- Refusing the Will to Health:Neoliberal Wellness Culture and Asian American Literature
The 1966 article "Success Story of One Minority Group" published by U.S. News and World Report (along with the contemporaneous New York Times Magazine piece "Success Story, Japanese American Style" by William Petersen) launched the construction of Asian Americans as the model minority, which continues to be one of the dominant and most prevalent narratives about Asian Americans today. These articles emphasize the remarkable socioeconomic success and upward mobility this group has managed to achieve despite the long history of anti-Asian exclusion and discrimination in the United States. Scholars have called attention to how Asian American model minority discourse has been used to discipline other racial minorities and counter intensifying demands for redistributive justice, as evidenced by the opening passages of the U. S. News and World Report article: "Still being taught in Chinatown is the old idea that people should depend on their own efforts—not a welfare check—in order to reach America's 'promised land.' . . . At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift Negroes and other minorities, the nation's 300,000 Chinese-Americans are moving ahead on their own—with no help from anyone else" (6). [End Page 303] The emphasis on self-reliance and personal responsibility invites a critical reframing of the Asian American model minority as an expression of neoliberal ideologies and trends.1 It is no coincidence that Asian Americans have been increasingly racialized in terms of productivity, market-driven instrumentality, and competition. Although these characteristics were negatively inflected by yellow peril rhetoric through the early 1990s, they are now generally valorized under neoliberalism and work to sanction a minimal welfare state and the global restructuring of capitalism (Jun 131).
This essay examines the rise of the Asian American model minority in relation to US neoliberalism to show how this racial discourse simultaneously relies on and promotes an ableist model of personhood that emphasizes independence, self-regulation, and self-entrepreneurship. Irvin Lum, an official at the San Francisco Federal Savings and Loan Community House interviewed in the U.S. News and World Report article, describes the Chinese American community as follows: "We're a people of ability, adaptable and easy to satisfy in material wants" (7). Although this statement points to how Asian Americans have internalized and actively aspire to fulfill their model minority role, the specific qualities that Lum highlights—ability and adaptability—invite further investigation of how Asian-ness has been historically and increasingly articulated in relation to able-bodiedness. The Asian body has been constructed as an exemplar of productivity and efficiency, as putatively less sensitive to pain, capable of subsisting on a meager rice (as opposed to meat) diet, and more physically suited for the repetitive tasks and stresses of industrial capitalism.2 James Kyung-Jin Lee notes how the overrepresentation of Asian Americans in US medical schools promotes the assumption that "Asian American bodies do not fall ill but instead are the paragons of making ill and disabled bodies better, the socially perfect lifting up the socially wounded" (456). Lee points out the proliferation of memoirs by Asian American physicians and health care practitioners that affirm the model minority trajectory—that of the young Asian American medical student who [End Page 304] toils away, pushing mental and physical limits to memorize difficult terminology, learn intricate procedures, and work through sleep deprivation (456).3 This narrative underscores the heroism of the model minority subject, who overcomes the obstacles of medical school and achieves socioeconomic success, and the inherent heroism of medical practitioners. The nonfictional works of prominent neurosurgeon and CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta spectacularly promotes this vision, as evidenced by titles such as Chasing Life: New Discoveries in the Search for Immortality to Help You Age Less Today and Cheating Death: The Doctors and Medical Miracles that Are Saving Lives Against All Odds (Lee 457).
This stereotype of Asian Americans as the so-called healthy minority finds its counterpart in yellow peril discourses that construct Asians as carriers of contagious diseases and a "threat to the health and civilization of white...