Asian Americans Don't Fit Their Monochrome Image

The stereotype of the `model minority' belies the diversity of Asians in the United Sates and the problems that many immigrants face

DEMOGRAPHERS project that by the year 2000, 10 million people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent will live in the United States. By 2020, the number is expected to reach 20 million. Yet many Americans know little about the fastest growing segment of the population.

Ironically, the relative invisibility of Asian Americans is exacerbated by their widespread image as the "model minority" - hard-working, intelligent people who have made it in America.

The model-minority image is often misleading, however. It is a myth that has hurt the Asian population, says J. D. Hokoyama, president of Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP), a Los Angeles organization founded to develop new leaders in the Asian and Pacific Islander community.

A sizable percentage of the Asian American population is facing poverty, joblessness or underemployment, and lack of access to needed social services, according to a report this year by the LEAP Asian Pacific American Public Policy Institute and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

Asian Americans are not always treated in a model way. "Contrary to the popular perception that Asian Americans are a `model minority,' ... [they] face widespread prejudice, discrimination, and denials of equal opportunity," says a 1992 report of the US Commission on Civil Rights.

Monona Yin, director of development and public policy for the Committee Against Asian American Violence, based in New York City, says that 131 cases of bias-related crime against Asian Americans in New York were reported between 1987 and 1992. Many other hate-crime incidents go unreported, Ms. Yin says.

LEAP's Mr. Hokoyama sees, in part, a hidden agenda behind the positive stereotyping of Asian Americans. The model-minority image emerged, he contends, in the mid-1960s - a time of racial unrest, when some whites wanted to discredit the growing militancy and demands for social justice by African Americans.

"In general, the portrayal [of Asians as a model minority] has not been very fair because the community is so complex, and it's much easier to just resort to stereotypes than to deal with the reality of those complexities," says Diane Yen-Mei Wong, former executive director of the Asian American Journalists Association and a consultant to Unity '94, a coalition of four national minority journalism associations.

Stereotypes are always based upon some aspect of truth that is blown out of proportion, says Henry Der, a San Francisco activist and executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action.

For instance, while it is true that many Asian American youths are successful in school, many other Asian students drop out, Ms. Wong says.

Phuong Do, leadership-program coordinator for the Indo China Resource Action Center, an advocacy and community-resource organization for Southeast Asian refugees in Washington, says schools do not pay attention to the needs of Asian students. "They don't see them as people in need,"she says.

There are also differences in socioeconomic levels between the established Asian minorities and the recent immigrants and refugees, Hokoyama says.

Recent arrivals, such as the Southeast Asian refugees - Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmongs - tend to be in a much more precarious economic and psychological state than established groups such as the Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, and Koreans. Most members of the established Asian groups emigrated to America willingly, Hokoyama points out; whereas many members of the more recent groups fled to the US to save their lives, with only the possessions they could carry.

"Refugees have an even more difficult time ... understanding this new system. It's the same as if we [Americans] had to move to Ethiopia," he says.

Yet both groups face the same problem when it comes to violence, Wong says. "Hit us with a baseball bat and it doesn't matter if you're a Japanese American, Korean American, or a foreigner, if you are a target of some kind of [anti-]Asian hatred."

Hokoyama says many people think that all Asians are the same. Yet the term Asian and Pacific Islander - a government classification - embraces 59 groups, each with its own language, customs, and culture, he notes.

Mr. Der says society has changed from 25 to 30 years ago, when Asians felt they had to assimilate in order to be accepted. The melting pot theory has "gone down the tube," he says. "To be an American, you don't have to shed your culture," he says.

Yet Hokoyama says that, although Asians have been in the US a long time, they are not considered American. The third-generation Japanese American says people ask him, "Where are you from?" When he answers, "Los Angeles," he says they ask again, meaning "What foreign country are you from."

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