MOSF 17.13: EAAPAAO Part 1: Dutybound Model Minorities, Dependent Sense of Self, and Dying Inside
Memoirs of a Superfan Vol. 17.13: Everything Asian American Psychology All At Once Part 1: Dutybound Model Minorities, Dependent Sense of Self, and Dying Inside
by Ravi Chandra
November 21, 2022
It’s almost Thanksgiving! Why not think about the “meal” made by family and culture?
erin Khuê Ninh (pronounced “AIR-in KWAY NING”) Associate Professor and Chair of Asian American Studies at UC Santa Barbara, does a stellar cartography of pain points in the Asian American psyche in her two monographs to date, Passing for Perfect: College Impostors and Other Model Minorities (2021), and Ingratitude: The Debt Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature (2011). Both books trace uncomfortable, agonizing, and familiar territory, especially for Asian American immigrants and children of immigrants, who comprise over 2/3rds of Asian America, particularly for girls and women, and those who care about them.
There is an ongoing and seemingly unresolvable debate over what impacts our mental health most. Is it parental and familial pressures, relational pressures, all the ways many of our immigrant families denied us affection, acceptance, understanding, guidance, nurture, and support, and instead gave us an experience of abuse, shame, and devaluation? At that, an all-too-often gendered devaluation? Or is it the racism, sexism, homophobia, and other marginalizing forces that are in play beyond our families, and the long tail of war, colonialism, incarceration, deprivation, desperation, and precarity – as yet unresolved transhistorical and cultural traumas? The crass, concrete, intractable empire that wages psywar on our hearts and minds, prompting us to navigate defiance, compliance, and disillusionment?
Or is it how all of these affect our capacities, willingness, and even courage to relate to one another fully as Asian Americans, and create solace, relief, and joy in our here-and-now? How all of it creates a chasm and complex of disconnections which weigh on us, inescapable, unscalable, at times seemingly futile and fruitless?
Regardless of the sources, the impact on sense of self and self-worth are profound, alienating, dissociating, and subordinating. We are left needing, needing someone else to embrace us, or needing something more from ourselves, in order to feel even, or perhaps even eke out some kind of victory. We are left regularly needing, and reeling, too many of us collapsing into ourselves, and even annihilating ourselves, in false certainties of unworthiness and self-loathing. Suicidality, suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety are reportedly up in Asian American and BIPOC youth and young adults, though research seems spotty across the board.
Add to the named family and cultural pressures the pressures of being alive and facing an uncertain future in 2022, and we get profound vulnerability and difficulty in comforting ourselves in times of distress – and these are distressing times indeed. Or paradoxically, perhaps, a time when our plagues are comfortingly, mesmerizingly, glaringly, and pressingly tangible. This is a time for having each others’ backs, and yet we don’t seem to be quite there as a culture, though we’re probably more there as an Asian American community than I’ve seen previously in my lifetime. And perhaps the results of the recent midterms might be a tentative step towards rational commitment to relationship, solidarity, and safety for diverse identities across the nation, against a backdrop of anti-Asian hate, mass shootings, and political rhetoric targeting our community.
In this space of uncertainty and stressful challenge, Ninh’s work poses existential questions relevant for us all. What do we have to do (or be) to “earn” a sense of self-worth, or be seen as worthy by others? How far do we have to go to earn the attention and appreciation of others, or at least avoid criticism, judgment, shame, and ostracism? How can we feel emotionally and physically safe, and promote emotional and physical safety for others?
Every moment not “in” is a moment “out,” a moment dangerously close to peril. And we, as marginalized and vulnerable people, have lived in close quarters with great peril for much of our existences. Awareness of peril births antidote, but before that, trauma and burden.
This essay series, a subset of my MOSF posts, is named after the film that dominated the Asian American zeitgeist this year, Everything Everywhere All At Once (EEAAO), in which the deprived daughter, Joy, goes all out through the multiverse to gain affection from her demanding and depriving mother, Evelyn, herself caught up in a mind-blowing spectacle of alters living out spectra of attainment and love. Evelyn Everywhere All At Once? That’s the way it can feel to a joy-deprived Joy.
The message is clear: being truly present with people you love, really seeing them, changes everything, everywhere, all at once. And tragically, it seems that our culture – and many of our families – are not as strenuously geared towards validating and valuing our humanity as they could be.
The only path towards relief is in the cultivation of healthier relationships to self and other, and a sense of meaning and purpose in one’s life tied to relationship. In other words – love and belonging. Belonging is the opposite of suffering, and yet is a regular, excoriating, shaping struggle. Being isolated by the ill-will, apathy, and neglect of others – parents and family members, or cultural forces – being isolated with difficult emotions produced by disconnection and alienation, is torment. Ninh names significant wounds and wounding narratives, and in the naming, provides relief. Behind every one of us is a backstory. Ninh reminds us to be sensitive to these backstories, and thus the possibility for refuge in each new moment of connection.
