New York Times

Dismantling the Asian Advantage

In the 1980s, TIME Magazine painted a racial stereotype known as the 'model minority.' | Source: TIME In school, there was a semi-serious joke that anything less than an "A" was unacceptable. I know my brothers and I helped fuel this mentality. It didn't help that I would cry over homework assignments that seemed too overwhelming - in elementary school. As military kids, my brothers and I would trade in our report cards for discounted items and prizes at the military base exchange. There was pressure from everyone - relatives, friends, teachers and ourselves - to do well. It's no wonder that my health has been impacted by such high levels of stress over the years.

I didn't realize how much my skin color influenced my path until much later in my education. There's an expectation that just because you're of Asian descent, you excel.

You're Asian? You probably play the piano or some sort of instrument. You must be good at math and science.

Here's my truth: I was no good at any of the few instruments I tried, and due to pressure I put on myself, I quit each of them. In elementary school, I told myself that if I was not any good at something, I had no business doing it. During high school, I failed the official AP Chemistry exam and didn't receive credit for college, and was questioned by a teacher when I returned the next school year. During senior year, I did poorly in calculus. I was shamed in class for my failing math grades after a teacher had the entire class reveal their report cards. In college, I worked hard to earn Cs (As and Bs were miracles) each semester while juggling part-time jobs, internships, service, and extracurricular commitments - because I thought that's what I was supposed to do. It took some time, but I realized that holding myself to such a high standard was no longer an option. It was unhealthy. I eventually went to counseling, and had the opportunity to do both individual counseling and group therapy. I was told to pick a couple of hobbies; writing became one of the ones I revisited and invested my time and energy in.

Though I graduated from college over three years ago, I've since been completing fellowships and living on small living stipends. I don't have a 401K. I don't make the big bucks. I've moved back home to live with my parents (thankfully) a couple of times. Maybe this is a Millennial thing. I know, we're not all supposed to have it figured out by our 20s. And sure, everyone defines success differently. Yes, I recognize the extent of privilege that I experience. But that privilege does not help all Asian ethnic groups in the US to break the bamboo ceiling - or the barriers that exclude those of Asian descent from leadership and growth in professional settings.

So, do I really fit the assumption that all Asian Americans succeed? Is such an assumption even true?

Let's take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

Nicholas Kristof recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times and stated that "Asian-Americans are disproportionately stars in American schools, and even in American society as a whole." Reading Kristof's article left a bitter taste in my mouth.  There's a belief that Asian Americans as a whole benefit from an "Asian Advantage." And this is wrong.

Breaking through the bamboo ceiling. | Source: The Atlantic

For decades, Asian Americans have been branded as the "model minority."  Society believes we grow up with Tiger Moms and are guided by strong family values. We are expected to graduate from college. Statistics tell us we make high household incomes. We are grouped together and seen as a race that does not have to worry about racism. However, many forget that Asian Americans are not monolithic. Sure, strict parenting and certain values are present in some households. Some Asian Americans graduate from college, but some don't, as many ethnic groups experience high rates of poverty. And while Asian Americans have higher average household incomes in comparison to other races, those very households often include two or more generations. Thus, what seems like a comparatively high income actually supports several family members.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This particular piece of legislation opened up the doorway to many immigrants of diverse backgrounds. However, perhaps we have begun to overlook events prior to 1965. Keeping in mind that the only thing Asian Americans really have in common is the same hemisphere of origin, it's important to note that Asian ethnic groups have had to face hate, racism and xenophobia of varying degrees throughout the course of US history. Some Chinese families have been in American for over a century; many were subjected to exclusion, discrimination and violence following the onset of the California Gold Rush. In the early 1900s, Asian immigrants were detained and interrogated at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco. Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps, one of the many atrocities resulting from WWII. Filipinos fought alongside the US in WWII, only to be denied rights and benefits that those from other countries who served in the US Armed Forces were granted. Immigration quotas have been changed and limited on several occasions, tearing apart families and loved ones. More recently, in 2012, six individuals were killed during shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The painting of Asian Americans is an intricate one, and it's influenced by language access, lack of resources, varying education levels, economic factors, health issues (physical and mental), and more.

