Z&G Chapter 20 - Chapter Twenty ff The “Model...

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Unformatted text preview: Chapter Twenty ff The “Model Minority” Deconstructed - Lucie Chang and Philip Q. Yang Introduction “I thought I would never say this; But these new immigrants are ruining things for us.” Iim Yamada, a third-generation Japanese American, said in disgust. “Asian Americans fought for decades against discrimination and racial prejudice. We want p to be treated just like everybody else, like Americans. You see, I get real angry when people come up to me and tell me how good my English is. They say: ‘Oh, you have no accent. Where did you learn English?’ Where did I learn English? Right here in America. I was born here like they were. We really hated it when people assume that just because Asian Americans look different we were foreigners. It took us a long titne to get people to see this point, to be sensitized to it. Now the new immigrants are setting us back. People see me now and they automatically treat me as an immigrant. I really hate that. The Worst thing is that these immigrants don’t under~ stand why I am angry.” “Am I an Asian American? No, I Vietnamese,” Le Tran asserted. “Actually, I am Vietnamese—Chinese. I came from Vietnam, but my ancestors were Chinese. Well, now maybe you can call me an Asian American. However, I don’t usually identify myself that way.” Her ethnic identity proves elusive. Some people tell her only those Asians born in the United States are Asian Americans; others say only Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Filipinos are Asian Americans because their ances— tors came here long ago and shared a history of discrimination; still others say one has to have citizenship or at least a green card to be Asian American. “It’s all so confusing! Does it matter?” she asked. I . “My husband is a kongzhong feiren (spaceman or trapeze flier),” sighed Mrs. Li, the wife Of a Chinese immigrant engineer turned entrepreneur: “There is no normal family life. But I am glad that he isn’t like so many other ‘trapeze fliers’ who keep a ‘wife’ in every city.” Dr. Li flies from Los Angeles to Taipei, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong every other month, managing a thriving garment manufacturing business. He anticipates tough competition from Taiwan entrepreneurs who are moving their plants to Indonesia to take advantage of cheap labor without the uncertain politics of the People’s Republic of China. These vignettes paint an initial portrait of Los Angeles’s changing Asian American 459 460 LUCIE CHENG AND PHILIP Q. YANG communities. For Americans of Asian descent, ethnicity seems to have undergone periodic reconstruction. From the early immigration of the nineteenth century to the end of World War II, Asians in America identified themselves as distinct ethnic groups: Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos. Each group was brought to the United States to meet the specific labor needs of the time and suffered the somewhat similar fate of discrimination, restriction, and exclusion. These similar experiences gave rise to a‘new identity constructed during the civil rights era. In order to gain political access, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos became “Asian Americans” (Espiritu 1992). But no sooner wasthis new identity established than a new, post-1965 wave of immigrants from Asia coming from a wider range of countries called the concept of Asian American into question. Speaking different languages and engaging in distinct cultural practices, the new immigrants reversed, if only temporarily, the trajectory of pan—Asian integration. Their separate ethnic identities as Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and so forth strengthen—are strengthened by—international ties thatibind the global political economy. Between 1970 and 1990, two parallel migration streams from diverse Asian coun— tries converged in Los Angeles (Liu and Cheng 1994). The first was made up of highly educated Asian immigrants who joined the local professional—managerial class, usually on the lower rungs of the ladder, and slowly worked their Way up. As new members of this class, which is becoming increasingly international, these immigrants are supported by a large group of other Asian immigrants who fill the semiskilled and unskilled jobs in manufacturing and services. While Asian immigrant profession- als serve as a link to the most advanced sectors of the world economy, the less- developed sectors are maintained by less~skilled immigrant labor. Entrepreneurship is a common characteristic of Asian immigrants. Although tra- ditional Mom-and—Pop stores are still significant in the ethnic economy, Asian businesses are increasingly diverse in size and scope. They not only fill niches in the local Los Angeles economy but create international business networks, as well. For example, Chinese immigrants and Vietnamese refugees have played a unique role in the development of bilateral trade between the United States and their countries