A couple of weeks ago, I was crossing the New Haven Green when a stranger yelled something my way. In my hurry — and with headphones blasting music in my ears — I was unsure of what he said.
“I’m sorry. Have a good day though!” I replied.
“Do you even speak English? Jesus!”
Fast forward to last week: President Donald Trump issues several executive orders that, among other things, aim to start construction of a Mexican border wall, strip sanctuary cities of federal grants, catalyze mass deportation and ban citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S.
We are now entering the first full week of the Chinese Lunar New Year. This year in particular, the holiday should mean something different for Chinese- and Asian-Americans. Of course, the 15-day holiday always abounds with dumplings, lanterns and Chinese broadcaster CCTV’s annual New Year’s Gala. But as the new year begins, the celebration of family and community must seem jarring, in sharp contrast to the fear and sorrow that our Muslim and refugee neighbors are feeling. Those desperate for asylum remain in harm’s way. Families are being ripped apart, and even those with green cards or legal permission to enter the country face uncertainty about their futures.
It’s surprisingly common for Asian-Americans to feel as if these issues are removed from us. Of course, as a first-generation immigrant from Mike Pence’s Indiana, I had my fair share of racist and xenophobic encounters growing up, from being questioned about my English proficiency to being interrogated about my penis size. But I was conditioned to brush off these experiences, because Asians are often lauded as “the model minority.”
Many scholars more eloquent than I have dissected this myth — its origins and implications — but its gist is this: Asians are hardworking, smart and socially mobile because of their unique cultural characteristics, especially in comparison to other ethnic groups. We’re at the top of every (STEM) class — ostensibly because our tiger moms yell at us if we receive anything less than 100 percent. Since age 2, we decided against playing sports in order to dedicate time to becoming violin and piano virtuosos. Our diets consist of nothing but ramen and rice in order to save every last penny. We become doctors and lawyers.
Going into the new year, it’s time again to reevaluate the model minority myth and fight the tangible harm that it does to Asians as well as other minorities. The myth of Asian cultural superiority can make it seem as though Asians don’t experience racism and xenophobia — even as the image is used to denigrate the achievements and diminish the respectability of other minorities. Asians have historically been used to justify racial segregation and obscure the unique institutional racism and structural violence faced by Black and Latinx communities. If Asian-Americans are to advocate for true liberation, we cannot afford to embrace and weaponize myths cast upon us.
Although we may be conditioned to believe otherwise, Asian-American discrimination continues to exist today. Within the political sphere, we lack power; within the media, we lack cultural representation. Not long ago, the cultural differences that we celebrate today were vilified; today, our model minority status continues to be mobilized against us.
To paraphrase Asian-American history professor Mary Lui, there is a fine line between the model minority and the yellow peril — between being seen as frugal, successful and disciplined, and cheap, selfish and robotic.
Although many Asian-Americans forget this history of racial discrimination, the image of yellow peril haunts our past — and our present. For over half a century, the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese immigration. During World War II, Japanese citizens were forced into internment camps. While the ban on Muslim immigrants and refugees seems alarming and shocking today, it was only 52 years ago that Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Immigration and Nationality Act, which ended racial quotas for immigrants entering the U.S. Today, the Trump administration uses these precedents for discrimination to justify its ban on Muslims and refugees.
A false sense of security that has been imposed on Asian-Americans — we must realize that our histories and struggles are intertwined with the fates of the groups which have been targeted by Donald Trump. Asian-Americans must stand with immigrant, Muslim, Black, Latinx, Native American, queer and other marginalized communities, if we are to learn from our past and take control of our future.
This Chinese New Year, look out for your loved ones and friends. Stand up with the persecuted the same way you would want them to do for you. Use your (perfectly adequate) English — or any other language — to speak out against unconstitutional and discriminatory acts.
Wayne Zhang is a junior in Branford College. He was a former staff reporter for YTV. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Allen Wang contributed research.