Min Zhou
Min Zhou

Min Zhou, professor of sociology and Asian-American studies at UCLA and is now serving as the head of the sociology division of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and director of its Chinese Heritage Center. She is the co-author of “The Asian-American Achievement Paradox.” This op-ed appeared Oct. 16 in the New York Times’ Room for Debate blog.

The extraordinary success of Asian-Americans, despite the difficulties some nationalities in that group face, serves as testimony that the American Dream is attainable for everyone. Remember, less than a century ago, Asian-Americans were perceived as backward, undesirable and unassimilable aliens, full of filth and vice. They faced blunt racism and endured harsh legal exclusion.

Now they are celebrated for not just a strong work ethic, a respect for elders and a reverence for family, but also for educational, occupational and income attainment.

After sifting through life stories of adult children of Chinese immigrants and Vietnamese refugees for our book, the sociologist Jennifer Lee and I concluded that culture indeed matters but not in a mythical, intrinsically Asian, way. In fact, there isn’t such a thing as “Asian culture,” but, rather, a culture of achievement that has been enabled by changes in America’s economy and society, and buoyed by networks of ethnic support.

Massive Asian immigration occurred as America was opening up more opportunities for all Americans, and when the American economy demanded more highly skilled workers.

Asian immigrants, as a group, are more highly educated not only than their compatriots in their home countries but also than average Americans.

While every group may feel the same drive for achievement, the disproportionate number of highly skilled immigrants in the Asian group allows its members to focus narrowly on a few professions predictably attainable via education, such as science, engineering, medicine, and law.

With so many educated, skilled and ambitious members, the group provides role models and creates ethnic capital, such as after-school tutoring and academic enrichment centers in their community, and resources and connections in the larger society. With all this commitment behind them, the children of Asian immigrants are expected to perform exceptionally and to work twice as hard as other Americans. Many have succeeded in doing so.

On the flip side, however, their extraordinary achievements reinforce the model minority stereotype that ends up backfiring, seemingly justifying the idea that race can no longer be a detriment and blaming those who lag behind — or those from less advantaged nationalities — for their lack of success.

Their achievements as a group also make it harder for individual Asian-Americans to gain entry to their parents’ dream colleges and professions. And cultural expectations may keep them from pursuing what their hearts really desire, or make them feel like failures even if they have achieved much.

My son, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, a Stanford Ph.D., and now an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Rochester (fitting the stereotype!), used to say to us, “Don’t expect me to be like you, and don’t expect your grandchild to be like me.” I am skeptical though. Why? They think they are American, but they are America’s model minority.