For 20-year-old Annie Shi, nothing was scarier than messing up during a piano lesson while her mom was sitting next to her. She could feel the anger and disapproval emanating from her. She knew that once they got into the car, her mom was going to scream at her. And yet, in front of the teacher, her mother remained calm and smiling.
This was one of Shi's early exposures to the cultural idea of face, or mianzi in Chinese. Face is a loaded psychological concept, but at its core, it’s how a person is viewed in the eyes of others. Maintaining and keeping face is a crucial part of upholding you and your family's honor. Losing face is a terrible thing—that's what would have happened if Shi's mom had yelled at her in front of the piano teacher, and what was taking place with each wrong note that Shi played.
Face isn't new—it dates back to the 4th century B.C. in China. But its presence in modern American life is colliding with a newer construct that Asians grapple with: the model minority myth. Since the 1950s and 60s, Asian Americans have been designated as the success story for immigrants coming to the U.S. The model minority myth says that all Asians are hardworking, non-disruptive, have strong family values, and raise kids that are preternaturally intelligent, excel at classical music, and go to Ivy League schools for engineering and medicine.
This myth is problematic for many reasons. It generalizes a heterogeneous mix of people, it pits minorities against one another, and brushes aside the discrimination Asians do experience every day. And when it gets tangled up with face—which decrees that status be stringently upheld—it creates an intense pressure for young Asian Americans, contributing to an uptick in serious mental health issues as they try to maintain face's high standards.
“This myth is creating a whole generation of kids with depression and suicidal tendencies because they’re being told by everyone around them they should be doing things that are impossible to achieve,” Shi said. “And the pedestal gets higher and higher, because there are a few kids who somehow achieve it. They achieve it by suffering, but they don’t talk about that.”
Anna*, a 27-year-old living in New York, remembers her mom talking about face when she was a child. “It was always like, ‘How can so and so do that? Do they not have face?’”
It wasn’t explained to her explicitly, and while she wasn’t sure exactly what it was, she knew it was something she had to keep and maintain at all costs. “I definitely try to not do anything that will cause me to lose face,” Anna said. “I know face is extremely important to my parents, and I respect them enough to upkeep this status quo that I don’t necessarily understand.”
It can be hard to grasp the intensity of this pressure without knowing how deep-rooted face is. Many cultures have a version of saving or losing face, but it has an especially prominent role in Asian countries because of their high valuation of interpersonal relationships, social roles, and hierarchy. Lu Xun, 19th century Chinese writer, called face the “guiding principle of the Chinese mind.”
When Westerners started to have increasing contact with China in the 1900s, businessmen and diplomats returned with confusing descriptions of face, saying it seemed to rule social and professional interactions. Westerners initially deemed the concept untranslatable. “We didn’t have the expression ‘to lose face’ in English until it was translated from the Chinese in the 19th century," said Steven Heine, a professor of cultural psychology at the University of British Columbia.
Chrysty*, a 24-year-old Malaysian Chinese woman living in Dublin, said that when she was born, her mother was unmarried, and so she learned about keeping face from “the minute I became aware of my surroundings," she said.
“This myth is creating a whole generation of kids with depression and suicidal tendencies because they’re being told they should be doing things that are impossible to achieve.”
One time when she was young, she wasn't in school when she was supposed to be. She spent the days at her grandmother's house, who babysat other children too. When parents came to pick up their kids, Chrysty had to hide so that other families wouldn’t see that she was there—since her family would lose face if other parents knew she wasn’t at school.
“I knew how important it is to act a certain way just so that people wouldn’t comment on my upbringing," Chrysty said.
In China, face is divided into two types: lian and mianzi. Mianzi is one’s social reputation or status, as given and perceived by others. Lian has more to do with morality, and the social respect that comes from others for always doing the right thing.
While a Westerner's self-esteem or reputation can be influenced by what they think about themselves, face comes only from how others evaluate you. It is strongly tied to what society has told you to be, and from others seeing you function adequately in your social role.
