Mali Keo fled Cambodia with her husband and four children
in 1992. Several years later, she was still haunted by searing memories of "the
killing fields," the forced-labor camps where millions of Cambodians died,
victims of Communist despot Pol Pot's quest for a perfect agrarian society.
Because of the brutal beatings she suffered at the hands of Pol Pot's Khmer
Rouge, she was still wracked with physical pain as well. Traumatized and ailing,
uneducated, unskilled, and speaking very little English, Mali Keo (a pseudonym
assigned by researchers) could barely support her children after her husband
abandoned the family.
And now she may not even have public assistance to fall back on, because the
1996 welfare-reform act cut off most federal benefits to immigrants and
subsequent amendments have not entirely restored them. In what was supposed to be
the land of her salvation, Mali Keo today is severely impoverished. Living in a
hard-pressed neighborhood of Philadelphia, she struggles with only mixed success
to keep her children out of trouble and in school.
The Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), an advocacy group in
Washington, estimates that more than 2.2 million Southeast Asians now live in the
United States. They are the largest group of refugees in the country and the
fastest-growing minority. Yet for most policy makers, the plight of the many Mali
Keos has been overshadowed by the well-known success of the Asian immigrants who
came before and engendered the myth of the "model minority." Indeed,
conservatives have exploited this racial stereotype -- arguing that Asians fare
well in the United States because of their strong "family values" and work ethic.
These values, they say, and not government assistance, are what all minorities
need in order to get ahead.
Paradoxically, Southeast Asians -- supposedly part of the model minority --
may be suffering most from the resulting public policies. They have been left in
the hands of underfunded community-assistance programs and government agencies
that, in one example of well-intentioned incompetence, churn out forms in Khmer
and Lao for often illiterate populations. But fueled by outrage over bad services
and a fraying social safety-net, Southeast Asian immigrants have started to
embrace that most American of activities, political protest -- by pushing for
research on their communities, advocating for their rights, and harnessing their
The model-minority myth has persisted in large part because
political conservatives are so attached to it. "Asian Americans have become the
darlings of the right," said Frank Wu, a law professor at Howard University and
the author of Yellow: Race beyond Black and White. "The model-minority myth and
its depiction of Asian-American success tells a reassuring story about our
The flip side is also appealing to the right. Because Asian Americans'
success stems from their strong families and their dedication to education and
hard work, conservatives say, then the poverty of Latinos and African Americans
must be explained by their own "values": They are poor because of their
nonmarrying, school-skipping, and generally lazy and irresponsible behavior,
which government handouts only encourage.
The model-minority myth's "racist love," as author Frank Chin terms it, took
hold at a sensitive point in U.S. history: after the 1965 Watts riots and the
immigration reforms of that year, which selectively allowed large numbers of
educated immigrants into the United States. Highly skilled South and East Asian
nurses, doctors, and engineers from countries like India and China began pouring
into the United States just as racial tensions were at a fever pitch.
Shortly thereafter, articles like "Success Story of One Minority in the U.S.,"
published by U.S. News & World Report in 1966, trumpeted: "At a time when
it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift Negroes and
other minorities, the nation's 300,000 Chinese Americans are moving ahead on
their own, with no help from anyone else." Newsweek in 1971 had Asian
Americans "outwhiting the whites." And Fortune in 1986 dubbed them a
"superminority." As Wu caricatures the model-minority myth in his book:
Asian Americans vindicate the American Dream... . They are
living proof of the power of the free market and the absence of racial
discrimination. Their good fortune flows from individual self-reliance and
community self-sufficiency, not civil-rights activism or government welfare
A closer look at the data paints another picture, however. If Asian-American
households earn more than whites, statistics suggest, it's not because their
individual earnings are higher but because Asian Americans live in larger
households, with more working adults. In fact, a recent University of Hawaii
study found that "most Asian Americans are overeducated compared to whites for
the incomes they earn" -- evidence that suggests not "family values" but market
What most dramatically skews the data, though, is the fact that about half the
population of Asian (or, more precisely, Asian-Pacific Islander) Americans is
made up of the highly educated immigrants who began arriving with their families
in the 1960s. The plight of refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, who make
up less than 14 percent of Asian Americans, gets lost in the averaging. Yet these
refugees, who started arriving in the United States after 1975, differ markedly
from the professional-class Chinese and Indian immigrants who started coming 10
years earlier. The Southeast Asians were fleeing wartime persecution and had few
resources. And those disadvantages have had devastating effects on their lives in
the United States. The most recent census data available show that 47 percent of
Cambodians, 66 percent of Hmong (an ethnic group that lived in the mountains of
Laos), 67 percent of Laotians, and 34 percent of Vietnamese were impoverished in
1990 -- compared with 10 percent of all Americans and 14 percent of all Asian
Americans. Significantly, poverty rates among Southeast Asian Americans were much
higher than those of even the "nonmodel" minorities: 21 percent of African
Americans and 23 percent of Latinos were poor.
