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PAULA ZAHN NOW
Asian in America
Aired May 16, 2007 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everybody. Appreciate your joining us tonight.
As part of CNN's focus on Asian-Americans, we are devoting tonight's special hour to bringing the stereotypes about what many people call the model minority out in the open. Why are Asian- American students so often at the top of the class? Another stereotype we will explore, do Asians really believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness?
Plus, the pressure to conform -- Western standards of beauty drive some women to surgery to lose their Asian eyes.
By any number of measures, Asian-Americans are the most successful minority group in this country. On the face of it, that's a great thing. But, under the surface, it creates a lot of pressures, resentment, and backlash.
We are bringing all of that out in the open tonight.
Take a look at this. Even though Asian-Americans are only 5 percent of the population, they happen to be the best educated. Eighty-seven percent of adults have finished high school. Asian- American students score highest in college entrance exams. And Asian- Americans have the highest proportion of college graduates. Forty- nine percent have at least a bachelor's degree.
As a result, Asian-American households also have the highest medium income of any ethnic group, more than $57,000 a year.
We asked our Dan Lothian to look behind some of these impressive numbers.
DAN LOTHIAN, CNN BOSTON BUREAU CHIEF (voice-over): He's a senior at Dartmouth College, but 22-year-old Ran Dai felt the Ivy League pressure long before he was admitted.
(on camera): But do you find that, as -- as an Asian-American, that there were some pressures from your parents to -- to try to attain for the Ivy League?
RAN DAI, DARTMOUTH COLLEGE SENIOR: I would say so, yes, particularly since my parents were -- they immigrated here and they got their visas because of their own education. So...
LOTHIAN (voice-over): His Chinese-American parents' attitudes about education only got more intense when it came time for college.
(on camera): Not only did they want you to go to an Ivy League school, but they wanted you to go to...
LOTHIAN: ... to the Ivy-est of the Ivy League schools, right?
DAI: The Ivy-est of the Ivy. Well, UPenn is -- I forget to mention UPenn. UPenn is also acceptable. But...
LOTHIAN: That was acceptable?
DAI: That was acceptable.
LOTHIAN: What was the number-one school? Where...
DAI: Harvard. It was definitely Harvard.
LOTHIAN: So, Dai says, to keep the domestic peace, he filled out the application, wrote the essay, attached a check, and applied to Harvard. He didn't really want to go here. He was more interested in another Ivy League school, Dartmouth.
(voice-over): Dai wasn't accepted to Harvard, but Dartmouth rolled out the welcome mat. At first, he says, his parents weren't exactly thrilled.
DAI: Probably more of a prestige thing. They think -- and I think with good reason -- that coming out of, like, Harvard, you're just more likely be picked up by good employers. It -- it just gets you off to a better start.
LOTHIAN (on camera): You know, going to Dartmouth is a great thing, as I said to you.
DAI: I like -- I like it here.
LOTHIAN: Many parents, no matter what the race or ethnicity, dream of sending their children to Ivy League schools. But, among Asian-Americans, especially new immigrants, the pressure, many say, is especially intense, and sometimes goes to extremes.
(voice-over): Kyeyoung Park at UCLA's Asia Institute says, one time, she had a student in her class named Princeton.
KYEYOUNG PARK, UCLA ASIA INSTITUTE: I find it amusing. And I thought up, you know, why parents named his kid's name them after the university like Princeton. But I think that, on the other hand, this reflects other perhaps pressure and expectations from the communities. LOTHIAN: There's a high standard, because, while Asian-Americans make up about 5 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise about 20 percent of the student body at Ivy League schools.
A snapshot of Harvard University for the 2005 fall semester shows the undergraduate student body was 18 percent Asian. It's a proud achievement trumpeted by some local Asian papers. "The Korea Times" in Los Angeles runs feature stories to acknowledge the sacrifices parents made, moving to the U.S. with big Ivy League dreams.
And this Korean church in Los Angeles holds workshops for parents who want to get their children into Ivy League schools.
PARK: I think unfortunately, this will give enormous pressure to the kids and then also parents.
LOTHIAN: Back at Dartmouth...
(on camera): And you want to be a doctor?
(voice-over): ... Dai is getting ready for graduation, then the next step, medical school, and no doubt another round with his parents.
(on camera): For med school, are you going to go to Harvard?
DAI: If my -- if my mom gets her wish, yes.
LOTHIAN (voice-over): Dan Lothian, CNN, Boston.
ZAHN: So, the question that's out in the open now, is the incredible performance of so many Asian-American students in their genes or their upbringing?
We asked Dr. Sanjay Gupta to uncover the secrets of their success. And Sanjay focuses his answer on one amazing teenager's experience.
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For Jimmy Hom, studying cello at elite Juilliard Music School is just one part of a busy life.
JIMMY HOM, HIGH SCHOOL SENIOR: I have been playing since I was 4 years old. It helps you not only in the musical aspect, but in life as well. You learn how to deal with yourself. You learn how to deal with pressure.
