RAMBLINGS FROM THE SON OF A PAPER SON: The Model Minority Myth

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By BILL YEE

It is probably true that everyone has a certain amount of racial stereotyping whether we want to admit it or not. For example, all Asians are good at math and affluent, African Americans are great athletes, and Americans of European descent are born into privilege — just to name a few.

So, what about Asians and “the model minority myth”? I notice that Asians who are more liberal in their point of view want to debunk this myth. To a certain extent this “myth” is a “myth.” Not all Asians are rich and college-educated and live in affluent neighborhoods like San Marino or Palos Verdes.

My mother with her mom, perhaps before she fled mainland China for Hong Kong.

Many Asians come to the U.S. seeking better lives and do menial labor. They work in industries that require long hours. A couple of generations ago, it was the laundry business for the Chinese and gardening for the Japanese. Later Asians would own grocery stores, restaurants and nurseries if they could raise the capital.

Today it may be nail salons for Vietnamese immigrants and donut shops for Cambodian refugees as they realize the American Dream.

While it is important to acknowledge that one size does not fit all in our portrayal of the Asian American community, I think we are doing a disservice to our immigrant parents who sacrificed so that their kids would have a chance at a better life than if they remained in their home countries.

My parents were part of the Baby Boom with three ABCs (American-born Chinese).

In that vein, I would like to offer the example of my own parents. My father immigrated illegally to the Gold Mountain (United States) in 1928. He picked a bad year since the Great Depression would happen the next year. His uncle bought the papers of a “paper son” and sponsored him.

Despite the effects of the Great Depression he worked hard at the laundry his uncle owned in San Francisco. He made enough money to return to China around 1937 to seek a bride. He was 29 and my mom was 20. It was an arranged marriage. In January of 1938 my brother was born. During his time in China, Dad also purchased land and build a house for my mom and brother.

In terms of formal education, both my parents by today’s standards would be lacking. My father had a second-grade education and was self-taught. His mother died when he was 9. He had two older sisters but they did not survive to adulthood.

His father was a captain of a junk on a river in southern China. And because he was gone much of the time, at age 9 my dad was a cook’s apprentice traveling from village to village preparing meals for banquet celebrations. Throughout his life he loved to cook and we looked forward to his multi-course Sunday dinners.

My mother had a little more education; she finished the sixth grade and came from a fairly wealthy Chinese peasant family. Her father had come to America and also was in Canada working odd jobs. She had an older brother 20 years her senior who was also in Canada and a sister who died during the war.

My brother Benny’s wedding picture, circa 1965.

Dad never returned to China. World War II broke out and later the Communists would takeover China. World War II and the Cold War would have a definite impact on many Chinese families in America.

Luckily both my mom and brother survived World War II and fled to Hong Kong in 1949.

I ask my readers, how would you feel leaving your homeland and realizing that you would never see your mom again? That is what happened to my mom. My grandmother would die in 1952, the year I was born. My mother’s father died during the war.

My brother joined my dad in San Francisco in 1949. He would be greeted by a man whom he had not seen in 11 years.

My mother finally was allowed to come to America in 1952. She too had to reacquaint herself with a man she had seen in 14 years.

My parents lost no time in being a part of the Baby Boom! I was born in December of 1952, my sister Helen in January 1954, and my brother Teddy in 1956.

My father bought a laundry in the Nob Hill area of San Francisco. We lived in a boarding house until 1956. He then bought rental property in the Western Addition of San Francisco.

Dad worked long hours cleaning other people’s clothing to support his family.

Mom, who had been a homemaker, would have to get used to the long hours of laundry work. My parents would work 12-to-14-hour days to support a family of six.

The death of my dad in 1967 made life even more difficult for my mom. We struggled financially and she had to operate the laundry pretty much by herself until we came home from school to help.

I give my brother Benny, who became the patriarch of the family, great credit for getting us through this difficult time. He was married and working. He and his wife Merry sacrificed some of their life goals for the good of the family.

We avoided the temptations of drugs, gangs, and the streets and were all able to go to college. The three younger siblings are Berkeley graduates and all of us have advanced degrees. All of us are retired. My sister Helen was a lawyer who worked for the PUC, my brother Ted was a pharmacist, and I was an educator.

Older brother Benny was a successful mid-manager at a title insurance company. He did not have an opportunity to finish college because he got an invitation from President Kennedy to join the United States Army during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a result, he got married shortly after leaving the service and went to work.

Our laundry that we owned for 26 years in the Nob Hill district of San Francisco.

Ours is not the only story. Many of my distant cousins and friends’ parents also owned laundries, worked in restaurants, owned grocery stores, worked in sweatshops with long hours and little pay.

Yet their children, the Baby Boomers, became professionals. If we had a reunion of offspring of people from our village in Toishan we would have doctors, lawyers, teachers, pharmacists, and dentists, just to name a few.

Like my brother and sister, many of them when to Berkeley and have advanced degrees. This is not bad for a group of people who were one generation removed from being subsistence peasant farmers in China with limited educations.

So, denying the “myth of the model minority” may be a little too extreme. We should acknowledge that there are disparities in wealth. But we should also celebrate the fact the many of us realized the American Dream because of the sacrifices of our immigrant parents.

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Bill Yee is a retired Alhambra High School history teacher. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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