How the “Model Minority” Myth Made Incarceration Harder for One Chinese Immigrant

Though they represent a smaller share of incarcerated people than other populations, the number of Asian and Pacific Islanders (APIs) in prison has nearly doubled over the past decade. Soros Justice Fellow and formerly incarcerated Chinese immigrant Eddy Zheng talks about raising awareness around the impact of criminalization on API communities.
Eddy Zheng
About This Image

Eddy Zheng is a 2015 Soros Justice Fellow.

Photo credit: Ethan Hill/Redux for the Open Society Foundations

Tried as an adult at the age of 16, you spent 21 years in prison. What did you face as an incarcerated immigrant youth?

Nothing prepared me for the challenges I faced as an immigrant youth in the American criminal justice system. When I was arrested, I did not speak nor understand much English. I did not know my rights. A translator was provided during my interrogation, but I didn’t understand any of the legal jargon when it was translated.

My family didn’t have the resources to hire an attorney, so the court appointed one for me. Not comprehending the language or the consequences, I pled guilty and ended up with a life sentence with the possibility of parole. Once inside the system, as an API, I was segregated and categorized as an “other”—a fitting description for a population that is so often overlooked.

My court-appointed attorney did not inform me that I was very likely to be deported after I served my time because I was not a U.S. citizen. So, after I served 19 years in state prison, I was detained by the Department of Homeland Security. I spent two years in federal custody fighting my case and was ordered deported. Years later, I am still in jeopardy of being separated from my family and livelihood.

Tell us about the moment that moved you to advocacy.

There was no single moment. It was a culmination of moments and learning from the history of the civil rights movement, and the injustices done to the indigenous people, people of color, immigrants, and those brave souls who died doing the right thing in the name of love and justice.

We hear a lot about the school-to-prison pipeline. Is there an immigrant-to-prison pipeline?

As immigrants and refugees settle in the U.S., some are fortunate to find nurturing environments where they can become successful, while others are fast-tracked into the immigration-to-school-to-prison-and-deportation pipeline. With their displacement trauma still fresh, many API immigrants face isolation in poverty-stricken and violent environments. The three common challenges they encounter are language barriers, cultural differences, and generation gaps. As a result, many of them are criminalized and experience discrimination in the workplace and school.

Many immigrant children find schools to be hostile environments without proper resources. Those children are vulnerable to participating in activities that lead to the prison system. After prison time is served, anyone who is not a citizen of the U.S. can be detained and deported. These multiple layers of traumatic experiences are undeniably a crucial factor that creates and feeds into the reality of the immigration-to-school-to-prison-and-deportation pipeline.  

How does the myth of the API “model minority” play out in the national debate over criminalization and mass incarceration?

When I was in prison, my parents never told anyone due to shame, so I had no relationship with any of my relatives. My grandparents died without ever knowing that I was in prison. My experience is common for many APIs due to a fear of “losing face.” It is that fear that keeps the API community from engaging in the national debate over criminalization and mass incarceration.

There are APIs who do not want to talk about anything “bad” that happened in their households or communities, who want to maintain the myth that all APIs are hardworking, successful, and without issues. This mindset prevents APIs from receiving the necessary support and resources we need to address issues in our community.

What do you hope to accomplish by the end of your project, and what do you see yourself doing in the next five to ten years?

By advocating, educating, and organizing, I will dispel the API model minority myth and expose the immigration-to-school-to-prison-and-deportation pipeline by creating a national network of API organizations that are working on ending criminalization, incarceration, and deportation. This network will also highlight the importance of restoring civil and human rights for all formerly and currently incarcerated people. In the next five to ten years, through movement building, we will support investment in education and efforts to end the cycle of trauma and incarceration for all people. 

Learn More:



Wow, Eddy thank you so much for your work and for sharing your perspective. I completely agree; in the Chinese community even getting a divorce is deeply shameful so incarceration has to be so much more so. Best wishes to you in mobilizing the API community on incarceration issues -- very important work.

Eddy speaks for the voiceless and addresses the myth that hurts all Asian Pacific Islanders. It is something rarely discussed, but needs to be heard. Thank you.

Asian American & Pacific Islander month supporters need to be honest here. When you look at educational achievement, socioeconomic disparities, teen pregnancy, mass incarceration, suicide, continued colonial occupation, denial of voting rights, etc, the differences between the two groups are huge. But lumping Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in one group? All those issues that need to be addressed disappear and it doesn't look like there's a problem. Pacific Islanders drown in an exponentially larger group and our voices go unheard.

