Jun 1, 2023
Content Warning: Ableism, Racism
Society has created, through the diminution of “Asianness”, an Asian American aesthetic that waters down all descendents from Asian countries into a monolithic mass who is constantly striving to achieve the white capitalist perfection that nobody, not even white people can ever achieve. Now the reason that I call this an “aesthetic” rather than a “stereotype” is because a stereotype is a grimly negative, untrue generalization that people actively fight against, however an aesthetic is a surface level pleasantry. While the model minority myth is the weaponized stereotype of perception by white supremacists to uphold their supremacy, the Asian American aesthetic is the goal actually strived for in the Asian American community through a neo-assimilation which allows easy digestibility to the critical social eye.
Of course this aesthetic is not actually a desirable goal, it is a concept cruelly created by the capitalist machine that incurs a complete loss of identity and community in order to function. However, in a country where the perpetual foreigner trope is explicitly persistent, although we reside upon Native American soil so it makes no sense for white to be the default, in order to survive and thrive, the Asian American will be far more inclined than most to deeply internalize capitalist perfection as the only path to success, and sacrifice their identity and soul to get there.
Therefore, because the Asian American aesthetic revolves around social and mental perfection, any deviation from it is harshly received. The Asian American existence is reduced to two tracks: appearing as the model minority with the constant looming shadow of the perpetual foreigner, or an enduring invisibility and nonexistence in the public sphere. This creates very difficult circumstances for Asian Americans who are incapable of curating the facade to effectively achieve the aesthetic, which disproportionately includes those who are physically disabled, neurodivergent, and/or queer. I will argue that this is not only due to not fitting the model minority stereotype, but due to the internal overlapping of collectivist mentality with the Asian American aesthetic.
Collectivist mentality tends to be more prevalent among Asian American families who have a closer proximity to immigration, for collectivism is a prominent mentality in the east. Although collectivism should not be mistaken to be an ideal that all Asians subscribe to, many Asian American families with immigrant matriarchs and patriarchs will experience this phenomenon. Collectivism directly clashes with American individualism, for the importance is not placed on individual achievement but the collective triumph, and in America it often manifests enclosed to the family unit. Subsequently, success is a familial affair dedicated to the pleasing of the older generations, thus if a family member fails, it is the entire family’s humiliation.
Upholding family honor is difficult enough as the Asian American aesthetic creates insurmountable pressure for conformity, however for those with disabilities it is exponentially more difficult. Both physical and cognitive disabilities contribute to the terrifying prospect of standing out, not being able to achieve traditional capitalist success, hence becoming a burden on the family. However, this is not a simply a monetary loss, it is a failure to fit the Asian American aesthetic which draws attention as a stain on the family, a perpetual humiliation, a vicious loss of face, and a public dishonor, which is one of the worst harms that can fall upon many Asian American families.
Incidentally, it is important to note that this emphasis on dramatically avoiding public dishonor is habitually orientalized by the Western lens, which I find to be rather disgusting because it comes off as a weird fetishization by Western media exploiting the entire east as an extravagant performance. Additionally, it fails to capture the ideological nuances of collectivism, nor realize that not all Asian and Middle Eastern people will experience it. And for those that do, in America it is more than just a mere continuation of their ethnic country, it is a method of survival. The Asian American presence in the United States has always been splattered with unjustly and quietly spilt blood, as people are often attacked simply for being different. For example, a recent resurgence in anti-Asian hate due to COVID has led to a 149% increase in reported anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020 (Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism). Additionally, this recent statistic disproportionately victimizes the elderly which, with the collectivist value that deeply cherishes our elders, is a massive devastation to Asian American communities, and is very painful to see. As a result, in America very strong bonds within Asian American families and communities will flourish. Among family might be the only time you can truly be yourself, practice connections to your culture (if you still have them) and speak your language (if it is not firstly english), meanwhile under the social gaze the Asian American aesthetic will be increasingly tightly maintained.