GUPTA: Jimmy Hom is an 18-year-old genius who is editor in chief of his high school yearbook, has a perfect math score on his SATs, is a finalist in the Intel science talent search for a biology project he developed last summer at the Yale Medical School, has a perfect 4.0 grade point average as a high school senior.
J. HOM: Academics was pretty much, like, the number-one priority in my life. Throughout high school, like, homework and tests were always the first thing that I needed to take care of, before I did any other thing.
GUPTA: And, of course, Jimmy Hom will be starting at Harvard in the fall.
SOONA HOM, MOTHER OF JIMMY HOM: Where -- which college he go, he will be happy and he work good. That is important for us.
GUPTA: His mother immigrated from Korea, his father from China.
Jimmy was born here, and he's an example of many Asian-Americans. They consistently score higher on SATs and other achievement tests. One-fourth of all Asian-Americans have graduate degrees. That's 2.5 times the rate for Americans in general.
Some scientific evidence suggests that, yes, Asians might just be smarter by nature genetically, higher scores on I.Q. tests, larger cranium sizes, faster reaction time. There's even a study of Asian children adopted and raised by white parents which shows that they, too, have higher I.Q. scores.
But, at U.C. Davis, Dr. Stanley Sue disputes those studies.
DR. STANLEY SUE, PSYCHOLOGIST, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA DAVIS: They bring up all of these statistics, which appears to be substantial, but, if you really investigate the -- the implications, the -- the methodology, and the conclusions, I think the environmental explanation, nurture, really comes out on top.
GUPTA: Dr. Sue insists that nurture is stronger than nature, especially when there's an early emphasis on education.
J. HOM: Well, my parents always raised me with -- like -- like any other family, except that they really stressed the importance of education, I think, very early on. I would do, you know, different kinds of exercises and work. By the time I was in elementary school, you know, everything in elementary school was pretty much like review.
GUPTA: Sue explains, for many Asians, the cultural view of the ideal person is one who is well-educated, especially for immigrant parents wanting children to succeed.
SUE: Asians come to this country. They're a minority group, oftentimes unaware of the lifestyles, the cultural values in this country. How do you move ahead as an ethnic minority group? The Asians have found that education has really led to their success in becoming professionals.
GUPTA: So, they work longer and harder. And many Asian- Americans excel in their chosen fields.
J. HOM: It was never, you know, a matter of telling us how lucky we are to be in the United States, rather than, you know, some other country. But I think, in time, me and my sister and my brother, we all realized that.
GUPTA: Yes, Jimmy Hom has put a lot of pressure on himself to succeed. But he and his parents have made sure that he's well- prepared to handle it.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, reporting.
ZAHN: We have a special "Out in the Open" panel tonight, three of my CNN colleagues. Betty Nguyen anchors CNN's weekend "NEWSROOM." Richard Lui is an anchor on CNN Pipeline. And Alina Cho is a regular correspondent for CNN's "AMERICAN MORNING."
Good to have all of you with us tonight.
ZAHN: All right. So, the debate goes on. You have got some really smart doctors saying it must may be that you all are smarter genetically than the rest of us.
BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: I don't buy that.
ZAHN: And for just as many of those doctors, you hear other folks say they believe it's the nurturing of the family.
What do -- what do you think?
B. NGUYEN: Well, I definitely think nurturing is a key here, because it's stressed in the home that you need to do well. There's -- they will call it pressure, because that's what it is. I had pressure growing up to make sure that I did well in school. If I got a B, that wasn't good enough. If I got a...
ZAHN: Now, when did that start, like, if you got a B in what grade?
B. NGUYEN: Let me just tell you, when I was in third grade, I got my first B. And I was really upset, even in third grade. I cried. I burst out in tears. And my teacher had to call my Mormon because I was so upset about getting a B.
Throughout high school, if I got a 95, instead of 100, the question was, well, why didn't you get 100? Could you have gotten 105? Was there extra credit? Why didn't you get the most possible? And I think, you know, it's the pressure in the home, but it also builds a pressure inside, internally, so that you want to do well. You don't -- you want to do well not only to please yourself, but to please your family.
ZAHN: So, we have heard the powerful case being built for nurturing at home...
ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, and I agree.
ZAHN: ... and parents that prod and provide support at the same time. But what about the genes involved in all of this?
CHO: Well, I can't speak to that, but I can speak to the nurture aspect of it.
As Betty talked about, you know, the...
ZAHN: Well, you got the smart gene.
CHO: Well, I hope so, right?
CHO: We all hope so, Paula.
But it's not uncommon for Asian-American students to go to summer school, get private tutoring, SAT prep classes. I mean, there is tremendous pressure. I know, in my family, it was family first, education second. It's one of the best aspects, I think, of Asian- American culture. It's a double-edged sword, though. It's also one of the worst, because it can...
ZAHN: Well, it sounds like it can be -- be pretty brutal.
CHO: It can be brutal. There can be pressure.
