Reclaiming, Reframing, Reshaping, and Reconciling the Asian American Experience
By Jordan Cheung, Elaine Kim, Heyang Yin, Monica Zhang
Asian Americans have had their fair share of misconceptions and stereotypes. As a largely immigrant-based minority group in the US, we’re often otherized, deemed the “model minority,” and feel detached from the mainstream, predominantly white pop culture and media. It was not until recently that major movies like Crazy Rich Asians (2018) have had majority-Asian casts, or that Kamala Harris became the first Asian American vice president when she took office in 2021.
In this collection of articles, we hope to shine a light on some of the shared experiences of Asian Americans. Specifically, our goal is to inspire a new shared AAPI identity–one founded on dismantling past stereotypes and embracing our cultural roots alongside mental wellness. We plan to forge this new Asian American experience through four sections: reclaiming, reframing, reshaping, and reconciling. If you identify as Asian American, we hope reading this will reassure you that you’re not alone in what you are experiencing/have experienced. If you don’t identify as Asian American, we hope you’ll learn something new about the AAPI experience and take this context with you into your future interactions with the Asian American community.
Regardless, we hope you enjoy reading our work! Thank you for your support!
Reclaiming by Monica Zhang
In order to reclaim your experience as an Asian American, it is important to understand what the
definition of the Asian American group is, as well as the stereotypes of Asian Americans,
specifically in the context of experiences in education. Some common stereotypes of the Asian
American experience in education include the Model Minority Myth, being naturally smart and
hard working, and students having no personality (Kim, 2002).
The Model Minority Myth is the perception that Asian Americans achieve a higher degree of
socioeconomic success than other groups. This is false because minority groups have
disadvantages in life compared to their white peers. Being Asian American doesn’t automatically
mean you will be successful. This myth is harmful because it also groups all Asian Americans (a
very large and diverse group) under this one label. This way of thinking can be used to put
minorities against each other too. I have personal experience with the stereotype of being
naturally smart because of my race. In middle school, one of my classmates said to me, “Of
course you’re smart, you’re Asian.” This shocked me because prior to this, as a middle schooler,
I never thought someone could look at me and assume I was automatically the smartest in the
room. In 2019, a group of Asian Americans sued Harvard University for their mysterious
“personal ratings” portion of their admissions process. These ratings were especially low for
Asian Americans, which caused an uproar within the Asian American community, because it
was believed that these ratings carried racial bias. This incident is yet another example of people
making assumptions about Asian Americans’ personalities when the reality is that it is
impossible to judge someone’s personality based on their written application.
One harmful stereotype about Asian parenting is the idea of a “Tiger mom”. Amy Chua coined
this term in her 2011 book “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, which was a memoir of
Chua parenting her two daughters “the Chinese way”. She described this parenting style as no
sleepovers, no playdates, and no grades below an A. Furthermore, she contrasted “the Chinese
way” of parenting with “the Western way of parenting”, stating that “the Chinese way” was
superior and led to success. This label of a Tiger mom is harmful because again, we are
negatively labeling a diverse group of people. It is important to recognize that parenting is
complex and parents are human beings; automatically labeling Asian parents as aggressive and
controlling does not allow us to see Asian parents as full people.
To reclaim an experience is to take back ownership of it. We can do this by reflecting upon and
validating our experiences. Like most difficult tasks, it takes time, and that is okay. A good first
step is acknowledging the current impact of past harmful experiences. Negative experiences can
deeply affect the person you are today, and I believe it is helpful to look back and understand the
origin of pain and insecurities. Finally, it is important to acknowledge that everyone’s experience
is different. While it is true that some experiences and emotions can be universal, it does not
mean that you are less than.
Reframing by Elaine Kim
Once we reclaim our experiences, it is time to reframe them in a different way. Reframing is
defined as “expressing a concept or plan differently” but for our purposes can be used as a form
of understanding, forgiveness, and growth. By changing the frame of a situation, you not only
shift your perception of a situation but also its meaning for you and how you approach it in the future.
There is often a communication gap between Asian parents and their children who have differing
expectations. I remember when I was growing up, I often compared my family dynamic to the
ones I saw on TV and in the Hallmark movies. Kids were always welcomed with hugs and no
strangers to physical affection, parents were proudly beaming back at their kids and each other as
laughter filled the air. My family was very different from this. Love was rarely loud and direct.
Love was my dad asking me if I’d eaten yet. Love was the plate of cut fruit my mom brought to
me when I was up late studying. Love was the carefully packaged school lunches my mom
packed me with cute toothpicks and a note (see: Reshaping). It’s a typical shared experience in
Asian culture to greet each other with a “have you eaten yet?” rather than a simple hello.
Looking back at it now, I can clearly see the care and concern of my parents that was hidden in
their every action towards me. But, I was young and oblivious then – rejecting the plates of fruits
with a huff and rolling my eyes at comments about how I wasn’t eating enough – frustrated with
my parents’ perceived lack of care for me. I wish someone told me then, that these acts and the
simple notion of making sure I was well fed was my parent’s way of showing affection, passed
down from generation to generation to me.
Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to reframe these situations. In order to understand our interactions with our parents, it’s important to understand their background and intentions as well. Many immigrant parents grew up in a collectivist culture, where it was emphasized to respect elders, familial loyalty, and showing acts of service as the greatest form of love and respect. Meanwhile, America is a very individualistic society, emphasizing self-expression, emotion, and words of affirmation as a primary love language (Oyserman). This can bring inevitable conflict with children having polar opposite experiences and teachings between inside the home and out.
