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Struggles of a model minority

Minorities Report: Study says Asians thrive nationally, PSU report says 'not here'


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Alden Ton erases the blackboard at a Chinese language school in Chinatown. A PSU study says despite high-profile successes, local Asian-Americans are confronting institutional racism on a county-wide scale.

FIRST OF TWO PARTS

On Oct. 13, Portland’s Chinese American Citizens Alliance will host a public celebration. But this event won’t be like most Asian festivals held in Chinatown, which tend to focus on food and dancers and bits and pieces of Chinese culture.

In fact, if Helen Ying is right, there may be more than a few tears shed.

The afternoon’s festivities will be held to celebrate the passage of resolutions by the U.S. Congress this summer formally apologizing for the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which denied citizenship and basic rights to Asians.

As far as Ying is concerned, it is completely understandable that so few people in Portland are aware of the 1882 Project, which for years has pushed for the resolutions. When it comes to speaking up on the political stage, says Ying, national vice president of communications for the alliance, Asian Americans hardly register a peep.

“Our voice is just kind of silenced,” says Ying, “There are so many other people speaking louder.”

It doesn’t help when your minority is seen by many as problem-free. Or, that statistics appear to back up that sentiment.

Asians recently passed Hispanics as the largest group of new U.S. immigrants. Asian Americans make up about 8.5 percent of Multnomah County’s population, with Vietnamese immigrants edging Chinese as the single largest group here. Filipinos, Japanese and Koreans round out the top five, in descending order.

A recent Pew Research Center Study, “The Rise of Asian Americans,” reveals an astounding level of material, educational and cultural success among Asian immigrants nationwide. They are the most highly educated group of immigrants in U.S. history. More than half of all Asian Americans have obtained college degrees, nearly double the national rate for U.S. citizens. by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Sarah Dear practices 'Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,' at her Chinese language school. While Portland's Chinese, Korean and Japanese communities are thriving overall, other less visible Asian ethnicities are falling behind.
The average income for Asian-American families is about $66,000, compared to $50,000 for all Americans.

In surveys by Pew, Asian Americans are consistently more satisfied than other minorities with their lives here and with the direction the country is heading.

But as far as Ying and other leaders of the local Asian-American community are concerned, Portland’s Asians are facing a completely different environment. Sure, successful Asian faces make it appear that Asians are the model minority here as well. But for most Asians in Portland, they say, the Model Minority image is a damaging myth perpetuated by institutional racism and the Asians’ own cultural bias.

Asian-American students often don’t get the attention they need in the classroom, community leaders say, because it is assumed they are doing well and parents are reluctant or don’t have the language skills to bring attention to their failing children.

Crime and gangs in the Asian community are often ignored, they say, because they do not typically involve violence and the types of gangs behavior police associate with black and Hispanic gangs.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Joseph Santos-Lyons of Asian advocacy organization APANO joins Kyle Weismann-Yee at karaoke night. APANO is demanding that more government resources be dedicated to the Asian community. Asians in Portland haven’t spoken up to compete with other minorities for attention and resources, says Stephen Ying, Helen Ying’s husband and president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, citing cultural taboos which make that nearly impossible.

“The Chinese always have a saying that every family sweeps their own front door,” says Ying. “Keep your mouth shut.”

Helen Ying says there is a connection between the modern day Asians’ unwillingness to speak up and the racist legislation of 130 years ago.

“There is a lot of guilt, shame and hurt in the Chinese American families,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons why Chinese Americans have been so quiet. Keep your head low and do what you’re told and don’t make any noise.”

But noise is starting to be made. Local Asian-Americans in the last few years have begun to form organizations such as the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon to organize and lobby on their behalf. And this year, those organizations found a rallying point — a 205-page study by Portland State University social work professor Ann Curry-Stevens, who says institutional racism still exists throughout Multnomah County, and it’s keeping Asians down.

“This is a community suffering the effects of racism just like any other community of color and it’s worse here than the national average or in King County (Seattle),” she says.

Curry-Stevens’ study, partially financed by APANO, is full of income and education data showing how poorly Multnomah County’s Asians are doing overall, and how some specific Asian ethnicities are doing even worse.

Curry-Stevens says that when she first put together the data, she looked for explanations. The obvious first possibility was that Pacific Northwest cities were somehow fundamentally different than the national averages. So she compared Multnomah County with King County, Wash., and found child poverty, median incomes, rates of students attaining college degrees, and access to managerial jobs all worse among Asians here.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Linda Liu, reading with children Devon and Keira, resents being stereotyped as a Tiger Mom and worries about Asian kids who do not meet the expectation of the Asian super student. 
Next, she thought that perhaps Portland had more new Asians than other cities. New arrivals take time to learn the language and assimilate into American culture. But Curry-Stevens says Multnomah County has fewer new arrivals than the national average. Nearly half of the current Multnomah County Asian population was born here, compared to four out of 10 nationally.

