Living Up to the American Dream

The Price of Being the Model Immigrants

Magazine Issue
May/June 2008
Living Up to the American Dream

I’m sitting with my husband watching a PBS program on the Jewish American experience. It starts with the first Jews to immigrate to the United States, in the mid-1600s, and those who fought in the Revolutionary War. It’s a history with which even my husband, a third-generation American Jew, is unfamiliar, and it fascinates us. When the timeline reaches the 1950s, a period of accelerating assimilation, the photographs and narratives evoke childhood memories for him. For me, the stories of hard work, overcoming discrimination, and social success bring back memories, too—not because I’m Jewish, but because they remind me of the history of the Japanese American community, in which I came of age.

I was born in Japan, but spent my earliest childhood years in Michigan with my family, before we all returned in Japan to live until I was 17. I then came back to the U.S. for college. During my college years, I worked with Japanese Americans, first as a community volunteer, and then as a social worker. Raised in Japan, I could converse in Japanese with older women—something my English-speaking, third-generation friends couldn’t do. I loved listening to women who’d come to this country as picture brides, arriving via ship holding photos of their husbands, whom they’d never met, and then struggling to make lives for themselves in a new land, where they didn’t speak the language and didn’t understand the culture. In some respects, the challenges they talked about reminded me of my own experiences as a child adapting to a country that seemed so foreign and strange to me.

These women talked about the sudden relocation at the outbreak of World War II and the four years they’d spent incarcerated in camps. They recalled having been told to show up at a race track converted into a preincarceration assembly center and having to sleep in makeshift shacks before a train ride to the desert, where the War Relocation Authority had hastily constructed camps. Each family was allotted a room in the tar-papered barracks. Ironically, some women said the camps offered them an easier life than they’d had before, because they no longer had to toil in the fields. But then, there were the doorless public latrines, unpalatable food in the mess halls, and constant scrutiny by armed guards. Parents weren’t allowed to teach their children Japanese, considered an enemy language. Many married women were effectively single parents, since husbands who’d had leadership roles in the community were held separately in prisoner-of-war camps.

These women were more open to talking about the camps than were their children, who were U.S. citizens and made up two-thirds of the camp population. The younger generation remembered the incarceration as a kind of rape by the government—and many couldn’t talk about their experiences for years because of the shame and humiliation it evoked. Returning from the camps with no money and few possessions, these Japanese Americans had to start over again. Before entering the camps, most had had to sell their belongings and property for almost nothing, and there’s evidence that part of the reason for the internment camps was so that others could take over Japanese farms and businesses. But by the time these conversations took place, 30 years later, they’d overcome amazing odds and achieved astonishing economic success. It was around then that Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans began to be touted as model minorities.

Fast-forward another 30 years, and the image of Asians as a model minority has held, with increasing numbers of immigrants from all over Asia. Today, Asian Americans, already numbering nearly 14 million, are one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the United States. Two-thirds are immigrants, and more than 40 percent entered the country between 1990 and 2000. The six largest Asian groups are Chinese, Filipinos, Indians, Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese.

Asian Americans aren’t the first group to be considered a model minority. Some observers have suggested that the experience of others, such as Jews, anticipates theirs. But does the Asian immigrant experience truly parallel the experiences of Jews and other minorities, all of which faced and overcame discrimination?

If we look only at the statistics, Asian Americans appear to be a successful minority. We have the highest rate of college graduates: 49 percent, compared to 30 percent of whites. In California, where we make up 12 percent of the population, we outnumber white students on each major University of California campus. This pattern is reminiscent of how second-generation Jews excelled academically. Twenty percent of Asians have advanced degrees—the same as non-Hispanic whites, according to the 2007 census. Asians collectively make up 28 percent of the enrollment at the top 20 American business schools.

Asians are disproportionately well represented in the computer, scientific, engineering, medical, legal, and financial services. We constitute 60 percent of Silicon Valley’s professional and technical workforce. The median household income for Asians in 2004 was $57,518, the highest among all racial groups.

What accounts for such success? The widely held opinion that Asians emphasize education is true. The high value we place on academic achievement, both for itself and as a route to business and professional success, is a driving force behind our success. After World War II, Japanese Americans felt that pressuring their children to achieve academically was the only way to ensure they’d have opportunities in mainstream society. Today, Korean parents believe that pushing their children into prestigious universities is the way to regain the social status they lost when immigrating. According to the Korean American Coalition, in the year 2000, close to 55 percent of Koreans born in the United States had at least a bachelor’s degree, along with a median income of $70,000.