Yet despite the clear inaccuracies created by lumping populations together,
the federal government still groups Southeast Asian refugees under the overbroad
category of "Asian" for research and funding purposes. "We've labored under the
shadow of this model myth for so long," said KaYing Yang, SEARAC's executive
director. "There's so little research on us, or we're lumped in with all other
Asians, so people don't know the specific needs and contributions of our
To get a sense of those needs, one has to go back to the beginning of
the Southeast Asian refugees' story and the circumstances that forced their
migration. In 1975, the fall of Saigon sent shock waves throughout Southeast
Asia, as communist insurgents toppled U.S.-supported governments in Vietnam and
Cambodia. In Laos, where the CIA had trained and funded the Hmong to fight
Laotian and Vietnamese communists as U.S. proxies, the communists who took over
vowed to purge the country of ethnic Hmong and punish all others who had worked
with the U.S. government.
The first refugees to leave Southeast Asia tended to be the most educated
and urban, English-speakers with close connections to the U.S. government. One of
them was a man who wishes to be identified by the pseudonym John Askulraskul. He
spent two years in a Laotian re-education camp -- punishment for his ability to
speak English, his having been educated, and, most of all, his status as a former
employee of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
"They tried to brainwash you, to subdue you psychologically, to work you to
death on two bowls of rice a day," Askulraskul told me recently.
After being released, he decided to flee the country. He, his sister, and his
eldest daughter, five and a half years old, slipped into the Mekong River with a
few others. Clinging to an inflated garbage bag, Askulraskul swam alongside their
boat out of fear that his weight would sink it.
After they arrived on the shores of Thailand, Askulraskul and his daughter
were placed in a refugee camp, where they waited to be reunited with his wife and
his two other daughters.
It was not to be.
"My wife tried to escape with two small children. But my daughters couldn't
make it" -- he paused, drawing a ragged breath -- "because the boat sank."
Askulraskul's wife was swept back to Laos, where she was arrested and placed
in jail for a month. She succeeded in her next escape attempt, rejoining her
suddenly diminished family.
Eventually, with the help of his former boss at USAID, they moved to
Connecticut, where Askulraskul found work helping to resettle other refugees. His
wife, who had been an elementary-school teacher, took up teaching English as a
second language (ESL) to Laotian refugee children. His daughter adjusted quickly
and went to school without incident.
Askulraskul now manages a project that provides services for at-risk Southeast
Asian children and their families. "The job I am doing now is not only a job," he
said. "It is part of my life and my sacrifice. My daughter is 29 now, and I know
raising kids in America is not easy. I cannot save everybody, but there is still
something I can do."
Like others among the first wave of refugees, Askulraskul considers himself
one of the lucky ones. His education, U.S. ties, and English-language ability --
everything that set off the tragic chain of events that culminated in his
daughters' deaths -- proved enormously helpful once he was in the United States.
But the majority of refugees from Southeast Asia had no such advantages.
Subsequent waves frequently hailed from rural areas and lacked both financial
resources and formal schooling. Their psychological scars were even deeper than
the first group's, from their longer years in squalid refugee camps or the
killing fields. The ethnic Chinese who began arriving from Vietnam had faced
harsh discrimination as well, and the Amerasians -- the children of Vietnamese
women and U.S. soldiers -- had lived for years as pariahs.
