Debunking 8 Myths about Asian America

By Kenneth Kitahata

CAST/HIST 260: Asian American History (Fall 2017)

Exploring myths in Asian American history is a good way to root out stereotypes about Asian Americans. When harmful myths are perpetuated, people and their experiences can be generalized and society loses a chance to correct history. After a semester in Asian American History, we explore and debunk 8 myths about Asian Americans.

  1. Myth: Commodore Perry “Opened” Japan

While many Americans believe Japan had been isolated from the world prior to Commodore Perry’s expedition in 1953, there was significant contact with foreigners prior to this encounter. For example, before the 17th century Japan was China’s main source of silver. Chinese led an active trade at the port of Nagasaki, even leading to a settled merchant community numbering one-fifth of Nagasaki’s population towards the end of the Tokugawa period. Additionally, Commodore Perry was hardly the first Westerner or European to visit Japan. Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch merchants had engaged in regular trade with Japan since the 16th century. The first Europeans to make contact were the Portuguese in 1543, bringing new military innovations, language, art styles, and cuisine. Additionally, a major impact of this foreign contact was with religion. Christian proselytizing arrived following Jesuit Francis Xavier in 1549, and Catholic missionaries eventually converted about 300,000 Japanese.

Many believed the 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa “opened” Japan as foreign contact was abrupt cut off with the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603. Although trade with other countries continued, relations with Western nations were severed as Japan turned inwards in a period of isolationism. But Commodore Perry’s expedition that negotiated trade with the U.S. was hardly Japan’s first foreign contact or beginning of relations with the outside world.

2. Myth: Asians Are Politically Invisible

Why don’t Asians matter more as a political force in national and local elections? Perhaps its because Asians make up a smaller slice of the electorate (4 percent) than minority groups such as Blacks and Hispanics. But this changing fast; the largest growth in the voting public is among Asians, who grew four times faster than any demographic group from 2000 to 2010. Asians rose into the mainstream political arena in the 1960’s with the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Third World strikes at San Francisco State. There have been prominent U.S. politicians representing Asian America, including the late Senator Daniel Inouye. Asians still face challenges in breaking into the political arena, in part because the population isn’t viewed as politically active and because of the diversity of ethnic groups. But with rapid population growth and an increasing presence of young Asian Americans in volunteer activism, America can no longer ignore Asian Americans as a political force.

3. Myth: Asians Don’t Matter in the Debate Around Undocumented Immigrants

A recent headline proclaimed “Asians Now Outpace Mexicans In Terms of Undocumented Growth”. While immigrants from Central America and Mexico dominate the U.S. debate around undocumented immigrants, Asian immigrants have quietly tripled since 2000 and now account for 1.6 million of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America. These changing demographics of Asian America are a remnant of the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 that reformed the immigration system. As the first major immigration changes since 1924, it raised the overall immigration ceiling, introduced per-country quotas of 20,000, and created a preference system for immigrants that prioritized skilled professionals and family reunification. The legacy of the Hart-Cellar Act was to transform Asian America into a predominantly foreign-born population. While immigration reform did grow the Asian American population, the door to America was not open to all who sought entry. Today, immigrants from India and China drive our rising undocumented population. These immigrants often labor on the lower tiers of the economy, working jobs as construction laborers, garment workers, and domestic care providers. The hidden legacy of the Hart-Cellar Act was rapid Asian immigration, leaving a vulnerable population of undocumented immigrants feeling invisible and left out of America’s immigration reform debate.

4. Myth: Asians Are ALL Rich.

Doctors. Lawyers. Success stories. The model minority myth has led America to highlight successful Asian immigrant groups and brush aside disadvantaged populations with high rates of poverty. While Asian Americans do earn more, on average, than white Americans, the wealth gap is much higher. For instance, two of the most disadvantaged populations, Cambodian and Vietnamese Americans, are a remnant of the Post-Vietnam refugee migration. America’s involvement in Southeast Asia began during the 1946 Indochina War as America fought the spread of Communism. As America’s involvement in Vietnam deepened, the displacement of Cambodians, Hmong, and Vietnamese people entered the U.S. media’s lens. While the “first wave” of refugees came to America as urbanized and educated, the “second wave” of poorer, uneducated refugees struggled to assimilate and settle in America. Many refugees such as the Hmong people had never experienced city life or modern technology and required federal assistance to help them settle. Today, these disadvantaged groups continue to experience economic hardship, with incomes below the median average and many living below the poverty line. In New York City, more than a quarter of Asian Americans live in poverty, more than any other minority group. “Asian America” doesn’t hold up as a catchall term; the stereotype of Asians as successful immigrant groups underlies extreme wealth inequality and high poverty rates.

