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The Asian American Dream: Dr. erin Khuê Ninh Discusses How the Model Minority Is Not a Myth

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Dr. erin Khuê Ninh, who lowercases her first name, discussed model minority identities within Asian American communities in a seminar hosted by the UCI Center for Medical Humanities on Nov. 10.

Ninh’s research at UC Santa Barbara considers the factors that drive Asian American college students to strive for perfection and success as a result of the model minority myth. The term “model minority” refers to a minority group, often Asian Americans, stereotypically perceived as academically, economically and culturally more successful than other racial groups. Her book, “Passing for Perfect: College Impostors and Other Model Minorities,” highlights the ways in which the model minority argument becomes an identity for Asian Americans.

Ninh began the seminar by describing how Asian American students attempt to uphold the standards of the model minority argument, revealing the pressures to achieve excellence.

“Depression can look very much like you’d expect, but also, sometimes Asian American students, at the most pitch level of crisis, may be passing perfect,” Ninh said. “I came across stories [of] Asian immigrant kids who made desperate, unreasonable choices to preserve the illusion for their families.”

While writing her book, Ninh emphasized second-generation Asian Americans who dropped out of college but pretended they were still students. This is whom she considers to be a college impostor. 

During the seminar, she shared the story of Audley Yung, a former UC Riverside student who threatened to detonate explosives during the 2007 commencement. The motive behind the bomb scare was to scare officials into canceling the graduation ceremony so that Yung would not have to tell his parents that he had dropped out of college.

Ninh insisted that being a model minority is not a myth but is, instead, internalized into one’s programming as an identity. She described it as a set of aspirations for perfection and success that is ingrained within the Asian American community. 

“When we talk about model minority myth going forward, I hope that you will use ‘stereotype,’ rather than ‘myth,’ or better yet, ‘racialization,’” she said. 

She closed the seminar by suggesting that passing as an Asian American is a performance. 

“The usual understanding of passing is that it is a performance of race. We [Asian Americans] are performing race, even if it is our own,” Ninh said. “The model minority identity is a performance of high achievement, straight As and respectability, likening it to a role or a character that we play every day.”

Dr. Ninh’s book can be found on Amazon or Barnes & Noble

Elaine Cha is a Campus News Intern for the fall 2022 quarter. She can be reached at emcha@uci.edu.