Crazy Rich Asians
The Dilemmas Those "Asians" Really Face
Is Crazy Rich Asians just a romantic comedy about people with inherited wealth? Why are people shedding tears in the theater? The steady rise in educational levels and career achievements of Asian immigrants and their children, together with depictions in television and movie dramas, are drawing more attention to the situations of ethnic Asians in U.S. society.
The Dilemmas Those "Asians" Really FaceBy Strangers in Paradise/Crossing Columnist
Crazy Rich Asians recently hit theaters in Taiwan.
The movie is adapted from a novel (the first book in a trilogy) of the same name by American author Kevin Kwan, who is of Singaporean heritage. In a humorous and sometimes exaggerated fashion, it depicts the rarely seen cushy life of sports cars and mansions lived by fabulously wealthy Asians as well as the children of Asian emigrants.
Essentially a romantic comedy, people are divided about its artistic merits and whether it is worth seeing. The film managed to spark frenzied discussion across the world compared to other movies in its genre, making the cover of TIME Magazine’s Asian edition.
Image: TIME Magazine
This has more to do with what the movie symbolizes than what it contains, representing a shift in American society and the state of the Hollywood entertainment industry. Crazy Rich Asians is the first major Hollywood studio release in nearly a quarter century to feature an all-Asian cast.
Because of this, what surprised me is that another news item escaped the media’s attention. According to a Pew Research Center report from this past July, in 2016, Asian-Americans passed European-Americans for the first time for highest median household income by race.Source: Census Bureau / Wall Street Journal
This essay endeavors to use current topics of discussion across the entertainment industry and academia, and as an Asian-American coming from the same demographic, raised and educated in the U.S., to share some of the backstory and context underlying this event from the perspectives of social psychology and cross-cultural identity.
The Curse of the ‘Model Minority’
Unlike the Asian immigrants who came to America to escape political oppression or for economic reasons, their children grew up in relatively comfortable circumstances, fluent in two languages. Starting with nothing as immigrants, their parents put everything they could into ensuring their children would be educated at the most prestigious schools, and today’s second-generation Asian-Americans (now mostly aged 30-40) have come to distinguish themselves in corporate America.
More and more Americans of Asian ancestry are taking advantage of good family backgrounds, educational levels, standard of living, and cross-cultural communication skills honed from a young age to take on major responsibilities in corporations, holding executive positions and earning higher salaries than their white counterparts.
More and more Americans of Asian ancestry are taking advantage of good family backgrounds, educational level, standard of living, and cross-cultural communication skills honed from a young age to take on major responsibilities in corporations, holding executive positions and earning higher salaries than even their white counterparts.
The dilemma is that this group of distinguished ethnic Asians has been called the Model Minority - a term first coined in 1966 by sociologist William Petersen in the New York Times (largely used to describe Japanese immigrants). Despite being a minority, thanks to such cultural factors as a strict work ethic and family upbringing, Asian-Americans on average outperform other U.S. ethnic groups (e.g. whites, blacks and Hispanics) based on such indicators as education level, income level, crime rates, and stability of family and marital relationships.
Despite being a minority, thanks to such cultural factors as a strict work ethic and family upbringing, Asian-Americans on average outperform other U.S. ethnic groups (e.g. whites, blacks and Hispanics) based on such indicators as education level, income level, crime rates, and stability of family and marital relationships.
While the term “Model Minority” may sound like a compliment, this is not entirely true. Apart from being based on strong racial stereotypes, second-generation Asian-Americans are an “outstanding disenfranchised” group. Growing up among the tensions and conflicts between Western and Asian cultural values precipitates many other issues.
This video, produced by The Washington Post, looks into the origins and meanings of the “model minority” stereotype.
The Identity Conundrum - Asian-Americans Ask: ‘Am I a Foreigner?’
The Atlantic produced an in-depth report in 2016. During the era of heavy Asian migration to the United States, Asian-Americans were typically conformists and did not speak up within the group due to language and cultural barriers. However, they invariably got better grades and performed better academically from a young age than other ethnic groups, while their families enjoyed relatively good economic status.
And while these factors of family education, racial values, and cultural differences have clearly contributed to outstanding performances among Asian-Americans today, the “don’t rock the boat” conformity transmitted through their thinking has lead to bullying and discrimination in American society.
Many Asian-Americans grew up repressed, accustomed to quiet acceptance and trying not to attract attention. They also rarely stood up for themselves, and these phenomena accompanied the second generation into the workplace as it entered society. In the late 1950s, Asians in the U.S. experienced a significant increase in economic might, yet at the same time their identity conflicts became increasingly glaring.
A series of excellent short videos produced by AJ+, Al Jazeera’s digital media platform, depicts the discrimination and difficulties Americans of Asian descent have faced over the decades.