of origin, contributing to the privatization of the economy in China and Vietnam as well as to the transformation of businesses in Los Angeles. The restructuring of the world political economy has created not only multinational corporations but also an emerging group of transnational residents whose activities and presence weave an international network of professional and business people. Asian participation in this network is gaining significance (Ong et al. 1992). Once limited to jobs as profession- als, entrepreneurs, and low—skilled laborers, Asian immigrants now include a growing number of capitalists looking for investment opportunities in the United States. Not only do their occupations reinforce capitalism as an economic system, but at the same time their influx into the United States and their comparatively greater social mobility help strengthen the capitalist ideology of meritocracy and its ethno-racial _ variant, the “model minority” (Ong et al. 1992) - On the other hand, the conditions that Asian immigrants encounter may not long support the optimistism with which so many arrive. The visibility and the high profile of their residential enclaves and their occupational niches in particular have (D mflmFfi'va-smnw ,_... The “Model Minority” Deconstructed 461 tapped into undercurrents 0f racism and nativism deep in the American psyche. Many Asian Americans maintain that a “glass ceiling” keeps them from getting ahead, and these charges of discrimination have increased over the last decade. Anti— Asian violence has erupted in several major American cities. Alarmed by the resur— gence of anti-Asianism, federal and state agencies have begun to monitor racial crime. An upsurge in hostility and discrimination, coupled with the changing Asian demo- graphics, has made pan—Asian solidarity an issue of necessity and urgency for all groups of Asian descent. Nevertheless, historical rifts and current relations among Asian groups also pose challenges to Asian American identity. Asian immigrants are victims of racism in two ways. They suffer from discrimi- nation from non-Asians, and, yet, at the same time, many Asians discriminate against other racial groups. Coming from very different national backgrounds, often also from more culturally homogeneous societies, some Asian immigrants seem less tolerant of diversity. Cultural conflict aggravates already strained economic relations between Asians and other disadvantaged minorities. As victims of racism in the first sense, Asians are a progressive force for change. But Asian racism itself threatens to push the community toward conservatism. This chapter focuses on the diversity of Asian Americans. What significant changes have occurred in the Asian American population in the past three decades? How well do Asians fare, and how do they adapt to the changing social environment? Do Asian experiences challenge or reinforce common stereotypes and concepts, such as “model minority” and “glass ceiling,” which are thought to be especially applicable to Asian Americans? Finally, what do the changing intergroup relations mean for Asian Amer— icans, for the formation of a pan-Asian ethnicity or coalition, and for the needs and aspirations of the reconstituted Asian ethnic groups? These are the main questions addressed in the following sections. Immigration and Changes in Ethnic Composition The rapid restructuring of the Pacific Rim political economy, ushered in by a long- term crisis in advanced capitalism, the advent of the global economy, and the challenge of ascending East Asian states, has influenced profoundly the pattern of immigration to the United States in the last two and half decades (Ong et al. 1994). In 1965, less than 7 percent of all immigrants to the United States were from Asia. In 1970, the figure rose to 25 percent, and in 1980 to 44 percent. Although Asian immigration continues to rise in the 19905, official statistics from the Immigration and Naturalization Service show that the Asian share of total immigration during the 19805 dropped to 22 percent. This decline is more illusory than real, however, largely reflecting the results of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). This aCt legalized a largely Mexican and Latin American origin population, many of whom had arrived in the United States prior to 1982.1 Four general features distinguish the new wave of Asian immigration from the old: a larger size, a higher percentage of women, greater ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, and more extensive—as well as intensive—global linkages. These same 462 LUCIE CHENG AND PHILIP Q. YANG features characterize Asian immigrants to Los Angeles. The Los Angeles region, a significant gateway of the Pacific Rim and an emerging “global city,” is a favorite destination of post-1965 Asian immigration. In this multiethnic region, Asians have been the fastest-growing segment of the population over the past two and half decades, largely because of immigration. In 1970, 240,000 Asians lived in Los Angeles, about 2 percent of the total