Born in China and raised in middle-of-nowhere Pleasanton, California, making the trek to San Francisco had always been a privilege that expanded my young mind and helped me reconnect with my cultural roots.
Beyond visits to the California Academy of Sciences and Fisherman’s Wharf, exploring the offerings of Chinatown was an integral part of forming my identity. Streets filled with the smell of char-siu bao and tea, stores carrying books and magazines with Asian faces, this cultural hub helped me find a place where I belonged — a physical place in America that represented me and where I came from.
Across America, the integration of ethnic regions into metropolitan areas is what brings vibrancy and uniqueness to city life. To me, no visit to Los Angeles is complete without sushi in Little Tokyo and a taste of Korean barbecue and HoneyMee in Koreatown. With Flushing, New York, Little Saigon in Chicago, and dozens of other such neighborhoods dotting every major city, “Asia-towns” leave their mark and provide a space for Asians and Asian-Americans to share, express, and flourish.
Between my high school and college graduations, something unsettling started happening, and rapidly so — Chinatown started to die.
A full recovery from the recession and a Silicon Valley tech boom, coupled with growth in financial services and more job market entrants, changed San Francisco in huge ways. At the expense of locals, the city’s real estate operators, tech giants, bulge bracket banks, and overseas real estate investors from China and Hong Kong prospered from this influx of talent and opportunity.
In recent years, San Francisco has become nearly unlivable for many working Americans, which is particularly impactful in newly gentrified areas like Chinatown. Although Chinatown rent is more affordable than rent in other SF neighborhoods at $2,700 per month compared to SF’s median $4,500 per month, Chinatown residents are left with considerably less disposable income.
Approximately two-thirds of Chinatown residents, many of whom are elderly or immigrants, live in Single-Room Occupancies (“SROs”). These 50 to 80 square foot homes are jam-packed with bunk beds, dishware, and a few stools, leaving little room to perform regular household tasks. Health hazards within SROs include respiratory problems; insufficient light; infections; exposure to mold, lead, rodents, bed bugs, blood, as well as sleep deprivation from noisy neighbors. According to the SRO Families United Collaborative, 62% of San Francisco’s SRO families have no lease, which puts them at risk of sudden displacement. Landlords have continued to evict tenants in favor of higher-paying professionals and students.
With a rise in tech, finance, and consulting also came the accelerated prevalence of the “hipster lifestyle.” Pho carbonara, kimchi tacos, and foie gras soup dumplings crowd out decades-old dim sum joints and herbal pharmacies. On my most recent search for Chinese tea, I stumbled into Red Blossom Tea Company. The shop prides itself on offering “artisanal loose-leaf teas & teaware,” which somehow translates to selling chrysanthemum buds five times above market rate in “sleek” packaging and pandering to White customers (I was the only Asian in the store and was promptly ignored). Rose blossom tea? Moroccan Mint? Get outta here.
Alas, gentrification spares no one — not residents, not businesses. Every time someone signs a $5,000/month lease in Financial District or dines at a White-owned Korean fusion restaurant, the Yin family is a step closer to getting evicted, and Grandpa Lee seats one less customer.
It might be easier to just blame the White Man for taking over these scarce and valuable neighborhoods; however, Asian Americans themselves contribute considerably to the erasure of Asia-towns.
That’s right. Rich FOBs and educated white-collar Asians — yes, even those who minored in Asian-American studies — play a part in hurting urban Asian communities. Despite supposed liberal viewpoints, many Asians are guilty of propagating the urban Asian plight. Fortune’s 2015 diversity census found that, among top tech firms such as Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn, approximately 20 to 40% of companies’ overall workforces were Asian.
At these companies, the early-career median salary is between $80,000 and $100,000. Even for those who don’t work at topmost firms, college educated urban professionals have socioeconomic resources and purchasing power several times greater than those of the average Chinatown resident, thereby driving socioeconomic inequality for fellow Asians.
Some Asian Americans have never thought about this. Some know this, but don’t care.
A couple years ago, I was also blind to this issue. I saw myself as a different breed of Asian from the old ladies collecting cans and food stamps. I rationalized that my parents worked hard to get us where we were. The truth is, many Asians in similar situations buy into the Model Minority Myth and the Pan-Asian Myth, laying complacent with the narrative that White people have for People of Color.
