The Model Minority Starter Kit: Classical Music

First CMU recital- ended in tears and ice-cream.

Waking up at 7AM and chewing on a bagel on the way to Carnegie Mellon was a Saturday ritual. Practicing the piano was just as much a part of my childhood as was watching Disney movies and Saturday cartoons. The quintessential middle-class Asian American experience filled with lessons and recitals, while its nearly foolproof formula is definitely humorous and sometimes laughable, stands for more than just a trope. It is a snapshot of the model minority ideology at work. Unlike studying to become a doctor or lawyer however, being well-read in classical music does not have the same financial promises. Asian Americans in classical music captures an interesting case in which the model minority ideology, though still an effect of the larger hegemonic system, works internally as a class differentiator. Yoshihara addresses the question of how such a commercially unreliable field is so popular among a group of people whose main survival mechanism in America is to gain financial stability, and Chua provides an example of classical music as a measure of class identification within Asian Americans. The use of classical music within the model minority ideology as a method of survival and as a method beyond survival reveals the core of fierce competition and the ceiling of success; there are limited open spots due to racialized material distribution and classical music offers a means of differentiation.

In analyzing the overarching trend of Asian Americans being raised with classical music and instruments, there is an underlying assumption that there must be a capital incentive. Though this might sound overgeneralizing and insulting to those who have studied classical music, and rightfully so, it makes sense in the case of being children of immigrants; everything is an investment, and with investment comes the expectation of return. As Yoshihara suggests, “Asians’ success in this field is often to exemplify their assimilation into Euroamerican culture…[becoming] part of the model minority” (3). The investment of car rides to lessons, hours at practice, and money to private tutors seem in vain when considering most Asian American children do not end up going into classical music professionally; it is the cultural capital gained rather than the financial return that seems to drive these investments early on. The model minority, those who “rise in the existing social structure through hard work and attain success in Western culture without posing a direct challenge to the economic and political status quo” (4), relies on the assumption that all Asian Americans prioritize financial advancement. It is revealing of the larger hegemonic system Asian Americans are inherently a part of, with the model minority ideology as a heuristic for this method of survival in a system where material distribution is racialized. Classical music is a tangible piece of cultural capital that facilitates socioeconomic progression- an investment deemed worthy by countless Asian American parents.

So then, what about Asian Americans in classical music who are neither the children immigrants nor in need of “survival”? Classical music, as an asset of cultural capital and the model minority ideology, can be used as a class differentiator within the Asian American population. Classical music as a differentiator closely aligns with the notion of class identity because this differentiation is internalized more than externalized. Amy Chua’s scene of Lulu’s audition reveals this process of internalizing class identity using classical music as a measurement of differentiation. Despite being in the same place of achievement for their children’s audition, Chua distinguishes herself from the “other parents” who were “[all] foreigners or immigrants” who use classical music as a “ticket” (142). She distinguishes herself from the need of survival. In this scene, Chua accredits her place of achievement to love and passion and assumes a robotic necessity from the others; she projects an assumption of labor on their part, as opposed to her leisure. In a way, this scene exudes the sentiment of ‘othering the other,’ self-proclaiming what true assimilation looks like. Claiming herself not “strong enough for that,” Chua follows a privileged statement with an unconvincing attempt at self-awareness. Zooming out from this scene, however, the competition for the limited seats at the table of hegemony is not class sensitive. Even Chua’s class differentiation from the immigrant families is a method of survival and falls within the model minority schematic. This self-positioning of class emphasizes the model minority ideology as an intersection of race and class; it forces an internalization of the racialized ‘ceiling’ and the acknowledgement of the hierarchy.

As shown by Yoshihara and Chua, there are different and complex reasons behind the trend of Asian Americans growing up with classical music. It would be an oversimplification to fail to acknowledge those who choose to learn classical music, but the assumption that these are rare cases both furthers and supports the widespread nature of the model minority race to survival. Using classical music as a tool for cultural capital and navigation of class identity truly fits snug in the model minority ideology of survival. Perhaps, therein lies the passion and heart that listeners too often overlook.


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