Busting the myth

The needs of Austin’s diverse and fast-growing Asian American population are masked by the model minority myth

Note: You can read a condensed version of this story in Chinese, Vietnamese or Korean.

Ambar Mahat spent most of his young adult life in a refugee camp after fleeing Bhutan with his family when he was 13.

They are Nepalese, a people whose culture and religion the Bhutanese government wants to erase. And they were afraid the Bhutanese military would come to their home next and kill them, just as soldiers had done to their neighbors.

Here in Austin, the 37-year-old has a house and works two part-time jobs — cafeteria host at the University of Texas and security guard at Lakeline Mall — giving his two daughters opportunities that he never had. But, when asked about his life in America, Mahat paused.

“It’s good,” Mahat eventually said.

But there are still struggles. He makes about $20,000 a year, and one of his big worries is affording medicine for his ailing mother, who has heart disease and stomach cancer. She is slated to lose health insurance coverage in a few months, he said. She likely will not be able to become a U.S. citizen, which would qualify her for Medicare, as she can’t pass the test in English, he said.

Local demographic and health data is usually gathered and reported in a way that reinforces the “model minority myth” — the stereotype that Asians are all wealthy, highly-educated, hard-working and problem-free — and makes the needs in some parts of Austin’s diverse and fast-growing Asian American community virtually invisible. Few public resources target these needs, as policymakers don’t allocate funding to problems without supporting data.

That’s why Yuri Jang, an associate professor in UT’s School of Social Work, set out to do one thing differently when she began a 2015 survey for the city of Austin: Capture foreign-born Asian immigrants who don’t speak English well. This part of the Asian American population is often left out of national data-gathering efforts like the U.S. Census, which mostly pick up English-speaking residents who tend to be better off, Jang said.

By offering this quality of life survey in the languages commonly spoken by the five largest Asian ethnic groups in Austin, Jang’s research provides the first detailed look at parts of the community that face a language barrier and have difficulty accessing everything from health care to transportation. Of the 2,609 participants Jang surveyed, about half chose to use translated versions.

Her sample largely comprised Chinese, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese and Filipino residents, as the city only had the resources to translate the survey into a handful of languages. Asian-Americans in other ethnic groups made up 5.6 percent of the participants, though they are 12.6 percent of the city’s Asian population.

City officials said they will use the survey to craft recommendations on how city departments can better serve this community.

Some of the survey’s key findings about Austin’s Asian American population:

12 percent have unmet health care needs, four times the rate found for Asian Americans in a national survey
44 percent are mentally distressed, three times the rate for the general U.S. population
38 percent had no usual place for health care, 1.7 times the rate for the general U.S. population
62 percent can’t speak or understand English very well
30 percent feel like they’ve been discriminated against

In contrast to most local demographic data, which only speaks to the Asian American population as a whole, Jang broke down the survey results by ethnic group.

The idea behind data disaggregation, which Asian American advocacy organizations and the Obama administration have pushed for, is that data about the population as a whole lumps together immigrants who came here for plum professional or educational opportunities and refugees who own small businesses or work in low-paying jobs.

As a result, the data shows high median income and high educational attainment for the population as a whole. But when researchers separate the data, economic, health, social and other challenges become visible in some ethnic groups.

In the city of Austin survey, more than two-thirds of Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese participants chose to answer in their native language, while nearly all Indian and Filipino participants filled out the survey in English. While 65 percent of Indians reported making $60,000 or more, only 30 percent of Vietnamese reported the same.

Thuy Nguyen, who runs the Vietnamese dual language program for the Austin school district, shows a photo of her father, Anh Pham, who was a legislator in Vietnam, with President Gerald Ford. Nguyen’s family fled Vietnam in 1975 when Saigon fell.

The language challenge

To reach some of Austin’s smaller Asian populations, such as those from Bangladesh and Laos, the city also gathered feedback at community events, held conversations with community members and asked people to fill out posters and surveys with a group of family members or friends, said Marion Sanchez, a community engagement consultant for the city.

“What I’m noticing is that the challenges of the Asian community in Austin are the same challenges as other communities: transportation, access to affordable housing, services for senior citizens and so forth,” Sanchez said. “What is different is the cultural aspect,” such as providing those services in a language that Asian Americans can understand.