I mean, I applied to 18 colleges when I was 17, 18 years old. There was one day when I received a couple of thin envelopes, a couple of rejection letters. It was not a good day in the Cho household.
ZAHN: Well, who was devastated more, you or your parents?
CHO: Well, it's hard to say. You know, I was upset. I was upset. I think my parents were a little upset. I think they got over it, though. I hope they did.
ZAHN: Well, that's the question you have got to ask. Is -- is the pressure too much to bear?
RICHARD LUI, CNN PIPELINE ANCHOR: You know, I think it's generational, also, we have to look at this, Paula, because, if you look at my parents, they were striving for straight A's all the way through. My generation, however, that pressure to succeed, to do well in school, it was just graduating. It was just getting into a school, not necessarily an Ivy League school.
CHO: Well, speak for yourself.
ZAHN: Not in Alina's household.
LUI: And they did come from a place where it was very difficult for them to make money. China, Korea, wherever you were talking about, Japan, the situations in the past have been difficult.
So, when they come to the United States, they are trying to get a new start. They're just thinking about putting bread on the table, not panini.
B. NGUYEN: Absolutely, because I came from Vietnam. My family and I, we went through three different refugee camps to get to this country.
So, when you have the opportunity at an education, this is something that so many people don't get. Back in Vietnam, in a Third World country, many times, children have to work. They don't get the opportunity to go to school. So, when we're here and we're given everything, you better do well, because you have been given so much than so many other people.
ZAHN: There is so much discussion about Asians representing the ideal minority. Is that a fantasy?
CHO: Well, I think that, you know, listen, it's something to be proud of, some of these statistics, you know?
But I think one thing to keep in mind is that it is not exclusive to Asian culture or Asian-American culture. Certainly...
ZAHN: But your numbers are higher...
CHO: Well, certainly, it is...
ZAHN: ... than any other minority group.
CHO: Certainly, it is prevalent in Asian-American culture. And I do think it's something to be proud of.
But you talk about the pressure. I mean, you only -- all you have to do is open the front page of "The New York Times" today. You look at an article. It's harder than ever to get in -- into the most elite colleges and universities in the United States. That's creating a lot of pressure, not just for Asian-Americans, but for American students, too.
B. NGUYEN: But I think it also plays into the model minority myth as well. And you have to be careful, because not all Asian- Americans are smart. Not all Asian-Americans are at the top of the class. Some of them struggle with math. Some of them struggle with science. And some of them want to do extracurriculars.
So, I think, when we -- we paint them with this broad brush, yes, the numbers are there, but not all of them fit into that category. And there are those that struggle.
LUI: And, Betty, I will raise my hand. I didn't do well when I was in school, when I went to Berkeley. I didn't do well in math. So, it worked in my favor, the fact that there was this model minority, this perception that you did well with numbers and good in school. I didn't.
ZAHN: Look how well you did. You ended up in broadcasting.
ZAHN: Give me a break, Richard.
ZAHN: Stay right there. I'm going to come back to you all in just a moment.
Asian-Americans also confront negative stereotypes, including racially-biased, even vulgar assumptions. We are going to bring those out in the open, coming up next.
And, then a little bit later on: a devastating medical taboo.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SHAWN NGUYEN, VIETNAMESE IMMIGRANT: In Asia, you know, any time we talk about depression, it's a sign of weakness. Weaknesses should be well-hidden, you know, behind closed doors.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAHN: Also out in the open: the pressure of Asian-Americans to hide certain health problems, even if they happen to be life- threatening.
We're also asking tonight, what's beautiful? Why do so many Asian women hate the way their eyes look? We are going to show you what they're doing about it.
ZAHN: Welcome back.
In tonight's special hour, "Asian in America": Why don't we see more Asian stars in Hollywood? I will ask actress ask one-time "ER" star Ming-Na.
Tonight, we're spending the entire hour bringing out in the open the challenge of being Asian in America. We were just talking about the educational stereotypes that have grown up around Asian-Americans. They're generally positive, of course, but there are plenty of ugly negative Asian stereotypes as well.
Let's go back to tonight's "Out in the Open" panel for their personal experiences, Betty Nguyen, Richard Lui, and Alina Cho.
One of the stereotypes we often see in television are Asian women portrayed as sexually submissive sex objects. And I understand you watched something over the weekend...
CHO: That's right.
ZAHN: ... that you found very insulting.
CHO: Well, I -- I was mildly offended by it. And I have to say that this is one of my favorite shows. And I watch it every week, every Sunday.
CHO: It's called "Entourage," critically acclaimed for its accurate portrayal of the inner workings of Hollywood.
And, yet, you know, I'm watching this weekend. One of the main characters, the guy walking around there, Johnny "Drama," goes into get a -- quote, unquote -- "special massage" into an Asian massage parlor. And there you see the women there.
And I -- I thought, you know, we have come far, and, yet, we have not come far enough.
ZAHN: All right. But we see a lot of scantily clad women all across American television, and see women as...