Refugees fleeing countries because of politics or war might offer some explanation. Refugees tend to start at a disadvantage, often arriving without the job or family sponsors that help other immigrants gain an economic toe hold.

About 38 percent of Asians in Multnomah County arrived as refugees, compared to 16 percent nationally.

But Curry-Stevens says she’s convinced our high percentage of Asian refugees does not explain the extent of the local problem.

“My default position is there’s a lot of racism that goes on,” she says.

No Tiger Mothers

Curry-Stevens’ study claims that Asians here are victims of a glass ceiling that keeps them from attaining managerial and professional jobs. Mary Li, a Department of Human Services manager for Multnomah County and APANO board member, says throughout her career she has sat in on hiring committees for a number of organizations and heard the same code words used to describe Asians up for top jobs.

“When there is an Asian candidate, I can guarantee certain things will be said no matter how skilled they are or how great an interview they do,” Li says. “ ‘I wonder about their ability to connect with staff.’ ‘I wonder if they have the emotional intelligence we’re looking for in this position.’ ‘I wonder if their communication skills are transferable.’ ‘Can they be a leader?’

“You’re either not assertive enough and we just don’t know you can be a leader, or you’re too outspoken, you’re the Dragon Lady. It comes back to the Model Minority —if you don’t fit this very narrow (image) that’s acceptable, you’re not behaving in a way that’s acceptable to the community.”

Li says she sees “systemic and institutional racism” all the time. Be it money for after-school or gang-prevention programs, Li says, “I’ve seen it happen time and time again, where we (Asians) will step back and take a back seat.”

Alma Trinidad, an assistant professor of child and family studies at Portland State University, says people brought up in an Asian culture, especially women, are at a fundamental disadvantage trying to get ahead in a city like Portland, where administrators don’t have a lot of experience in dealing with Asians. Trinidad is on the tenure track at PSU.

She’s a published author, which helps secure most tenure jobs. She thinks she’s a qualified teacher. But to get tenure, Trinidad says, teachers have to brag about their accomplishments. Her Filipino American background frowns on people talking up themselves publicly.

Trinidad says she’s talked to PSU administrators about mentorship programs for Asians and about better recognizing how culture might be putting Asians at a disadvantage. She’s not certain anybody is listening.

“PSU likes to brag, ‘we’ve hired the most diverse professors,’ but there’s this undercurrent,” Trinidad says. “Sure, you’ve hired us, but I’m not sure you’re truly supporting us to stay here for the long haul.”

Linda Liu, who works with low-income and minority PSU students, feels victimized by a cultural stereotype in vogue since publication in 2011 of the book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” by author Amy Chua.

Liu, of Chinese ancestry, has a daughter learning piano, and yes, she’s learning to speak Mandarin and taking swimming lessons as well, but that doesn’t make Liu a Tiger Mother, pushing her daughter to the extreme.

“I want to make sure my children are going to grow up to be responsible, respectful adults,” Liu says. “I have no desire to have her play at Carnegie Hall at 14.”

But that’s what people assume when they meet her, Liu says.

Liu’s worried about Asian students she works with at

PSU, usually first generation youth, whose parents are pushing them to medical and engineering school. Some of them simply aren’t suited for those careers, she says.

Longer life spans

Joseph Santos-Lyons, policy director of APANO, says the Model Minority myth “is used as a wedge between Asians and other communities of color.” Blacks and Hispanics may not understand, he says, how much they have in common with the large numbers of struggling Asians scattered in East Portland.

Not all the data on local Asians is bad. According to statistics compiled by the Oregon Health Authority, Oregon Asians are by far enjoying the longest life spans — longer than Hispanics, blacks, native Americans or even whites.

But some ethnicities within the Asian community are well behind in health measurements.

Until recently, county health programs lumped all Asians together, which made it impossible to learn, for instance, that some Pacific Islander immigrant communities, are having major problems with low birth weight babies and immunizations.

Santos-Lyons says that for some Cambodian and Hmong dialects there are no interpreters in the county health care system.

Ann Curry-Stevens thinks there is something particularly Portland about the willingness to overlook the struggles of the Asian community here.

“Our positive identity gets in the way,” she says. “When we talk about Portland, we get very prideful about how progressive it is, and we tend to be people who do the right thing. Naming racism, exploring barriers to employment, exploring how schools operate in ways that differentially support kids on the basis of skin color is not Portland nice.”


In Part Two: Crime, education and Portland’s Asian community.