I was born and raised in a household of eleven - an extended family of three immigrant couples and their five children. From oldest to youngest, the kids are my cousins: Christina, Lisa, and Samson, my sister Jennifer, and myself. We made our home in a community on the southern edge of San Francisco, situated on the border between three cities. It’s a place with fast-food restaurants, corner stores, low-income housing, and little bits of gentrification scattered here and there.
If you asked my parents if they knew what a model minority is, they’d reply, “No. What is a model minority?” A term for "model minority" does not exist in my parent's native language, but regardless, my upbringing was heavily shaped by the model minority myth. My parents became young adults in the midst of the Vietnam War and lost everything they knew in the process.
In their generation, survival was the priority, and in order to survive, they had to throw away their own dreams and aspirations. They didn’t have normal childhoods, and they couldn’t pursue education past the eighth grade, so growing up as the youngest in this family, my most important values were to be smart, study hard, and get into a good college.
All my life, I was pushed to stay focused and take my education seriously, and it wasn’t long before I became known as one of the "smart kids" at school. This is also around the time when I first heard of the model minority myth. I saw mainstream media positively raving about the academic and professional success of Asian Americans. I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but as a token, smart, Asian kid in my neighborhood, I started to wonder if this model minority thing was me.
As I grew up, the model minority stereotype and my own identity became more and more intertwined. Throughout elementary and middle school, I only made a few close friends – the majority of whom grew up in similar situations as myself, the other "smart kids''. While I wasn't aware of it, we grew up in similar situations, which made us privileged in our community.
Our privilege comes from our families who left their homes to give their children more chances at a successful life. My community lacks resources and faces gaping inequality, but our families recognized the value of education and prioritized the next generation’s education above all else. This meant education and school were huge parts of my childhood, and it’s also the area where I stood out as a kid.
More often than not, I got the highest grades in class which never failed to make my parents proud and happy. I also received constant approval, praise, and recognition from my teachers, so I was perfectly content. My life in elementary and middle school consisted of this pattern: excel academically and be met with positive feedback. Each passing day gave me the indication that I was doing the right things in life, which steadily reinforced my mindset. The model minority root became deeper entrenched within my identity.
My childhood normalized the stereotype of Asian Americans as the model minority, and by the time I became a legal adult, I had the impression that I could only succeed by becoming an engineer or doctor and getting rich. I’m still unpacking how I made this connection because, at the time, I had zero interest in engineering, and I didn’t even know what an engineer did. I’d never met an engineer in my life. But somehow, as an Asian American, I felt that fulfilling the model minority stereotype was the only viable path for me to take. By my senior year of high school, I completely embraced the stereotype, tightly holding onto the dream of becoming a software engineer making comfortable money in Silicon Valley.
The day I received my acceptance letter to UC Berkeley felt like the happiest day of my life. Berkeley is home to a world-renowned engineering program, and its graduates are often recruited by the top tech companies in the Bay Area. I eagerly told my friends and family the good news, thinking to myself that I was one step closer to my perceived dream. But when I arrived, I was hit hard with imposter syndrome.
My experiences there clashed with how I was socialized to know the world back home. Barring financial constraints, I never really felt that there was any limit to what I could do while growing up. I thought that my education and experiences in life had prepared me to tackle anything. After all, I was a model minority, right?
Adjusting to College
Cutting straight to the point, UC Berkeley wrecked me, and it wasn’t just in my classes. I think it's no surprise that my education from underfunded public schools came short of preparing me for Cal's golden standards, but academics aside, the bottom line is that I lived my entire life in a low-income and low education-level area, and that’s all I ever knew. And that made it hard to adjust to living at UC Berkeley, a university that is well regarded for its high-achieving students and faculty.
The key point here is imposter syndrome, but the root of it comes from the model minority stereotype. Identifying as a model minority, I felt obligated to uphold a specific image, and I internalized unrealistic expectations for myself. When I got to Berkeley, this image shattered, and I began to realize how detrimental the model minority myth is.
Compared to everybody I met, I felt I was lagging behind in several areas. Sometimes I felt less smart, and sometimes I felt less deserving, but whatever it was I just always felt lesser. When I think back to how I felt during this time of my life, there's one interaction that I distinctly remember. It was when I raised my hand to ask a question in a small discussion section for a math class. I don't even remember the question, but you know how when someone speaks, people generally turn towards the speaker. Well, I was talking, and two friends were sitting in the corner of the room. As I asked my question, I remember noticing out of the corner of my eye – the two turning their gazes away from me and towards each other, silently acknowledging one another and rolling their eyes as if I had just asked the dumbest thing they ever heard.
I felt stupid and embarrassed. I had accomplished a few things and experienced some things in life, but all of it seemed insignificant and trivial. It seemed like everyone else did so many amazing things. At the time, I’d always compare myself to the people I’d meet, and I felt like I had to catch up.
