Surrounded by busy New Yorkers on their determined walks, I, a somewhat-awkward Asian guy holding a petition sheet and a “YANG FOR NEW YORK” sign shout out, “If you’re a registered Democrat in the city, you can sign on this sheet to get Andrew on the mayoral primary ballot!” My shouts rarely receive a response. Most of the time, I either endure painful silence, or worse, an accusatory frown that makes me feel self-conscious about being Chinese. An inner voice echoes in my head: “Will I get beat up?”
When I came to New York two years ago, I did not anticipate harboring this kind of existential fear. Coming from an elite, mostly white, private high school in bucolic Virginia, I had encountered few instances of blatant racism. So when I entered college, I subconsciously tried to follow the script of the model minority myth: do well in school, get straight A’s, and—if I’m lucky—land a Wall Street internship.
When the pandemic struck, however, my naïve hopes were dashed by harsh reality. Like many of my peers, I live in constant fear of being yelled at, coughed at, spat on, and even publicly attacked. Last year alone, hate-fueled attacks against Asian Americans spiked by nearly 150 percent across the country and by more than 800 percent in New York. Seeing my community so thoroughly shattered felt like a stab in the heart. My dismay was compounded by the realization that being stereotyped as nerdy, apolitical, and law-abiding does not shield us from the ugliness of racism and xenophobia. These stereotypes place enormous pressure on us to downplay or disavow the oppression we experience daily, since acknowledging it would contradict the fabled immigrant success story. Disheartened, I saw Yang’s mayoral campaign as an effective repudiation of the model minority myth.
Yang also felt trapped by racial stereotypes in his earlier years. “When I was growing up alongside my brother, the message that we got was that we should do well in school and try to get into good colleges and then good graduate schools and get a good job,” Yang said during a virtual fundraising event in February. “Politics did not seem like a natural destination. … No one in my household was saying, ‘You’re going to run for office someday’ or ‘Run for president someday.’”
Yang’s perfect track record from Phillips Exeter Academy to Brown University and Columbia Law School did not prepare him to run for office either. When he spoke at the Dean’s Distinguished Speaker Series hosted by the Law School in October, he jokingly said that if he were to run for student council, “I would have gotten approximately zero votes.” After graduate school, Yang had a chance to live a comfortable life as a corporate attorney earning a six-figure salary at a prestigious law firm. His short-lived career, however, was “the worst five months of [his] life,” and left him feeling “empty and purposeless.” “It was really in 2011 when I decided to start Venture for America that my life changed. … That was what sent me down this path,because if you run a nonprofit, you see that the problems are bigger and more serious than even you could imagine,” he told me at the rally.
As I witness the unfolding of the current cataclysm—rampant anti-Asian hate speech online, the surge in violent attacks against elders across Chinatowns, the murder of six Asian women in the Atlanta spa shootings—I, too, feel the immense civic responsibility on my shoulders. I now see the insidious, normalizing power of the model minority myth: It demands not only excellence but also indifference, complicity, and invisibility. It molds our personalities and dictates the very definition of what it means to be a “good Asian American citizen” living in accordance with the rules of American meritocracy.
From the faceless 1860s transcontinental railroad workers who became bricks in the road to America’s manifest destiny to the powerless victims who are assaulted in the street today, Asian Americans are trivialized as cheap laborers at best and perpetual foreigners at worst—never as good leaders. For this reason, when Yang dropped off 9,400 petition signatures outside the city Board of Election office to get on the ballot two weeks ago, I felt at my happiest since the start of the pandemic—happy for being a part of a cause that is bigger than myself.
Although Yang often shies away from identity politics, striving to present himself as a leader for all people, the optics of an Asian American politician in the national spotlight undoubtedly signals a pathway for young Asian Americans to gain political power. His run for mayor is an odyssey for millions to reclaim their American dream and all of its preordained glory and promises about freedom, dignity, and equal opportunity. It demands that American society pay attention to its fastest-growing demographic, reminding it, over and over, “Look at us. Look at us.”
Harry Shi is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in economics and philosophy. When he is not copy editing articles, he enjoys playing online chess in the style of Beth Harmon and watching bad movies like “The Room.”
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