B. NGUYEN: Yes, but particularly Asian women, though, threat yin brothels. You know, they're the submissive sexual types.
And, yes, I know there's a female stereotype, but especially for Asian women. That's how they're portrayed a lot of times on the silver screen. Now, is that because there aren't a lot of Asian women going for other parts, making sure -- and there's not a -- I guess a group, an organization, that stands up and says, you know what? We're not going to be portrayed like this. We're going to take parts that are major roles, that are either your romantic roles, or action roles, or something, but it's not going to be the women in the brothels, the submissive, exotic, sexual types. ZAHN: It seems to me, Richard, that Asian males don't do much better. We see them as cooks...
LUI: That's true. You always see...
ZAHN: ... or crooks.
LUI: Cooks, crook...
ZAHN: Martial arts experts.
LUI: ... or butlers with big knives along the way.
But there's actually one movie that, for all of us Gen-Xers here that will remember back to the '80s with "Sixteen Candles" and Long Duk Dong.
In fact, we have a little bit of that now.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "SIXTEEN CANDLES")
GEDDE WATANABE, ACTOR: Very clever dinner, appetizing food fit neatly into interesting round pie.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: It's a quiche.
WATANABE: How do you spell?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Well, you don't spell it, son. You eat it.
ZAHN: Well, these exaggerated accents are all over television and movies as well.
LUI: You had the gong, right.
ZAHN: Right. Right. OK. That was number one.
LUI: And it is a quiche. You're right.
ZAHN: Yes, right.
LUI: And the slow reverse bow, the specially separated hair with the grease.
Now, this stereotype haunted a lot of Asian-American men, I'm sure, in the '80s. Good thing that has changed over time. That is not necessarily the portrayal we see today. So, there has been some progress. How...
ZAHN: You still laughed when you watched that clip. LUI: I did. You have to smile, right, when you see that sort of characterization.
CHO: I mean, it is funny, especially down to the music.
But, you know, it really is that quintessential example of the bad Asian stereotype. I mean, I remember it vividly. It was on TV just the other day. And I put it on, and I cringed. I thought, oh, this is so bad.
I hope we have moved forward a little bit. And I think we have.
ZAHN: But we...
CHO: I don't know that that movie -- or that portrayal would -- would be in movies today.
ZAHN: You say that, and, yet, Rosie O'Donnell took an awful lot of heat for what she ended up apologizing for. But let's show everybody what got her in trouble before she made that apology.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE VIEW")
ROSIE O'DONNELL, COMEDIAN: The fact is that it's news all over the world.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.
O'DONNELL: You know, you can imagine, in China, it's like ching chong, ching chong.
O'DONNELL: Ching chong, Danny DeVito, ching chong, chong, chong, chong, drunk, "The View," ching chong.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAHN: All right. Your reaction to that when you heard it?
B. NGUYEN: Well, you know, I think, as many Asian-Americans, I mean, we have come so far, and then to be characterized as ching chong, ching chong, no.
I mean, granted, she was talking about folks in China, trying to talk about the way that they would say what was going on with Danny DeVito.
CHO: Well, I don't think that's an excuse.
B. NGUYEN: But -- it is no excuse.
CHO: Right. B. NGUYEN: And, when you see something like that, granted, what Don Imus said was not in the same vain -- it was totally different -- but did you see the Asian-American community really come out and really hammer Rosie O'Donnell for that?
Yes, they made some statements. They said, what you said was wrong. And she did apologize. But you didn't see someone come out to the extent of, you know what? We want your job, and what you said was wrong. And we -- we're not going to take it anymore.
CHO: That's right, Paula.
B. NGUYEN: You're not going to portray us like that.
ZAHN: But she apologized...
CHO: As you well know...
ZAHN: ... and tried to explain...
CHO: She did apologize.
ZAHN: ... the context in which she said that pretty quickly, unlike Don Imus, who waited for days and days and days.
CHO: But there was no -- but there was no -- there was nothing beyond that.
As you well know, in the wake of the Imus controversy, you had Al Sharpton on your show every night for many days. We don't have that sort of -- unfortunately, that sort of leader in the Asian-American community.
I remember, when I saw Rosie O'Donnell say this, I was quite upset, but there was really no one who would sort of push that issue...
B. NGUYEN: That voice.
CHO: ... that voice, that single voice, that would push that issue forward.
B. NGUYEN: Which is so amazing, because we are the fastest growing minority group, but we can't -- we have strength in members, yet, we don't unify and show our strength. We haven't mustered that strength to say, you know what? These stereotypes, do not perpetuate them, because, if you do, you are going to hear from us.
ZAHN: Well, some people are saying, at 5 percent, that -- that you are going to have to grow those numbers a lot more to -- to be completely empowered. But we're going to talk about that more a little bit later.
O'DONNELL: All right. OK.
ZAHN: Stay right there. We have got plenty more to debate tonight.