I read Passing for Perfect first, appropriately, as Ninh calls it the “prequel” to Ingratitude, and a book “for the desperate and for those who love them.” In focus is the (desperate) “success frame” for self-worth and honor in the eyes of family and community, which has driven some to become impostors, donning a façade of college or graduate school admission, only to have inevitable and public falls, notably Asian Americans and Asian Canadians such as Azia Kim (who pretended to be a Stanford undergrad for 8 months), Jennifer Pan (who faked being a college and pharmacy student, and hired hitmen who killed her mother and injured her father), Elizabeth Okazaki (who passed as a grad student at Stanford), and others, and those involved in the Honor Roll Murder of the 1990s which was transmuted into Justin Lin’s film Better Luck Tomorrow. Most of these are classified as “passers,” those who perform an identity in order to maintain face, gain advantage, or avoid judgment. Ninh asserts that insofar as any of us might hew to the model minority identity, “most of us are ‘passers’ to some degree,” striving to fit in and be a cog in our family’s and culture’s machine.
The notion that all identity involves some level of performance really gets into one’s head. Am I really being “me”? What might I be suppressing in order to conform to expectations of familial and cultural pressures? What parts of me do I put on the back burner or remain unconscious of? Who am I underneath the performances? Also – when I am seen as a “model minority,” what possibilities are erased? What am I forced to avoid?
I guess I’ll just have to keep letting my hair down and find out. Every day, a new discovery and witnessing.
Each of these stories of passing are doors to our subconscious pried open. Ninh peers in with flashlight and insight, and tries to rescue the humanity of perpetrators and the rest of us alike, implicating the system that calls our imperfect humanity “sin.” It’s telling that her most caustic criticism is for bloggers, journalists, and psychologists who view the scenes behind these doors without compassion and with only contempt and condemnation. Ninh reminds us that the Azia’s, Jennifer’s, and Elizabeth’s are mirrors to our own souls; stray, crooked light escaping from our own passings and cover-ups.
We are all an amalgam of adaptations to vulnerability and shortcomings. Shame is probably the most painful possibility of our journeys. The responses to shame and judgment range from honesty, acceptance, catharsis, and compassion, to hiding behind face and façade, to fabrication of grandiose scheme. The successful media and interpersonal manipulations and power trips of Donald Trump surely will count as the most harmful flights from the powerlessness of being a mere (grounded) mortal. Right now it’s more possible than ever to keep it real and tell-all on a grand stage, and also potentially more profitable to not do so, and inhabit instead a meta-lie, rule a virtual world, keep up the pretense that Everything is Amah-zing!TM, one’s shit doesn’t stink, and even more, one doesn’t shit at all.
“[S]ociologists Lee and Zhou found young second-generation Asian Americans to be measured by a tightly defined ‘success frame’: ‘earning straight A’s, graduating as the high school valedictorian, earning a degree from an elite university, attaining an advanced degree, and working in one of four high-status professional fields: medicine, law, engineering, or science.’”
Karen Lin’s 2004 6-minute short film, Perfection,
features Ming Na as a duty-bound daughter struggling to break free.
Ninh quotes performance artist Kristina Wong:
“[S]uccess usually comes in specific quantifiable terms like having a well-paying job, a medical degree from a reputable school, or marrying a Chinese bilingual doctor husband…I won’t lie. Getting good grades, winning trophies, and stacking a long list of accomplishments on my college application made me feel good because it meant I had avoided my parents’ idea of a failure. But most of the time, the road to the seemingly unattainable, chasing a dream that wasn’t really mine, felt so totally miserable and pointless.”
Or as Eleanor Rose Ty put it in Asianfail: Narratives of Disenchantment and the Model Minority (quoted by Ninh):
“A recent sociological study conducted in Toronto [found that] . . . South Asian youths between eighteen and twenty-six . . . experience[d] guilt, shame, parental influence, and psychological stresses in their career decisions or educational choices. Parents preferred professional careers, such as engineering, medicine, and law… Many immigrant parents have high expectations and…desire that their children have careers that would make their own sacrifice and hard work worthwhile.”
No doubt, from some parents’ perspective, this “quantifiable success” seems like legitimate security, especially prized by insecure immigrants striving for survival and face. But as Wong points out, this “success frame” produces contingent and precarious self-esteem, and a prevailing sense of unattainability and lack of acceptance. “I am only worthy if I succeed.” “I must have the trophy,” says the child-as-trophy. Success or stigma, the “choice” is yours.
