“Model Minority,” Still “Other”

February 26, 2021

Vincent Chin, 27 years old. Vicha Ratanapakdee, 84 years old. Deaths 39 years apart. Deaths due to anti-Asian hate. Chin would be just 65 years old today if he were still alive. Ratanapakdee could have been his father.

I wrote about Orientalism in the age of COVID-19 last year when the pandemic first began in the U.S. Things have, in fact, not changed. They have continued, unabated. The spike in anti-Asian violence, assaults, and outright hate crimes continues throughout this pandemic. In New York City it rose 1900% in 2020 alone. National legislators have called it a “crisis point” for anti-Asian violence.

The “Yellow Peril” level of psycho-cultural turmoil against the body of presumed Asian descent has materialized into physical violence and death. It has been normalized as part of the larger race riots in the wake of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Trump is no longer in office, however, and we cannot use him as the only source of blame. 

The pandemic has caused the life expectancy for Americans to drop one year, but for black Americans it has plummeted by 2.7 years. For Latinos, it has dropped 1.9 years.

The stakes are higher than ever for life and death.

For Asian Americans, there is no statistic for the change in life expectancy. The statistics we do have are the numbers of anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination. Our elders like Ratanapakdee seem to be the ones who are being attacked most viciously by these crimes, This is its own matter of life expectancy.

On February 3, Noel Quintana, a 61-year-old Filipino man, had the entire width of his face slashed by a man with a boxcutter on the NYC subway. On February 16, Lee-Lee Chin-Yeung, a 52-year-old Chinese woman, was attacked and thrown to the ground, left with a gaping wound on her forehead needing 10 stitches. On the same day, two elderly Asian women reported being physically assaulted on the NYC subway.

There are countless other women, men, and non-gender-conforming victims who have remained unidentified or private. Most have gone unrecorded and unreported. It is not even a matter of crime and punishment for the perpetrators. It not a matter of more policing. First, it is a matter of public opinion and amplifying the problem. We must make this a national issue, a civil rights issue. Most importantly, we must make this is an American issue.

Asian bodies are being treated as tools for human rage. The rage is caused by economic hard times, indignation at a government that has not served its people, low communal morale, mental health crises, and a litany of unprecedented catastrophes. Our bodies are attacked and killed, but when we die, it is not an American death. 

In addition, Asian American restaurants, stores, and offices are being vandalized or shunned for business. Asian American children and students are being bullied in schools, blaming Chinese people for bringing the virus and mocking Chinese dietary habits such as “eating bats/dogs.”

Asian American healthcare workers are being spat on, refused to be seen by patients, receiving death threats, and more. This anti-Asian targeting countervails the Asian “model minority” myth that was popularized in the 1960’s. In 1966, sociologist William Petersen’s New York Times article, “Success Story, Japanese-American Style” argued for the idea that Japanese-Americans were “good” citizens “better than any other group in our society, including native-born whites. They have established this remarkable record, moreover, by their own almost totally unaided effort.” This characterization also placed Japanese-Americans in stark, intolerant contrast to African Americans, reinforcing identity politics and competitiveness between minority groups. 

The paradox of being both “model minority” and enemy “Other” is clearly seen in the demographics of Asian-American physicians, nurses, and healthcare workers serving to combat the virus and save precarious lives. While the latest U.S. Census (2017) reports that 5.6% of the U.S. population identifies as Asian, at least 17.1% of U.S. physicians identify as Asian, with another 13.7% identifying as multiracial, “other,” or “unknown.” Asian-Americans are now both blamed and called to serve as seeming martyrs in the cause against the pandemic, and patients are refusing to be seen by Asian-American doctors due to fears of COVID-19. Our bodies are not our own. Our feelings are not to be shown. 

Our feelings, however, are distorted, disfigured, and dispossessed of a body from which to express them. They are “minor” in that the everydayness of racial experience causes us, in the words of Cathy Park Hong, “paranoia, shame, irritation, and melancholy,” and these feelings are not worth a reckoning.

Last week, 27-year-old Danny Kim was attacked by two people in Los Angeles’s Koreatown. A Korean American Air Force vet, Kim was able to survive with the help of his friend, Joseph Cha, a fellow community activist. Kim suffered a fractured nose and black eye, but the attackers remain anonymous. According to the LAPD, the “description of the men, unfortunately, is too vague to be of much use.” Are they referring to the attackers or the victims of these assaults? Are we “too vague to be of much use,” too?

We don’t need your sympathy. We need your recognition. We need you to accept us as part of your country. We need our injustice to be America’s injustice. We are sick of being foreigners. 

Cathy Park Hong reminds us that if we do not speak out, “we will disappear into this country’s amnesiac fog. We will not be the power but become absorbed by power, not share the power of whites but be stooges to a white ideology that exploited our ancestors.” This white ideology is a psycho-cultural structure that has never been fully exposed, and thus, never effaced. Our parents and elders taught us to “keep our heads down and work hard, believing that our diligence will reward us with our dignity, but our diligence will only make us disappear.” When someone of Asian descent dies in America, does our pain disappear too?


Joey S. Kim is a scholar, creative writer, and Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Toledo. Her artistic and scholarly interests converge at the intersection of Anglophone literature and representations of the “East”—how Orientalist subjects and environments take shape in literary, artistic, and cultural objects. Her work has been published in Pleiades: Literature in ContextEssays in Romanticism, The Fashion & Race Database,The Hellebore, and elsewhere. In 2020, her poem “Plunder,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her forthcoming book of poems, Body Factswon an international publication contest with Diode Editions Press and will be released in June 15, 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @joeykim 


Photograph by Marcela McGreal.