Re-examining the Model Minority Myth: A Look at Southeast Asian Youth1

Nawn V. Chu

Faculty Mentor: Professor L. Ling-Chi Wang


In as little as 100 years of American history, Asian Americans have gone from being the bucked-toothed, slanted-eyed, uncivilized "yellow peril" to the hardworking, musically-talented, and mathematically-brilliant "model minority." The term "model minority" was first coined in the mid-1960s by William Petersen, a social demographer, who believed that the success and achievement of Asian Americans paralleled those of the Jewish Americans. Petersen described Asian Americans and Jewish Americans as examples of two formerly marginalized groups who, because of their hard work and determination, have risen above the ranks of "problem minorities" (Winnick, 1990).

During the decades that followed, researchers and journalists continued to perpetuate the myth of Asian Americans as the model minority both in scholarship and in the media. They have used census data to perpetuate the myth that all Asian Americans belong to the middle class, and have told stories of individual success to generalize that all Asian Americans are achieving the American Dream.

What are not being reported, however, are the experiences of other Asian Americans, such as those of youths like Ming Chang, a Chinese-Cambodian, who is having problems reading and writing English, is failing half his classes, and is experiencing severe depression (Lee, 1996) and Qui, a Vietnamese gang member, who goes out each night to steal stereos so he and his friends can "go out, eat a big dinner and gamble" (Takaki, 1989). Ming and Qui represent a growing number of Asian Americans in recent decades whose experiences have often defied the assumptions made about them by the model minority stereotype.

The purpose of my paper, then, is to focus on the experiences of Asian American youths like Ming and Qui--youths who are poor, illiterate, and far from achieving the American dream. I want to examine some of the reasons for the construction and perpetuation of the model minority myth and discuss how the myth has been applied to Southeast Asian youth in school. Most importantly, however, I want to challenge the use of the myth to divert attention from the various experiences of these youth and to deny them the support they deserve both in and out of school.

Who Are the Southeast Asians?

The term "Southeast Asian," or "Indochinese," is often used in the restricted sense, referring to people from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, who began migrating to the United States in 1975 as political refugees, after Vietnam and its bordering countries were taken over by communism.[2] They include Vietnamese, ethnic Chinese from Vietnam and Cambodia, Cambodians, Khmers, Laotians, Hmongs, and Meins. They are a diverse group of people who speak different languages and have different cultures. As a group, however, they share the common experience of having been uprooted by war and driven by fear of starvation, death, and/or political persecution to flee their homelands. Their journies to the United States have been fraught with tremendous hardships. Families were often separated, and encounters with death and destruction were more common than not. Their experiences as refugees are qualitatively different from the experiences of other Asian immigrants to the United States, such as many Japanese, Chinese and Koreans, who were/are mostly "voluntary" immigrants. To simply lump Southeast Asian refugees as Asian Americans and fit them, or any other group of Asian Americans, into the model minority stereotype is unfair and simply wrong. Southeast Asian refugees deserve special attention and services in school and in other sectors of society because, as will be shown in a later section, many are poor and illiterate. Many lack necessary language and vocational skills to find good-paying jobs while others are experiencing severe depression, or post-traumatic stress syndrome.

An understanding of the history and diversity of the Southeast Asian community is especially important for teachers and educators, who must teach a generation of students who often find themselves in very difficult positions, caught between often contradictory cultures--one constantly reminding them of their past, and the other trying to teach them new and "better" ways. In addition to being trapped between cultures, many of these students will also find themselves bound in a system that often perceives them as "model minority students" and, as a result of misperception, will fail to serve their needs.

The Model Minority Myth

Although on the surface the stereotype of Asian Americans as a model minority seems flattering, complimentary, and positive, the reasons for construction of the myth and the effects it has on Asian Americans and other minorities are quite the opposite. Since its inception in the 1960s, the model minority myth has been used as a hegemonic device to maintain the dominance of whites (Lee, 1996). One way this has been done is by imposing a categorical label on all Asian Americans that, as Lee writes, "silence[d] the multiple voices of Asian Americans . . . creating a monolithic monotone." The label further erased "ethnic, cultural, social-class, gender, language, sexual, generational, achievement, and other differences" (Lee, 1996, p.6).

White dominance has also been maintained by pitting Asian Americans against blacks and other minorities, especially during the sixties, when blacks and other minorities were demanding social equality. The myth was used to discredit other minorities' claims of injustice and to set standards for how other minorities should behave (Lee, 1996). Related to this idea of the model minority myth serving to divert attention away from racial inequalities, is the idea that the myth is used in attempts to erase racial differences as a determining factor in achieving any kind of success in America. The myth tells us first that the American dream exists, and secondly that racial inequalities don't; that is, America is nonracist in that the racial differences that exist between different groups of Americans do not play a role in achieving the American dream. Therefore, given this assumption that America is still a land of equal opportunity, "success" comes to those who are determined and work hard, and that failure comes to those who are lazy and don't try, regardless of race.

