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  • Negotiating Asian American Childhood in the Twenty-First Century:Grace Lin’s Year of the Dog, Year of the Rat, and Dumpling Days
  • Susan Thananopavarn (bio)

The idea of the “model minority” continues to haunt mainstream perceptions of Asian Americans in the United States. As Asian American theorists have observed, this stereotype is primarily one of containment: it describes qualities of docility and acceptance of American cultural norms and of minority status within American society. Yet it is also an indicator of national anxieties about what Lisa Lowe calls the “unfixed liminality of the Asian immigrant—geographically, linguistically, and racially at odds with the context of the ‘national’” (19). Like the older idea of the “yellow peril,” the model minority speaks to the fears that dominant society has constructed around a supposedly inassimilable other. For Asian Americans, often viewed within the United States as perpetual foreigners, these fears are tied not only to the civil rights demands of other minority groups within the United States, but also to U.S. economic anxieties with respect to Asia.1

In the twenty-first century, the myth of the model minority is increasingly embodied by the figure of the Asian American child, who has become a focal point for U.S. concerns about the emerging dominance of Asia (particularly China) in the global economy. News outlets frequently compare children’s test scores in Asia and the United States as indicators of the regions’ economic futures, and the anxiety created by these comparisons is reflected in popular considerations of Asian American children and whether or not they “out-perform” white children in school. Recent examples of this “Asian panic” include the media firestorm that followed the publication of Amy Chua’s memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011) and a 2011 viral YouTube rant by a white student at UCLA complaining about “hordes of Asian people” invading the campus. In the first case, a memoir and parenting guide claiming the superiority of “Chinese parenting” over [End Page 106] “Western parenting” sold over a million copies in its first few months of publication and unleashed a tremendous and polarized response across the United States. In the second, a racist YouTube clip denouncing the presence of Asians and Asian Americans on a university campus not only garnered more than a million hits worldwide (many of which, undoubtedly, were critical), but, as scholar Mitchell James Chang observes, was posted with the kind of impunity that suggests that “her opinions were not just abruptly contrived by a single student gone wild, but actually emerged from a broader educational context … whereby Asians are negatively racialized.” In both cases, Asian American children and students are portrayed in competition with white students in a zero-sum game for increasingly scarce U.S. jobs and resources. Their educational achievement is not only taken as a given, but is considered solely as a factor of race, rather than along with other categories such as class, education of parents, or geographic location within the United States. Such media portrayals reinforce previous stereotypes of Asian Americans as the yellow peril and the model minority, a threat by virtue of their (race-based) educational success.

Asian American children’s literature plays a vital role in addressing, mediating, and contesting dominant representations of Asian American children in popular culture. In their introduction to a special issue of The Lion and the Unicorn, Delores de Manuel and Rocío Davis describe the power of Asian American children’s literature to combat the invisibility of “real” Asian Americans in popular culture, an invisibility due in large part to their overshadowing by popular stereotypes. De Manuel and Davis mention the identical, inscrutable features of Asian characters in children’s classics like The Five Chinese Brothers, the nonsensical “Chinese” of Rikki Tikki Tembo, and the martial arts and Fu Manchu-type villains in movies like the Karate Kid franchise (viii). Recent Asian American children’s literature also contests the model minority myth and its manifestation within the figure of the Asian American child. In this essay, I address the ways in which Grace Lin’s semiautobiographical children’s novels The Year of the Dog (2007), The Year of the Rat...