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Storytelling conference aims at ‘model minority’ stereotype binding Asian students

Students attend a lecture during API College Day in March 2019. Sac State on Feb. 4 will host a storytelling conference aimed at dispelling the "model minority myth" often assigned to Asian Pacific Islander Desi American students. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

When Maanvee Mehrotra moved to the United States from India to attend college, she noticed that many people assumed things about her based on her cultural background.

Her family must be rich. She has to be a whiz at calculus. Academics probably come easy to her.

“In class, people try to cheat off of me because they assume I’ll do great because I am Indian,” she said. “But I have never wanted to put myself in a bracket or a box.”

Such notions feed into the “model minority” stereotype a virtual conference hosted Friday by Sacramento State will address. The conference, “To Be Seen Is to Be Heard,” will present personal storytelling designed to promote understanding of Asian Pacific Islander Desi American students and the unique pressures they face.

Litia Tokalautawa, who is from Fiji, knows those pressures. She felt like she carried the burden of her extended family and her island country when her family came to the United States.

“I had all of these dreams in my heart, but they were delayed because I had to work and help put food on the table for my family,” Tokalautawa said. She joined the U.S. military, in part, to pave the way for her family to settle in their new country, and like Mehrotra, now pursues a degree at Sac State.

Litia Tokalautawa portrait
Litia Tokalautawa, a Sac State student from Fiji, is among individuals who will share their stories during the "To Be Seen Is to Be Heard" conference. (Photo courtesy Litia Tokalautawa)

Friday’s event will focus on the hackneyed “model minority myth” holding that all Asians are polite, nerdy geniuses who are more successful than non-Asians because of innate talents and extraordinary determination.

Such stereotypes assume that all Asians have the same opportunities, experiences, affinities, and talents, even though the backgrounds and experiences among ethnic groups can be quite different.

Studies show, for example, that certain Asian ethnic groups, particularly those from parts of East and South Asia, succeed academically at comparatively high rates. Other groups, however, such as Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander students, face greater financial and cultural barriers that present academic challenges.

Storytelling during the conference will address the issue in a personal way, said Chao Vang of Sac State’s Student Academic Success and Educational Equity Programs, a conference sponsor.

“The purpose of this event is to provide Asian Pacific Desi students a safe and inclusive platform centered on their unique cultural and communal experiences as a remedy to the model minority myth,” Vang said. The storytelling “allows students to be seen, and to feel a sense of belonging at the University.”

Sacramento City Councilwoman Mai Vang will deliver opening remarks at the event, which also will bring together experts to discuss strategies to counteract stereotypes.

Mehrotra and Tokalautawa both said they welcomed the chance to tell their stories.

Mehrotra, a Business major focusing on analytics, said she knew attending college in the U.S. would “give me freedom and independence,” but she underestimated the difficulties of navigating life and education in a new country.

“I didn’t know anyone who went to high school here, so I felt lost at first,” she said. “I didn’t know who to trust. I used to cry every day.” Taking part in campus events and clubs helped her gain comfort.

“People think, ‘Oh, you’re Indian. You’ll do fine,’” she said. “But they don’t know what’s going on in that person’s life. I want to help people understand that we are all unique, and we all struggle.”

For Tokalautawa, a Communications major and a mother of three, sharing her challenges and accomplishments “is a powerful thing,” she said. “I’m standing up in solidarity with others as we build a community, graduate from college and become successful.”

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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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