An online commentor about Jennifer Pan:
“My mother was the coldest, the harshest, the most eager to push me to my limits just so I could be competitive with the children of her prestigious friends. It wasn’t even about me.”
No wonder the passers do what they do. Fake it if you didn’t make it. I think it’s pretty common for youth to hide truths from parents, probably even more common for Asian Americans who have parents prone to disproportionate, panicked, judgmental reactions to “deviation” from what could become a robotic mission to attain the 3 Noble Professions of Doctor, Lawyer, or Engineer. Authoritarian, demanding parenting methods deprive both parents and children of the intimacy – and reality – of being human, being known and understood, leaving a sequelae of mental health problems. If only the “success frame” could be replaced by the mental health and relational frames.
“For Azia, racial masquerade is not a matter of trading up for whiteness but of preventing the loss of her identity as model minority. Her mechanism is, thus, not the calculated pursuit of gain but the rather more primal avoidance of ruin.”
Ruin means certain, proximal failure in the eyes of the family, but also falling out of society’s model minority plan for Asian Americans: to be uncomplaining, compliant worker bees in service to capitalism. This plan of mandatory assimilation and subordination to the will of others, family or state, requires self-destruction and enslavement to the expectations of others.
Ninh explores the depths of being in service, debt, and obligation to family in her earlier work, Ingratitude: The Debt Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature (2011). Ninh visits the work of “oppressed-daughters-turned-writers” such as Jade Snow Wong, Maxine Hong Kingston, Evelyn Lau, Catherine Liu, Fae Myenne Ng, Elaine Mar, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.
“A keystone of familial discourse, the construct of ‘filial obligation’ defines the parent-child relation as a debtor-creditor relation, but within this system without contract or consent, the parent-creditor brings into being a child-debtor who can never repay the debt of her own inception and rearing. Such debt is structural, a matter of position rather than payment, and places the child ever in violation.”
Parents are most healthfully in service to their children, tuning into their needs, providing. These daughters evoke the child-as-hostage to the parents’ needs or cultural expectations. Asian Americans often talk about receiving the transmission of the immigrant parents’ difficult lives. We recognize parents’ hard, often physical, labor, and implicitly carry a sense of moral obligation to honor our families. Family sacrifice might be an inspiration and foundation for some, but can become a crushing, unmanageable burden, one that is imposed, inexhaustible, and inescapable.
Jade Snow Wong’s parents told her:
“Who brought you up? Who clothed you, fed you, sheltered you, nursed you? Do you think you were born aged sixteen? You owe honor to us before you satisfy your personal whims.”
Personal joy, pleasure, fun, fulfillment, or self-realization – are denied. It’s all about the family and ancestral hierarchy, a totemic inheritance of insufficiency and critique, subsuming one’s life to the rule and order of the family’s sovereign and authoritarian power.
Many receive paranoid, controlling, and distorting imperatives around sexuality and relationship. I have known South Asian American women who have been temporarily or permanently disowned for dating the “wrong” person, or even dating at all. And Asian American men whose sexuality has been shamed and shunned by their families, not to mention society. LGBTQIA+ youth have found varied reception by their families. In all cases, the child’s filial duty is to uphold the family’s “honor” or face. Deviation brings shame, judgment, and vilification. Ninh: “I consider female sexuality as a site not only of particular concern but of particular utility for familial authority.”
She quotes scholar Viet Nguyen:
“Per his synopsis of that paradigm, Asian Americans are identified with ‘a system of social values that prioritizes family, education, and sacrifice’ and ‘prioritizes obedience and hierarchy’; these values incline the group to be ‘reluctant to blame others for any lack in their social position,’ ‘willing to accept their social position with gratitude,’ and guided by ‘self-sacrifice rather than self-interest,… quiet restraint rather than vocal complaint in the face of perceived or actual injustice.’”
Some of us, like Evelyn Lau, choose self-destruction over self-sacrifice. Ninh: “Ironically enough, self-destruction incriminates, because it implies causality and responsibility on someone else’s part.”
We all carry the question of dismantling vs. perpetuating oppression in our own self-expression. What will we choose today?
Ninh writes, in Passing for Perfect, “a parent may say something in a whisper but the child hears it as a roar.”
The weight of disapproval, of feelings of falling short, the wish to be the apple of someone’s eye, and the wish to be fully oneself – are high-octane, sometimes volatile fuels for our journeys of identity, belonging, wellness, and meaning.
I think we have to roar, even explode, our own way into a more just, inclusive, understanding, broad-minded world. erin Khuê Ninh’s scholarship bravely lights that fuse. By seeing each other, and seeing ourselves, we can gather ourselves to critical mass.