The Rebel Minority is Chinese-Canadian writer Diamond Yao's bi-monthly column.
The start of a new year often coincides with post-holiday financial hardships. For many people this year, those hardships are compounded by the financial difficulties of last year. While there is some privilege in being Asian, the model minority myth fails to capture huge segments of the Asian population who end up not getting the support they need because it's assumed they don't need it.
Like many immigrant children, growing up, money was a huge stressor in my family. We always had enough to pay our bills and never went hungry, which is more than can be said for a lot of people, but anything extra beyond basic necessities would nearly always cause loud arguments, unrelenting anxiety and crippling guilt for everyone. The financial strain of gifts, occasional restaurant outings, extracurricular activities and rare trips were a perennial cause of extreme tensions.
Throughout my childhood, my parents made it clear that I would have to start the process of fending for myself once I turned eighteen, not because they did not want to provide for me, but because they couldn’t.
When I hit adulthood, like most people I knew, I shouldered a significant part of my expenses, becoming completely financially independent two months before I turned twenty. With a combination of bursaries, loans, odd gigs, freelance writing, and jobs, I scraped together a semblance of a living. There were weeks where I barely slept because I worked sixty hours and days where all I could eat was peanut butter before bedtime so I wouldn’t fall asleep hungry.
My struggles built confidence that I was making my own way in the world, one difficult moment at a time. Those experiences put me in touch with people whose net worth could have paid all of my debts two hundred thousand times over, and with people who would’ve rightfully laughed at me if I complained about working long hours at multiple jobs and eating peanut butter for dinner.
Thanks to giving away my first adult years to working myself to the bone and some privilege, the worst of my financial hardships are behind me now, which is much more than can be said of a lot of people who work themselves to the bone. But to this day, I still don’t buy random snacks at the dollar convenience store - and am consumed with guilty anxiety the few times I do, even if I can afford it. I still often feel awful for shelling out ten dollars for a restaurant meal and endlessly debate this single decision in my head for an entire week before acting (or not) upon it.
I know that no matter how wealthy I get in the future, I’ll never completely leave these mindsets behind. Often, it still is extremely frustrating to not have more privilege, but at the same time, I am also grateful with how fortunate I have been.
For all of these reasons, I always took the financial success associated with the model minority myth particularly personally. While studies show that, as a group, Asians earn more than other racial minorities and have low poverty rates, the data fails to capture the experiences of a significant part of the Asian diaspora and the intangible costs of financial success.
Generalizations like these, while useful in some cases, really invalidated my experiences and those of many I know. They also shut me out of sources of support I needed because people assumed my Asianness meant I was completely fine. At sixteen, my decision to enroll in a well-regarded private school in my city caused me interpersonal problems as soon as I was accepted.
I kept my plans to attend low profile because the few people in high school who had heard the news accused me of coming from money. One of my professors at the private school, an American probably used to seeing more exorbitant tuition fees, made me do a double take when she told me without irony, “Everyone can afford to study here.”
Unfortunately, my brief tenure at that private school would continue to cause me interpersonal problems long after graduation. I would go out with my old classmates from that school for lunch, and when I would casually mention that I just had a job interview earlier, they would mistakenly assume it was to pay for a trip abroad. As they bombarded me with questions to figure out where I was going, I would get confused stares when I clarified that the job was to pay for bills. “I don’t know anybody who does that!”, said one girl. And then it would be my turn to be confused, because most of everybody I knew at the time had a job that paid for at least part of their bills.
A few months later, upon finding out that I was an alumna of that school, one of my roommates immediately flagged me as an elitist snob and would never miss an occasion to put that on blast during the entire length of our lease.
Even if we are part of the lucky few Asians who were able to become financially successful despite coming from nothing, the sacrifices we have made to get there are often priceless, irretrievable and not worth all that money.
