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Route 48 Runner challenges Asian-American “Model Minority” Narrative

I am an Asian-American. I am a runner.

Today, our Asian-American brothers and sisters (AAPI—Asian-American and Pacific Islander) cannot live freely—a core tenet of being American. Our lives and well-being are under question every single day. We limit going grocery shopping or engaging in walks around our neighborhoods. We refrain from many recreational activities to minimize our time in public for fear of leaving the safety of our homes. After a year of the pandemic confining us to our homes, the AAPI community now faces an unprecedented wave of xenophobic hate crimes and violence. Already damaged by a year of isolation, the constant fear of racially driven assault nearly breaks the mental psyche of AAPI community members.

We are hurting, grieving, heartbroken, and scared.

Conceivably worse is the idea that we have been hurting even prior to these violent, xenophobic acts. Mental health stigma affects all ethnicities and cultures, but may impact AAPI more than most.

AAPIs are the least likely racial group in the US to seek mental health services.

While 18% of the general US population seek mental health services and resources, only 8.6% of AAPI do so. In fact, Caucasian US citizens take advantage of mental health services at three times the rate of AAPIs. What’s behind this disparity? There’s an underlying fear in the AAPI community that getting mental health treatment means you’re “crazy” or “broken”—a hereditary flaw or a byproduct of poor parenting. Being too emotional implies an inability to solve things by yourself. Seeking outside help goes against the cultural values of interdependence and self-reliance inherent in AAPI communities. Why seek help from a stranger when you should be able to figure things out on your own or with the help of those directly around you? Asking for assistance often leads to displays of alarm and shame from family members. Rather than embarrass and fail your family, you suffer in silence, minimizing your outward emotions, and instead, you keep stride regardless of how you’re feeling.

Damaging assumptions about AAPIs

As if this wasn’t enough, another source of stress comes from the assumption that Asians are part of the “model minority”, that all AAPI are successful, wealthy, educated, integrated and experience economic stability. We can trace this model minority narrative back to the 1880s when the Chinese Exclusion Act was enforced; our only opportunity to live out the American Dream as an AAPI was to work hard and stay quiet.

According to the model minority myth, success is expected, and failure is frowned upon. Living up to this model minority expectation means there’s minimal room for failure, resulting in surmounting pressures. Although, in reality, we know we must fail if we are to grow and learn from our mistakes. And this expectation creates immense pressures on the mental health of those in the AAPI community. We see this in Asian American college students. They are 1.6 times more likely than others to attempt suicide, and 3 times less likely to seek out professional help.

Forced to choose

The model minority myth also forces members of the AAPI community to choose between assimilation and ostracization; to lose our identity or run the risk of “being different”. I grew up believing I should feel ashamed about the things that made me foreign: eating lunches packed by my Taiwanese grandmother, speaking Mandarin, and wearing clothes gifted by my foreign relatives. The culture of assimilation driven by the model minority myth made me question my upbringing. Society pressures us to be like our Caucasian counterparts, while constantly reminding us of our differences. This muddies the water for AAPIs in their search for identity.

In an attempt to avoid conflict and minimize our differences, AAPIs have resorted to tolerating verbal assaults and derogatory language— “just work hard, keep your head down, and everything will work out in the end.” There is a thought that speaking up leads to more trouble while silence keeps you safe. This concept of AAPIs as “docile” has become so normalized in American culture that when I look back at my life, I realize how much subtle racism I’ve subconsciously internalized and accepted.

I can see the pain in their eyes

Sadly, my parents and grandparents did the same. I can see the pain in their eyes as they tell stories of immigrating here, working and adapting to the unfamiliar landscape and adversity in front of them. We’ve been suffering silently for too long as our mental health has gradually worn down through micro-aggressions, stereotypes and discriminatory remarks that we continue to unsuccessfully suppress.

The model minority narrative pressures AAPIs to silence their struggles, subconsciously accept discriminatory actions, and identify with a culture that is not ours. In light of the recent global pandemic and surrounding racist anti-Asian rhetoric driven by our ex-President, hate crimes and violence against the AAPI community is at an all-time high. Our community cannot ignore these injustices and pretend like they don’t affect us.