Once here, these refugees often found themselves trapped in poverty, providing
low-cost labor, and receiving no health or other benefits, while their lack of
schooling made decent jobs almost impossible to come by. In 1990, two-thirds of
Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong adults in America had less than a high-school
education -- compared with 14 percent of whites, 25 percent of African Americans,
45 percent of Latinos, and 15 percent of the general Asian-American population.
Before the welfare-reform law cut many of them off, nearly 30 percent of
Southeast Asian Americans were on welfare -- the highest participation rate of
any ethnic group. And having such meager incomes, they usually lived in the worst
neighborhoods, with the attendant crime, gang problems, and poor schools.
But shouldn't the touted Asian dedication to schooling have overcome these
disadvantages, lifting the refugees' children out of poverty and keeping them off
the streets? Unfortunately, it didn't. "There is still a high number of dropouts
for Southeast Asians," Yang said. "And if they do graduate, there is a low number
going on to higher education."
Their parents' difficulty in navigating American school systems may
contribute to the problem. "The parents' lack of education leads to a lack of
role models and guidance. Without those things, youth can turn to delinquent
behavior and in some very extreme cases, gangs, instead of devoting themselves to
education," said Narin Sihavong, director of SEARAC's Successful New Americans
Project, which interviewed Mali Keo. "This underscores the need for Southeast
Asian school administrators or counselors who can be role models, ease the
cultural barrier, and serve as a bridge to their parents."
"Sometimes families have to choose between education and employment,
especially when money is tight," said Porthira Chimm, a former SEARAC project
director. "And unfortunately, immediate money concerns often win out."
The picture that emerges -- of high welfare participation and dropout rates,
low levels of education and income -- is startlingly similar to the situation of
the poorest members of "nonmodel" minority groups. Southeast Asians, Latinos, and
African Americans also have in common significant numbers of single-parent
families. Largely as a result of the killing fields, nearly a quarter of
Cambodian households are headed by single women. Other Southeast Asian families
have similar stories. Sihavong's mother, for example, raised him and his five
siblings on her own while his father was imprisoned in a Laotian re-education
No matter how "traditional" Southeast Asians may be, they share
the fate of other people of color when they are denied access to good education,
safe neighborhoods, and jobs that provide a living wage and benefits. But for the
sake of preserving the model-minority myth, conservative policy makers have
largely ignored the needs of Southeast Asian communities.
One such need is for psychological care. Wartime trauma and "lack of English
proficiency, acculturative stress, prejudice, discrimination, and racial hate
crimes" place Southeast Asians "at risk for emotional and behavioral problems,"
according to the U.S. surgeon general's 2001 report on race and mental health.
One random sample of Cambodian adults found that 45 percent had post-traumatic
stress disorder and 51 percent suffered from depression.
John Askulraskul's past reflects trauma as well, but his education,
English-language ability, and U.S. connections helped level the playing field.
Less fortunate refugees need literacy training and language assistance. They also
need social supports like welfare and strong community-assistance groups. But
misled by the model-minority myth, many government agencies seem to be unaware
that Southeast Asians require their services, and officials have done little to
find these needy refugees or accommodate them. Considering that nearly two-thirds
of Southeast Asians say they do not speak English very well and more than 50
percent live in linguistically isolated ethnic enclaves, the lack of outreach and
translators effectively denies them many public services.
The problem extends beyond antipoverty programs, as Mali Keo's story
illustrates. After her husband left her, she formed a relationship with another
man and had two more children. But he beat the family for years, until she asked
an organization that served Cambodian refugees to help her file a restraining
order. If she had known that a shelter was available, she told her interviewer,
even one without Khmer-speaking counselors, she would have escaped much earlier.
