10 Books About Model Minorities Behaving Badly
Vanessa Hua recommends literature that subverts the myth that Asian Americans are a monolith
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Q. What’s an Asian F?
A. An A-.
Q. What’s the Asian Triple threat?
A. Medical doctor, researcher, and professor
When people have asked me about my short story collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities, I’ve joked it’s about “model minorities behaving badly.” My characters—immigrants and the children of immigrants—attempt to fake it until they make it, to hold together their family and their identity. The secrets and lies are a mechanism not only for harmony, but also for survival.
Model minorities are said to achieve a higher degree of socioeconomic success than average. For decades, white conservatives have used the perceived success of Asian Americans as a racial wedge, to minimize the impact of structural racism on blacks and Latinos. See: Harvard admissions lawsuit. See: admissions to elite public high schools in New York.
The myth also turns Asian Americans into a monolith, masking huge variations in language, culture, and educational and economic status within the community.
My collection—now reissued with additional new stories—subverts these stereotypes and expectations. What follows here are books that shatter such myths in ways poignant and funny, dark and light.
We Should Never Meet by Aimee Phan
This stunning linked short collection moves between Vietnam and Orange County, following the troubled fates of children evacuated in Operation Babylift. I’m still haunted by the robbery gone wrong between the elderly Bac Nguyen and the hoodlum Vinh. Their interiority, histories, and actions belie easy labels.
No Good Very Bad Asian by Leland Cheuk
In this darkly funny novel, a Chinese American comedian pens a letter to his daughter to explain how race and class have warped him—and his sense of humor. You’ll laugh so hard you’ll cry, and then your heart will break.
Also written in the form of a letter to her daughters, the memoir is hilarious, revealing and inspiring, as Wong shares her struggles and victories. The comedian turns the final chapter over to her husband—whom she’s mentioned often in her routine—and he offers a touching coda of his own.
The Farm by Joanne Ramos
In this dystopian novel, the scheming Asian American striver Mae dreams up a “gestational retreat” that all but imprisons mostly working-class immigrant surrogates. A scathing satire as frightening as it is funny.
Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine
Hilarious and poignant, with spot on observations about inter-ethnic and interracial dating, the East Bay versus New York, and stifled aspirations. I kept snapping photos of the comic panels to friends, and handed the book to my husband to read as soon as I finished it.
Problems by Jade Sharma
Vulnerable and biting, this novel about a troubled young heroin addict is unforgettable. Sharma’s untimely death has left many mourning her and the untold stories she might have written.
All That Work and Still No Boys by Kathryn Ma
The ten short stories in this moving debut collection travel the Chinese diaspora. Told with grace and humor, the stories challenge expectations at every turn.
Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee
Casey Han—new Princeton grad and daughter of Korean dry cleaners—is figuring out what to make of her life. It’s witty and wry, with sharp observations of New York in the 1990s.
Re Jane by Patricia Park
In this witty and fun retelling of Jane Eyre, the half-Korean heroine travels from Queens to Brooklyn to Seoul and back in search of love—and self-discovery. The cultural insights are fascinating.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
Breezy and engrossing, this novel kicked off the trilogy that has launched acting careers and a film franchise. A satirical, page-turning romp.
Family Trust by Kathy Wang
As the patriarch lays dying in Silicon Valley, his children, ex-wife, and second wife contemplate what his will has in store for them. A page-turner, by turns comic and poignant.
Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li
This sprawling debut is poignant, big-hearted, funny and insightful. You can’t help but root for different characters at this Chinese family restaurant, even as they bungle their way into ever more trouble.