Imagine this. You’re driving down the highway and get pulled over by the police, and you realize you were speeding. As an Asian, you know that there are a multitude of ways to try escaping this situation scott-free. If you’re female, you might start playing the “sweet, innocent little Asian girl” trope. Maybe you casually mention that you’re home on winter break from Harvard. Or maybe you act embarrassed and overly apologetic in purposefully broken English. I, and many other Asians, have either experienced this very situation or know someone who has. An Asian American’s innate reaction to such situations, and the fact that most other minorities do not have this luxury, is the direct result of the Model Minority Myth.
The Model Minority Myth is the concept that a certain minority group is inherently more hardworking and successful than the general population due to racial or otherwise genetic predispositions. Household income, education level, and crime rate are some of the factors used to justify that racism and socioeconomic inequality do not affect a minority group’s ability to succeed.
Meanwhile, the Pan-Asian Myth is the concept that all Asians can be enveloped in a generic, unified culture, with no distinct identity for neither individuals nor Asian nations and their varying histories. The Pan-Asian Myth works to bind all Asian Americans to the Model Minority Myth.
However, a little light digging reveals mounds of reasons why the Model Minority Myth simply isn’t true. Contrary to what the “foreigner” stereotype suggests, Asians have a lengthy history in America and have been integral in the making of America. From Chinese slavery used to build the Transcontinental Railroad to the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII, Asians have experienced institutional oppression of people of color in America, albeit differently than other minority groups. Vietnamese refugees fled to the U.S. after the Vietnamese War ended in 1975. Hmong and Cambodian refugees escaped to America during the Communist takeover of Laos and the Cambodian Civil War, respectively.
When we think of the typical well-read, white-collar Asian, that stereotype is a direct result of governmental discrimination such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924, barring anyone but highly educated Asians from specific countries to immigrate to the U.S. Remnants of these laws have trickled down to even the Millennial generation.
According to TechCrunch, “of the 974,926 international students in the 2015-2016 academic year, 586,208 were undergraduates, with more than 165,000 coming from China.” In California, the number of international students grew 10.5% between 2015 and 2016, with most coming from China and India. These students are paying significantly more than in-state students and usually completely out of pocket. They are afforded their opportunities due to familial wealth. If we were to separate Asians who came to America due to immigration acts from those who came to America due to war and violence — or were affected by American war and violence — we would see a huge discrepancy in household income and attitudes towards education and career.
Essentially, there are Asians who benefit from the Model Minority Myth and those who are harmed by it. This myth masks the reality that many subgroups of Asian Americans do not fit the Model Minority Myth and desperately need support from American institutions, including government, schools, and businesses. It is also used to propagate the idea that 1) Asians are a sort of superhuman, a perpetual foreign body hell-bent on taking the American economy and American jobs, and 2) blacks and other minorities have no excuse to bemoan racism and systematic oppression. Furthermore, the Model Minority Myth conceals the “bamboo ceiling” that Asians face in the workplace, whereby Asians work longer hours for less pay and less advancement opportunities.
As a first-generation Chinese woman whose husband is the descendant of Taishan Chinatown immigrants, I discovered my biases against poor urban Asian-Americans relatively recently. Admittedly, it wasn’t until I got to know my husband’s family and his ancestral background that I started to see commonalities between our families. My dad directed at a top bank, and I grew up learning languages and instruments. My mother-in-law worked night shifts at fruit packing plants, leaving my husband to care for his younger brother. Nevertheless, both our moms gift us with way too many frozen dumplings whenever we visit, and extended relatives incessantly spam our respective family WeChats. I had previously completely disassociated from underprivileged Asians and the hardships they faced, effectively dismissing their plight and dehumanizing them as “other.”
Although I was deeply devoted to my own family and local Asian community, I had been unable to connect, identify with, and care for Asians in circumstances different from my own. It took time for me to finally recognize the reality of poor urban Asians who, like my parents, work hard and do their best to provide for their families.
Subsequently, the challenge is for Asian-Americans to dispel the Pan-Asian and Model Minority Myths while remaining unified as Asians in America. We must recognize that, as Asians from varying backgrounds, we face different challenges yet all suffer from being seen as perpetual foreigners in a new country. We should celebrate all the different flavors of Asian while still recognizing that at our core, we are brothers and sisters.
Jenny Shay is a hip hop dancer, V4 rock climber, and Berkeley Haas School of Business graduate. She lives in the SF Bay Area with her husband and two cats, Apple and Pear.