Where the government hasn't turned a blind eye, it has often
wielded an iron fist. The welfare-reform law of 1996, which cut off welfare, SSI,
and food-stamp benefits for most noncitizens -- even those who are legal
permanent residents -- sent Southeast Asian communities into an uproar. Several
elderly Hmong in California committed suicide, fearing that they would become
burdens to their families. Meanwhile, the lack of literacy programs prevented
(and still does prevent) many refugees from passing the written test that would
gain them citizenship and the right to public assistance.
"We achieved welfare reform on the backs of newcomers," Frank Wu said.
"People said that 'outsiders' don't have a claim to the body politic, and even
liberals say we should care for 'our own' first." Few seemed to ask the question
posed by sociologist Donald Hernandez: "What responsibility do we have to ensure
a basic standard of living for immigrants who have fled their countries as a
result of the American government's economic, military, and political involvement
But welfare reform also had a second effect. "It was such a shocking
event, it completely galvanized the Southeast Asian community," said Karen
Narasaki, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Legal
Consortium. "In different Asian cultures, you have 'the crab who crawls out of
the bucket gets pulled back' [and] 'the nail that sticks out gets pounded down.'
But in the United States, 'the squeaky wheel gets the grease,' and people had to
The learning process has been a difficult one. At first, because of their
past negative experiences with the United States and their homeland governments,
many Southeast Asians feared political involvement. Many saw themselves as
noncitizens and second-class "outsiders" with a precarious standing in the United
States. But as they have grown more familiar with this country, even noncitizens
have started to think of themselves less as refugees in a temporary home and more
as "new Americans" who are entitled to shape their destinies through political
The energy for this new activism grew out of the mutual-assistance associations
(MAAs) that have taken root in various Southeast Asian communities. Primarily
staffed by people like Askulraskul -- the more successful members of the ethnic
groups they serve -- MAAs form the backbone of support for Southeast Asians,
providing, among many other things, child care, job training, school liaisons,
and assistance with navigating government bureaucracies.
But the MAAs are facing problems of their own. The funding they used to get
from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement is dwindling. In 1996 new federal
guidelines mandated that these funds go exclusively to organizations serving the
most recent refugees. (In response, several Southeast Asian MAAs have tried to
stay afloat by offering their services to newer refugees from places like
Ethiopia and Iraq.) As for outside funding, only 0.3 percent of all philanthropic
aid goes to groups that work specifically with Asian-American populations,
according to the 1998 edition of Foundation Giving. "A lot of people in
philanthropy think [that Asians] are doing so well, they don't need help,"
Despite these problems, MAAs and national advocacy organizations like SEARAC
have won limited restorations of benefits and food stamps for immigrants. And a
significant victory came in 2000, when legislation sponsored by Minnesota Senator
Paul Wellstone was adopted: It will allow Hmong veterans -- or their widows --
from America's "secret war" in Laos to take the U.S. citizenship test in Hmong,
with a translator.
One key to the MAAs' success is their networking with other minority-advocacy
groups, says Sandy Dang, executive director of Asian American LEAD, an
organization based in Washington, that provides a range of services for
Vietnamese Americans, including ESL classes, youth mentoring, and parent-support
When Dang founded the organization, she didn't know how to write grant
proposals, so she asked the director of a nearby youth center for Latin Americans
to provide guidance. "The Latino organizations have a lot of empathy for people
starting out," she said. "They understand the refugee-immigrant experience.
"Disadvantaged people share a lot in common," Dang continued, "and we have to
help each other. People who are empowered in this country like to play us off
each other, like with the model-minority myth. They need the poor and
disadvantaged to fight each other. Because if we unite, we can make it difficult
Southeast Asians are disproving the model-minority myth not just with their
difficult lives but with their growing insistence that it takes more than
"traditional values" and "personal responsibility" to survive in this country. It
takes social supports and participation in the legacy of civil rights activism as
The refugees and their children are forging their identities as new Americans
and are starting to emerge as a political force. At first, Yang said, "we had no
time to think about anything else but our communities -- and no one was thinking
about us. But now we know that what we were grappling with [affects both] me and
my neighbor, who might be poor black, Latino, or Asian. We are no longer
refugees, we are Americans. And we know what being 'successful' is: It's being
someone who is truly aware of the meaning of freedom to speak out."
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