Stripped of what drew our ancestors to America

Today, as an AAPI, it feels like we are stripped of what drew our ancestors to America: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Nearly 4,000 incidents of hate crimes against AAPI individuals have been reported from March 2020 to February 2021—and those only include the reported incidents.

With a lack of educational mental health resources and a culture of concealing our emotions, AAPI’s are struggling more than ever with mental health complications. Violent, xenophobic acts continue to rip through our community. This compounded effect may have serious repercussions on AAPI communities for years to come, leading to more frustration, anxiety, and grief.

To escape the realities of the present, I run.

Running gives me time to think and recenter myself when the world starts to feel overwhelming. Running has always been my go-to tool. I meditate on the move, to better understand my mind and body, and to triage the priorities in my life. On a recent run, I recall fatigue inundating my body. I desperately gasped for air, cramps impending, with my body sending me every signal to stop. I ran past an elderly Asian man with his toddler son tucked under him on their electric scooter; they were beaming, laughing together at the joys and adventures of the world. Pure elation. This golden moment was ephemeral. Instantly, my mind travelled to the last video in my family group text, a graphic scene of an Asian man on the Brooklyn subway beaten unconscious while bystanders backed away and watched. My mama makes her message clear beneath the video, “Be careful, my son, when you go on your runs. I am worried for you.” My mind then shifts to the 65-year-old Asian woman kicked to the ground and beaten in front of a NYC security guard who closed the door on her, wanting nothing to do with the situation; the 89-year-old Asian woman slapped across the face and then set on fire in Brooklyn; the 84-year-old Asian man fatally shoved to the ground during his morning walk; the Asian US Army Veteran who felt he needed to reveal his military scars to prove his patriotism in our country; the recent Atlanta shooting where eight individuals, including six women of Asian descent, died while working to make ends meet because the shooter was at the “end of his rope.”

Where does it end?

Before I know it, I’m sprinting again. My family could have been the victim of any of those incidents. My grandparents and parents who raised me sacrificed their livelihood, the comfort of their own homes, their culture, and their sense of belonging. They did so to provide their children with what they believed was the best life possible. My young nephews —who live in this world with no comprehension of the injustices going on around them. I would love nothing more than to see them tucked-in on a scooter beneath me, exhilarated, not a care in the world. Though, I fear that they may not be able to avoid this hatred and endemic racism as they grow up.

It’s time to unlearn stereotypes. It’s past time to educate the ignorant and eradicate xenophobia. We must provide the necessary resources and bridge the gap for mental health education for all AAPIs. To have a voice for once. To speak up. We need to eliminate the negative stigma surrounding our differences.

Route 48 Challenge – Fundraising for Still I Run

This is why on April 16th; I am taking part in David Goggins’ 4x4x48 running challenge to raise awareness and fundraise for mental health. My team, Route 48, will be running four miles every four hours for 48 miles. We have partnered with Still I Run—a mental health advocacy group that seeks to eliminate the negative stigma around mental illness and promote healing through running. My driving force is to address mental health in the AAPI community by sharing, supporting, and educating those around me. I’m running not only to raise awareness about the struggles we’re experiencing, but to also provide AAPIs with the necessary resources for them to share their stories, and seek proper mental health care that has been considered taboo for too long. I seek to destigmatize the conversation around mental health for AAPIs everywhere. We’re struggling more than ever before—whether we talk about it or not.

Let’s eliminate the model minority narrative.

Rather than pressure those who are suffering to remain quiet, let us support and uplift them. Appreciate the differences in our communities and cultures so future generations of minority groups don’t experience what my grandparents, my parents, and sadly enough, our generation is enduring.

Follow the Route 48 Challenge

Please follow our journey and learn more by following us on our Instagram and Classy accounts—together, we will end the stigma surrounding mental illness and live freely, as all minority and non-minority groups should.

Runner challenges Asian-American "model minority" narrative


By Eric Tai

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