In recent psychology studies, researchers have set up experiments to determine how East Asian people view themselves, compared to Westerners. In 2010, Dov Cohen at the University of Illinois asked students from Hong Kong and the United States to take a fake creativity test, where the results were rigged so that some people got really good scores, and others got mediocre ones.
When the subjects got their results, their scores were “accidentally” passed to another person in the study. At the end, participants were asked to rate how creative they thought they were. The Chinese participants’ ratings were heavily influenced by another person seeing their score. If someone else had seen they had gotten an average score, they rated themselves as average, despite how creative they felt. The Americans were uninfluenced by what others thought about them, and rated themselves highly, even if someone had seen their results.
“Who you are is who you imagine others think you are," Heine said. "That is a key part of face. It’s being attentive to others and trying to figure out what others are thinking about you.”
Face's origins are thought to come from a long history of interdependent societies, where community was emphasized over the individual. This is partially from Confucian values surrounding family, respect, and order, but potentially comes from other social and environmental forces too.
“Losing face does not have an individual impact, it is a construct that affects an entire family unit.”
Thomas Talhelm, an associate professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago, found that the feeling of interdependence amongst the Chinese was more pronounced in rice-growing regions than wheat-growing regions, because the former had a historical need for more coordination with others: managing the water supply, harvesting, and more. “It required effort to maintain the harmony among different people, compared to wheat, where rain falls from the sky and families harvest on their own," Heine said. This might have helped create a cultural schema of needing to rely on others, the importance of fulfilling your specific role in the system.
Anna said keeping or losing face implicates not just her, but her parents and her family too. “To me, losing face does not have an individual impact," she said. "Rather, it is a construct that affects an entire family unit.” This makes the pressure of keeping face even more intense.
“I had hours crying and suffering for I don’t know what reason,” Shi said. “My parents wanted me to be successful and have the tools that I needed to be successful. But the other part of it was I had to be the best. Everything you do is representative of your whole family."
When Anna decided she wanted to work in television, she was terrified of what her parents would say, because it was a career path that might not be able to preserve face. Why? Because it clashed with the model minority myth.
The model minority myth didn’t fully emerge until the 1950s and 1960s, said Ellen Wu, the director of Asian American Studies at Indiana University, and the author of The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority.
Before that, Asian immigrants were not looked upon favorably by Americans. Many of the first major wave of Asian immigrants around the late 19th century were laborers, like the Chinese immigrants during the gold rush. They were seen as the cause of economic troubles, by lowering wages and being willing to work for much less and in harsher conditions.
Many Asians were not Christian, and seen to be culturally different in ways that were threatening. They ate strange food, spoke a strange language, and became the victims of discriminatory laws. “Americans believed that Chinese culture was disgusting and vile, viewing U.S. Chinatowns as depraved colonies of prostitutes, gamblers and opium addicts bereft of decency,” Wu wrote in the LA Times.
But during the 1930s and 1940s, the United States ascended as a world power, fighting Nazis in Germany, the Fascists in Italy, and Imperial Japan. As a country, the United States claimed to represent freedom and democracy, compared to their enemies. Wu said that some of the counter-propaganda, especially from Japan, pointed out that the United States had a poor track record in how it treated its racial minorities, like Black people and Japanese Americans who were placed in internment camps.
“As the United States escalated its global ambitions during and after World War II, that kind of global image-making was a very powerful incentive for policymakers to pay attention to civil rights for minorities and these kinds of issues and try to, at least on the surface level, make some reforms,” Wu said.
That’s when certain discriminatory laws against Asians, like the Chinese Exclusion Act, began to be repealed. Legally, Asians were no longer shut out from immigrating to the United States. They could finally become naturalized citizens. School and housing segregation began to come to an end.
But importantly, Wu said, the Asian communities saw this political shift and took advantage of the moment to recast their image. Many Japanese people enlisted in military service, and Chinese communities voiced their anti-communist positions. “Chinatown leaders really promoted in the 40s and 50s this idea that Chinese have traditional Confucian values and strong families and their children love to study and they don't get into trouble,” Wu said.