Another stereotype I want to bring out in the open now involves medical problems. Why is asking for help seen as shameful?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DUNG NGO, PSYCHOLOGIST: It's very embarrassing for the whole family. Whatever you do, it represents the family's name.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAHN: Coming up next, the pressure on Asian-Americans to hide mental illness. We're bringing one woman's incredible story out in the open.
Asian women face another pressure, to fit in and feel beautiful -- coming up, how it's forcing some of them to make a very drastic choice under the knife.
ZAHN: What it is to be Asian in America is our focus for the whole hour tonight. It's part of our network's "Uncovering America" series on the issues facing Asians here.
And I want to bring out in the open tonight the cultural pressure on Asian-Americans that often makes them suffer in silence. We saw a glimpse of it in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre. The family of the killer stayed in hiding and released a statement indicating their shame over what had happened.
We learned that Seung-Hui Cho, after being referred for mental treatment two years ago, said he might as well kill himself. Those, of course, are extreme and unusual examples. But the pressure on Asian-Americans to deny mental illness is severe.
Here's medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen with tonight's "Vital Signs."
ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Shawn Nguyen is about to admit something her culture considers sinful.
Would you say that you were in a depression?
SHAWN NGUYEN, VIETNAMESE IMMIGRANT: Oh, yes. I fell in a very, very deep, deep black hole.
COHEN: Admitting depression, even just talking about it, is taboo, it's heresy, in many Asian cultures. Still, if anyone has a reason to be depressed, it's Nguyen.
Forced to leave her home in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, she was just 19, yet, she led a group of 20 other refugees, from newborns to the elderly, from Vietnam, to the Philippines, to Guam, and, finally, to a camp in Arkansas.
S. NGUYEN: That was very, very traumatizing.
COHEN (on camera): Sounds like you had to flee terrible situations twice in your life.
S. NGUYEN: Oh, yes.
COHEN (voice-over): Nguyen became a highly successful financial planner in New Orleans. But, a few years ago, she left everything behind when she says she had to flee her marriage. But that's not all. She was also diagnosed with colon cancer, and she had a heart attack. And, despite all that, she was still expected to be stoic.
(on camera): Here you are, being very out in the open about your depression and your suicide attempts. What does your community think about being that honest?
S. NGUYEN: In Asia, you know, any time we talk about depression, it's a sign of weakness. Weaknesses should be well hidden, you know, behind closed doors.
COHEN (voice-over): Now counselors are trying to open those doors and let in some light. But they say it's very tough.
DR. DUNG NGO, PSYCHOLOGIST: That's me, and that's my uncle.
COHEN: Dr. Dung Ngo is one of the hundreds of thousands of boat people who fled Vietnam in the 1970s. Now a psychologist at Asian American Family Services in Houston, Dr. Ngo says asking for counseling in his culture is shameful, and not just for the person doing the asking.
DUNG NGO, PSYCHOLOGIST: It's very embarrassing for the whole family. Whatever you do, it represents the family's name.
S. NGUYEN: There were times when I came very close to taking my life one way or another.
COHEN: But, then, Shawn Nguyen turned a corner. She searched deep into her Buddhist roots.
S. NGUYEN: Thank God for -- for Buddha, who had taught me that, when you commit suicide, you actually have to come back and live the same challenges, the same lessons.
COHEN: Slowly, thoughts of suicide began to go away.
S. NGUYEN: I backed out. There was a tiny little voice at the end that said, no, you remember, you have been taught that you can't do that. That's not the way out.
COHEN: Nguyen combined that ancient wisdom from her old country with modern psychology from her new country.
S. NGUYEN: I'm OK, you're OK, and Norman Vincent Peale, the power of positive thinking.
COHEN: Now she boldly speaks about what she once considered unspeakable.
S. NGUYEN: If I don't step up and -- and speak of the problems that I had personally, problem I had had, no one would come out. And we all continue to suffer. We have to find a way to stop.
COHEN: Suffering she hopes to end by stopping the silence.
Elizabeth Cohen, CNN, Houston.
ZAHN: And we're going to change our focus now to something more on the surface. Every year, thousands of Asian-Americans go in for cosmetic surgery. We're about to bring the shocking reasons for some of those operations right out in the open.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHO: Do you think you're pretty?
ANNIE CHENG, EYELID SURGERY PATIENT: Not bad-looking. I wouldn't say, like, really pretty, because my standard of pretty should be having big eyes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAHN: Next in our special hour, Asian women asking doctors to permanently change their eye. Ooh, ouch.
And a little bit later on, actress Ming-Na, she played a doctor on "E.R." I'm sure you remember her. And I'm going to ask her if Hollywood is stereotyping Asian stars and denying them all of the good roles. We'll be right back.
ZAHN: Tonight, we're devoting our entire hour to some of the challenges being Asian in America. It's part of "Uncovering America." CNN's week-long look at what it means to be Asian in this country.