population. By 1990, with over 1.3 million Asians making up 9 percent of the total population, the Los Angeles region Was home to» the single largest Asian population in the nation, far surpassing other major Asian centers such as San Francisco-Oakland, Honolulu, and New York. Between 1970 and 1990, the region’s Asian population increased by 451 percent, ten times the regional average population growth rate (46 percent) and significantly more than the runner-up, the Latino population, which shot up by 236 percent. In contrast, the black population barely increased (0.4 percent), and the white population declined. While all Asian groups experienced large increases in absolute size and relative population share, rates varied considerably between 1970 and 1990. The Korean and Indian populations, each beginning with a small base, increased dramatically, by more than 1,000 percent, while the already established Chinese and Filipino groups showed impressive growth, 626 percent and 563 percent, respectively. The Vietnam— ese, Who began to settle in southern California after North Vietnam’s conquest of South Vietnam in 1975, increased from 48,320 to 142,890 between 1980 and 1990, a 196 percent growth rate in one decade (see Figure 20.1). Vietnamese are the largest of several groups whose presence became visible after FIGURE 20.1 Growth of Asian Population, L05 Angeles Region, 1970—1990 1,400,000 1,200,000 1 1,000,000 .4 800,000 —1 51970 600,000 4 400,000 1 _"U93<l<‘ht—-ay The “Model Minority” Deconstructed 463 1970. Cambodians and Laotians were also absent from the region before the Ameri— can involvement in the Vietnam War and internal strife on the Indochinese peninsula led to their arrival. Korean immigration began in the early twentieth century in small numbers and increased after the Korean War, as war brides and orphans adopted by Americans arrived. It was not until 1965, the year in which the discriminatory national origins quota system was abolished, that Koreans began moving to the United States in larger numbers. The change in immigration law also affected estab- lished groups such as Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos, whose foreign—born popula- tions consist mostly of post—1965 immigrants. Most of the foreign—born Asians came after the enactment of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. In particular, almost all foreign-born Vietnamese, Koreans, and Asian Indians arrived after 1965. The new immigration also ended the demographic predominance of the Japanese in transforming Asian American Los Angeles into a multiethnic community. In 1970, the Japanese, accounting for 51 percent of the region’s Asian population, were the largest and dominant group. But, with fewer immigrants and a low fertility rate, the Japanese lost their top—ranking position; no single dominant group replaced them in the new mix of Asiangroups that emerged over the next two decades. By 1990, the Japanese stood fourth (with 14 percent of the region’s Asian population), following the Chinese, with 23 percent, the Filipinos, with 22 percent, and the Koreans, with about 15 percent. Vietnamese and other Asians each accounted for somewhat more than 10 percent of the total Asian population in 1990. The influx of new immigrants also reversed the earlier demographic dominance of the U.S. born, as Figure 20.2 shows. In 1970, 57 percent of the Asian population in Los Angeles was made up of Americans by birth; twenty years later, they accounted the foreign—born made up the majority of every for only 31 percent. From 1980 on, t all groups, the proportion of the Asian group except for the Japanese. For almos foreign—born significantly increased from 1970 to 1980, but the increase slowed in the next decade, and for the Vietnamese and Koreans the proportion declined. A rela— tively youthful female immigrant population and lower immigration rates may both have contributed to this change. Although early Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Korean American communities were characterized as bachelor societies, the situation changed after 1965, when U.S. immigration policies were revised to favor of family reunification and large numbers of female immigrants from Asia came to L05 Angeles. The large influx of Asian ' women immigrants generated balanced sex ratios for the major Asian communities, which now have slightly higher proportions of females than males. The future sizes and compositions of the Asian populations will surely reflectthe current age com- positions of women immigrants admitted during the past two decades. The “Model Minority”: Image and Reality mmigration and the resulting changes in ethnic The phenomenal surge of Asian i d the image of Asian Americans as a “model composition have hardly tarnishe 464 LUCIE CHENG AND PHILIP Q. YANG _ FIGURE 20.2 , Foreign-born Asian Population by Ethnicity, Los Angeles Region, 1970—1990 10096 ' 90% 80% 70% 60% 50% 40% 30% 20% 10% 0%~ minority.” This portrayal began in the mid-19605 at a time of massive racial upheaval; the term was first used by the press