Letter To The Editor: Growing Up As Asian American In Los Alamos –The Model Minority Myth

By OLIVIA KOO
Los Alamos

Growing up in Los Alamos is often seen as a blessing and as a curse. Having grown up and having attended the Los Alamos Public Schools since I was in kindergarten, I would wholly agree with this statement.

There’s a certain charm and comfort in the familiarity of your classmates as you grow up with each other from elementary school to middle school to high school. But then again, the awkwardness I feel seeing my teachers shopping at Smith’s hasn’t ever really gone away, even though I’m a high school junior. You’d think I would’ve gotten used to it by now.

However, there’s another element to growing up in Los Alamos that I don’t think has been thoroughly discussed yet, and with the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes and a reckoning on how we perceive Asians and Asian-Americans in the United States, I believe that it should be addressed in the context of this town in particular.

One could say that Los Alamos is a manifestation of the model minority myth. We may pride ourselves on our diversity with high percentages of minorities living here, but with our LANL-centric town, the diversity we see is a filtered one. The model minority myth is the belief that Asians stand as the desired model for other minorities: Asians and Asian Americans working hard and diligently, achieving high levels of prestige in academia and business, and earning copious amounts of money due to their effort proves that any minority can thrive in the United States.

In Los Alamos, this so-called meritocracy is clear with LANL’s employment. Only the most skilled Asians in STEM, holding doctorates and impressive resumes, would be allowed to immigrate and be employed here. According to the LANL website, 5.32% of the LANL workforce is Asian, a higher percentage than African American, Native American, and interracial employees combined. And although there are Asian Americans living in this town who are not associated with the lab, with this larger amount of highly-educated Asians in Los Alamos, one living in this town can’t be helped but be given the impression that the model minority myth is real.

Growing up in Los Alamos as a “model minority”, I believed it. The kids I knew that were Asian were typically seen as the smartest in the room, starting all the way from kindergarten. It would be a surprise to see an Asian kid not in GATE or in advanced classes. As one of these “smart Asian” kids, I embraced the identity. Praises by my classmates for my high marks were often accompanied with “because you’re Asian”, and I found no problem with it. After all, I was Asian, wasn’t I?

Being good at everything was a part of the job description. But compared to my classmates that were not Asian, I felt there was heightened pressure on me and other Asian-American classmates to do well in class. When my classmates and I would compare grades (a culture that we should change, but nonetheless), and someone earned a higher score than me, others would gasp, saying, “I can’t believe you got a higher score than Olivia! She’s Asian, you know?” Of course, these experiences are only from my perspective, and there may be encounters that other classmates of mine who are not Asian-American have experienced that are similar. But as someone who was often told that my good grades were because of my race, I felt pressure as a student to do well, as to not let my race down or make my race look bad.

But who could blame these kids? Growing up in a town where one would only see highly educated and highly motivated Asians and Asian-Americans, the model minority would seem all but real. But as a community, we must recognize that our view of Asians and Asian-Americans, just as a product of living in this town, is skewed, and not an accurate representation of Asian Americans in the United States.

Asian Americans have the largest income gap out of all the minorities, with the top 10% of the income distribution earning 10.7 times as much as the Asians in the bottom 10% (Pew Research Center), where most of the poverty is focused on certain subgroups such as those from Cambodia or Laos. The model minority myth hides this reality, lessening the amount of assistance and attention that the group should receive.

The model minority myth also allows microaggressions and discrimination to slip by without a second thought: In elementary school, when my classmates would pull the skin next to their eyes back and lift their skin up and down in certain ways, saying “This one’s Chinese. This one’s Japanese. This one’s Korean”, I joined in, unaware of the racial caricatures. After all, it was just fun and didn’t count as racism, right? Racism towards Asians didn’t exist. Even today, when racial conflict is brought up in my class discussions, I don’t see myself as part of the racial equation. I don’t see myself as a minority or even deserving of that position, since I am part of the group that is allegedly the closest to whiteness.

Not only does the model minority myth hurt the perception of Asians and Asian-Americans, but other races in the country as well. The model minority myth, sprung from selective, merit-based immigration, has been used to condemn other minorities, especially African-Americans, for not following their example, framing them as being lazy and undeserving of aid, ignoring the centuries of undermination and racial discrimination that have entrenched them in a disadvantaged position.

From my personal experience, I do believe that Los Alamos has improved regarding Asian stereotypes since I was in elementary school. I am relieved that I don’t hear my younger brother retell instances at the dinner table about his classmates chalking up his achievements to being Asian like I had experienced at his age. And yet, with the surge in anti-Asian hate crimes recently due to propaganda about the COVID-19 pandemic, there is still much work to be done to spread awareness about Asian-American stereotypes and misconceptions, and in a town that actively contributes to an Asian-American stereotype due to its population makeup, we are in a unique position to spread awareness about this issue within and outside of our community, through our schools and workplaces, through supporting Asian businesses in Los Alamos, and through conversations with each other about the model minority myth and other Asian microaggressions.

Growing up in Los Alamos is often seen as a blessing and as a curse, and I would wholly agree. But today, I see it as an opportunity.

A list of Asian-owned businesses in Los Alamos:

  • L.A. Liquor and Indian Groceries
  • China Moon Restaurant
  • Yuan’s Dumpling and Noodle House
  • China Palace Restaurant
  • Origami
  • Sirphey
  • Cafe Sushi
  • Allerpops
  • And more!
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