Moreover, when collective success is specifically measured within the constraints of a capitalist society, those who are disabled are doomed to hardship because capitalism actively hinders disabled people from thriving. This is achieved not only with physical barriers and accessibility issues, but with the social stigma of not being a fully individual and self-sufficient being which therefore impedes productivity. The Asian American aesthetic is only successfully upheld when a person is perceived positively as a smoothly functioning cog in the machine of capitalism, so a visible disability will render their contributions invisible as their presence is diluted to a foreign visual anomaly. The intersectionality of being disabled and Asian layers on to specifically highlight the exoticism of the foreign, and they are consequently ostracized from ever achieving the Asian American aesthetic.
Failure to traditionally succeed in school or in the workplace can have a range of mental health effects, from the individual mental strain of failing the family, to the family disappointment that will incessantly and aggressively be expressed every day, to even disownment. Furthermore, according to the APA (American Psychiatric Association), Asian Americans are the least likely race/ethnicity in the United States to seek mental health help, and the least likely to receive mental health care, so the mental pressure that plagues Asian American communities is never treated and generationally persists. Additionally, this results in a failure to diagnose many who are neurodivergent, so not only are their potential failures brutally criticized according to neurotypical standards, but they may not ever receive access to the support that is available in order to succeed. Mental health in the Asian American community does not have a support system, is deeply stigmatized, and is a symptom of family weakness and inadequacy. Many will suffer entire lifetimes in silence to preserve the untainted family name and ensure the best for the future generations.
However, one woman who is monumentally challenging the perception of disability intersecting with Asian American identity is Alice Wong, a Asian American disability activist and writer. She founded the Disability Visibility Project and wrote her powerful memoir: Year of the Tiger. Year of the Tiger wonderfully encapsulates Wong’s experiences growing up with the conflicting intersectionalities of her identities, and how she forged her way through the world to build a tangible community and to be seen for what she is and not what others visually perceive her as.
The collectivist mentality converging with the Asian American aesthetic can also have a uniquely positive effect on disabled Asian Americans, for in an environment where hatred and judgment can be found everywhere, family is the most important and many parents will pour everything into the success of their children. For example, quite a few Asian American parents will expend a lot of time and energy every night after work to personally teach their children math, science, and english concepts, commonly giving them external workbooks to enforce their learning, to ensure academic success. Although for some this can be an unpleasant or traumatic experience, for others it is the extra support that they need to succeed in school to their fullest ability. What people require to successfully meet their needs for accessibility in school varies widely, and can often not be effectively met, so for the Asian American community that often will go undiagnosed for cognitive disabilities, the external support can be very helpful.
Or another example is a personal anecdote: when I was diagnosed with Celiac, my mother promptly began to fill the cupboards and fridge with only celiac-safe breads, sauces, and ingredients, and she altered all of her dishes to be celiac friendly, becoming entirely gluten-free herself. For many Asian American families with the collectivist mentality, struggling is a family experience, as it is the family versus the entire world, so in some beautiful cases, visible and invisible disabilities will be smoothly adapted into the family rhythm and lifestyle in a very cohesive and natural way.
Another frequently overlooked intersectional group within the Asian American diaspora is queer Asian Americans. Throughout history, media and pop culture has generally induced an effeminization and desexualization of Asian men, and a hyper feminization and over sexualization of Asian women. However, I would argue that the more recent booming success of K-pop and anime has led to an increase of the fetishization of all genders of Asians. As much as I love these mediums, with their predominantly western, and peculiarly fervent, consumption, I believe that it is a chronic symptom of an international version of the Asian American aesthetic. These mediums utilize the intentional placement of Asian bodies and Asian likeness onto the market for western consumption because western obsession leads to capital success. This is another example of Asians being economized upon for western/white benefit. Additionally, they are curated for the heterosexual gaze: K-pop for white women, and anime for white men.
Many queer people are drawn to K-pop and anime, however the media aesthetic itself overwhelmingly perpetuates heterosexuality. This erases queer Asians from holding a space, for the overwhelming media that represents Asianness carries the heterosexual audience in mind, thus Asians are subconsciously deemed to be a heterosexual race. To fit with the digestible Asian American aesthetic, queerness is far less flexibly accepted into Asian American families and communities than disability has the potential to be, so queer Asian Americans are often estranged from their Asian identity. Queerness is regarded as a western phenomenon, and queer Asian Americans are accordingly seen as too western for the Asian American communities, but too foreign for the whites.