Asian parents place pressure on their children to achieve academic success because of their faith in the power of hard work to meet virtually any challenge. East Asian societies don’t emphasize individual character traits, talents, and intellectual capacities as much as Western societies. Many Asians assume that all children, whatever their personal abilities or inclinations, can excel if they just try hard enough. Parents often see academic failure as a lack of application on their children’s part, and continue to push them to redouble their efforts.

Confucian values dictate the norms of East Asian family life, and children are often reluctant to resist their pressure. Filial reverence and obedience are fundamental Confucian principles, not only for Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese people, but also for many Indians and Filipinos. In all these groups, families trump individuals. Putting families first teaches Asians to endure hardships, delay personal gratification, control impulses, and observe group norms—time-tested ways to succeed socially. Asian immigrants typically experience their ethnic communities as extended families, so that to bring shame upon oneself is to bring shame not only upon one’s family, but upon one’s entire community. The group’s minority status in the United States reinforces the communal demands to do one’s duty, conform, and obey, so as to fit into the larger society without creating waves.

A powerful measure of how well Asians fit in is the rate of residential assimilation and intermarriage. At first, Asian newcomers to America, like other immigrants, lived in ethnic urban enclaves. These days, many move from their countries of origin directly to the suburbs. Intermarriage with people from the dominant culture is common among certain Asians, who have much higher rates of intermarriage than whites or blacks: though less than 10 percent of whites or blacks intermarry, more than 30 percent of Asian women and 20 percent of Asian men do. The highest rate of intermarriage with whites is among Korean women—40 percent.

The classic rags-to-riches narrative would seem to be particularly true of Asian immigrants. In fact, since the late 1960s, some Asians have seemingly skipped the rags part of the story, achieving riches the moment they’ve set foot on U.S. soil. In a more upscale version of Hispanic immigrants filling the need for agricultural and other unskilled labor, many Asian newcomers have immediately filled shortages of skilled labor in science, engineering, and medicine. For example, according to Harvard anthropologist Ajantha Subramanian, between 1966 and 1977, 85,000 scientists, physicians, and engineers immigrated to the United States from India. Numerous Korean physicians immigrated after the Korean War. Many medical professionals came from the Philippines, already having re-
ceived training modeled on the U.S. system (a legacy of U.S. colonization). In the 1980s, with unprecedented growth in high-tech industries, many immigrants arrived from China, India, the Philippines, and Taiwan well-trained in computer and engineering technology. During the 1980s and 1990s, Asian immigrants founded about a quarter of the Silicon Valley’s high-tech businesses that survived to 2000. These Asians came with the advantages and means to integrate quickly into U.S. society.

The Business of Immigration and Assimilation

For all the well-known tales of success and assimilation, there’s a less visible and less publicized Asian immigrant story—one remote from the popular and idealized “model minority” narrative. Starting near the top is a sizeable bloc of first-generation Korean immigrants who were educated and held white-collar jobs in Korea, but whose skills didn’t transfer to professional jobs in the United States. These immigrants help form the pool of self-employed small-business owners who seem a salient feature of Korean immigrant life. The Small Business Association counted 135,000 Korean-owned businesses in 1997, and found that Korean Americans have been creating businesses at a rate 70 percent higher than that of other groups. Similarly, Chinese immigrants have carved out a piece of economic terrain by making small Chinese restaurants ubiquitous; there are 43,000 across America, more than all McDonald’s and Taco Bell restaurants combined. To survive, these businesses require virtually nonstop effort by employees, often made up entirely of family members, who work 12- to 18-hour days without benefits, vacations, or time off.

Much further down on the socio­economic scale are Southeast Asian refugees—Cambodians, Hmong, Laotians, and Vietnamese—who fled their native countries as a result of the U.S. war in and around Vietnam. These immigrants tend to be much poorer and far less educated; they speak little or no English, and lack the skills and training that would open doors for them. The Hmong, for example, an agrarian, animist, nonliterate tribal people from the mountains of Laos, fought as guerrillas for the United States and eventually had to flee for their lives. Of the 180,000 Hmong in the United States (mostly in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin), close to 40 percent live in poverty.

About 10 percent of undocumented foreign workers in the United States are from Asian countries. In New York, which has altogether the most Asians of any U.S. metropolitan area, the Bangladeshi population shares the city’s highest poverty rate with Latinos. A high percentage of Cambodians, Pakistanis, and Vietnamese in New York are also very poor. Thousands of these impoverished, uneducated, non-English-speaking people are being smuggled from Asian backwaters to work in the city’s sweatshops and restaurants. In fact, New York is home to more than 12,000 undocumented Chinese workers—mostly farmers or laborers from Fujian Province, virtual slaves to their smugglers until they pay off the debt they incurred in migrating, up to $80,000 per head. Until they can get an economic toehold, they’re desperately poor, living several to a room in tenements, paid as little as $3 or $4 an hour, working 60-hour weeks without benefits of any kind or health care, and afraid to report crimes (including the murder of relatives) for fear of deportation.