By taking a critical look at how the model minority myth has been constructed and perpetuated in the popular press and in scholarship, one can get a better understanding of how the widespread acceptance of the myth contributes to the perpetuation of white dominance.

The image of Asian Americans as a model minority began in the mid-sixties, a time of great social change and uncertainty. Racial tension ran high during the long hot summers, resulting in urban race riots and mass demonstrations for civil rights. It was gainst this backdrop that the model minority stereotype emerged, pitting Asian Americans against blacks and other minorities.[3] Blacks and other minorities charged that systemic discrimination existed and that this discrimination had kept blacks and other minorities in low-paying jobs, run-down schools, and ghetto housing. In response to these charges, the model minority myth is used to assert that Asian Americans have faced similar discrimination, and yet because of their hard work and determination, they have finally "made it." This clearly implies that the system is not to be blamed, and that discrimination, even if it did exist, should not be debilitating if one works hard and is persistent, as Asian Americans supposedly are. If one accepts this premise, it then logically follows that blacks and other minorities fail not because of discrimination, but because of their own laziness. Instead of complaining, these other minorities should model themselves after Asian Americans; hence the term "model minority."

The model minority stereotype has continued to follow Asian Americans into the 1980s and 1990s, and has been extended to include Asian American students and Southeast Asian refugees. In the 1980s the Asian American model minority myth began to be used to counter widespread criticisms that American schools were producing lower-quality students.

In a Scientific American article entitled "Indochinese Refugee Families and Academic Achievement," authors Caplan, Choy, and Whitmore (1992) specifically discuss Southeast Asian refugees and offer up this group's record of academic achievement as proof that the American public school system "has retained its capacity to teach" (p. 42). The three authors conducted a study in which they compared the test scores and grade-point averages of Southeast Asian students to national averages. They found that for the most part, Southeast Asian youth performed better than most of their non-Asian student peers, and concluded from this "success" of Southeast Asian youths that there is little wrong with the American school system, and therefore, there is little need for fundamental educational reform. This notion is precisely what I will challenge in the next section.

Southeast Asian Students in American Schools

Because Southeast Asian refugees have often been grouped within the larger category of Asian Americans, little has been reported on the academic performance of Southeast Asians specifically. Generally, they are considered "good students" as described by the myth: well-behaved, hard-working, and successful in school. In my research, I have only come across two large-scale studies that were specifically designed to assess the performance of Southeast Asian youth in school. One of these studies, conducted by Caplan, Choy, and Whitmore (1991), found that Southeast Asian students fit the model minority stereotype. To get a more complex, less stereotypical understanding of the experiences of Southeast Asian students in American schools, one should take a look at a study conducted by Ruben Rumbaut and Kenji Ima (1989) in San Diego, California, from 1986 to 1987. Their study not only debunks the myth of Asian American students as model minority students, but helps to show the many dangers in subscribing to such a myth. Ultimately, the implication of their research is that there is a need for fundamental school reforms.

General Academic Performance

One of the most basic findings by Rumbaut and Ima (1989) was that many Southeast Asian students lack basic English skills. In short, Rumbaut and Ima have found that when compared to their Hispanic peers, who are also non0-native English speakers, two-thirds (67 percent) of Southeast Asian high school students remain limited in their English-speaking proficiency through their junior and senior years in high school, compared to only 43 percent of Hispanic students.

Struggling to learn English is a major problem for Southeast Asian students, as it is for other minorities, but there are few programs designed specifically to help them. Even in states with a diverse immigrant population such as California, bilingual education programs are still mostly geared toward native Spanish speakers. There are, however, a half-million Southeast Asian refugees in California, including 50,000 Hmong (half all Hmong in the U.S.), 100,000 Laotians, 100,000 Khmers, and somewhere between 250,000 and 350,000 Vietnamese. This total constitutes roughly 50 percent of the Southeast Asian population living in the U.S.

The serious lack of educational attention paid to Southeast Asian students is demonstrated in other ways. For one, there is an extreme shortage of Cambodian, Hmong, Vietnamese, and other Southeast Asian teachers in Californian schools. Presently in California, there are 72 certified bilingual Vietnamese teachers and 47,663 Vietnamese-speaking students (a ratio of 1:662); 28 certified Hmong teachers to 31,156 Hmong students (1:1,113); and 5 certified Khmer teachers to 20,645 Khmer-speaking students (1:4,129).[4] This shortage of Asian American teachers, which includes a lack of Southeast Asian teachers qualified to teach NEP/LEP (Not English Proficient/Limited-English-Proficiency)[5] students, has had a tremendously negative impact on the learning of English and on general school performance among Southeast Asian students.