Last month, Erika Lee gave a talk at the National Archives in Washington, DC about her new book, 'The Making of Asian America.' It gives further detail of the history of Asian ethnic groups and their moves to the US. In a recent article in The New Yorker, Karan Mahajan talks about Erika Lee's book and the two Asian Americas that exist today:

"There are now, in a sense, two Asian Americas: one formed by five centuries of systemic racism, and another, more genteel version, constituted in the aftermath of the 1965 law. These two Asian Americas float over and under each other like tectonic plates, often clanging discordantly. So, while Chinese-Americans and Indian-Americans are among the most prosperous groups in the country, Korean-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, and Filipino-Americans have lower median personal earnings than the general population. Over-all Chinese-American prosperity obscures the higher-than-average poverty rate for Chinese-Americans."

It may appear as though Asian Americans don't experience racism, or if they do, they keep it to themselves. As Mahajan notes:

"... if some [Asian Americans] seem to work unusually hard in the face of this difficult history, it is not because they want to be part of a 'model minority' but because they have often had no other choice."

Moving forward, I hope everyone can continue to paint a more accurate picture of Asian Americans, not as a single race, but as diverse ethnic groups, each with a distinct history and culture that deserves to be recognized.

The original version of this post appeared on Mama Tanap, a blog that focuses on personal health and wellness.

A Fil-Am Reflection: Here Lies Love, Disco and Filipinos!


By Nicole Maxali, guest contributor

My boss asked if I want the New York Times to read. I say “Sure!” and read it on the train ride home. The cover story of the Fashion & Style section is an interview with Talking Head’s lead singer David Byrne and Cyndi Lauper. (Side note: I’m a huge Cyndi Lauper fan. And one of the last conversations my father and I had before he suddenly died in 2011 was about Cyndi’s artistry, her drive as a creative, and the fact that she followed the beat of her own drum). In the article Byrne & Lauper share their “famous pasts and their theatrical presents — she as the Tony-winning composer and lyricist of the Broadway hit Kinky Boots, and he as the Obie-winning creator of the musical spectacle Here Lies Love, about the former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos."

I’ve been dying to see both musicals since I moved to NYC. Last year, Here Lies Love played for an extended run but I wasn’t able to catch it because I was either too busy or too broke. But the article stated that Here Lies Love returns to The Public Theater for a permanent run in April! Another chance to see it? Score! I immediately hit up my friend to see if we can go together.  I get a text from her two days later saying, “Do you want to attend the preview with me?” See a $119 show for FREE? Double score! At this point, I don’t know what to expect except that it’s a 90 minute show and its set in a disco club so there are no seats and dancing is highly suggested.

I wear my most comfortable dancing shoes and meet her in the lobby of The Public Theater. We wait and wait and wait.  She texts her contact but no one comes to meet us. We wait some more.  And she notices a big group of gay boys going up a flight of stairs. Then a tall man in all white with white hair enters the lobby and heads towards the stairs. She asks him a question and he gestures us to follow. At this point, I’m trying not to geek out. I’m trying not to blurt out:

“I loved your interview with Cyndi in the NY Times!” or

“My dad loved the Talking Heads! My mom thinks you’re a genius!” or

“Hi, I’m Nicole Maxali and you’re DAVID BYRNE!”

Yeah, so I don’t say any of those things and just keep my mouth shut as we ascend the staircase that leads to The LuEsther Theater or the disco club that was once the LuEsther.

We walk in and it’s a typical club equipped with black lights, go-go stages, huge screens and a DJ booth above us. No chairs. No VIP bottle service couches. Nowhere to sit. Nothing like you’d expect a musical show venue to look like. And then it begins.

I have to admit there was a moment in the beginning of the show, when the liberal SF State Pilipino American Collegiate Activist in my head started to say: Wait. Is this show just a glorification of the Marcos era? Is Byrne not going to bring up the fact that the 1,000 pairs shoe lady was really part of a horrible time in Philippine’s history? Is this just going to be about Imelda’s extravagant life of excess?

In that moment I was hoping this wasn’t going to be like The Help. The Oscar-winning film has raised objections in the African American community, which may have to do with the fact that it was written by a white author. In a statement about the movie, The Association of Black Women Historians have said:

“Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers.”

So although I am a third gen Filipino-American from Cali, I still remember my grandmother’s horror stories about what the Marcos regime was doing to our mother country and our family in the 70’s & 80’s. And how much we celebrated in San Francisco when Aquino took office in 1986. I remember that regardless of Imelda’s extravagant life, her people (some of my family members) were suffering and abused during her twenty year reign as the first lady of the Philippines.