The sheer number of Asian languages poses a huge challenge. As of the 2010 Census, about 61 percent of Travis County’s Asian American population was foreign-born. The authoritative catalog Ethnologue counts 2,296 languages in Asia.

And, as Sanchez learned through her work, there can be dozens of languages spoken in the same Asian country. In India alone, there are 122 major languages. And though Mandarin is China’s national language, nearly a third of the population can’t speak it.

In the absence of service providers who can speak Asian languages, people like Thuy Nguyen end up bridging the gap.

Like many Vietnamese refugees, Nguyen’s family fled their country in 1975, the year Saigon fell and communist North Vietnam took over South Vietnam.

The journey that followed — the seven days on a boat where she experienced hunger for the first time, a month in a refugee camp where the line for breakfast was so long that by the time she got through, it was time to get back in line for lunch — made her a more compassionate person, Nguyen said.

Nguyen arrived in the U.S. when she was 18 and moved to Austin with her family to open a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise.

She has overseen the Austin school district’s Vietnamese language program since the early 1990s and has become a go-to person for helping Vietnamese parents who can’t speak English, whether it’s contacting a doctor when their child gets sick or attending a court hearing with them.

The language barrier means it’s difficult for these parents to be involved in their children’s education, she said. The Austin school district’s parent portal is in English, she said. When parents receive a call from the school, they hear English, and they hang up, she said. (A spokeswoman said the district uses a program allowing it to record phone messages in any language, as well as providing translation and interpretation services in Asian languages upon request.)

She’s met parents who have no idea their child has dropped out of school, she said.

It’s also difficult for Vietnamese-speaking parents to be involved in the lives of their English-speaking children, Nguyen said. Many teenagers are “lost” or “depressed,” in part because their parents can’t meaningfully communicate with them, so she ends up mediating family meetings about dropping out of school or teen pregnancy, she said.

That’s why Nguyen is pushing for the dual language program she oversees — which she said only exists at the elementary level but will soon expand to middle school — to go through high school, she said. Dual language programs are designed to help students achieve proficiency in two languages. The school district’s only other dual language program is a Spanish one.

Language can present a barrier for Asian Americans in subtler ways.

Nguyen mostly learned English after arriving in the U.S. Though she’s been here 40 years, she is still sometimes treated like an inferior because she speaks with an accent, Nguyen said.

“I’m constantly aware of the fact that people look at me and treat me different,” Nguyen said.

Bhim Wati Mahat sits in her son’s home as her daughter, Monjita Mahat, sits in the background.

Missing health numbers

The city survey’s findings on Asian Americans’ health are especially important because up until now, there hasn’t been any statistically valid data on it, said Vince Cobalis, a former city health and human services official who worked on a 2014 Asian American health assessment that involved conducting focus groups of about 10 to 20 people.

When the city issued a request for proposals to address health equity, Cobalis, who is Filipino, lobbied to add Asian Americans to the scope of work. He said there was a feeling in other minority communities that Asian Americans didn’t face problems in this area.

The state provides health data for whites, African-Americans and Hispanics, Cobalis said. Asian Americans are included in the “other” category.

Texas Department of State Health Services spokesman Chris Van Deusen said the number of Asian Americans respondents to the state’s health surveys is usually too small to have a separate category for the population. The surveys are conducted in English and Spanish, he said.

In the city survey of Asian Americans in Austin, about 15 percent of participants said they didn’t have health insurance, compared to 12percent of the general U.S. population.

And though participants reported having health problems — more than 28 percent had at least one chronic disease, such as diabetes or heart disease, and almost half experienced mental distress — many said they don’t have a regular physician with whom they are able to communicate effectively.

Pawkhuhser Way, who fled Burma with her family in the 1980s when she was seven and arrived in the U.S. in 2008, uses her English skills to help refugees facing situations that range from car accidents to getting food stamps. But Way said she’s had a hard time navigating the health care system, in part because she doesn’t know the terms that health care providers use.

Way now relies on over-the-counter medicine and a clinic that offers free medical services. She no longer has health insurance, as she quit her job working for a refugee services agency after giving birth to her daughter. Previously she worked in food service and cell phone assembly.

The main obstacle is the cost, Way said. Her husband makes just over $2,000 a month as a deliveryman, she said. He has insurance through his work, Way said, and her two children are covered by Medicaid.

“We know we must have insurance, but Obamacare is expensive,” Way said.