Financial struggles notwithstanding, I know I am fortunate to have been able to go to private school at all. Many can’t, even with all the struggles in the world. But all of these attitudes felt extremely invalidating of the years of stressful clashes I had with my family who couldn’t foot the entire private school bill, the many forms I sent to the financial aid office for reduced tuition, the student loans I took out (that I am still paying for) and the many mental and physical illnesses I inflicted on myself in the name of financial solvency.
Some of the worst invalidation I got though was from fellow Asians. More financially privileged than me, they would tell me without flinching that my parents were strange for being reluctant to fund private school, because according to them Asians really valued education and would make heavy sacrifices to get it at all costs.
They would tell me I was odd for not participating in five expensive extracurriculars and not studying with a private tutor three times a week. They would tell me that it was okay if I took longer to graduate, because school timelines were a construct anyway. They would nonchalantly ask whether I wanted to do a Ph.D. when I only had debt to my name and was a few expensive degrees away from even considering that possibility.
It was exhausting for me to explain that sacrifices, even heavy ones, had limits in an unfair system and that I didn’t have endless funds to finance unexpected extra years of school or every single activity I wanted to do.
Furthermore, among the Asian people I knew best, model minority financial success was not our reality. Many of my Asian friends made ends meet as soon as they were able to with an array of hospitality jobs, retail work and freelance gigs. My oldest childhood friend, whose father went through a long period of unemployment in her youth, juggled jobs in the Navy cadets and as a receptionist since she was a teenager.
A roommate I shared a bedroom with was wracked with guilt that she couldn’t find a job in our city due to language discrimination to support her university education. After near nightly tearful calls with her financially stressed parents, she dropped out of school and transferred somewhere cheaper in her hometown where a childhood friend arranged a cashier job for her.
One of my colleagues immigrated to North America alone at fourteen, always working upwards of seven jobs at once to keep himself afloat through university.
One of my friends, the daughter of a live-in caregiver who immigrated on a temporary visa, worked in spite of multiple severe mental health crises. Another friend worked multiple jobs to pay for an education for a stereotypical model minority profession she doesn’t care much for. She hopes to use her future high earnings to support her younger sibling through school and then switch careers.
This should tell you a lot about why some Asians choose to enter model minority professions. Sometimes, those reasons have a lot more to do with basic survival in the face of precarity compounded by discrimination than with prestige, elitism or Tiger parents.
By propping up the myth of model minority financial success, we forget that Asians are people of colour who still live in a racist world that pays us less than Whites. We forget that many are immigrants or children of immigrants with little generational wealth who still live in a world that discriminates against immigrants in the job market.
We forget that even if we are part of the lucky few Asians who were able to become financially successful despite coming from nothing, the sacrifices we have made to get there are often priceless, irretrievable and not worth all that money.
We forget that the traumas we go through in order to achieve financial success, or simple financial solvency, are life-changing and are passed onto the next generation.
In the movie Tigertail, middle aged Taiwanese-American immigrant Pin Jui learns this bitter lesson when his single-minded pursuit of financial stability, motivated by childhood poverty, leaves him financially comfortable, but divorced from a wife he never loved, estranged from his only daughter, far away from his deceased beloved mother he was never able to bring to the US, and regretful for the true love he never married. Papering over all of this complicated intergenerational trauma with an upbeat blanket of financial success is irresponsible at best, and horribly cruel at worst.
With the usual post-holidays budget constraints compounded by the hardships of last year, there are more cracks than ever in the myth of model minority financial success. Many Asian businesses are either wiped out or still struggling through the pandemic.
Plenty of Asians are victims of targeted attacks regardless of financial status, and even more are coping with financial hardships that won’t go away anytime soon. Even those who have achieved financial success are grappling with a year of death, sickness, and rampant anti-Asian discrimination on top of whatever traumas they had to pay in exchange for that success.
It is time to put the model minority myth of financial ease to rest once and for all in this new year, and give Asians who live in an unequal world the support they need.