For eight months Azia Kim posed as a Stanford freshman — even sleeping in two dorms and buying textbooks to study for tests she would never take — until she was caught in May 2007. The next month Audley Yung made bomb threats at UC Riverside in hopes of canceling graduation ceremonies, lest his mother arrive to discover that he had dropped out. And in the most extreme case, Jennifer Pan told her parents for years that she was attending a pharmacology program at the University of Toronto. When they finally grew suspicious and discovered she was not even enrolled in college, she hired hitmen in 2010 to murder them.

These cases may seem almost incomprehensible to many readers, but Asian Americans often feel a shock of recognition at this glimpse of the “model minority” archetype, albeit in a worst-case scenario. These cases populate scholar erin Khuê Ninh’s fascinating book Passing For Perfect: College Imposters and Other Model Minorities, in which she investigates what would drive someone to such extreme acts. While the book examines stories of subterfuge so outrageous that they made the news, Ninh argues that these outlier cases reflect an all-too-common pressure among Asian immigrants and their children to achieve excellence — no matter the toll.

Asian Americans are often held up as a model minority, a group of high achievers whose success proves that American meritocracy is real. (Never mind that the gains of successful Asian Americans can be explained through policy and immigration patterns and that many Asian American communities struggle in poverty and in the criminal justice system.) But Ninh argues that the model minority myth is not a myth at all if people buy into its framework and internalize it.

I recently spoke to Ninh, a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, over the phone about the stakes of high achievement and model minority identity. (Full disclosure: Ninh is a friend and former colleague.) This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

As an Asian American and the one child in my family who did not go into one of the acceptable professions of doctor, lawyer, or engineer, I found your book interesting because even for those of us who recognize the model minority as proscriptive, we joke about it. We’ve clearly internalized it. It seems like it’s almost a cultural thing.

I like what you said about being the one child who didn’t choose the path and yet hopefully realizing through the book that it still applies to you. It’s still gotten you in one way or another. In some ways this is not surprising, right? You and I are both type-A and we have high perfectionist standards — and I think that definitely comes from a model minority place. We’ve chosen our path, but it’s not acceptable to us to be not high achieving. So is it cultural? I guess it’s cultural, but not in the way that people usually mean cultural. Like, it’s not specifically Chinese or Vietnamese. It’s immigrant formation. And so it takes from these home countries and backgrounds and then makes something particularly anxiety ridden that has to do with immigrant life — something particularly high stakes and full of ultimatums, right? Like, you better ace this and the next thing and the next thing, or you’ll end up homeless.

It cuts across all these different Asian ethnicities, and socioeconomic lines too. I wonder if other immigrant groups experience this, like Nigerians. They have a lot of doctors, too.

Asian American community meme

Yes, actually. I have been in conversation with this English professor, Asha Jeffers. She lives in Canada and her parents are immigrants from Dominica and Guyana. She says my books resonate with her and her community of immigrants. There are similar pressures to be only doctors or lawyers. And it’s funny because even when I was doing a presentation for her, I found memes, the same kind of memes [about achievement] for her community as for the Asian American immigrant community. It was wild. It was word for word, but the faces were different. But I do think that it matters that on top of immigrant formation for Asian Americans, we have the racialization as model minorities. With [non-Asian immigrants] there’s no outside expectation from mainstream America.

African and Caribbean immigrant community meme

You use the word “passing” in the title of your book, referencing passing as white and Judith Butler’s writings about gender as a performance. In the introduction you write, “to pass for model minority is a performance of race — even if your own.”

I’m using that term partly because it’s so ironic, especially for the college impostors I’m talking about. What they’re doing is deception. But they’re working incredibly hard every day to deceive people into seeing them as the people that they’re supposed to be — not as somebody else, but as the only people they are allowed to be in the community and racially. So, not to defy expectations, but to meet them. It’s kind of an oxymoron: passing for yourself. But it’s also deeply sad because these are not people trying to pass to climb a social ladder or to break any boundaries. They’re passing as if their lives depend on it because that’s all they know. They’re just trying to pass for who they’re supposed to be.

That really comes across in the cases in the book because there’s nothing to be gained. They’re not getting a degree or a job. It’s illogical and feels so desperate. In one sense, I read the book as trying to ascertain why Asian Americans have bad mental health outcomes. These imposters feel that they must keep up with the charade. They can’t see a way out of it. It’s like when you’re depressed, you can’t see beyond the depression.

Asian American community meme

I do like that analogy a lot, partly because depression — at least in my very unscientific understanding of it — is not just a clinical condition, but it’s also a way that you see the world. And in that way of seeing the world, all futures are closed. So the analogy for me here is that this kind of model minority mentality is a belief that there are no other futures but this one. Nothing else is a good future but this. And to do anything other than this is to live in horrible failure. And so, you end up with people who believe in that so much that all they can do is kind of swim desperately away from this thing they feel is sucking them into their failure. But it’s not! There’s still much more to the world that the depressive doesn’t see — and that these model minority subjects also do not see. There are so many other possibilities of living and meaning and being valuable and important — and they don’t see it. They have not been allowed to see it. And it’s not just about these extreme cases. Even those of us who think we’ve made our choices differently are still trying to measure up in some way. 

You pose this question: “What if what seems to be outlandish and outlier behaviors are instead depressingly Asian American.” My reaction to that was, “Oh, ouch. Ouch.”

Well, that’s kind of why I started writing this book. Because I looked at these stories that were so ludicrous to some people, but not to Asian Americans. It seems so laughable, right? But both I, personally, and then in the social media discussions and comment threads [of news stories], there would be so many Asian Americans saying, “Oh no, I recognize it. This is also me.” And in some ways, we were recognizing based on very little. It’s not like the news stories gave detailed biographies of these people and their motives, but there were just enough notes that you could recognize the song. You don’t need that many notes to recognize the song — not if it’s a song that you also have been singing your entire life.

At the end of the book, you argue that the pressure to succeed is a systemic problem rooted in neoliberalism — that is, many immigrant parents buy into the notion that economic success depends upon individual initiative in a free-market capitalist system. Can you elaborate?

Immigrant parents are not the personal enemies and brute force of this dynamic. If it’s an immigrant thing, it’s because Asian immigrants have plugged into a system with a certain set of values. And what they are doing works well within those values for that system and helps them succeed in that system. It’s not that they’re there doing it because it doesn’t work for them. They do it because it does. And so they become consummate neoliberal subjects .The subject that neoliberalism wants us to be is always maximizing capacity and maximizing value. So it’s important that we do not demonize the parents. We do not often acknowledge how well the model minority child-rearing practices and model minority neoliberal subjects succeed. It churns out Type-A, self-driven, perfectionist people who go into lucrative professions. It’s a great formula, which is why to say that it’s a myth is so disingenuous. There’s so many of us.

What can we do about it? 

I hope that the book makes it more possible for people to see the system as such — and to be active in questioning their own investments in that system. Given the value systems that the model minority subject is funneled into both professionally and in the family communal context, I think if we’re going to choose differently then we need to do so with an understanding and acceptance that you’re going to disappoint. You will disappoint those expectations. That disappointment will need managing. But in many ways the first type of management isn’t necessarily managing the systems of employment or managing your parents. It’s actually managing your own sense of disappointment. And even as you have chosen differently, you’re not going to get the same rewards. But you make these choices for what? You choose differently in order to have different possibilities.

Type of work:

Melissa Hung writes about immigrant communities and culture, among other topics. Her essays and reported stories have appeared in NPR, Vogue, Pacific Standard, The San Francisco Chronicle, Longreads, and...