I still felt pressure to stay at the top of my classes, owing to the model minority myth and its purported ideals that I was chasing. I also didn’t want to study engineering, but I chose to do so anyway because I felt as if it was almost my duty. Becoming an engineer would make my parents extremely proud. I don’t come from a wealthy family, so I needed to aim for a career that guarantees financial security.
Even though by this point in my life, I knew the model minority myth is a damaging stereotype, and I had no reason to be an engineer if I didn’t want to, I had internalized it so much that deep down, I still could not see myself studying anything else. In my mind, changing my mind about my career now was equivalent to failing, and I felt like I couldn’t allow myself to fail.
So now here I am - a computer science student who barely even knew what software engineers do. I studied, and I struggled, and when I’d get stuck on something, I kept struggling and struggling. I felt alone because I wasn’t comfortable with reaching out for help. I was intimidated by my peers at Berkeley, and I didn’t know what good it was to reach out for help. I figured that the only one who could really help me was myself because my life experiences taught me to be self-reliant. For the first time in my life, relying only on my own ability could not keep me afloat. I was not thriving at Cal, and I started feeling guilty because I saw myself as a model minority.
I felt that by struggling, I was letting people down. My family sacrificed so much to create opportunities for me to thrive. Most people from my hometown are not fortunate enough to have an opportunity to go to college. I felt like I was letting them all down. I was disappointed in myself. So to combat all this, I just stayed quiet and kept working on myself bit by bit. Like the infamous phrase, I tried to pull myself up by my bootstraps because it was how I was raised to deal with problems. The model minority is expected to assimilate and succeed on their own merits and keeping in line with model minority fashion; I tried to solve my problems in college by just working harder and harder. I thought it worked.
By the end of my second year at Berkeley, I was doing a lot better. I joined more communities and met new people who I could relate to and rely on for support. I still felt behind compared to the average Cal student, but I was more at peace with it. I thought I overcame the imposter syndrome, and I felt ready to face my final two years at Cal. Then quarantine started, and a whole lot of other problems surfaced.
COVID-19, Quarantine, and Burnout
When school first transitioned to remote learning, I didn’t think it would affect me too much. I only had to move back across the bay, and I’d even be able to save money on food and rent. So the fully remote fall semester started, and I didn’t think much of it.
Fast forward a few months into the semester, and I’ve reached new lows. My classes were extremely difficult, and I was falling behind. I wasn’t really sure what was happening, but I got to a point where I stopped caring about my classes. I had no energy or desire to study or complete assignments. Even as deadlines and exams approached, the apathy remained, and the most surprising part was that I felt absolutely nothing. I wasn’t concerned, and I wasn’t thinking about what else I had to do. I just stopped caring. This mentality slowly trickled over and infested the rest of my life, and I soon lost the drive to do anything at all.
My days consisted of irregular sleep schedules, an unhealthy amount of Netflix, and the occasional half-hearted assignment. Part of me understood that my mental health was deteriorating, and I had to address it, but the stigma against mental health is well known. I can advocate for mental wellness, and I acknowledge mental health disorders, yet there was still a part of me that vehemently wanted to deny it when it came to myself.
I thought that my life wasn’t that bad, so what could be wrong with my mental health? I owe this mindset partly to my upbringing as well. While not necessarily part of the model minority myth, there is a huge generational and cultural gap in immigrant families when it comes to mental health. Mental health is often not acknowledged, and we tend to shy away from talking about mental illnesses.
My sister encouraged me to talk to a doctor, and long story short, I was diagnosed with depression and prescribed medication for it. My first thought was, why? I wasn’t sure what I should do now, and I was still trying to understand what this meant for my life. Why was I depressed? After talking with my therapist a couple of times, I concluded that I had to take a break from college for a whole slew of reasons. Remote learning was negatively affecting my health, I was burnt out, and the pandemic was affecting everyone.
However, when I decided to take a gap year, I felt guilty again. I thought of my parents, who avoided war to survive, and meanwhile, I can’t pass a few statistics classes? I was having the same thought patterns as before - that if I took a break, I’d fall behind and be a failure, but I realized that this line of thinking is unhealthy and also connected to the model minority myth. My parents and I grew up in entirely different circumstances with different struggles, but that doesn’t invalidate what I was going through, so I said screw it. I withdrew from Berkeley, dropping all my classes and taking a gap year.
My Unintended Gap Year
I told myself that there’s nothing wrong with taking a break from school, especially during a global pandemic in an unprecedented semester. However, deep down, I still struggled to truly believe it. I was still having a hard time with my depression, and I felt guilty because I never told my parents that I’m not in school.
