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Note: A previous version of this essay was originally published in ChinaSource Quarterly, Winter 2020 Issue

Asian Americans, including Chinese Americans, have been labeled the “model minority” in the United States. They are presented as sterling examples of those who arrived from distant shores and ascended through the ranks to achieve the American dream! The recent Supreme Court decision to strike down Affirmative Action in college admissions is one example of how Asian Americans were portrayed in the lawsuit as actually being hindered by Affirmative Action as other minorities took away placements that otherwise would have gone to them. Being the “model minority,” Asian Americans do not need assistance from Affirmative Action policies. Do Chinese Americans indeed see themselves as the “model minority”? How did this common script develop? Furthermore, how has being the “model minority” impacted their faith and church life? 

Beginnings of the Model Minority

It is difficult to imagine that Chinese Americans would one day be perceived as the “model minority” based on their early treatment. When Chinese immigrants arrived in the U.S. in the mid-19th century, they were regarded with suspicion, as were other immigrants both before and after them.

The majority of Chinese came as common laborers to escape the economic and political turmoil in southern Guangdong province. Even after the California gold rush fever died down, great numbers of Chinese continued to arrive and found employment at positions requiring menial labor. Whether they prospected for gold, were employed to build the Transcontinental Railroad, or worked on farms and plantations, they were subjected to discriminatory practices and laws.

Anti-Chinese sentiment gained momentum as these unskilled laborers, pejoratively known as  “coolies,” were blamed for the loss of jobs among whites. In the space of a few decades, they were deprived of livelihood and home and driven from towns. They were the victims of violence, including murder, at the hands of vigilantes. They were considered an inferior race, as were Native Americans and African Americans.

A series of laws were passed, gradually restricting their rights. The culmination of these legal barriers was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Chinese were specifically named, targeted, banned, and denied naturalization. It wasn’t until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that the floodgates opened for Asian immigration to America.

Origin of the “Model Minority” Term

The degrading perception of the Chinese in 1882 and how they are now viewed as the “model minority” with many other Asian American groups presents a dramatic turnaround. The blueprint for their career success supposedly rests on their strong work ethic, and an emphasis in their families to study and achieve educationally. These values align well with evangelical virtues.

The term “model minority” was first coined by William Petersen in 1966 as he described the success of Japanese Americans in the face of discrimination and other obstacles. Unlike other minorities, Petersen concluded that the Japanese succeeded due to their cultural values, such as diligence, frugality, and achievement orientation. This mantra was repeated in the media, lending credence to this myth regarding Asian Americans as a whole. Asian Americans were unwitting pawns in the power struggle between white, Black, and Brown peoples, being held up as an example to be emulated by other people of color. Hence, Civil Rights protests were unnecessary. Equality could be achieved by all who follow the example set by the “model minority.”

Mainstream society came to accept this myth as truth, yet it crumbles under closer examination as full equality in society has yet to be attained. Asian Americans remain a minority people!

Nevertheless, studies have pointed out that a number of Asian Americans have internalized the “model minority” label assigned to them. As students do not learn about Asian American history in the classroom, they are largely unaware of their historical treatment. Growing up in the current context, they’ve come to accept the notion of meritocracy. They study hard, believing that this will lead to a prosperous career in the years ahead and fulfillment of the American dream.

The Perpetual Foreigner

While many Chinese and other Asian Americans are able to live in affluent neighborhoods, send their children to enviable schools, and achieve artistic and financial success, they are still the perpetual foreigner unable to attain complete assimilation in a society that continues to privilege whiteness. Materialistic success as the “model minority” is not equivalent to equality. 

Chinese Americans were cruelly reminded about their place in the general population by the racist attacks against them following President Donald Trump’s description of the Coronavirus as the “Wuhan Flu,” the “Chinese Flu,” or “Kung Flu.” The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action created a website on March 19, 2020, to report attacks launched against Asian Americans. More than 2,100 incidents were reported between March and June alone, with 10,905 through 2021. Even if Chinese and Asian Americans are viewed as the “model minority,” the term itself assigns them to a lower rung of society. 

The “Model Christian”

The aspiration to be the “model minority” has spilled over into religious life. If Chinese American (and Asian American) evangelicals aspire to be the “model minority” in public life by imitating those in power, they similarly seek to imitate the leaders of the white evangelical church.

They attend popular church growth and leadership conferences such as the Global Leadership Summit founded by Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Church, Saddleback Church’s series of Purpose Driven seminars originating from Rick Warren, and Passion under the direction of Louie Giglio. These majority culture churches are on display as models to be emulated.

The latter of these examples was embroiled in controversy earlier this year when he suggested that the phrase “white privilege” could be replaced by “white blessing.” “We understand the curse that was slavery, white people do… And we say that was bad. But we miss the blessing of slavery, that it actually built up the framework for the world that white people live in.” In an attempt to defuse the firestorm created by his comments, Giglio later declared that he wanted other white believers to recognize that “white privilege is real.”

