The Difficulty of Being a Perfect Asian American

College admissions makes people do strange things. This was one of the takeaways of the Varsity Blues scandal, in 2019, which uncovered an admissions consultant and a network of coaches and administrators who helped wealthy and famous families essentially bribe their way into selective colleges. The scandal seemed to be the twisted, if logical, end point of all the credential-stacking and résumé-padding that has become part of the process. Yet there was something reassuring about the scandal, too: the conclusion that the admissions system is rigid enough that people with means, even Hollywood A-listers, would feel the desperation to game it. They may have believed that their children were entitled to a place at a prestigious school. But they couldn’t breeze right in. By some measures, it is twice as hard to get into élite colleges and universities than it was twenty years ago. Their desperation was warranted.

These anxieties about status are acutely felt among a cohort for whom going to college can seem a foregone conclusion. Asian Americans are often held up as a “model minority,” a group whose presence on campuses like Harvard or M.I.T., where forty per cent of incoming first-years self-identify as Asian American, far outpaces their percentage of the U.S. population. The figure of the model minority emerged in the fifties, a reflection of Cold War-era policies that were designed to attract highly educated immigrants from Asia. Over time, this stereotype ossified. American meritocracy held up the immigrant as proof that its rules were fair, and many high achievers were flattered to play along. Even though many of the gains for Asian Americans could be explained through policy—and even as studies showed how entire swaths of the community were left behind in poverty—the experience of being Asian in America has been rigidly defined by a framework of success and failure. As the scholar erin Khuê Ninh argues in “Passing for Perfect: College Impostors and Other Model Minorities,” it’s a framework that has been internalized, even by those who resist it.

Ninh’s fascinating book tells the stories of scammers, grifters, and impostors—Asian Americans following the high-pressure, expectation-heavy paths that can lead down darker alleys of faux accomplishment. There is Azia Kim, who masqueraded as a Stanford undergrad for months, even persuading two students to allow her to share a dorm room. Elizabeth Okazaki did something similar there, posing as a graduate student, attending class, and sleeping at a campus lab. Unlike the students caught up in the Varsity Blues scandal, these young people gave exhausting performances that weren’t going to result in a diploma or job. And, in the case of Jennifer Pan, who spent years tricking her parents into believing that she was attending the University of Toronto, the subterfuge resulted in tragedy. In 2010, she hired hitmen to murder them.

What compelled these impostors? To what extent were their actions driven by a need to keep up an illusion of excellence? Ninh, who teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explores these stories not to rationalize them but to point out how they suggest a mood, a limited set of emotional possibilities for Asian Americans. “What if what seem to be outlandish and outlier behaviors are instead depressingly Asian American?” Ninh writes. Being a model minority, she argues, doesn’t require one to believe in the myth. Ninh asserts that a relationship to high achievement is “coded into one’s programming” as an Asian American, and that “its litmus test is whether an Asian American feels pride or shame by those standards.” Whether you are Amy Chua, extolling the virtues of being a “tiger parent,” or someone making fun of Chua, you are perpetuating the success-or-bust framework. A joking dismissal doesn’t debunk the stereotype so much as it signals the impossibility of living outside of it.

Ninh offers compelling evidence that adherents to the model-minority myth come “from an implausible multiplicity of life chances and immigration histories.” She cites the scholars Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou, who found that Southeast Asian refugees and wealthy, cosmopolitan transplants from China alike were “keenly aware” of stereotypes around Asian achievement. Lee and Zhou write that “for no other [racial] group is the success frame defined as getting straight A’s, gaining admission into an elite university, getting a graduate degree, and entering” into a coveted profession; in contrast, other groups balance grades with an investment in classroom behavior or how well they fit in with others. Ninh cites a 1998 study of perceptions of Asian Americans, based on interviews conducted with seven hundred college students of all races. A sense of Asian Americans as somehow exemplary permeated this student body; notably, the Asian Americans who took part in the interviews perceived themselves to be “more prepared, motivated, and more likely to have higher career success than whites,” even though their actual grades didn’t reflect any superiority.

Of all deceits, Ninh wonders if there is “something quaintly bookish, faintly charming about the academic grifter.” What drew Kim, Okazaki, Pan, and others to lie wasn’t a predictably ascendant path. Pretending to be students was a holding pattern, perhaps until a better answer presented itself. As Ninh points out, “The shortest route to mad bling does not run through four years of coursework. Money, then, would not appear to be the primary driver for our scammers—status is, arguably, and self-identity.”

Ninh feels enough sympathy for her subjects to probe their ambitions, their potential, the unnoticed mental-health struggles that led these people to take such immense risks. “Even when we have come to know our social formation as harmful to us,” she writes, “a life worth wanting may still be trapped in its terms.” The scammers and grifters might be viewed as people who allowed the expectations of Asian American identity to metastasize into something perilous. Ninh’s book is at its best when she seems to level with her subjects, to read them against their contexts: high-pressure parents, suburban milieus where value is doled out in how many colleges you get into, a national myth where you are both an undifferentiated mass and living proof of the American Dream. It’s a lot of work to pretend you are perfect—even more so when you know it is an illusion. Studies show that Asian Americans are the racial group who are least likely to seek help for mental illness, with much of it remaining undiagnosed. In 2018, Christine Yano and Neal Adolph Akatsuka published “Straight A’s: Asian American College Students in Their Own Words,” a collection of reflections from Harvard undergraduates. The achievements of these students aside—these were young people who, by traditional metrics, had done well—it was striking how each one navigated expectations of success and feelings of invisibility. Many lamented how the quest for excellence came to feel like a trap, ultimately leaving them unfulfilled. Even a drive to pursue unconventional paths, like art or writing, was cast as a rebellion against STEM stereotyping, not an expression of authentic desire.

“Passing for Perfect” is a tricky, unpredictable book, toggling between broad social analyses and sensational outliers, with close readings of reportage and court documents alongside Ninh’s bemused, occasionally exasperated commentary. Her shifting tones convey what it feels like to live inside a stereotype—to realize that even reasoned disavowals will never make it go away. She wonders whether it is possible to tunnel your way free from an imposed identity you know to be unhealthy and false. Stereotypes winnow down our imaginations or make us feel inadequate in the present; they also stifle a vision for the future, frustrating us, as our attempts to deny them only make them grow stronger.

The challenge, Ninh acknowledges, is to talk about success in terms that don’t merely reify the myth of the model minority. The starting point is to imagine other models of teaching, assessing, or assigning value. For the individual, resisting the myth requires more than merely becoming a “bad Asian”—for example, by rejecting the stereotype that Asians are good at math and violin by opting for art and football. Her book ends with a consideration of “Better Luck Tomorrow,” a film, from 2002, that drew on elements of the 1992 killing of Stuart Tay, a teen-ager from Orange County. Tay was killed by five students from a competitive, affluent high school. Tay and his eventual killers—four of whom were Asian American—were plotting a robbery, and his conspirators became convinced that he was going to betray them. Three of Tay’s killers were honor-roll students, leading the press to refer to the event as the “honor roll murder.”