The Day I Failed as an Asian was the Day I Failed a Math Test

I'm Indian.

I'm bad at math.

And I've decided to spend my four years at UT in the College of Liberal Arts.

A depiction of different Asian American stereotypes. Illustration by Caren King Choi.
A depiction of different Asian American stereotypes. Illustration by Caren King Choi.

By: Rachel Patel 

COLA wasn't somewhere I wanted to be for most of my life. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my immediate response until I was 15 was, "A doctor!" I didn't know anything about the medical field and I didn't have a passion for biology. I just knew, intrinsically, that that was the answer people were expecting to hear.

Perpetuated by the lack of Asian representation in a society where there are few major Asian-American politicians, scarce numbers of Asian-American actors, and little to none Asian-Americans in the music industry, growing up I felt extremely limited in what I could do. I resolved to pursue one of the three professions society expected me to do: a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer.

That image was shattered once I began regularly failing math tests in Honors Algebra. The glaring "F" was seared into my mind when I got my test back from the teacher. Up until that point I had been an all-A student and the F was a major blow to me. But, it didn't end there. For the rest of the year I struggled in the class. How was I supposed to get into MIT if I couldn't even pass an eighth grade math test?

For a long time my self-worth and identity was tied to my grades. Not because I had crazy tiger parents (a stereotype in and of itself) - if anything my parents were the opposite. Instead, I felt as though I had to do well in school because of the longstanding assumption in American society - the assumption that Asian Americans were naturally studious and likely to succeed just because Asian Americans had a predisposition to academics, especially those in the math and science field.

Image by Pixabay.
Image by Pixabay.

This assumption, known as the model minority myth, is one of extreme ignorance, and was planted into American society through racist propaganda. Prior to the 1960s, Chinatowns and other areas where Asian Americans resided were seen as exotic, dirty places where prostitutes and gamblers alike gathered to engage in seedy activities.

However, in the 1960s, the image of the studious and quiet Asian American was cultivated to deny the demands of African Americans working to pursue equal rights. The belief was that if Asian Americans could rise up in the ranks of American society through hard work and a strong core family, why couldn't African Americans?

At the end of the day, however, the model minority myth is exactly that - a myth. Like any other group of people, Asian Americans have a whole range of people with different talents and intrinsic abilities. To tie the success of all Asian Americans to three professions, or to two subjects is naive at best.

Comedians such as Hasan Minhaj and Aziz Ansari, actors such as Constance Wu and Mindy Kaling, and politicians such as Amata Coleman Radewagen and Stephanie Murphy have proved that Asian Americans can excel in fields besides law, medicine and engineering.

In his stand-up comedy film, "Homecoming King," Hasan Minhaj takes a comedic approach to common Asian American problems. Illustration by Sam Spratt.
In his stand-up comedy film, "Homecoming King," Hasan Minhaj takes a comedic approach to common Asian American problems. Illustration by Sam Spratt.

However, the model minority myth isn't just propagated by people outside of the Asian-American community. When explaining my disinterest in STEM, and my passion for government and other liberal arts disciplines to fellow Asian Americans, I have, on multiple occasions, received looks of shock quickly replaced by looks of masked indifference.

For example, when my roommate's friend saw me wearing the purple COLA shirt, she quickly turned to my roommate and asked in a shocked whisper, "She's a liberal arts kid?" as if the mere thought of rooming with a COLA student was an atrocity - let alone an Asian American actively pursuing a liberal arts major.

A similar story happened a couple of weeks back when I ran into a friend whom I hadn't seen in years. We attempted to catch up over what had happened over the past couple of years through the fine dining at JCL. When I told him I was planning on majoring in government he said, shocked, "Really? Why? How do your parents feel about that?"

While some may wish to be seen as the "model minority," the stereotype, like all stereotypes, is harmful to those it pertains to. The stereotype generalizes all Asian Americans, regardless of cultural differences. The assumption that Asian Americans can work hard on the same one path to success brushes aside the disadvantages and inequalities Asian Americans face, thus suggesting Asian Americans have achieved the same level of equality as Caucasian people in America. It also casts asides those who don't fit into the model. To grow our community as a whole would require breaking that image, and pushing for the inclusion of all different "types" of Asian Americans.

All photos are copyright free. 

Rachel Patel is an undeclared freshman at the University of Texas at Austin.