetishism and hate crimes, Asian Americans are no strangers to the effects of systemic and institutionalized racism. Yet, the model minority myth says otherwise. Amid the stereotypes of spelling bee champions, math whizzes, and white-collar professionals, the media fails to acknowledge the large number of Asian Americans negatively impacted by gentrification or the growing addiction and suicide crisis among Asian American youth. With these realities overlooked and, in its place, a partial narrative pushed forward, Asian Americans are currently the least researched racial-ethnic group in the United States and the least likely to seek care for mental health concerns.

The implication of a “model” minority myth also implies the existence of “problem” minorities, thereby contributing to institutionalized racism and reinforcing the political, economic, and social underpinning of other marginalized racial groups. As such, the model minority myth plays a strong role in promoting notions of racial hierarchy that exacerbate mental health disparities among and within marginalized racial groups across the United States. Fundamentally, Asian American mental health is congruent to the mental health and well-being of all Americans across varied systems and settings.

Asian Americans have the inherent right to engage with the world as healthy and supported individuals, families, and communities. I share my story, a milestone that took years of reconciliation and my own battles fighting internalized notions of the model minority myth, to add my voice to this movement and to encourage the authentic promotion of Asian American mental health. I am not a model minority, but I am a young Asian American– standing in solidarity with countless others–pushing to foster a more inclusive and just tomorrow.

Read the full policy brief

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