And "Out in the Open" now, the extreme lengths some Asian women will go to to look more western. In fact, millions of Asian women are making the startling decision to permanently alter the shape of their eyes through plastic surgery. What drives them to make this increasingly popular and controversial decision? Let's turn to correspondent Alina Cho. She is back with us because she followed one woman through the whole process.
CHO: It's something that I can't imagine doing, Paula. You probably can't imagine doing, but, you know, it's surprising to hear. It's actually as common as getting braces in the United States. You know, and it's no surprise in the Asian community. Big eyes are a big asset. So we followed a young woman we first met about a year ago right into the operating room to find out just what eyelid surgery is all about and why so many people are going under the knife.
CHO (voice-over): Annie Cheng is 23 and beautiful. She doesn't think so. Yet.
Do you think you're pretty?
ANNIE CHENG, PLASTIC SURGERY PATIENT: Not bad looking. I wouldn't say like really pretty because they standard is -- of pretty should be having big eyes.
CHO: Annie's features are typically Asian. Her eyelids are very small, almost non existent. And that makes her eyes look small. But all of that is about to change.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And that's very unique to Asians.
CHO: Soon she'll undergo surgery to make the folds or creases in her eyes bigger to create what's known in the Asian community as double eyelids.
CHENG: In general, I think double eyelids makes you look prettier. And makes your eyes look bigger.
CHO: Then man who will perform the surgery is Dr. Charles Lee. Lee is an expert in plastic surgery for Asians.
DR. CHARLES LEE, PLASTIC SURGEON: Well, this surgery is to Asians what breast augmentations are to mainland Americans.
CHO: To better understand it, we had Dr. Lee take a look at my face.
(on camera): First of all, I guess, tell me how my features differ from Caucasian features.
LEE: Sure. The most common - or the most obvious thing is the upper eyelid.
CHO (voice-over): Lee says my folds or eyelids are small.
LEE: And some Asians have larger folds. If you open your eyes, there might be something like that. And that -- this would be an Asian - this would be an Asian with a larger fold than you have currently. Caucasians have a fold maybe way up here.
What I would recommend for your eyes is put some stitches and set your crease slightly higher. Set your creases a little bit -- a little bit higher so that -- so that you look -- your eyes look brighter.
CHO: By brighter, he means bigger, which is exactly what Annie wants. She wants to look like the Asian actresses she sees on TV. And on the Internet.
You notice the big eyes?
CHENG: Yes. I actually really pay attention to that part because whenever I see a big-eyed woman I just feel like she's really pretty.
CHO: Back at Dr. Lee's office, Annie is now getting prepped for surgery. First she's sedated. Next, Dr. Lee measures her eyelids. The top line, eight millimeters above her natural fold, is where Annie wants her new crease to be.
LEE: I'm just making sure that her markings and everything are appropriate.
CHO: The surgery talks about 30 minutes. Basically Dr. Lee is using stitches to force the skin to fold, creating a new, bigger eyelid and in turn, a bigger eye.
LEE: When I get this stitch buried in there, you'll see that I'm just attaching the internal structures. A little higher up.
CHO: Creating the crease?
LEE: Yes. When we finish this operation she's still going to look Asian, and she'll be grateful that I kept her looking Asian.
CHO: Eyelid surgery was introduced in the 1950s after the Korean War when women wanted to look more Caucasian to impress American G.I.s. Critics of the surgery say Asian women who alter their eyelids are turning their back on their ethnic identity. Dr. Lee says that's impossible.
LEE: No one is going to mistake them for being Caucasian or African American. They look Asian. So what we're trying to do is preserve ethnicity and the bigger question is whether the standard of beauty is changing. But that's a little bit different question than are you trying to change your race.
CHO: Two weeks after the surgery, we're back to see Annie again. The first thing we notice, besides her appearance, is that she's happy and confident. Her eyelids are clearly bigger. And with her new eyes, she's doing things she couldn't before like experiment with make-up.
CHENG: But now you can see two colors. I can even put three colors. If I want.
CHO: Though she feels sexier and more feminine, Annie says she's still the same person she was before the surgery.
CHENG: I do still look Asian, but with the eyes now, the bigger eyes now, I just feel I look better. It's kind of like conceited to say that, but I just feel that way.
(END VIDEOTAPE) CHO (on camera): It did do a lot for her confidence. If you think eyelid surgery is just for women, think again. It is so popular that the president of South Korea has done it and it's been widely reported that actor Jackie Chan, as well. In fact a lot of actors, Asian actors and actresses have done it.
ZAHN: A lot of Caucasians and African Americans have done it as well. Would you ever consider doing it?
CHO: No. Primarily because I wouldn't be allowed into my parents' household ever again probably. This was not something that I would personally do, no.
ZAHN: Do you know people who have had the surgery?
BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: Absolutely. I know a lots of people within the Asian community who have them. You can just tell by looking at them because their eyes look brighter. I don't believe that they do it because they want to look less Asian. I mean ...
ZAHN: So you don't see they're trying to separate themselves from their heritage or their culture?