Even though they have commanded attention with their intellectual prowess, hard work, and professional capacities, the stereotype of reserved, submissive, passive ethnic Asians persists widely throughout American society, keeping them just a hair’s breadth from executive leadership positions. I personally know countless Asian-Americans born and raised in the U.S., ones we call ABCs, ABKs, and ABJs, whose passports clearly proclaim them as Americans, yet whose compatriots carry prejudices or latent discrimination, considering them “outsiders.”
To some degree, that unpleasant yet biting feeling is somewhat akin to Taiwan’s awkward status in the international community: We carry passports and identification cards - items that “define” our nationality - yet complicated political factors constantly challenge our identity, where other people can tell us at any time whether or not we belong to a certain nationality or local population.
Bamboo Ceiling: Two Stereotypes of Asians in US Society
A study conducted by the Harvard Business Review explicitly names two stereotypes of Asians in American society, namely that they are strong in terms of competence and weak in terms of social skills. To one degree or another, this explains why Asian students applying for admission to Harvard University do not score well on positive personality traits. (Read: Harvard Needs to Address Concerns on Bamboo Ceiling)
American children are encouraged and groomed to be socially proactive - such behavior (stereotypes seen through Asian eyes) as speaking up in class, approaching the teacher to chat after class, active participation in extracurricular activities and clubs, waxing eloquently at length at social functions, and being outgoing about making friends in strange environments. These also happen to be traits that Asian culture, and most first-generation Asian parents, rarely instill in their children.
Because of this, it is no surprise that, even if Asian-Americans score higher on such indicators as professional competence (school grades, SAT scores) than their peers of other ethnicities, according to the subjective evaluation of “positive personality traits” (encompassing Likeability, Courage, Kindness, and Being Widely Respected) by Harvard admissions staff, they fail to impress.
Lacking social and cultural attention, these stereotypes have stealthily contributed to the creation of the “ceiling effect,” also known as the “bamboo ceiling.”
Source: The Economist
Return to Reality: Wealth Gap Among Ethnic Asians
Returning to where this article began, moviegoers of Asian descent accounted for 40 percent of Crazy Rich Asians’ audience in its first week in theaters in the United States, compared to the 11 percent of the movie audience that ethnic Asians account for on average. The ethnic Asian consciousness that this movie brought out is extraordinarily high, while it also resounded with many of their feelings.
An article appearing in the Huffington Post shortly after the film’s release claimed that viewers of other races would be unable to recognize the Asian cultural values and significance behind the movie, while “even the most hardened Asians would be crying in the theater.”
Source: Pew Research Center
Getting back to reality, although Asian-Americans have a high “overall” or “average” income, the gaps between them are the largest among all racial groups. Over 40 years of immigration to the U.S., Asian-Americans similarly face the same widening gaps between the haves and the have nots. Simply stated, wealthy Asian-Americans are extremely wealthy, but poor Asian-Americans are even poorer.
When people speak about “Asians” in America, the perception among most people centers on so-called “mainstream Asians,” which broadly refers to earlier immigrants from China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, or India. And according to statistics compiled by the The Wall Street Journal, Indian-Americans have the highest income of all Asian immigrant groups.
However, the vast majority of the immigrant population from Southeast Asia, including those from India, Laos, Cambodia, and Bangladesh, falls into the lower income economic tier, performing blue collar tasks, even if they recently migrated to the U.S. Research suggests that this has to do with when they migrated.
Recent Immigrants Walk the Path of Earlier Immigrants: ‘Have we forgotten that our ancestors were immigrants, too?’
The United States, whose population composition is complex, experiences a constant influx of immigrants, all of whom retrace the steps of those migrants that came before them - starting from scratch to form a family and raise subsequent generations.
Recent immigrants from Southeast Asia retrace the paths trod by Northeast Asian migrants in the 1980s. And did Northeast Asian migrants not walk in the steps of Jewish, Italian, Irish, and German migrants from Europe to the U.S.?
Naturally, such aspects as political factors, laws and regulations, and refugee movements are issues too large to take on in this article. Nevertheless, I would propose that “who I am” and “my self-identification” are not defined by appearance, skin color, facial features, or the passport in our hands - We should, and be willing to believe, that cultural backgrounds and life experience comprise who we are today.
Whether in the U.S., Taiwan, or other countries, the world under globalization increasingly resembles a global village as well as a racial and cultural melting pot. So are we capable of tolerating and understanding “others,” and welcoming migrants to our land?
This is an issue that we, as the new generation, must deal with and learn about together.
Translated from the Chinese Article by David Toman
Edited by Shawn Chou
This article presents the opinion or perspective of the original author / organization, which does not represent the standpoint of CommonWealth magazine.
Crossing features more than 200 (still increasing) Taiwanese new generation from over 110 cities around the globe. They have no fancy rhetoric and sophisticated knowledge, just genuine views and sincere narratives. They are simply our friends who happen to stay abroad, generously and naturally sharing their stories, experience and perspectives. See also CrossingNYC.