The Model Minority Myth is engineered to tell one version of the Asian American Dream
What is the Asian American dream? Since the 1960s, the Model Minority Myth (MMM) has praised Japanese and Chinese immigrants not only for their seamless integration into American life, but also “empirical evidence [of their] success” drawing from “high-status occupations, rising incomes, and low rates of mental illness and crime according to Keith Osajima, a Race and Ethnic Studies professor. Because Asian Americans were able to break through racial barriers, the MMM creates a monolithic Asian American success story of doctors, lawyers, engineers and nothing more.
However, the basis of the MMM does not draw from empirical evidence but rather a constructed agenda. U.S. immigration laws are purposeful devices—and in the interest of serving “national interests” immigration laws give the government authority to sustain systemic inequalities through selective immigration practices. Through the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, Asian Americans were rebranded into the Model Minority: immigrants with higher levels of education and technical skills were prioritized.
It brings into our discourse successful lawyers and engineers and ignores Asian American immigrant entrepreneurs and service-industry workers whose stories and struggles become obscured. By placing 22 million Asian Americans under a singular narrative of success, it expels crucial Asian American narratives.
In the U.S., the nail salon workforce is 81% female and 79% immigrant-born, of which three-quarters are Vietnamese. The nail salon industry is vital for many in the Vietnamese community—many Vietnamese-Americans are nail technicians thanks to a fateful day in Sacramento, where the paths of 20 refugee women and actress Tippi Hedren crossed paths. Hedren visited the camp in Sacramento to help these women find a trade to learn. The decision to pick nails as their trade came from Hedren’s noticing the women admiring her manicures. Hedren’s suggestion was met with excitement and soon after she called upon her beautician and utilized the services of a beauty school to integrate the women into the nail trade.
Vietnamese women have been particularly impacted by a triple threat of “prolonged salon closures, low wages, and anti-Asian racism” during the pandemic. Nail salons were left behind in the initial reopenings, resulting in lost wages and many have been targeted by hateful, profanity-filled letters telling Asian Americans they “do not belong” as well. Nail salons were further devastated by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s unsubstantiated claims that it was a nail salon that started the first spread of COVID-19. Newsom’s claims did little to help an industry some are afraid will never recover—Newsom’s statements compound on the fact that Asian American businesses have already been subject to falsehoods about the virus and questions about their cleanliness.
Even before the pandemic, nail salon workers—due to the nature of their job—are constantly exposed to toxic chemicals. The documentary “Painted Nails” sheds light on this: shy, hard-working and resilient Van Hoang is the subject of this documentary, an immigrant entrepreneur who becomes one of the first people to testify before the U.S. Congress for the passage of the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act that would require safety standards and labeling requirements on cosmetic products, including nail products. Because of a loophole in a 1938 law, the cosmetics industry has been unregulated in its use of toxic chemicals in their products without testing or consequences for the adverse health effects it creates.
Working in a nail salon, Hoang is constantly exposed to the “toxic trio,” ingredients that have been standard in the nail polish industry for years: dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde and toluene. These chemicals have been associated with cancer, birth defects and other chronic diseases. Hoang herself suffers daily headaches and difficulties with carrying pregnancies to term as a result of her exposure to these chemicals.
Even after arriving at her American Dream as a nail salon owner, struggle is still present for Hoang. While she becomes the voice for others in her industry to fight for regulation against toxic chemicals, she also dispels a central view of American society supported by the MMM: that America is a meritocratic, fair society under the notion that Asian Americans are successful because of “qualifications, skills, attitude and behavior.” Hoang and her husband, who work seven days a week, according to the documentary—are no doubt hard working. Yet their American Dreams are wrought with struggle. If America is a fair society, per the MMM, and success is rewarded based on behavior, where does that leave Americans like Hoang?
Cambodian donut shops have many parallels to Vietnamese nail salons as well: around 80% of donut shops in California are owned by Cambodian-Americans. For Vietnamese nail salon owners and Cambodian donut shop owners, their businesses represent more than their livelihoods, but the way their stories differ greatly compared to the one molded by the MMM. Their business negotiates different meanings: For Hoang, her nail salon is described as a “dear friend” but in a way, also tethers her because she had to drop out of school at such a young age. As she expresses: “If I left the salon, I wouldn’t know what to do.” This sentiment is reflected by Cambodian donut shop owners, where donut shops “evoke a value particularly dear: survival,” according to the author of “Selling Donuts in the Fragmented Metropolis” Erin M. Curtis. Cambodian Doughnut Creams owner Bunna Men expresses: “I don’t like anything about donuts, but I have to, for a living.”
The danger of the Model Minority Myth is that its dominance fails to acknowledge the many Asian Americans in service industries—particularly in nail salons and donut shops where Asian immigrant entrepreneurs constitute a large number. The struggles of these businesses ultimately become obscured from our public consciousness. The MMM perpetuates the false notion that America is fair because Asian Americans found success because of their work ethic. This notion offers little equity for Asian Americans not incorporated by the MMM; if America is a meritocratic society, it is sorely lacking in its protection for the success model it created for Asian Americans.
Written by: Renee Wang — firstname.lastname@example.org Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.