NGUYEN: No. I think they just want to look to them prettier. Just like a Caucasian woman would get her nose done or her breasts done. Because that in her eyes is what's prettier. That's why they're doing it. I don't think it has anything to do with negating a person's race.
CHO: No. I don't think you're going to ever look at Annie Cheng and think she's something but Asian. Having said that, what I find interesting is that though we all live in western society, this surgery is actually much more popular in Asia. Incredibly popular in South Korea. And I think the media has a lot to do with that.
CHO: Everywhere there are western-looking ideals of beauty plastered. Movies, magazines everywhere. These women see that and want to look like that.
ZAHN: And yet there are certain distinct features that people identify with.
RICHARD LUI, CNN ANCHOR: Absolutely.
ZAHN: So if you were a guy that went in to see a plastic surgeon and decided to try to further distance yourself from your culture ...
LUI: Would I do the eyelids? Exactly. If I wanted to become a model, let's say, in Asia, in any one of the countries, because they are looking for this pan-Asian look, a mixture, a hapa look, if you will, throughout the world. So if I wanted to get it done, my nose first of all would be skinnier. My lips would be smaller. My forehead lower and my skin color also lighter. So I could put on the creams and make it all right. ZAHN: It wouldn't be you.
LUI: I would be, but I'd be a little bit different. Put it that way. You'd be very successful as a model in Asian because they're looking for that global look.
NGUYEN: That Eurasian look, that hapa look, even Amerasian look. I mean, I think it's what you see in television, what you see on billboards in the magazines, and models these days, especially in Asia, they are signing up Amerasians, Eurasians, these hapas, these mixed with Asian and other blood because they have this nice mixture. They naturally have the bigger, brighter eyes, they have the lighter skin, the taller noses. And that is what they're seeing in all the magazines and therefore that is their ideal of beauty.
ZAHN: I've got to believe, though, even those thee people have had surgery say this isn't about divorcing myself from my culture, there's got to be some pressure as you guys deal day in and day out with racial stereotypes.
LUI: I had a roommate who -- right. I had a roommate who was South Korean. He had a family back in South Korea because I lived in Asia for five years. He made the decision not to let his children go to the United States, although it's very prevalent in South Korea to send your kids to the U.S. That's the backlash. He was absolutely against not only what we have done or what has been done I guess in the media, putting out thesis definitions, these benchmarks, and he was fighting back by not letting his children go.
ZAHN: And yet it's more popular in Asia.
LUI: This is true. Absolutely.
ZAHN: How much grief -- maybe grief is the wrong word. How often are you insulted because of your race? You are picked on?
LUI: I can remember back when I was going to school at Berkeley. I was walking down to the BART station, the muni, if you will, and they said, hey, go back to your country. And I said, this is my country. Where am I to go? In fact, based on where I've been, it doesn't make any more valid than you. If you're third, fourth or fifth generation, it really doesn't matter. So I have experienced that.
CHO: People have asked me about that, especially recently and especially today. I never felt that way. And what's interesting is I had to go back and think about my childhood. I grew up in a predominantly white town, I went to a predominantly white college. But I never felt like an outsider.
And I think part of that has to do with that nurture that we talk about. My parents always made me feel like I could be or do whatever I want and I think that that is one positive aspect of Asian culture.
NGUYEN: Absolutely. Growing up Amerasian, because I am part Vietnamese and part Caucasian, I just felt like any other kid until I was in fifth grade and I was walking home from school and one little girl yelled out "chink" to me.
That's when I realized, you know what? I am Asian and that's OK. At first you deal with it, you struggle with it, and then eventually you decide to embrace it and stand proud because of your Asian roots. And I think today we're becoming more of a global world and being Asian is something that, you know, I wouldn't trade for the world.
ZAHN: All right you three. Betty, Alina and Richard, appreciate your time. One of the brightest Asian stars in Hollywood joins me next. I'm sure you know Ming-Na from the hit series "E.R.," but why don't we know many more Asian stars?
ZAHN: And welcome back. Tonight we're spending the entire hour bringing "Out in the Open" the challenges of being Asian in America. My next guest knows those challenges all too well. She came to the U.S. with her family at the age of 4 and against all odds, has made a highly successful career in TV and the movies. Ming-Na starred on "E.R." for 10 seasons as Dr. Jin-Mei Chang (ph). She was the starring voice in Disney's animated film "Mulan" and got her first big break in the "Joy Luck Club."
In addition to acting, she also heads Innovation Records which is dedicated to promoting Asian American musicians. And Ming-Na joins me now. Good to see you. Thanks so much for joining us tonight.
MING-NA, ACTRESS: Thank you, Paula.
ZAHN: So have you ever lost a role because you're Asian?
MING-NA: Yes. And I believe I've never gotten in the door because I was Asian.
ZAHN: So how big is the challenge then if -- it seems like it cuts both ways in your case.
MING-NA: It certainly does. I think when I realized early on, even in my days at Carnegie-Mellon when I was studying drama that I was only delegated the smaller roles that was going to be a constant challenge to get parts and be a working actress.