The Pressure to Succeed

We Asian Americans are under tremendous pressure to prove ourselves. This pressure both helps and harms young people, who bear the burden of living their parents’ dreams. The tension that young people feel shows itself most forcefully in the educational system, the prime traditional Asian means of getting ahead in life. As James Runsdorf, a dean at Barnard College, Columbia University, reports, many Asian students declare majors based on their parents’ wishes, rather than their own preferences, and often pursue career goals for which they have little interest or aptitude. Unlike other students, Asian students are reluctant to defy their parents, for the same reasons that make them such good students—their internalized sense of duty, obedience, and filial loyalty.

Asian youths are torn in their views of what family life should look like. Those who live in predominantly white suburbs, rather than in ethnic enclaves, compare their own families to idealized American families. Often they see a more democratic decision-making process among their American friends, whose families welcome more openly expressed affection than what they experience at home. They see that their friends’ parents respect their children’s autonomy, and that their family relationships are characterized by intimacy, emotional nurture, support, understanding, and forgiveness. They look at their own parents, feel the lack of those qualities in their own homes, and resent their parents’ emotional distance and emphasis on family obligations.

My friend Laura Shiozaki Lee, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, says that before her Asian American clients can begin to appreciate their parents for the people they are, they often go through a mourning process for not getting the kind of parenting they wanted. She says that even fourth- and fifth-generation Asians often don’t realize that their parents’ love for them is filtered through traditional Asian values of emotional self-restraint and composure.

When academic pressure mounts, they feel that they can’t reach out to their families for help. As a result, many get depressed and do poorly in school. Some intentionally sabotage their schoolwork, as an indirect way of resisting their parents’ pressure. Others commit suicide. The rate of suicide among Asian youth is high: at Cornell University, 13 of the 21 campus suicides since 2003 have been committed by Asian students.

Suicide rates are especially high among young Asian women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Asian American women between 15 and 24 years of age commit the most suicides of all U.S. women in this age group: suicide occurs at a rate 2.5 to 3 times higher among Asian women in the United States than among Caucasian women. Some researchers attribute this pattern to the pressure that the women are under to be both high achievers and dutiful daughters. Girls in Asian families have little freedom and autonomy, compared to sons, who tend to be pampered and expected only to excel in their studies.

Irene Chung, a professor of social work at Hunter College and a psychotherapist in private practice, has studied and worked with Asian female college students who’ve attempted suicide. She cautions against blaming academic pressure for suicidal thinking. Indeed, she finds that young Asian women actually get comfort from the pressure to perform academically; they’re used to it, and it gives them something familiar, something that grounds them as they try to navigate college life.

What these women aren’t used to is the freedom that they experience for the first time in college. They lack the skills needed to handle relationships with men—a new territory for them. They don’t know how to be assertive in their relationships and are devastated when romantic relationships fall apart. The suicidal women studied by Chung had been raised on a steady diet of self-discipline and self-sacrifice, which led to the development of a harshly punishing superego. Their mothers had often been emotionally unavailable, neglectful, or abusive, while their brothers had received conspicuous attention and encouragement. During times of emotional distress at college, particularly when a romantic relationship failed, they couldn’t ward off feelings of self-blame and self-hatred. They felt they had nobody to turn to for emotional support and comfort.

Perpetual Outsiders

While touted for their achievements and strong work ethic, Asians are still often viewed with suspicion and treated as untrustworthy. A prime example of this prejudice was observed in the case of Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwanese American nuclear scientist falsely accused in 1999 of espionage on behalf of China. At the time, both Vice President Al Gore and the Clintons had been accused of receiving illegal contributions from Chinese fatcats, helping spur increased suspicion of Chinese people in general. The media hype about Wen Ho Lee—fed by government leaks—was enormous: the case was called the “biggest spy scandal since the Rosenbergs.” Lee was arrested and charged with 59 counts of mishandling classified information, denied bail, kept in solitary confinement, and forced to wear leg shackles and chains for nine months without ever being charged with espionage. After his release, all charges—except for the mishandling of computer data—were dropped. In 2006, he received a $1.6 million settlement from the government and various news organizations. For Japanese Americans, the way in which hysteria swelled against him and his immigrant group was a chilling reminder of the World War II experience.

Asians continue to be on guard against outbreaks of racial hatred. A more recent example was caused by the shootings at Virginia Tech. The media kept referring to Seung-Hui Cho, the son of Korean immigrants, as a “resident alien,” emphasizing his foreignness. The day after the event, an Asian student came to my office in tears. She felt awful, she said, sitting in class that day because everyone was talking about the incident, and that made her feel self-conscious. She was Japanese, but she felt that the fact that she looked Asian made her blameworthy in the eyes of many Americans.

