Author discusses book on Asian Americans as ‘college impostors’

Author discusses book on Asian Americans as 'college impostors'


In Passing for Perfect: College Impostors and Other Model Minorities (Temple University Press), erin Khuê Ninh focuses on answering several questions: “How does it feel to be a model minority — and why would that drive one to live a lie?”

Specifically, the book focuses on Asian Americans. The subject of “impostors” is different for Asian American students. It’s not that they are from some other group pretending to be Asian. But that they are embracing or rejecting (or both) the idea of the model minority, sometimes with tragic results.

Ninh, associate professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, responded to questions about her book via email.

Q: Many college students (and a few professors) have been accused of “passing,” as if they were members of another race. What are the key differences between Asian “impostors” and those from other groups?

A: Two key differences, really.

  1. Whose assigned racial identity? The subject’s own or someone else’s?
  2. Rational economic advantages — present or absent? The cases you’re referring to — like Jessica Krug — they’ve taken up racial identities they weren’t raised into, and so are “passing” in a classic sense as, yes, “members of another race.” What makes their charades sensationalistic and, I think for many people, surprising is just that they’ve chosen to pass in what’s usually the less advantageous direction. Historically, people have passed in order to access the higher social status and economic opportunities of whiteness. Why pretend to be a member of a racially discriminated group? But of course, in their line of work as ethnic studies scholars, being part of the ethnic group of study does translate to more economic opportunities and the social status of insiders.

On the other hand, the college impostors I focus on are already Asian; what they pretend to is the particular definition of Asian Americans as high-achieving, straitlaced, doctors/lawyers/engineers (to be). So what they “pass” for is model minority — but that’s the racial identity already assigned to them from birth. (Harvard onesies at the baby shower, anyone?) That model minority formula is demanded of them by (immigrant) family, ethnic community and American society at large alike — such that their “charade” (attending a dream college, taking STEM classes …) is actually all they’ve been allowed to imagine doing. They’re playing the more stereotypically successful version of themselves — but to no discernible economic advantage, which is what makes it all stand out. No amount of pretending to be a college student will add up to a real degree — and in the meantime you’re spending real time and money, so the opportunity costs are high. Any cynic can see why Krug did what she did, but the motivations behind the seemingly irrational behaviors of college impostors take a lot more explanation. A whole book, I’d say.

Q: Would you discuss the case of Azia Kim? What do you hope the case shows?

A: In spring 2007, a young woman was discovered to have spent nearly the entire academic year posing as a freshman at Stanford. Azia had squatted in the dorms that whole time and merged right into the daily flow of going to classes, studying in the library, writing papers. I call her my “exemplary” case because she shows the doing-what’s-expected quality of this kind of passing, so poignantly. Here she was deceiving everyone in her life, but not to harm or take advantage of anyone. At the heart of passing for model minority is a painful paradox: Azia trespassed by taking her assigned place and offended by having tried so very hard to please.

Q: Would you discuss the case of Jennifer Pan and what she shows?

A: Jennifer is a true-crime favorite: the story of a daughter of Chinese-Vietnamese immigrants, who had for years pretended to go to college and then even the postgrad pharmacology program of her father’s choice, but was eventually discovered — and then she hired hit men to have her parents killed. Mainstream press coverage of her 2014 trial was tabloid-worthy and, to this day, shows will rehash her story for profit. But what stood out to me as bearing explanation was the undercurrent of online commentary from Asian Americans and Asian Canadians alike (Jennifer grew up in Ontario, Canada): attesting to a kind of recognition of her strict model minority upbringing, identifying even with her feelings, and saying of this matricide/would-be patricide, “There but by the grace of God go I.” My chapter on Jennifer explores that — the intimate public that coalesces itself around these college impostor cases, evidence of their broader social meaning. Jennifer’s is a limit case for my argument, because if what drove her choices was indeed model minority racialization, her story should be a moment for (intimate) public referendum; to consume it as entertainment is what’s monstrous.

Q: You call the cases of Kim and Pan “outlier” cases. What is a more typical case?

A: Asian Americans who each morning feel compelled to put on a face of model minority excellence; who chase hyperachievement as student or professional on pain of losing status, belonging, love; who experience failure as a threat to communal and self-identity: we are all of us passing for perfect. In the book, I use the term “passing for model minority” or “passer” to refer both to this broad, “typical” group, and the extreme subset of folks who lie about getting into college. Because both the everyday set and the more acute version are answering to the same marching orders, I deliberately make it hard to distinguish/distance one from the other in language.

Think of the model minority as the casting call to which all these passers answer: studious, smart and successful; achieving the American dream. (Continuing to) play this role is what the college impostor is about.

Q: What’s your larger goal with this book?

A: With this book I hope to nudge academic and activist discourse away from the knee-jerk term “model minority myth” and replace it with the more accurate and honest terms “model minority racialization” and even “model minority identity.” Because the racialization is very real — but also, the people who show up for it, internalize and embrace it, they are flesh and blood and actually the ideological default among Asian Americans. Granted, what the stereotype describes is demographically untrue of many/most Asian Americans: we are not all well-off and well-educated doctors, lawyers or engineers. But as a set of guiding aspirations and ruling expectations, the model minority identity is how Asian immigrant communities see themselves, what they came here for and who they raise their children to be. It’s how we live and how we die. That’s as real as it gets.



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