“Who knows what the ‘Model Minority Myth’ actually is?” guest speaker Tiffany Chang Lawson asked DLA Distribution employees during a late May Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Program. “You can probably guess, based on the meaning of the individual words, but it’s the perception that Asians are a ‘model minority;’ that they are more successful than other minorities. And I’m here to tell you it is engineered; it’s not true.”
Lawson then described her own history as a child of Asian immigrants to reinforce her point that all immigrants, no matter their ethnicity, can struggle for inclusion into a society that prides itself on diversity.
Despite a career as executive director of Pa. Governor Tom Wolf’s Advisory Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, the road to success was not clear for Lawson. She recounted how her maternal grandfather was fighting in China’s Civil War in 1949 when he met her maternal grandmother in a photography shop in Beijing. However, when Mao Zedong proclaimed Beijing the People's Republic of China, together they retreated to Taiwan. There, they had six children, including Lawson’s mother.
At the age of 25, her mother married her father, and he then emigrated to the U.S. to pursue a Master’s degree at the University of Utah for a better chance at success. Her mother followed one year later, hoping to further her own education, but was forced to forgo that dream to support her father, who was struggling financially. To support him, she waitressed in a Chinese buffet and waited patiently for him to complete a second Master’s at Texas A&M.
Things seemed to improve when her father was offered a job in Pittsburgh and they relocated to the city for a fresh start. However, what followed was seven years of domestic violence that Lawson says “forever altered the trajectory of our lives.”
In 1988, Lawson’s mother was thrown onto the streets of Pittsburgh by her father, penniless and unable to speak English. After sleeping on park benches for three months, she was accepted into a shelter where she discovered she was pregnant with Lawson. Her parents reconciled briefly, but after the birth Lawson’s mother realized she could not allow her daughter to grow up in a home surrounded by domestic violence. It was then that she left for good, taking her daughter with her into an unknown future.
At that time, her mother had no legal documentation, no family, and no way to communicate her needs with English speakers, which were the majority of people surrounding her. Lawson says she now realizes the true impact of her mother’s decision. “We lived in Section 8 housing, survived on food stamps and we didn’t even own a car until 1995 when someone dropped one off at our house on Christmas Day!”
When she was eight years old, Lawson was accepted to the Milton Hershey School, a free, private school and home for children from lower income families. She says the school saved her life. She traveled abroad and learned and honed skills that redirected her future.
However, she says one of the biggest things she learned as she grew was that despite being born an American she felt like a perpetual foreigner. “Asian Americans are the fastest growing immigrant minority in the U.S., yet language access is a huge issue. Both the Federal and State governments need to be made aware of the needs and concerns of this community.”
Bringing an awareness of the needs of the more than 435,000 Pennsylvanians who trace their roots back to Asia and the Pacific Islands is what Lawson strives to do in her position as executive director to the Governor’s Advisory Commission.
But her ultimate goal, she says, is to eliminate the need for commissions representing minorities. “We are a nation of immigrants. That is our fundamental truth. We are the strongest when we bring everyone to the table. It’s incredibly important to allow people to tell their stories. The more we subscribe to this idea that America is only for one type of people, the more dangerous we become.”