Shannon Jones, the director of the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department, said language is one of the biggest challenges the department faces in serving the Asian American population. The department has staffers who speak some of the more common Asian languages such as Vietnamese and Chinese, but for less-common languages like Burmese or Taiwanese, the department either asks community groups to help with translation or calls a national language line to help interpret, Jones said.

Cobalis said that he’d like to see more Austin health care providers hire staffers who can speak the major Asian languages. He wants a nonprofit or the city to start a health navigator program, especially for Korean and Vietnamese residents, with staffers who can help translate doctors’ orders or provide more information on health services. Korean and Vietnamese residents are more likely to be small business owners with limited access to health insurance compared to Chinese and Indian residents who are more likely to have access because they work for large companies, he said.

Even with translators, language still presents a special challenge when it comes to mental health, as “diagnosis and treatment relies on verbal – and private – communication,” according to a draft report about the city of Austin survey results.

And there’s a cultural barrier too, as mental illness is stigmatized in the Asian American community. About 2 percent of Austin Asian Americans surveyed by the city reported seeing a psychiatrist, while 37 percent thought depression is a sign of personal weakness.

Yi Jun Jin, 74, left, and Chin Wing Lou, 61, right, play a game of ping pong as Kai Liu, 65, and Yuan Yi Gao, 76, sitting, wait for their turn at the Asian American Resource Center.

The meaning of representation

What might help draw attention to the issues faced by Asian Americans in Austin is having people from the community in positions of power: in the highest levels of government bureaucracies, on government advisory boards and in elected office.

So far, there has only been one Asian American member on the Austin City Council: Jennifer Kim, who served from 2005 to 2007. Austin attorneys Ramey Ko and Richard Jung ran for Travis County positions in 2014: Ko lost to a long-time incumbent and Jung lost to a former council member.

One challenge is that Austin’s Asian population is largely foreign-born, consisting of first-generation immigrants who are more concerned with establishing their families than running in city elections. The city survey found civic engagement was low among Asian Americans: 10 percent had emailed or called the city, and 17 percent had voted in a city election.

The Asian American population is also relatively small and scattered, so there is no “opportunity district” with a high percentage of Asian voters. Plus, the population is incredibly diverse.

“It’s going to be a struggle because we’re not one community,” said Channy Soeur, who used to work for the city and now owns an engineering consulting firm. “We’re multiple communities.”

When Soeur saw the 1992 riots following the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King — riots in which Los Angeles’ Korean American community became a target — he was scared that racial tensions in Austin might similarly boil over into violence. So he called upon nearly a dozen Asian American leaders to bring the community together and to connect with other populations in Austin.

The first project the newly organized Asian community took on was the Asian American Resource Center, which opened in 2013 and is now best known for a meal program serving seniors.

Political representation is meaningful because it’s “a recognition that we’re part of the community too,” Soeur said. “Live here, work here, die here.”

Last year, when the Austin City Council appointed psychologist Richard Yuen to the Central Health Board, it was as much a cause for celebration as if an Asian American had been elected U.S. president, Soeur said.

Linda Phan, executive director of Asian Family Support Services of Austin, said it’s also crucial to give Asian Americans besides well-off businesspeople — for instance, those who advocate for services for Asian Americans — a seat at the table.

Some Asian Americans have internalized the model minority myth and are unwilling to admit there are problems in their own community, she said. For instance, there used to be a negative perception of her nonprofit, which serves domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, as airing the “dirty laundry” of the community, she said.

“There’s a lot of pride,” Phan said. “There’s a lot of saving face.”

More info: Origins of the model minority myth

The myth is the product of U.S. immigration laws that were a way of “socially engineering” the American population by screening for educated professionals, said Madeline Hsu, an associate professor at UT who recently published the book “The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority.”

About 70 percent of Asian Americans are foreign-born, Hsu said. Many arrived after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which gave significantly more weight to professionals in preferred fields instead of to race and country of origin, or they have come to the U.S. under H1-B visas that largely go to skilled tech workers, Hsu said.

Scholars often point to a 1966 New York Times article titled “Success Story, Japanese-American Style” as the first visible manifestation of the model minority myth, Hsu said. But the perception of Asians was also shaped by events such as China becoming a key ally of the U.S. during World War II and Japan becoming an ally after the war, Hsu said.