The author’s great uncle, former Prime Minister of Laos, Prince Boun Oum Na Champassak, standing behind former U.S. President John F. Kennedy and the last King of Laos, Sisavang Vatthana. Billingsley says due to pervasive stereotyping, many Asian Americans struggle to feel seen or heard — yet perceptions are changing.
Growing up, some people saw me as part of the “model minority”.
They assumed because I was Asian American, I was stereotypically well-off and driven — with parents who fit a certain mold. If you’re Asian American, people think you’re smart — that you have tiger parents and a career path planned out by the time you finish elementary school.
The thing is, not everyone saw me that way. Being mixed with Southeast Asian, sometimes people expect the opposite to be true. The reality is that I’m an ethnically ambiguous child of mainly Chinese and Vietnamese parents from Laos.
You might say I’m more of an “invisible Asian.” I was what comedian Ali Wong refers to as “half jungle Asian, half fancy Asian.” The stereotypes on the “jungle Asian” side hurt too. Far too often, Southeast Asians are seen as incapable — as unwilling to work hard or assimilate, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
We may all have been Asian, but my family didn’t thrive socially as Chinese Catholics in Laos. In fact, our experience was quite the opposite — we were isolated. It intensified when the monarchy fell to communismin 1975. We didn’t just experience the hate in our community; we faced discrimination within our own family.
Few people are familiar with the Chinese Christian narrative in countries like Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Many Chinese people were persecuted in parts of Southeast Asia, and so were many Christians.
We were part of the overseas Chinese community, known as the Fujian Chinese, and my Chinese grandfather married into the Royal Family of Laos. Laotian Royals are typically Buddhist, yet much of my family was Catholic and eventually became Christians after moving to the States.
Then, when they came here, they grappled with even more discrimination. Yep, they experienced prejudice for being Chinese in Southeast Asia only to face discrimination for being Southeast Asian in the States.
No one seemed to recognize the nuance of our background or experience.
I was born a princess in exile with high expectations from my family and what seemed like a low “bamboo ceiling” from the world. While most Royals in my family live in Bangkok and Paris, my dad came to the States to avoid family politics.
I went to private schools and have been in many spaces where I was a novelty. I’m talking about exclusive spaces where people were intrigued by me; they wanted to know who — or what — I was. Yet, having lost our family wealth, there wasn’t much to reveal.
Racism is nothing new to me, and microaggressions? Common. Fortunately, I can laugh it off so long as I feel I’m spreading awareness. But I’m still happy to be American — racism tax and all. It’s been exciting to see Asian Americans evolve into their own culture.
Stereotypes don’t just appear. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has portrayed us as smart, hardworking, and productive members of society.
This panethnicity dates back to the 1970s. It was largely a response to widespread anti-Asian racism at the time. While it was designed to bring different Asian ethnic groups together, it’s actually done the opposite.
I know from experience that it’s destructive for the so-called model minority to focus on East Asian stereotypes of wealth and status, as other groups suffer as a result. I’m referring to the “invisible Asians” like myself.
A large part is due to the U.S. shrouding the Vietnam and Laotian “Secret” wars in silence (you can read more about it here in an interview with my great uncle, former Laotian Defense Minister, Prince Sisouk Na Champassak).
Some attribute this to the Catholic Church’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The shared influence of the Vietnamese Catholic Church, the American Catholic Church, and the Vatican shaped the Eisenhower Administration’s foreign policy decisions as they related to Vietnam. So many Americans were reluctant to discuss the impact of war, silencing entire communities.
Embracing the myth of the model minority and our panethnicity was a way for civic leaders to celebrate Asian Americans and combat anti-Asian racism. In the wake of civil rights violations, like the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, activists wanted us to come together.
Only when fragmented ethnic groups join forces, there’s usually underlying tension. I know this from my own family dynamics.
So, what’s the way forward?
We must accurately depict the traumas SEAAs have experienced and their histories and challenges, starting with acknowledging how most SEAAs in the U.S. come primarily from lower income households.
The reason for this neglect is complex. While Asian Americans have experienced oppression, people from SEAA backgrounds have unique traumas from surviving war.
We don’t say much about the challenges these families have experienced, from the Cambodian genocide to Laos being the most bombed country on earth.
Southeast Asian Americans have slipped through the cracks, and we’re living in the shadows of a model minority stereotype, tiptoeing around East Asians whose backgrounds look very different from ours.
Let’s look past the model minority myth and give voice to all Asian experiences while speaking up for “invisible Asians” as we develop ours.
Inclusive storytelling with new voices in Hollywood and media outlets also sheds light on this problem, so more Asian Americans can identify with something other than the pervasive stereotypes forced on us. Diverse representation in pop culture is powerful, especially if you don’t fit into a box.
I am confident perceptions are changing, and hopefully, one day, the general public will know that labels don’t define people –– and everyone sees we are all products of far more than just race and ethnicity.
For more information about the author, please contact Nina K. Billingsley here
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