5. Myth: Early Asian Immigrants Came To America For One Reason: Economic Opportunity

The story of early Asian immigration in the 19th and 20th century is one of young males immigrating temporarily to work in better-paid jobs, send their earnings back to their family, and eventually return to their home country. But early immigrants were a diverse group, and while commonalities link Korean, Filipino, Japanese, and Indian migrants, each had distinct circumstances shaping their journey to America. For instance, a distinctive feature of Korean immigration was the prevalence of converted Christians. A remnant of the large French and American missionary presence in Korea, many of the first immigrants were influenced by missionaries and had been trained in mission schools in Korea. One distinctive subset of early Chinese immigrants came under coercion as indentured laborers. These early Chinese “coolies” worked in conditions resembling slavery, and although the “coolie” system did not take root in America we were present as transporters and middle men. There was no poster child for early Asian immigration, the diversity of pull and push factors that brought people to the U.S. was as diverse as their countries of origin.

6. Myth: We’ve Learned Our Lesson From Internment

The words “Never Again” are printed on the wall of the Japanese American Museum in San Jose’s Japantown. It is a powerful reminder of internment as a stain on U.S. history that deprived citizens from their civil liberties. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the beginning of WWII, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, allowing for enemy aliens to be evacuated to designated military zones. Across the West Coast, 120,000 Japanese American citizens were rounded up and held in barbed wire detention centers manned by armed guards.

As internment ended with the 1944 Endo Supreme Court case, the Nisei generation struggled to reckon with internment. It was not until the 1960’s that young Japanese American activists linked wartime internment with contemporary racism. But even after the Redress Movement, America hasn’t learned our lesson from internment. Never is national distress an excuse for our government’s actions, and as citizens we must stand together to exercise our rights against such prejudice. It is especially relevant as our media reports internment being cited as precedent for a Muslim registry and a travel ban affecting thousands of migrants and refugees. As civil rights activists band together with Muslim Americans we must hope that “Never Again” doesn’t prove to be a false promise.

7. Myth: Asian Men Are Quiet, Harmless, and Unmasculine

The stereotype of effeminate, desexualized Asian men can be traced back to the racist legacies of colonialism. As Western countries colonized Asia they valorized the image of a white, hyper-masculine conqueror, placing Asian men on the other end of the spectrum as weak and effeminate. This has been widely discussed in criticisms of the model minority myth. But historians studying early Asian “bachelor society” explored how many young Asian men created community through gambling, dancing, and other traditionally masculine spaces. For instance, the culture of Filipino boxers has been studied as a space for creating masculinity. Boxing champions such as Francisco “Pancho Villa” Guilledo, Ceferino Garcia, and Small Montana captivated audiences through the early 1900’s. Fans would drive hundreds of miles to watch their favorite boxers, while ethnic newspaper would provide recaps for fans at home. Guilleda even won the American Flyweight Championship in 1922, cementing himself as a sports hero in the Filipino community.

8. Myth: Asians Aren’t Involved in the Arts

While the model minority myth has valorized traditional, conservative careers as a symbol of success, many young Asian Americans have found a space in journalism, the arts, politics and in the social sciences. This growing list includes actress Lucy Liu, designer Jason Wu, chef Roy Choi, politician Gary Locke, and journalist Jeff Yang. Recently artist and curator Lonnie Lee set about creating a gallery dedicated to Asian American Art in her Oakland studio. Inspired after President Obama’s declared May as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, Lee’s gallery features artists drawing upon traditional techniques such as Japanese calligraphy on traditional mediums. As Asian Americans chart new water in exploring career outside medicine and business, it pushes back against a one-size-fits-all understanding of contemporary work in Asian America by broadening the definition of success.

Thanks for reading :)


Read about the Chinese merchant community in Nagasaki, Japan: Yanjiu, Ming Qing. “Patrizia Carioti, “The Origins of the Chinese Community of Nagasaki, 1571–1635”, Ming Qing Yanjiu 2006.

Read more about Asian Americans as undocumented immigrants: “One out of every 7 Asian immigrants is undocumented.” Data Bits. September 11, 2017. Accessed December 16, 2017.

Listen to a podcast about a Nisei’s lessons from internment: Migaki, Lauren. “At 92, A Japanese-American Reflects On The Lessons Of Internment Camps.” NPR. December 07, 2016. Accessed December 16, 2017.

Read about new directions in Asian American art: Frank, Priscilla. “Dismantling Stereotypes About Asian-American Identity Through Art.” The Huffington Post. May 03, 2017. Accessed December 16, 2017.



Comparative American Studies at Oberlin

Musings by students and faculty affiliated with the Comparative American Studies department at Oberlin College.