Growing up while juggling these two worlds and my parent’s expectations of me and vice versa,
I’ve realized that all forms of love are equal. It’s important to reframe every situation and
remember that the plate of fruit means just as much, if not more, than saying “I love you”. By
reframing our stories in this way, we find ways to heal, understand, and forgive–allowing us to
begin to embrace the special, multi-layered forms of communication we share with those we
Reshaping by Jordan Cheung
Now that we’ve reframed our experiences, it’s time to reshape them–to reconstruct the context
surrounding our experiences and thereby reconceptualize them. By reshaping something, you
give something a new form. In our case, that might mean taking our past experiences of cultural
shame/embarrassment and reviving them anew as catalysts for cultural pride.
The “Lunchbox Moment” is a nearly universal experience amongst Asian Americans (and
amongst many immigrant communities): bringing homemade “ethnic” lunches to school and
being bullied by others for bringing “smelly” food. It is a moment that creates an internal-
external conflict too significant for a second grader to fully grasp: that between the social
pressure to conform to white, conventional lunch expectations (pb&j sandwiches, chicken
nuggets, pizza, etc.) and the internal feelings towards one’s heritage, towards food made with
love that has suddenly become the object of mockery and bullying. And as a naive second-grader
myself, I couldn’t fathom why my beloved roasted seaweed and rice rolls had been met with
“ew” and “that looks like poopy.” I couldn’t understand why everyone except for me had normal
lunches. I began to dread bringing food from home, opting instead to eat ketchup-drowned
cafeteria smiley fries and corn dogs rather than the “yucky” food my mom packed for me. I was
embarrassed by my culture, which served as another reminder that I, as an Asian American with
immigrant parents, did not fit into the white hegemony of my suburban elementary school.
Yet, the moment I got home, I’d eagerly munch on whatever food was at home: instant noodles
(Shin Ramyun was a must), leftover Hong Shao Rou (braised pork belly) and rice from dinner
the night before, or if I was really lucky, my favorite dish–Mapo Tofu. At home, I didn’t have to
feign a love for string cheese or Goldfish crackers (school lunchtime staples). At home, I
embraced the culture I hid at school. I kept these two worlds separate, one of pb&j’s, another of
mapo tofu–as I felt like I could only fit in the former by subduing the latter.
However, as I grew older, I realized that diversity and culture are beautiful–that they’re what
make us special. That we cannot allow the prejudices of others to stifle our heritage, to cause us
to question our identities. I met other Asian Americans and found solace in our shared comfort
foods and experiences. And I reflected on that second grader who was terrified of having his
lunch deemed “stinky.” And I wished I had thanked my mother more for packing me delicious
food imbued with her love. The Lunchbox Moment is all too familiar to Asian Americans; we
can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we choose to react.
Reconciling by Heyang Yin
Asian American youths are reconciling the environmental pressures of being a “model minority”,
a societal myth that reports high rates of educational attainments, family income and
socioeconomic mobility. They also demonstrate low rates of divorce, crime and juvenile
delinquency. Mental health needs are increasing within Asian American youth populations,
however, barriers to accessing mental health services include limited language proficiency,
culturally competent service providers, and cultural stigma towards services.
Studies on peer discrimination have found that the rate to report race-related bullying and
violence was higher in the Asian American youth population than their peers of different racial
identities such as their African American youth and Latino youth (Fisher et al., 2000; Greene et
al., 2006). The peer discriminating experience highlights the importance of utilizing mental
health services, which could be helpful in terms of finding support and accessing culturally
competent mental health service providers to recover from negative experiences. However, a
nation-wide report on American people’s rates of using mental health services found that most
Asian Americans groups, including Asian American youth, have the lowest rates of seeking help
from professionals about mental health or making use of related services among all ethnic groups
(Spencer et al., 2010). Instead of seeking timely support from professionals, there is a trend of
delaying help-seeking until more severe mental health problems emerge. There is also a greater
likelihood of choosing informal and alternative service providers.
Behind the low rate of obtaining help in a professional and timely manner are a series of underlying causes specific to the Asian American experience. Limited service providers with language proficiency and relevant cultural backgrounds may serve as a barrier barring young Asian Americans from seeking help from mental health counseling services. More importantly, in some Asian cultures, there is a stigma and shame associated with utilizing mental health services due to the concern of judgments from the community. Research on Asian American college students’ mental health service utilization has suggested a negative relation between adherence to Asian cultural values and willingness to seek counseling services (Sue, 2012).
For example, the Chinese word “mianzi”（面子) describes the concept of overemphasizing others’ impression on oneself instead of focusing on one’s own feelings and happiness. In other Asian cultures, there are also words describing similar concepts of preserving public image such as “Chaemyun” in Korean, highlighting someone’s overvaluation of a person’s reputation, honor, and dignity. Sustained efforts are needed to address the needs of Asian
American youth’s mental health. These Future directions might include promoting the importance of mental health within Asian American communities and designing interventions programs which are ethnic and language specific.
In closing, it is clear that our Asian American heritage is the core of our many shared experiences and trauma. It is also the source of our pride and joy, our families, and culture that we will uphold and eventually pass on to future generations. By reclaiming, reframing, reshaping and reconciling our stories, emotions, and experiences, we are able to understand the intentions of our parents’ actions and recognize that our collective experience doesn’t define us, rather, we can define them. Thank you for reading!
About the Authors: Jordan Cheung, Elaine Kim, Heyang Yin, and Monica Zhang are all students at Brown University. This project is their contribution to the AAC Journal from their course project in Family Engagement in Education with Professor Yoko Yamamoto, Ph.D. of Brown University. This collection of essays is from both their research and their lived experiences.
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