"Asian Americans are good in technical fields but are not good managers."
"Asian Americans are doing just fine; they don't need any help."
"Asian Americans are America's success story."
Even in the age of multiculturalism and political correctness, many people still believe these statements about Asian Americans. The model-minority myth is the assumption that Asian Americans have overcome all barriers to success in the US, and implies they make up an intelligent, hard-working minority group that has achieved the American Dream. Unfortunately, these depictions aren't always the case, and they have created unrealistic expectations many Asian Americans simply cannot live up to in work, academic and social settings.
For every Asian American who fits the model-minority standard, there are others who are struggling to survive financially. As with any minority group, Asian Americans come from all socioeconomic backgrounds. A Vietnamese immigrant in urban Chicago shares little in common with the second-generation Taiwanese American who was raised in a midwestern suburb speaking only English in the home.
Outside the Model Myth
Tom Hoang*, a 26-year-old Vietnamese American, has never felt like a model minority. His family has always struggled financially, and even now, he helps support his parents, who speak little English and are too elderly to work. He never went to college -- breaking another Asian American stereotype -- and currently works as a manager of a hardware store. “I never lived up to what my non-Asian American teachers and friends expected of me,” he says. “While I'm pretty happy with my career, as an Asian who hasn't lived up to others' expectations, I often feel alienated.”
Even Positive Stereotypes Can Hurt
The myth can also hurt professionals in work settings. Karen Chan*, a Chinese American, had worked in the finance department of a midsize retail chain for seven years and was the controller for the last two. Last year, her new boss started making odd but casual remarks about her work and ethnicity.
“My boss would make comments like, ‘I can always count on you to get the budget right, because I know Asians are good with numbers,'” Chan says. Though on the surface his comments seemed harmless, other department heads thought of Chan as a finance expert and nothing else. “I actually majored in English, and when I chose finance as a career, it wasn't because I was a quantitative expert. I knew I had an eye for detail, and I appreciated the foundation finance would provide for a long-term career in business,” Chan adds.
After a while, Chan decided to approach her boss over lunch. “At first, it was hard to believe my boss's comments were said to me in this day and age,” she says. “I knew he didn't mean to make the comments to deliberately hurt me, but I didn't want him to continue doing it. I may want to make a switch to operations or marketing, and my boss's comments were cornering me into a finance career within the firm.”
After their initial discussion, they both agreed to continue to communicate about these slips and to discuss them as they occur.
As an Asian American professional, how do you combat misguided perceptions and better inform others about Asian Americans? Chan took the time to discuss how these perceptions were misguided. Another way to help foster a culturally aware workplace is to become an active member of your corporate diversity program, provided your company has such an organization. Make sure you're visible; join company subcommittees and task forces, thereby becoming a voice for Asian Americans in your firm.
* The subjects for this story requested that their names be changed or removed to protect their identities.