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Transgressions of a Model Minority

Jewish- and Asian-Americans have recently found themselves classed as "model minorities," examples of upward mobility allegedly achieved through thrift, family cohesion, and educational achievement. This ascription has a long history, one dating back at least to nineteenth century America, when Asians—especially Chinese—and Jews were viewed in strikingly similar terms. Defined as outsiders to the black/white binary that governed American race ideology, Jews and Asians were also constructed as money-mad traders and outsiders to assertive norms of Anglo-Saxon masculinity. These negative stereotypes gradually turned, in the last years of the twentieth century, into positive ones: first Jews and then Asians came to model economic self-sufficiency and braininess as means to social success (albeit also as de-masculinized neurotics). But for many Asian-American intellectuals, these comparisons proved—and prove—irritating, and a number of contemporary South- and East Asian-American writer writers like Bharathi Mukherjee and Gish Jen have engaged with the tropes and narrative structures of Jewish-American fiction in order to contest these identifications. No writer has done so more successfully than Lan Samantha Chang, and the essay concludes with a reading of her novella Hunger as a critique of the narratives of aspiration and achievement that fuel the model minority mythos for both Jews and Asians living in the U.S.