Honestly, how many of you know Micronesians crossed the Pacific in 3000BCE - almost 5000 years before Magellan? That the word tattoo is actually derived from a Tahitian word? That ocean navigation was accomplished through astronomical charting when many present "civilized" societies still thought the earth was flat?

Don't feel bad if you don't, but when Pacific Islander culture is reduced to plastic hula dolls, lost land and resources, and hardly anyone knows you're alive as a group, you would have a very different perspective on this lazy brand of cultural hijacking.

Tell the White House AAPI front to take the next step and recognize AA and PI as two different groups. Hell, even the Census Bureau gets it.

#Polynesian #Micronesian #Melanesian

When someone insists Asian and Pacific Islander belong in the same category, I'm inclined to share this accurate piece on why people need to stop doing this.

"The problematic terms “Asian-Pacific American” (APA) and “Asian Pacific Islander” (API) not only offer no recognition that Pacific Islanders already constitute a pan-ethnic group that is distinct from Asian Americans, they also efface Pacific political claims based on indigeneity. For example, indigenous Pacific Islanders who have ties to islands that were forcibly incorporated into the United States (Hawai`i, Guam, American Samoa) have outstanding sovereignty and land claims, based on international principles of self-determination, which get erased by the categorization with Asians. Hence the frameworks for understanding the ills affecting Pacific peoples and their political claims are shaped by imperialism and settler colonialism, not simply civil rights."

Thanks for your work Eddy!

We all belong to one world, boarders were set to separate us for selfish interests and greed of some who wanted to rule others. Movement of people can not be stopped by immigration laws. I believe there is a cause for every effect. Let all the world leaders and policy maker and law enforcers think of the causes more than the effects. The world will be a safe place for all people to live without boarders.

This looks like a great initiative, as shame and fear are two forces which cause untold damage to many lives, irrespective of culture or ethnicity. Being able to recognise our true feelings and to talk about them, without fear of what others think, can change things. Best wishes in this important and brave work.

Wow! Terrific article, thank you Eddy! The level of incarceration, especially in California, has damaged many lifes. Many cases are a result of biases and corruption, a very clear example of which is still presiding J.Stephen Czuleger of the Los Angeles Superior Court. Intelligent and shrewed as was Adolf Hitler, Czuleger, during 1990s, had 100% of criminal calendar, and he adored giving long sentences to drug offenders, many for so-called "attempted conspiracy to posses, transport, import, etc. controlled substances." With NO evidence of any crime, except fabricated "circumstantial evidence," for corrupt prosecutors and police officers it was the easiest way to obtain drug convictions. At the same time, Czuleger gave very lenient and suspended sentences to his fellow crooks: the art museum administrator turned thief and others, cases of whom could be googled thru Czuleger's name. Mr. Ovando, however, had not had it easy: after being shot and paralyzed by the corrupt Rampart police dept officer, Mr. Ovando appeared before Czuleger in a wheelchair. Czuleger mentioned "no remorse" before giving the innocent man 23-year sentence. Only after the corruption was discovered, Mr. Ovando was freed. Many more individuals, families and communities had suffered brutal subjugation, abuses and deaths due to Czuleger's decision making.
The very well thought above post by Elisha also applies to equality of justice under the law, without brutality of biased judgments and phony convictions that carry lifelong records, destroying many lives. Keep your important work going, Eddy, for those victims who were not able to speak. Thank you!

Thank you Eddy! Thank you for dispelling this myth and for informing public and authorities about the difficulties which foreign national prisoners face.

My aim is bring change to the world,to advocate for Justice,to fight for the of those who can raise their voices for themselves,to protect the rights of immigrants,refugees children to get access to education and health.

You are guilty of some truly heinous acts... You robbed a family at gun point, stripped a woman of her clothes, tied up children... You were caught in the act. The American system was generous in not having you hanged, which is what you deserved. America gave you a chance and you are no longer welcome. Please accept this and make amends by going back to China and starting a new life there.

Thanks for such a well narrated situation of offenders behind bars.

Honestly u have come to realise that in every community, inmates and ex inmates are facing torrentious time from cultures and negative perception of the prison.

Though young, and from a southern African country zimbabwe, I am much into prison ministry. I have learnt how abuse can change a heart into the most violent man.

With people like you eddy in our communities we can make this world a better place for ex offenders.

Add your voice