Achievement Anxiety, The Model Minority, and Raving Asians: On Substance (Ab)use and Asian American Identity


Stories of marijuana legalization, e-cigarette bans, and DUI accidents proliferate throughout media, from newspapers to newsfeeds: and it has always been this way for decades. You hear about drugs in school, in church, and in pop music. It’s undeniable that drugs and institutional forces surrounding them play a large role in individual and national psyches.

I wish to investigate a very specific subset of the discussion of drugs, one often overlooked: What is the relationship between Asian-American identity and the use of drugs?

As most prominently shown in a recent surveys of Asian-Americans in the dance club/rave scene, the model minority myth serves as counterpoint to various viewpoints regarding drug use among Asian-Americans pertaining to cultural pressures and psychological health, institutional barriers in public policy, and identity creation.

Institutional Myths and Cultural Barriers to Treatment

The “model minority” stereotype depicts Asian-Americans as intelligent, non-confrontational, and upstanding students and workers who achieve social status through merit. The 1966 New York Times article “Success Story: Japanese-American Style” introduced the term to American discourse, praising Japanese-Americans for having strong family values and a resilient work ethic. Similar articles about Chinese-Americans followed suit. According to this positive image, Asian-Americans’ good values prevent them from being a “problem minority,” i.e, committing crime and using drugs.

Statistics confirm that Asian Americans have very low rates of arrest and have the lowest rates of drug use; however, do these figures also confirm them as the “model minority”? I believe the argument is reductive.

Though statistics are unavailable, it is believed that the rising use of “study drugs” such as Adderall in university settings is specifically on the rise for Asian American students. This is attributed to the academic pressures prescribed by social narratives and Asian American families.

Students are in a double bind: either they fulfill the stereotypical image of achievement and are burdened with the anxiety to continue performing well, or they fall short and feel the effects of parental and social disappointment. Psychological research confirms that the model minority stereotype harms the psychological wellbeing of Asian Americans. The cultural expectation can lead to social isolation, anxiety, and depression. If Asian parents are stressors rather than supporters of their children, Asian Americans may find drug use a method to cope with the pressures placed upon them.

In their article “Asian-Americans, Addictions, and Barriers to Treatment” by Dr. Timothy Fong and Dr. John Tsuang from the Los Angeles School of Medicine, they write that “AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islanders) may be less likely to ask for help” and are “are greatly underrepresented in addictions treatment,” due to social shame and stigma. While shame is a barrier for any ethnicity to ask for mental health assistance, it is magnified in the case of Asian Americans, whose “traditional response to crises is either denial or attempting to handle problems within the family itself.”

For fear of “losing face,” Asian Americans suppress addictive disorders, seeing them as “a medical problem, a sign of weakness, or a lack of willpower over Western temptations.” This response is often accentuated from past experiences in native countries, “whereupon such treatments are often equated with incarceration, banishment, or long-term institutionalization.” Thus, due in part to specific cultural modes of thinking, Asian Americans are far less likely to utilize substance abuse and mental health care, resulting in the underreporting of data on Asian American drug abuse.

In fact, the drug use among AAPI and mixed-race individuals was not subject to any studies prior to 2013. In past research regarding race and substance use, AAPI and mixed-race individuals were often omitted, or placed into the category of “other.” One can read the lack of research on Asian Americans as a byproduct itself of the model minority myth, which becomes self-fulfilling on an institutional level: If Asian Americans are not a “problem minority,” then there is little need to report on their drug use or devise culturally-specific mental health treatment for them.

Asian American Identity in the Dance-Scene 

Now, from institutional to subjective perspectives: how do Asian-Americans understand their own drug use?

In their study “’How Asian am I?’ Asian American Youth Cultures, Drug Use, and Ethnic Identity Construction,” Hunt, Maloney, and Evans interview 100 young people in the dance club and rave subculture who are consumers of various drugs including: alcohol, marijuana, ecstasy, and “club drugs” such as cocaine and LSD. The researchers investigated the connection between drug use and its role in shaping and constructing first and second generation immigrants’ ethnic identity from a personal standpoint. Seeing that there is no unified answer to Asian American identity and drug involvement, they sorted these narratives into three general categories.

1. Narratives of Disjuncture. These respondents describe their drug use as deviating from “typical” Asian Americans, as a result perhaps of increased assimilation and acculturation with American culture. They juxtapose themselves against their understanding of other Asians as “model minorities” and don’t consume drugs, which may be a source of anxiety or shame if seen as a “losing [of] one’s Filipino or Asian culture.”

Yet, this deviation may also be seen positively, as a source of pride for defying stereotypes. Whether positive or negative, these individuals employ different strategies to deflect stigma and criticism. For example, they may keep their drug use and party going activities secret from their ethnic group and experience “leading a double life,” or disidentify from other Asian Americans and associate with other racial groups. This result is a result of the idea that it is “not an Asian thing to do” to use drugs or go to clubs.

2. Asian American Hybridity. Rather than seeing their drug use in opposition to Asian American identity, respondents in this group see their participation in dance scenes as connected to “being both Asian and American and having an identity that transcends and/or fuses the two.” Many Asian Americans note the “in between status” as being neither fully Asian nor fully American.

Dance and drug use are ways for these individuals to find “balance and grounded identity” between cultural pulls from East and West.  Torn between the Asian emphases on family and academic achievement and American values of individualism and personal expression, one interviewee saw her partying and “rebellions as intrinsic to the experiences of young Asian Americans.” Other respondents viewed their activities as a form of “self-medicating,” a release from the pressures of achievement and satisfying the “need to reconcile conflicting expectations of multiple culture or achieving balance in their lives.” For these individuals, the use of drugs is a natural outgrowth of their unique ethnic identities.

3. Narratives of Normalization. For these respondents, ethnic identity had no remarkable connection with their dance-scene involvement. “Neither drug use, nor being Asian and American, nor being an Asian American drug user are seen as unusual, deviant or problematic,” but simply part of everyday life. These individuals conceptualize their drug use “as only one of many different commodities marking out the style of an individual.”

These styles range from “FOB” (“fresh off the boat,” a mocking term for recent immigrants) to “Twinkies” (or “Americanized Asians”) “gangsters,” and “square Asians” (who don’t consume drugs or dance). For these individuals, other “types” of Asian Americans are the basis against which they construct their own identities. The question for these respondents “is not so much whether” they would use drugs as Asian Americans, “but how.” At this point in our discussion, we have reached the deep end in ethnic culture, whereupon institutional narratives about drugs as a response to acculturation are divorced from the social settings of these youth cultures.

Drug use and treatment among Asian Americans have multiple, complex relationships with dominant stereotypes, institutional policies, cultural attitudes, and personal interpretations surrounding the treatment and use of drugs. As an ethnic group, Asian Americans are a diverse set of individuals facing different economic and sociocultural problems. Understanding the unique experiences and identities of Asian Americans in relation to dominant institutions and narratives is critical for policymakers or individuals to deal with the issues surrounding drug use and abuse. Further, it is also important for young Asian Americans to consider their own drug use and behavior within the culture their own individual surroundings. Rather than using drugs as merely an escapist tool, such contemplation may be useful for individuals looking to understand themselves.

Originally published at The Wang Post

1 thought on “Achievement Anxiety, The Model Minority, and Raving Asians: On Substance (Ab)use and Asian American Identity

  1. Pingback: New Advent | Mind The Gapless

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