“While [the Chinese worker] gives us labour he is paid for it, and is valuable, the same as a threshing machine or any other agricultural implement.” – Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, 1885
There was a time when my father, from whom I inherited a love of storytelling and grandiose expression, liked to say that the stars aligned for the birth of me and my sisters. He stepped out of the tiny apartment he shared with my mother in Vancouver on a starless night and wished for children whose lives would finally fulfill the promise of Gum San/Golden Mountain, the land of opportunity. Children who worked so hard and spoke English so politely that no guei lo would deny them citizenship, or a degree, or a job. He happened to look up, my father said, and there they were: the three blue stars of Orion’s belt, smiling back at him. Shortly after, Baba said, my sisters and I were born – one, two, three children, with minds as bright as stars.
The model minority is a well-known trope in contemporary Western culture. Just the other week, a bespectacled, buck-toothed, book-carrying Asian university student appeared on How I Met Your Mother. This is how the white majority believes it can define us: primarily East Asian, but also occasionally South Asian or Latino. We are hard-working, subservient and socially awkward, asexual, apolitical, money-scrimping, piano-playing, scholastically gifted (but only in the maths and sciences), obsessed with the pursuit of success. A social conservative’s ideal citizen, if not for the fact of our t(a)inted skins, our strange smells, and backward religions. We are the model minority myth, the migrant’s dream, the almost Canadian/American/European, but not quite – never quite.
Yet there is another side, an inside, to the model minority myth, a side as bitter as the winters through which our foreparents laboured for a tiny fraction of the pay that white workers received. It is an inside comprised of outsiders, we who know what is being lost in the endless scramble for survival and acceptance in a country that once demanded racist Head Taxes and internments; a country that set forth legislation to deny entry to our kind, relenting only so it could exploit our vulnerability, our labour, our desperate hope. The capitalist Western nation-state devalues our bodies and denigrates our cultures, all the while keeping us docile by holding out the promise of full citizenship, participation, equality only a generation or seven away. Our existence is used as a weapon against the non-model minorities, the First Nations and black communities and everyone else who fails to play the game they were set up to lose. If you can do it, why can’t they? The white ruling class demands: you worked hard, why can’t they?
My sisters and I learned to embody the model minority myth. We had no choice; failure meant a return to the poverty and humiliation, meant lifetimes spent under the guei lo’s boot. Assimilate. Do well in school. Assimilate. Never cause trouble. Assimilate. Don’t rock the boat. Four generations of ghosts and living relatives are counting on you. Assimilate. Never talk back to the teacher, you’ll be punished. Never show anger to the boss, you’ll be fired. Assimilate. Survive.
Standing on the bones of a family legacy, my sisters and I reached for the sky. We mastered English so completely that our white teachers accused us of plagiarism even as Chinese faded from our tongues. Even as rats scuttled through our house and our parents struggled to make ends meet, we made the top of our classes every time. Our parents worked to an inch of their lives so we could study, because everything we did was an investment in future happiness.
It was the trans girl in me that finally forced me to understand that the dream will never come true. You can’t be an Asian boy who wears dresses and has sex with men and still be a model minority. I broke beneath the weight of pursuing capitalist perfection, shattered decades of my father’s dreams in the night I came out. Still, sometimes I find myself getting caught up in the game. I scramble to get good grades, get into grad school, win scholarships, all while putting myself through undergrad. I smile and scrape and allow my identity to be used as a token by institutions, all to prove what a good transgender Asian citizen I am, so that I can defy statistics and succeed by the standards of this country ruled by whiteness, heterosexism, capitalism. Each time, I wonder, how long until I break again? How will I be punished when, inevitably, I scream? Who will the next top model minority be – the university-educated Chinese who work so hard, the South Asians who make such good employees, the white gay couples who get married and join the military? And what could we do if we stopped playing this game, refused to chase this myth that enslaves us? What could we bring about with our memory of ghosts, our rage and resilience and will to survive, our unbroken strength, our hearts bright as stars?
Ryan Kai Cheng Thom made it to the final round of Canada’s Next Top Model Minority, but lost in the end, like all the other contestants. Commiserate at email@example.com.