Second- and third-generation Asian students enrolled in social work programs have confided in me that they feel singled out by their clinical supervisors, typically non-Asian, for characteristics that Asian cultures value. The students feel that their supervisors pathologize their politeness as being emotional unavailability because they don’t readily confront or engage in conversations about emotions with their clients. The students also feel that their clinical supervisors misunderstand their need to respect authority, and label them as passive during supervisory sessions.

Such incidents make obvious a major difference between Asians and groups like Italians, Irish, and Jews. Even fourth- and fifth-generation Asians continue to be treated as if they’re foreigners and asked which country they’re from—a question that one could hardly imagine being posed to fourth- and fifth-generation European immigrants.

One of my Japanese American professors used to wonder how far he’d have gotten in academia if he’d been white. He was an accomplished scholar, but was convinced he might have become a dean or received a high administrative office had he not been Asian. In fact, when he had to move to a smaller office, he said, “Here we go; it’s just like being hauled into camp again.” Was he exaggerating?

Not according to the statistics. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reports that U.S.-born Asian American men are up to 11 percent less likely to hold managerial jobs than white men with the same education and experience. Similarly, ­studies by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission show 18 percent of white Americans with managerial or executive-level jobs in 2000, compared with only 8 percent of Asian Americans. Though as a group, Asian Americans are more highly educated than whites, they’re only 1.5 percent of the top managers at Fortune 1000 companies. Even in Silicon Valley, where they represent 30 percent of technology professionals, they hold only about 12 percent of the managerial positions (Caucasians hold 80 percent). The evidence of a glass ceiling in place for Asians holding professional and technical jobs is compelling.

An Ongoing Discomfort

“Vy are you always vondering if zey vill accept you? You neffer ask if you even vant to be a part of zem. . . . You neffer ask if zey are gut enough for you.” I sometimes hear the voice of my former therapist speaking to me in his thick Austrian accent. He’s right: acceptance is a big issue for me. Of course, acceptance is an issue for most people, and I know that it may be too simplistic to think that my anxiety around being accepted by whites started when I was in the first grade in Michigan, when a white girl in my class refused to hold hands with me. To this day, I recall vividly how she made a funny face by squinting her eyes, letting me know that she didn’t want to touch me because I looked different.

Now that I’m an adult, most of the time, I forget that I’m different. But then certain things happen that jolt me—like the time when I was on the job market and a supposedly well-meaning colleague said, “Oh, they’ll hire you: you’re Asian.” I responded with a polite smile, but inside I felt immobilized: was my colleague trying to say that I’d get the job regardless of my qualifications because I was a person of color? Would my colleague have said the same thing to someone who was black? Probably not.

Being Asian in the context of white society is complicated. In the United States, conversations about race tend to focus on the experiences of blacks and Hispanics, often excluding Asians entirely. This may reflect the fact that, at times, we’re perceived as “honorary whites.” However, there are times when we aren’t accepted as members of the club. Our exclusion is sometimes so subtle that I wonder whether it’s really there or whether I’m just being paranoid. Part of the problem for Asians is the ambiguity we experience about how people really feel about us.

I’m with my husband at an upscale restaurant to celebrate my birthday. I notice we’re seated at one of the least desirable tables in the room—noisy and too close to the entrance. We ask the maitre d’ for another table, but he says that all are taken. Being Asian (and the only nonwhite person in the restaurant at the moment), I don’t know whether I’m being discriminated against or not. “No, it’s not because you’re Asian,” my husband says, sensing my discomfort and reading my mind.

Just as the hors d’oeuvres are being served, the maitre d’ lets us know that a better table has become available. Later, as we leave, the hostess apologizes. This evening ended well. My husband was right: it wasn’t because I’m Asian.

On similar occasions, my husband sometimes jokes that I’m being too self-absorbed: “The real reason we got a lousy table is because I’m Jewish,” he says, smiling gently. He knows, of course, that he can easily “pass” (people often assume he’s Italian).

As is often the case at times like this, I feel relieved and chagrined—glad that I’m wrong this time, but uncomfortably aware that maybe next time I’ll be picking up on real cues. Nobody will ever mistake me for Italian or Jewish or German or, for that matter, Hispanic or African American. But I’m not white, either—and I’ll always be different. My dream, for myself and all the minorities and immigrants in this country, is that one day our “differences” just won’t make any difference to anybody.


Tazuko Shibusawa

Tazuko Shibusawa, PhD, LCSW, is an associate professor at the New York University Silver School of Social Work. She’s also affiliated with the Multicultural Family Institute in New Jersey.