For example, in one of my interviews with several Southeast Asian youths in the Oakland area, a Vietnamese student told me that when she first started school about five years ago, she was placed in a class taught by a teacher who knew little of the Vietnamese culture or language. Yet, everyone in the class was Vietnamese. The teacher, she said, "[didn't] care. He just give us worksheets and tell us to be quiet." She even reported that the teacher would sometimes get mad and throw things at the students. Once he threw something that hit her on the head. When asked why she didn't report it to an administrator, she said, "because my parents don't know how to speak [English]."

From this example and other similar examples gathered during my research, it is clear that the problem is not only a lack of teachers qualified to work with bilingual Southeast Asian students, or even a lack of counselors or administrators who can act as liaisons between school and the Southeast Asian community. The fundamental problem is a blatant lack of sensitivity and understanding on the part of schools and teachers concerning the needs of Southeast Asian students.

This lack of sensitivity and concern for Southeast Asian refugee youth in the educational system is largely a result of the model minority myth. Because the myth lumps Southeast Asian students together with the larger category of Asian Americans and labels them all as "successful," the common perception is that Asian Americans don't have any problems and therefore don't warrant additional consideration, whether in terms of classroom time or need for special programs. The needs of Asian students who aren't successful are simply overlooked.

When school administrators or teachers do recognize that many Southeast Asian students are having problems in school, however, the model minority myth still plays a role in discounting their experiences and preventing them from receiving help. Southeast Asian students who are not doing well in class because of language or other difficulties are simply graded for their "good" or "respectful" behavior, while their language and academic problems are overlooked. Those who have behavioral problems, such as skipping class and getting into fights, are simply dismissed as "some kind of mutant Asian"[6] (Lee, 1996, 67). In the end, the same old model minority stereotype remains intact, with perhaps this qualification: Asian Americans are good, well-behaved, successful students, with the possible exception or a few "rotten apples."

Case Study of "At-Risk" Southeast Asian Youth

The following case study, illustrating the bind many Southeast Asian youth find themselves in when cast as the model minority, is taken from a larger study of Southeast Asian refugees conducted in the San Diego area. The observations recounted in the following section are from an article entitled, "Testing the American Dream: Case Studies of At-Risk Southeast Asian Refugee Students in Secondary Schools" by Kenji Ima (1995) concerning students at McKinley High School. in San Diego.[7]

McKinley High School is located in a low-income neighborhood, and has a student body that is predominantly Latino, Southeast Asian, and Black. In and out of school, tension between the different ethnic groups runs high. Fights sometimes break out between the different groups. Ima pointed out that when fights break out, Vietnamese students are often victimized because they are smaller. The model minority myth has led to tension between Asian Americans and other minorities not only because of the image the myth perpetuates that Asian Americans are nerds or teachers' pets (and also weak and nonthreatening) but also because of the belief the myth fosters in other students that teachers treat Asian Americans better. Because of these assumptions, Southeast Asian students at McKinley High School are often picked on by their non-Asian peers. When a fight breaks out, Vietnamese students are likely to be victimized by instigators of the fight, and they are also more likely to be placed on suspension by teachers and administrators. Teachers more frequently punish Vietnamese students, possibly because of the influence that Asian stereotyping has had on the teachers' attitudes. It may be that teachers perceive Vietnamese students as more willing to endure humiliation and punishment without complaint. It may also be that because these particular Vietnamese students don't fit the teachers' preconceived stereotype of Asian American model minorities as well-behaved high-achievers, that they are dismissing these students as some variety of "mutant Asian" in an attempt to reconcile their expectations with contradictory reality.

This kind of myth-based misperception puts many Southeast Asian students in an extremely tough bind, leaving them with nobody to turn to for help except themselves. Consequently, many Southeast Asian students join gangs in order to protect themselves, to gain a sense of control and self-worth, and to actively resist being perceived as physically weak and nonthreatening.

In another San Diego school, a race riot broke out between different racial groups of students, in which Asian students were attacked by Black, Latino, and White students. Typically, the majority of students who were suspended as punishment for the fighting were Southeast Asians. According to Ima, "The negative experiences that Cambodian students brought away from the race riot at the school tend to reinforce what they hear from their parents . . . that the world is dead and there is no future except in association with other Cambodians" (Ima, 1995, 209).

Unlike their "successful" counterparts, however, these at-risk Southeast Asian students and their NEP/LEP peers are getting little attention from the media or from the educational system. Their voices and experiences are displaced by those of their more successful peers who happen to fulfill the expectations raised by the model minority myth; and consequently, few of their problems and concerns are being addressed.