White privilege is real, but many Chinese American believers have not connected the dots in regard to their faith. If one were to attend a typical English worship service in a Chinese church on a Sunday morning, the worship songs, both contemporary and classic, would be written by western composers. Thus the theology expressed in the lyrics comes from the dominant culture.

The preaching style would be suitable for white congregations as pastors are trained in evangelical seminaries. The service format would, in all likelihood, follow what one would find in many majority culture evangelical churches. 

Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City was founded by noted church leader Tim Keller. More Chinese Americans and Korean Americans attend Redeemer than any respective second-generation Chinese or Korean church in the city, as 45% of Redeemer’s congregants are second or third-generation Chinese and Korean. For many of these Asian American attendees at predominantly white churches, eventually leaving the immigrant church as adults has been the general trend for decades.

However, even though Redeemer and a number of other popular large churches are multiethnic, one can argue that they are not multicultural. The dominant monocultural expression in these churches is white evangelical, which is an often overlooked factor.

Anthony Alumkal’s study, The Scandal of the “Model Minority” Evangelical Mind: The Bible and Second-Generation Asian American Evangelicals, analyzes the wholesale manner by which second-generation Asian believers swallow popular Anglo-American evangelical modes of thought and discourse. Critical analysis regarding their faith is absent even from those who are college educated. The sermons and books that are popular in the white evangelical world are also consumed by these Asian American evangelicals.

These behavioral patterns are consistent with the findings of scholars who have critically analyzed the “model minority” in matters of faith. They leave behind an immigrant church heavily influenced by an Asian-flavored Christianity to establish a new home in evangelical churches that will help them develop their spiritual (not their ethnic) identity. K. Kale Yu writes of this phenomenon, “Decidedly opposed to culture, especially Asian culture above the church, the second-generation promote a culture-free and color-blind church, a position on race shared with white evangelicalism.” Asian American campus groups seek to serve their ethnic constituency, yet at the same time propagate an evangelical identity that is not culturally relevant.

What they fail to understand is that American churches themselves are a product of Euro-American culture, which includes the phenomenon of evangelicalism. These western churches are far from being culture neutral. When they join these churches, Yu writes further, “what emerges is the self-reinforcement of the Christian model minority: the maintenance of white privilege, affirmation of middle-class standing, preservation of ethnic hierarchy in American evangelicalism, and compliance in the racialized formation of Asian Americans.” They remain the perpetual foreigner even in the ecclesial domain.

One example is how many Chinese American congregations embrace the teachings of both The Gospel Coalition and the 9Marks movements. While the two are not formally related, they do share similar beliefs and values. At one Asian American church, the young adults gave the immigrant church leaders an ultimatum. Either they would subscribe to the values of a healthy church as promoted by 9Marks, or this group would leave. Although the church was evangelical in belief and practice, her leaders would not abandon their historical, cultural, and denominational past to completely align with the tenets of 9Marks. Consequently, the young adults left, creating a significant void in the church.

The actions of this splinter group run counter to the lifestyle of moderation espoused by both Confucius and Lao Tzu, two prominent Chinese philosophers. In the Doctrine of the Mean, Confucius emphasized harmony in society by prioritizing the community over the individual. This could be achieved by displaying moderation in one’s behavior, emotions, beliefs, and relationships, values that were not prioritized by these young adults in their desire for a majority culture “healthy church” model.

A second example comes through efforts toward social justice, where for many years, the sin of racism was perceived as an individual’s struggle. Overlooked was the specter of societal and systemic racism, which the white evangelical church has been slow and complicit to speak out against. Within the racial climate of the U.S., protests were mounted in 2020 in all 50 states against the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. However, the Chinese church was reluctant to join in these protests, emulating the white evangelical church at large.

When a march for Black dignity and pride was organized in Chicago’s Chinatown, many members of the historic local church were slow to action. There was indifference, even opposition, from some leaders and members. As previously explored, participation in civic protests is not the expected behavior of those who are deemed a “model minority.” Such demonstrations are directed toward those entrenched in the capitals of power, against those who stand above them in society’s hierarchy.

Chinese Americans (and Asian Americans) continue to live in the liminal space of the margins. This is not to say that much hasn’t been gained in both secular and religious life. However, as the “model minority,” they remain on the outside, looking to the majority for guidance and direction in matters of church and faith.

Andrew Lee is the Associate Director of the Global Diaspora Institute at Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He holds a PhD in Religion from Baylor University. His ministry career has alternated between pastoring immigrant Chinese churches and seminary teaching and research.

One Comment

  • Paul Poy says:

    The article gives an overview of the past interactions with western evangelical culture, with its highlighted imperfections.
    Perhaps a future vision of development for Asian Americans toward goals( such as loving God and loving neighbor as self) would be a useful next step ( since we all may be incomplete and imperfect).

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