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The model-minority myth as asset bubble


At Public Books, Joseph Jonghyun Jeon, a professor of English and Asian American Studies at Pomona College in California, reviews the novel Shelter by Jung Yun. The book tells the story of an Asian American family that strives desperately to embody the “model-minority” stereotype, only to end up succumbing to another characteristically American experience: unpayable debt and forceclosure. As Jeon pointedly asks in his review, “What does it mean that the meteoric rise of Asian American literature from the 1970s to the present coincides almost precisely with the explosion of the US consumer-debt economy?” Read an excerpt of the review below, or the full text here.

Shelter tells the story of Kyung, a middle-aged Korean American man married to a working-class, Irish American woman named Gillian, with whom he has a young son. Kyung’s father, Jin, is an unusually wealthy university professor, who came to the United States as part of the white-collar Asian immigration boom facilitated by the 1965 US Immigration Act.4 Hidden behind the facade of a showpiece home in a prestigious Boston suburb is Jin’s abuse of his wife throughout Kyung’s childhood and adolescence, the memory of which haunts the adult Kyung’s daily life. Adding to the trauma, his mother, Mae, took out her frustrations on Kyung as a child, until the day that Kyung, old enough to be credible, threatened to kill his father if he ever hurt Mae again, temporarily halting the family’s violent cycle.

The novel’s action begins years after this uneasy truce. As their real estate agent appraises Kyung and Gillian’s house, which is saddled with an underwater mortgage that is forcing them into hoping for a possible short sale, she notices Kyung’s mother emerging naked and injured from the woods beyond the yard. She has been the victim of a home invasion in which she and the couple’s maid, Marina, were raped and assaulted, while the intruders plotted to extract as much money as possible from Jin.

Recovering from their wounds, Jin, Mae, and Marina move in with Kyung and his family, but the reunion recycles—rather than repairs—Kyung’s childhood trauma. Already constitutionally aloof and further disengaged from family life under the pressures of mounting debt, Kyung fails to reconcile himself with his parents’ abusive history, and eventually causes the dissolution of his own family with a series of reckless, alcohol-fueled acts that cause his life to unravel even more.

Although it conjures familiar paradigms—as found in, for example, Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life (1999) and Sophie Kinsella’s The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic (2000)—one of Shelter’s more provocative features is to align immigrant trauma stories with contemporary debt narratives. If trauma repeats the past, debt makes for a present haunted by the future. In turn, the novel employs this synthesis in order to complicate the myth of Asian Americans as a “model minority,” suggesting that the appearance of affluence may depend on both psychic and financial forms of specious credit.

Image via Public Books.