The ideas were then picked up in a big way by the mainstream media, Wu said, because they tapped into larger social anxieties of the time: juvenile delinquency, the importance of the nuclear family, the importance of traditional family gender roles, and the pursuit of the American dream. “This whole PR campaign by Chinatown leaders to say that the Chinese have strong families and well-behaved children—I think they were really savvy,” she said.
The model minority myth often galvanizes minorities in America to compete against each other, and fuels racism between marginalized groups.
That’s to say, the model minority myth isn't just something imposed upon Asian Americans by white people, but a message they had an active part in creating. Still, it’s hard to say whether these ideas would have been pushed as hard if these communities hadn’t faced such ardent and persistent discrimination and racism before.
Wu said she considers the intentional rebranding to be, in large part, a reactive effort, and a response to a worry about a crackdown on illegal immigration. "There was a kind of urgency to the publicity campaigns,” Wu said. “It was taking advantage of the general tide turning to more liberal attitudes about race and inclusion.”
Once the model minority ideas got picked up by society as a whole, it had unintentional consequences. For one, policymakers, academics, and journalists started to compare Asian Americans to African Americans. “The people were saying that African Americans are making all this trouble, but Asian Americans seem to be quiet and they get ahead on their own without help from the government and they're not making any trouble,” Wu said. “That became a key dimension of the model minority myth. It's not just that they're good citizens and they're loyal, patriotic and hardworking, but that they're also not like Black people.”
That comparison continues, and the model minority myth often galvanizes minorities in America to compete against each other, and fuels racism between marginalized groups. It fosters the view that other minorities that aren’t as "successful" are failing because of a lack of hard work, dedication, and values—not because of systemic racism.
And while Asians may have helped birth model minorities in order to distance themselves from past discrimination, the problem with determining a whole ethnic group to be a certain way—even if that way is successful—is that is erases the disparities that exist between the many Asian populations that exist under the “Asian” umbrella. Finally, it ignores the very real amount of prejudice and marginalization that Asian Americans experience, though it’s of course very different from the kinds confronting Black and Latinx Americans.
Shi said that when she was told as a child: “You’re so good at math, you must be really smart, and you play the piano, and you’re just the best,”—it was a building of face, since the compliments came from outsiders, and it made her parents want to maintain that status. Being a model minority means you're not supposed to be struggling, and so face pushes Asian children to appear as if they are effortlessly excelling no matter what.
“You’re supposed to be perfect,” Shi said. “You’re supposed to be amazing at school and math. By perpetuating this myth that we’re better, families are anxious to erase any kind of imperfection in their kid no matter what.”
That can result in serious consequences for well-being. “I think it’s extremely detrimental to mental health because we are constantly sitting under this immense pressure of ‘face’ that, honestly, who really knows what it is?” Anna said. “It’s an added pressure that Asians add to themselves because they want to preserve something that they are taught from a young age that they have to maintain.”
Mental health is already stigmatized and a topic not broached in Asian families or amongst friends, partially because of face. That combined with the pressures to uphold the standards of the model minority can result in anxiety, depression, and suicide. Shi said she was burned out by the time they were 11 years old. “I was just completely depressed," she said. "I’m a good example of how badly the model minority myth hurt me, because I became suicidal in middle school and no one would listen to me.”
Asian Americans don’t report as many mental health disorders, but according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), are more likely to consider and attempt suicide. Asian Americans are also three times less likely to seek out treatment compared to white people. The U.S. non-profit Mental Health America found that Asian Americans are the least likely to have a mental health diagnosis, even though 57 percent who took a mental health screening had scores that indicated they were moderately to severely depressed.
There are a variety of reasons why, but face is one of them. The ADAA wrote that asking for help “would admit the existence of a mental health disorder, and in turn would bring shame to their family's name.”
“Face is definitely something that Asians want to preserve and it 100 percent influences their desires to perform well academically as well as in society,” Anna said. “I have Asian friends who are not as ‘successful’ as others and they refuse to tell anyone what is going on because they want to save face.”