Unless we as a society begin to recognize the needs of and problems faced by Southeast Asian youth in and out of school, we cannot begin to find ways to help them. In order for us to come to recognize their needs and concerns, we must first re-examine our own views and actively resist the seemingly flattering model minority stereotype. It is especially important for teachers and school administrators, who play such a crucial role in the development of Southeast Asian students, to become aware of the pernicious effects of the myth, and to resist its influence. They must find ways that will prove effective in addressing the particular needs of Asian American students in their schools. Effective approaches may include, but are not limited to, hiring teachers qualified to teach NEP/LEP Southeast Asian students, restructuring classes, re-examining what is taught and how it is taught, celebrating the culture of Southeast Asian students and other minority students, building relationships with parents and the surrounding communities, and working with community tutoring or mentoring programs. Whichever approaches individual schools may choose, the goal should be to improve the lives and the quality of education of Southeast Asian youth.


1 This article is a condensed version of a longer research paper which includes more detailed case expamples. Those interested in reading the larger study may contact me at

2 During W.W.II (1939-45), Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh led the Communist party against the French in order to regain independence for Vietnam. In 1954, when the conflict ended, the country was divided in two. North Vietnam was ruled by a communist government, while South Vietnam continued to be ruled by the French. The communists thought the division was only temporary, and that a national election would establish a new government which would reunite the South and the North. Instead, with the support of the United States, a new government was established in South Vietnam to counter the communist north. What followed in the 1960s was a civil war, or the Vietnam War, which extended into Laos and Cambodia. In Laos, the communist government of Vietnam gave support to communist leader Pathet Lao, while the U.S. backed the Royal Lao. Pathet Lao gained control of Laos in 1975 and began his campaign of bloody repression. The war was extended into Cambodia in 1965 when the Cambodian government permitted North Vietnamese troops to move supplies through Cambodia. In response, the United States sent bombers into Cambodia to destroy North Vietnamese supply lines. In 1975 communist troops in Cambodia led by Pol Pot came to power. They murdered hundreds of thousands of educated and professional Cambodians and left others to die of disease and starvation in the "killing fields." An estimated 2 million people were killed.

[3] It should be noted that prior to this period and even up to the present, discourse on race has largely focused on the relations between Blacks and Whites, and Asian Americans have often been excluded. Lee (1996) offers three explanations why Asian Americans have been absent from the discourse on race: (1) There is a perception that there are simply not enough Asian Americans to warrant consideration. (2) In contrast to other minorities in America, Asian Americans are perceived as unassimilable foreigners. Or similarly, Asian Americans are immigrants, not minorities. (3) As perpetuated by the model minority myth, Asian Americans don't have any problems, and therefore don't warrant any consideration.

[4] As of May 1997, according to an article in the San Francisco Examiner entitled "Bridging the Language Gap: Immigrants Put Teachers to the Test" (Guthrie, 1997).

[5] LEP, or Limited English Proficient, describes students whose native language is other than English and who have yet to acquire enough oral or written proficiency in English to attend mainstream classes. NEP, or Not English Proficient, classifies those who speak virtually no English.

[6] The quote was taken from one of Lee's interviews with a Southeast Asian student in which the student talked about how the myth of Asian Americans as math geniuses has affected her, an average math student: "I used to go into classes and if you don't do that well in math or science, the teacher is like, "What are you? Some kind of mutant Asian? You don't do well in math. . . ." You see, I'm not that good in math. I also find that a lot of my friends become upset if they're not good students. . . . I don't think it's right for them to have to feel defensive. And for people who are doing well, it's just like, "Oh, they [Asians] didn't have to work for it . . . they're just made that way." (Lee, 1996, 67)

[7] Due to the constraints of my own on-site observational study, I have decided to pick a case study already conducted by another researcher and critically re-examine the observations they have made. This approach is, of course, limiting. For the most part, however, it will serve my purpose, which is to illustrate the complexities of the experiences of Southeast Asian youth in school.


Caplan, N. S., Choy, M., & Whitmore, J. K. (1991). Children of the boat people. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

Caplan, N., Choy, M. H., & Whitmore, J. K. (1992). Indochinese refugees families and academic achievement. Scientific American, 266 : 36-42.

Guthrie, Julian. (1997, May 12). Bridging the language gap: Immigrants put teachers to the test. San Francisco Examiner, pp. A1, A8-9.

Ima, K. (1995). Testing the American dream: Case studies of at-risk Southeast Asian refugee students in secondary school. In Rumbaut, R. G. & Cornelius, W. A. (Eds.), California's immigrant children: Theory, research, and implications for educational policy, 191-209. San Diego: Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies.

Ima, K. & Rumbaut, R. (1989). Southeast Asian refugees in American schools: A comparison of fluent-English-proficient and limited-English-proficient students. Topics in Language Disorders, 9 : 54-75.

Lee, S. J. (1996). Unraveling the "model minority" stereotype: Listening to Asian American youth. New York: Teachers College Press.

Takaki, R. (1989). Strangers from a different shore: A history of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.

Winnick, L. (1990, August). America's "model minority." Commentary, 90(2): 22-29.

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