So when I came out into the world and started my career, one of the things I realized was that I had to change other peoples' minds. That even though the role wasn't specifically written for an Asian, I had to at least get my foot in the door and then try to convince them that that part was right for me. And back then ...
ZAHN: So how strong were the biases as you tried to do this dance with them and convince them that an Asian American should play the role of a doctor? Not a Caucasian?
MING-NA: Actually on "E.R.," my part was just Deb and I was auditioning with a dozen Caucasian actresses and I think I won out because I was able to win out on talent, hopefully, but also on the fact that it was something fresh. It was a new direction. It's almost like if they weren't going to go in my direction and I'd lost many parts because they didn't want to go in my direction, then you give them a different map. You know, here's a detour. Take this road and see, you know, see if you like it better. Might be a better way to go. A more scenic route.
ZAHN: Do you think that some of these castings directors and directors were racist or bigoted in any way or just made a lot of bad assumptions about who you are and what you should be on screen?
MING-NA: Well, I've been in the business a long time. I really -- I don't see it that way. I think one of my jobs, not just being an actress, is to, let's say, help facilitate the -- the many choices that are out there. And a lot of times that's what it is. You know, a casting director or producer, they have their world of the talents that they want to choose from.
MING-NA: And a lot of times you need to educate them and introduce them to a whole new pool. And just broaden their horizons.
ZAHN: That may be true, but you were confronting a bunch of stereotypes. We heard Alino Cho talking about how insulted she was by what she saw on "Entourage" over the weekend where Asian women are constantly depicted as sex objects. Well, aren't most women on television these days? But in particular Asian Americans.
MING-NA: That's true. But there needs to be a balance. You know? If you're going to do the stereotypes and the ridicule, you need more of the good. And we don't have that. A lot of times what we have is mostly just the stereotypes and the bad and it perpetuates this sense that we're still foreigners. And that's the thing that I hope down the line that and the generations beyond that that doesn't continue to be perpetuated, the they -- that we are foreigners. We've helped to build this country since the start.
ZAHN: Sure. And I think our panel is pointing out they think things have gotten better even though they still face, while not a daily onslaught, insults from time to time.
ZAHN: Personally, what is the worst thing that you see play out on a -- on the air today in the depiction of Asian Americans?
MING-NA: The worst thing? Oh, I think a few years back -- not to pull out an individual, but on "American Idol," I hope he got a lot of money and got very rich off of it, but a lot of young people when I would do these college tours, these college lectures was very upset by the images that was perpetuated by William Hung. And then -- and through that, there were also political depictions of politicians in yellow-face in magazines. And these are the things that I don't think the media and the news are as sensitive to because we're not threatening and we don't -- because we're this model minority.
ZAHN: Sure. MING-NA: It's not considered as insulting.
MING-NA: As, let's say, seeing an African American man eating watermelon. It's like -- it's a -- it's a constant battle where we need to voice our anger.
MING-NA: And yet be able to have a productive ...
ZAHN: And one of the things that our panel was pointing out, there does not seem to be a person that's emerged in the form of an Al Sharpton to fight those battles for you, but you've done the good fight tonight. Ming-Na, thanks for your time.
MING-NA: Thank you.
ZAHN: LARRY KING LIVE is coming up in a few minutes. How are you tonight, Larry?
LARRY KING, CNN HOST: How you doing, Paula? We've got a packed our coming up. "Hustler" publisher Larry Flint's first interview on the death of Jerry Falwell. They were bitter enemies in a historic legal battle.
How did they end up friends? Plus, just how much was Anna Nicole Smith worth? And more strange twists in that sensational murder trial of music legend Phil Spector. All at the top of the hour following our heroine, Paula Zahn.
ZAHN: Oh my God. Two nights in row I've earned the heroine title.
KING: I never forget.
ZAHN: You're so consistent, Larry. Thank you. You made my week.
KING: Thank you.
ZAHN: Because I'm fighting hives and a fever from a very bad cold but we can get to that during a commercial break, Larry.
We've got an important consumer alert for you. Some dishwashers are a fire hazard. I'm going to have more on that in just a minute. We'll be right back.
ZAHN: Welcome back. Time for a "Biz Break." The Dow gained 104 points, set yet another record. NASDAQ up 22. The S&P finished almost 13 points higher.
Talks will continue to find a graceful exit for World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz. The White House is trying to broker a deal to have Wolfowitz quit, but spread around the blame for the decision to give his girlfriend a promotion and a pay raise.
All right. A warning for all of you out there. If you have a dishwasher, check it out. General Electric recalling 2.5 million of them because of a wiring problem that can cause fires. The recall covers several brands including Eterna, G.E., Hotpoint and Sears- Kenmore. We'll be back with more.
ZAHN: And that wraps it up for all of us here tonight. Thanks so much for joining us. We'll be back same time, same place tomorrow night. Have a good night.
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