to depict Japanese Americans who struggled to enter the mainstream of American life and to laud Chinese Americans for their remarkable accomplishments? These accounts conveyed the message that Japanese and Chinese Americans had achieved great success by overcoming discrimination with determination and hard work. Later extended to Asian Americans as a group,3 the label filtered into college textbooks, where it further promoted the image of Asian Americans as minorities who “made it” in this “land of opportunity.” Ever sinCe its inception, the model minority thesis has been a subject of consid— erable controversy, especially from critics who have argued that the image is racially stereotypic, empirically inaccurate, and no longer applicable to the changing Asian American population (Ong and Hee 1994; Takaki 1987). In their View, the model minority label is also objectionable for its political implications, which cast America as a fair, open society and a real land of opportunity, where minorities can make it as long as they work hard. The concept that some minorities could be a “model” thus counters the black militant claim that America is. fundamentally a racist society, structured to keep minorities in a subordinate position. By extolling Asian Americans as a model minority, this critical literature asserts, the established world hopes to set a standard of behavior for other minorities. Despite an unending barrage of attacks, the model minority image has persisted into the 1990s, quite alive if not entirely unscathed. The supporting literature often begins by citing the educational achievements of Asian Americans reported in data from the 1980 and earlier censuses (Hirschman and Wong 1986). Statistics for Los m M. Magma; . fiéizwgwtwmflg, The “Model Minority” Deconstructed 465 Angeles confirm the pattern of high levels of education and disproportionate repre— sentation in universities and colleges but demonstrate significant variations across groups. Compared with U.S.-born non—Asian groups, U.S.-born Asians as a whole had higher levels of educational achievement, in each census year. In 1990, for example, the average U.S.-b0rn Asian adult reported 14.2 years of schooling, the highest among all broad ethnic groups. Not all groups of U.S.-born Asians were equally well educated, however. While Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Asian Indians ranked ahead of U.S.—born whites, Filipinos fell slightly behind and Vietnamese and other Asians fell substantially behind whites, with educational levels similar to or lower than those of U.S.-born blacks and Hispanics. As a whole, Asian immigrants Were less well educated than their U.S.-born co-ethnics. Though relatively small at the beginning of 1970, the immigrant-native gap widened in successive years; by 1990, the average Asian immigrant was slightly less well schooled than the average native white, a reversal of the pattern from twenty years earlier. As average schooling levels for most Asian immigrant groups either improved or stayed the same between 1970 and 1990, the slight decline in average education for the entire Asian group seems largely due to two factors: the influx of poorly educated Vietnamese and other Indochinese in the 19805 and the arrival of female immigrants, whose educational levels were generally lower than those of their male counterparts (Filipinas excepted). Data on the percentage distributions of educational level by ethnicity and nativity in 1990 (Table 20.1) further substantiate the phenomenal accomplishments of Asian Americans in higher education, but again with great variation. Among U.S.-born Asians every group outpaced native whites in completion of the college degree. Of particular note is the disparity between Chinese Americans, among whom 65 percent had finished college, and native whites, among whom 31 percent had finished college. Japanese Americans, the other large group of U.S.-b0rn, also ranked well ahead of whites on this count, as did all the other smaller groups. > A similar pattern held up among immigrants, though with considerably greater variation. Once again, rates of college completion among all Asian groups Vietnam— ese eXCepted, substantially exceeded whites’; even among the Vietnamese, almost half reported some college or more. At the other end of the spectrum, the immigrants were also underrepresented among the ranks of the poorly schooled with a high school diploma or less, pointing to the continued selectivity of Asian immigration to Los Angeles; again, only the Vietnamese exceeded whites on this count. While the schooling profile of adult Asian Americans shows some unevenness, a look at the educational performance of the younger generations erases any doubt. When it comes to school achievement and attainment, Asians leave all other groups far behind in the dust, and that generalization holds for all Asian ethnic groups, regardless of nativity and generational status, which we have broken down by adding a 1.5 generation to capture those...
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