I choose to hide my gap year from them because I don’t know how to talk to them about mental health. Sometimes a part of me still thinks I should have just stuck it out with school. It was just two more years of classes for me, and I’d graduate with a degree, and my parents would say the same thing. These thoughts were always lingering in the back of my mind. But at the same time, I knew that I needed a break, so I just resolved to make the most out of this unplanned gap year.
The first thing that came to mind was a full-time job, and in my job search, I got in touch with acquaintances from middle school. I choose the word acquaintances because I wouldn’t quite say that we were friends back then. We didn't talk much, and we never hung out, and at the time, I was a kid with strong implicit biases about others. Frankly, I didn’t think I’d ever talk to these people again, and I certainly didn’t think that we’d wind up close friends.
I wasn’t friends with them as a kid, but I had the opportunity to learn more about them during these past several months, and I was blown away by their lives and experiences. We all grew up in the same neglected neighborhood, but I was surprised by how different my experiences were. While I was praised as a model student by teachers, my friends were told that they would amount to nothing.
As I spent more time with them and grew closer to them, I also learned about their home situations and their hardships. One friend even opened up to me about their experiences with mental health. They told me about their long history of mental health disorders stemming from childhood trauma and about their journey to recovery, and this helped me change my outlook on how I handled my own depression.
While unpacking their trauma, they didn’t know how to talk to their parents about mental health. Like me, they also come from a family of immigrants, but their rough upbringing caused a lot of strain on their family’s mental health. When my friend initially tried to bring it up to their family, it ended up straining their relationship more. Generational and cultural barriers added to this tension, but after a long road of treatment and many stubborn attempts to communicate, my friend was able to mend their relationship with their parents and start to heal their mental health.
I was fascinated by their life because I felt like I could relate to them despite our different backgrounds. I was also empowered to be more honest and vulnerable with my own mental illness, and I’m working on undoing my internalized stigma against mental health. I hadn’t even considered that there could be such a thing as lingering generational trauma from my family, so that was a big breakthrough in my mind. Before I met this friend, I was unable to talk about my depression. Part of me was still in denial, and another part of me kept blaming myself and feeling guilty for being depressed and running away from school.
I wouldn’t have had these experiences and interactions if I stayed on the conventional path of a model minority. If I hadn’t taken this gap year, I never would’ve reconnected with old friends from middle school who I’d previously written off because of biases in my childhood.
I took pride in the model minority myth before I learned about the racism, division, and harm that the stereotype can perpetuate, but all of my learning was done in academic settings. I read some publications about the stereotype in classes, and I knew that I should stop using the term because of its negative connotations and implications. That was about the extent of what I knew.
Taking a break from Berkeley was eye-opening because I spent so much more time at home, which exposed me to diverse perspectives from people in my community. I had the opportunity to learn about the resilience, growth, and circumstances in their lives, and I was also able to partly unpack my own trauma from growing up attached to the model minority myth. Hearing about their life stories also reignited my drive to go to school.
I’d burned out and stopped caring about my education, and I took this gap year with the intent to find myself and take care of my mental health. My interactions with my friends reminded me of the countless social issues that affect low-income communities, and I wanted to learn more about these issues and how to help combat them. My journey led to where I am right now, volunteering with Close the Gap to help low-income students.
Low-income is a very broad category that covers many different lived experiences, but the one common thread is that we all grow up disadvantaged. I used to see these disadvantages as weaknesses that we had to overcome on our own, but that’s not true. Through my experiences with Close the Gap and my interactions with my hometown friends, I realized that I should be proud of growing up low-income.
Low-income barriers stem from issues beyond one’s control, and it often requires extra effort to overcome them. There are no universal solutions, and it’s hard, but that also gives more meaning to the moments where the barriers are broken. It’s also important to celebrate and take pride in the journey of overcoming these numerous disadvantages. I learned this lesson from the people I met in Close the Gap.
In my time spent volunteering here, I met many people who come from similar, low-income backgrounds and have worked their way up to their professional careers. When I hear their stories, I realize that there are a seemingly endless amount of obstacles. I’ve met people who are at different steps of their lives and careers, but they all occasionally still find themselves facing additional roadblocks. What inspires me is how they take these roadblocks in stride, and they continue to look for ways to help break down barriers both for themselves and their communities. I’ve witnessed first-hand the amount of care and passion that the people of this organization put into their work on social issues, and I’m constantly inspired and amazed.
My gap year has given me new perspectives, and I’m more comfortable navigating my mental health treatment. I still haven’t conquered imposter syndrome, but another thing that my gap year has shown me is that there are others who have shared experiences and actively want to help. I’m still not sure if I want to be an engineer, and I still haven’t told my parents that I took time away from school. Still, wherever my journey takes me next, I will fondly look back at this past year, knowing that the experiences I’ve had and the relationships I’ve forged have helped me embrace my own narrative and identity and find the support, wellness, and confidence to face any obstacles in my path.