Can Asian Teen Narratives Get Beyond Tiger Parents and Rebellious Kids?


Book cover for Paula Yoo's "Good Enough"

By Sayantani DasGupta

I recently finished Paula Yoo’s charming Good Enough, a novel about a Korean American teen violinist whose life of SAT prep tests, HarvardYalePrinceton applications, All-State violin rehearsals, and Korean church youth group is disrupted by the arrival of a Cute Trumpet Guy in her life. Written in an endearing, witty voice and filled with hilarious lists like “Top Ten Koreans and Korean American who could kick [somebody’s] Butt” and “Top Ten Ways How Not to be a PKD (Perfect Korean Daughter)” as well as recipes for Korean Style Spam, the novel is smart, amusing, and ultimately endearing – speaking to an experience of immigrant daughter-hood not so dissimilar from my own Indian American upbringing.

Yet, I admit I was pretty leery when I picked up Yoo’s novel at first, worried that this would be yet another story about stereotypical Asian tiger parents a la Amy Chua’s controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which caused uproar (and yet, amazing book sales) in mainstream American and Asian American communities alike. This is not to say that the “Asian American child rebels against restrictive parents, finds ‘freedom’ through (forbidden) white love interest” isn’t a real narrative – but in some ways, it’s become the narrative expected of Asian American stories. Consider Sandra Oh’s film Double Happiness, in which her hard working Asian parents don’t understand their daughter’s wish to become an actress, or even the Asian male character Mike (known as ‘the other Asian’ hmmm) on Glee, whose “gift” of singing and dancing is being thwarted by his overbearing parents. Now, even if you can get beyond the all Asians are alike trope, isn’t anyone bored yet by bashing Asian immigrant parents for supposedly ‘anti-arts’ stances? Or *shriek*, recognizing that since Asian immigrants probably don’t have, say, trust funds, family businesses, or connections in the arts industry or other such leg-ups that non-immigrant families may give their children, perhaps they want to make sure their children have jobs with which to, say, pay their rent or buy groceries? And where did that Tina get off lecturing Mike’s dad so disrespectfully? Ok, I digress.

It is critical that there are spaces created to tell stories about immigrant communities – where we share our lives with one another and the world, and can finally see ourselves represented in literature, TV, and film. Yet, the problem of telling/publishing only one sort of narrative is that which Chimamanda Adichie has described – vis a vis African stories – as the danger of the singular story. About Asian American communities, our singular story has long been the ‘model minority myth’ represented by this TIME cover from the 80’s:

"Those Asian-American Whiz Kids" TIME, 1987

Good Enough is a lovely novel, which in many ways tells a familiar tale – of familial pressure and Asian immigrant expectations. But it also disrupts this singular cultural story in some lovely, subtle ways that I will leave you to read about yourself. As Paula Yoo herself says on her blog, regarding the above horrific photo (that I too remember from my teen years!):

I’m depressed that even in 2011, we are STILL experiencing this sort of ridiculous racial discrimination. The whole point of my novel GOOD ENOUGH was to poke fun at the Asian American “Model Minority Myth” … but also to use humor as a way of examining the more serious issues of discrimination. (Pictured above is an infamous TIME Magazine cover story on “Those Asian American Whiz Kids” that horrified me as a teenager back in the mid ’80s. Gah!)

All of which leave me to wonder – how do the stories ‘expected’ from Asian American storytellers influence the publishing industry?  How do we make sure that a diversity of stories get told?

Originally posted on Sayantani’s blog, Stories Are Good Medicine, on January 1, 2012. Crossposted with permission.

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  1. […] two older ones. The first is the hackneyed model-minority myth, as exemplified by that Gawd-awful Time Magazine cover from the 1980’s on “Those Asian American Whiz Kids”–good at math, but noncreative, […]