One study that examined the mental health issues affecting 1.5 and 2nd generation Asian Americans stated it plainly: Many of their participants felt the “pressure to meet parental expectations of high academic achievement and live up to the ‘model minority’ stereotype,” as well as other family obligations.
In an essay for Mental Health America, Jennifer Cheang wrote that she'd seen breakdowns of “bright individuals who could no longer withstand the pressure of looking perfect, acting perfect, and being perfect. The ‘Model Minority’ myth is a constant stressor. When your community embraces the idea that you are destined to succeed due to your racial background, failure comes as a devastating hit to your mental health.”
In 2015, 18-year-old Harvard student Luke Tang died by suicide, to the shock of those close to him. Before going to Harvard, Tang was his high school district's student of the year, a U.S. Presidential Scholar, a violin instructor to children in inner-city New Orleans, and a semifinialist at the Intel Science Talent Search, according to his obituary in The Harvard Crimson. His death occurred in the midst of several other suicides by Asian students at elite schools, like Cornell, MIT, and Yale.
A documentary was made about Tang’s death, called Looking for Luke, and it prompted many young Asian Americans who saw it to have conversations with their families and friends about mental health. "I was completely unaware, and I think most of his friends were unaware, that he was struggling," one of Tang's friends said in the film. In memory of Tang, students and faculty at Harvard launched a conference dedicated to the issue of Asian American mental illness called Let's Talk, which is still being held annually.
"When your community embraces the idea that you are destined to succeed due to your racial background, failure comes as a devastating hit to your mental health."
In an essay for Plan A Magazine, a platform for Asian American writers, a conference attendee named George Qiao wrote about how Asian Americans are trying to grapple with mental health. Very often, strict parenting and unreasonable expectations are pointed to as the cause for the younger generation's mental struggles—versions of the "Tiger Mom" that some Americans claimed were psychologically damaging their kids.
But what's really going on is more complicated, experts agree. Even before the model minority myth, China had a long history of valuing education, as seen by the civil service exams that date back over a thousand years, as well as upholding the ideals of face. Rather than erasing these cultural touchstones that has been present for thousands of years, perhaps the situation could be addressed elsewhere.
“The idea that Asian families and Asian-ness are uniquely harmful to Asian Americans needs to be abandoned….We must shift our blame onto the model minority, perpetual foreigner, and Orientalist stereotypes that constitute our oppression," Qiao wrote.
Wu thinks that there are some Asian Americans who are still very invested in the narrative that they are a hardworking group, and that they earn their mobility, and some that are interested in overturning it. “It some ways, there’s a kind of internal battle within Asian American communities about this very dominant understanding of Asian Americans,” she said.
When Asians were declared a model minority—by the community itself, and then embraced as such by Westerners—face put on the pressure to maintain it. It needs to be recognized that Asian Americans are a diverse amalgam of different cultures that contains both ends of the spectrum: those that have “succeeded," in the traditional sense, but many who haven’t. Then, perhaps there can be the acknowledgement that anyone can break under immense pressure, and discussions of mental health can be normalized.
Chrysty thinks that the younger generations are talking about these issues more. “A lot of people my age are looking to break out of this,” she said. “I can see among my friends, and myself as well, we’re trying hard to be as transparent as possible— especially about mental health and mental well-being.”
Shi goes to art school now. She said that their parents have come a long way in recognizing their mental health disorders and allowing them to pursue what they’re passionate about, even if it’s not a "model minority" career path. Her mom now even tries to spread mental health awareness for other East Asian parents. But Shi still has a lingering concern about messing up, losing face, that she's not sure will ever disappear.
"Being a certain race doesn’t make you automatically good at things," she said. "But people continue to perpetuate the idea that it does. It will always make parents want their kids to uphold this kind of value. It feeds itself. It makes it hard to break out of the cycle. Because it’s not just one person, it’s the entire Asian community.”
*Because of the sensitive information shared, first name only has been used.
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