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But I tried to keep an open mind and I’m glad I did. Midway through the show, we witnessed how seamlessly Byrne and the director, Alex Timbers, incorporated historical facts into the story line of the musical both lyrically and visually. In the days following the preview, I found out that David Byrne did a thorough job at researching and investing his time into this show. Ten years to be exact. On his blog, David writes:

“Here Lies Love is entirely true and much of the lyric content comes from speeches and interviews the various characters gave over the years.”

I respect him even more for putting the work in and for incorporating actual speeches and interviews into his artistic vision.

Once I had calmed my inner Filipina activist, I was able to be immersed into the world of disco, love and politics. Yes, it’s everything the descriptions and reviews say it is. It’s fun and enthralling but at times heart-wrenching but beautifully acted and sung throughout. I also realized that this show was less a glorification of Imelda and more a story that humanizes this woman’s journey. It humanizes a woman that both the media and personal greed made into a larger than life caricature like a Filipino Marie Antoinette… except with possibly a hundred times more shoes and her head intact. There was one point of the musical that made me actually feel sorry for her and feel like if I were in her shoes (no pun intended), maybe I would’ve turned into the woman she became.

As I danced my way through each scene I felt a sense of pride. I was ironically witnessing Filipino-American history of a Filipino history lesson on stage. I was proud to see other Filipino artists singing, acting and dancing on stage while still being Filipino characters. The first time I witnessed a Filipino actor on stage in NYC was Lea Solanga in Les Misérables where she played Éponine (a French teenager). That was 18 years ago! Finally two decades later there is a semi-mainstream show that is representing Filipinos in a way that isn’t either a racist stereotypical comedic bit or a highly sexualized prostitute or a submissive mail order bride.

There has never been a musical or play with this much media attention (VogueNew York Times and The New Yorker have all written reviews on the show) and Off Broadway support in NYC that is written about Filipinos casted with “mainly” Filipino actors. I use quotes around mainly because in my research I found that almost all of the characters in the musical are Filipino except for the main actress playing Imelda. Wait, What? Yeah, the actress Ruthie Ann Miles is of Korean descent from Hawaii. I do have mixed feelings about producers casting any person of color for a specific ethnicity but I will say that on the night of the preview Ruthie Ann Mills was under the weather and so her standby performed instead. Her stand in (or swing), Jaygee Macapugay, was amazing and she is of Filipino descent. But alas as David Byrne told us before the show, “Unfortunately, the swing will not be doing any of the hair or costume changes tonight.” That’s ok. Just another reason to go back and see the show.

There was one question that I wanted to ask David Byrne. Why Imelda Marcos? I unfortunately didn’t have the (disco) balls to do it. Fortunately, I looked over the NY times article my boss gave me to read on the subway and found my Q&A there:

"I read somewhere that she loved going to discos. She went to Studio 54. She was hanging out with Andy Warhol and Halston and those people. She put a mirror ball in her house. How many people do that? I thought this woman lives in that world, and that means something. The fact that disco music connects with her life, how she sees herself, that’s significant. And I thought: I know that music, I like that music. Maybe I can tell a story that way." - David Byrne

And with music as his passion David Byrne did just that. Probably unaware how inspiring his ten-year project would be to future Filipino-American artists, his own passion gave me hope that if a story about a Filipino woman can garner so much attention and support outside of the Filipino-American community then it is possible to do the same with my own work.

Because how do communities of color rise above racism and under representation in the mainstream media? We write, produce and direct or own stories regardless if the gate keepers ask us or allow us to do it. In a recent article about Asian American representation on TV, Alanna Bennett added the quote from Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz:

“You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror…And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all… And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors.”

On that brisk April night, I walked out of The Public Theater humming Here Lies Love in my head. And in my heart… inspired that my stories will manifest one day on screen/stage. Thank you for this musical that is a huge mirror for Filipino-Americans, David Byrne. My mom is right. You are a genius.

Info and Tickets:‎

General tickets: $99.00 Rush tickets: A limited number of $40 day-of-performance rush tickets will be available, at The Public’s Taub Box Office (425 Lafayette Street, NYC) starting at 6:00 p.m. on all Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays for those evening performances.

The original version of this post originally appeared on Nicole Maxali’s blog

Photo credit: Here Lies Love