The main character of Mike Chen’s Vampire Weekend, Louise Chao, may be the saddest vampire out there. She has spent the larger part of her seven decades alive working crappy night jobs, with virtually no powers, no ability to “turn” humans, not even a cool vampire clique to party with at blood-sprinkler-equipped nightclubs. To misquote the Blade trilogy, she has “none of their strengths, all of their weaknesses.” Many of the chapters in Vampire Weekend are structured around vampire myths. Chen drolly unpacks some of these myths, applying “science” to something inherently fantastical. Here, vampirism is akin to a virus. It supercharges one’s immune system while making one incredibly sun-sensitive, but no virus in the world can, say, give the ability to turn into a mist or a bat. And drinking straight from the jugular is far trickier than it sounds—the positioning is awkward if you really think about it, and veins don’t break open as easily as movies suggest. We are not who you think we are, Louise seems to be saying to readers.
But Chen is interrogating more than vampire myths in this book. He is also interrogating the Model Minority myth, albeit more subtly. Much has been written about the Model Minority myth, but in brief, it’s the idea that Asian Americans are all high-achieving, rule-abiding, and family-oriented.
Ironically, this idea was supported by many Asian Americans in the 1950s and 60s trying to prove their “respectability” to the white establishment (see this enlightening piece by Jeff Guo in The Washington Post). Prior to that, Asian Americans had been largely perceived as gamblers and opium-smokers. For example, the 1875 Page Act restricted Asian women service workers from entering the country under the assumption that they were coming for “immoral purposes.” Characters like Fu Manchu and even the grandfather of literary vampires, Dracula, all fed into beliefs about the Yellow Peril, namely, that disease, immorality, and other existential threats came from somewhere out east (Arjana, 2014). The Yellow Peril image never truly went away, as evidenced by media coverage of COVID as an “Asian disease,” but in the 1960s, the picture became more complex. Amid the Cold War, white American politicians began to actively promote the Model Minority myth, holding Asian immigrants up as “proof” that anyone could succeed under U.S. capitalism so long as they worked hard, ignoring the fact that the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, along with the H-1B visa, selected for Asian immigrants who were already professionals. At the same time, politicians used this myth to drive a wedge between Asian and other marginalized groups, in particular the Black community, to deter cross-community organizing.
On a subtextual level, the figuratively defanged vampires of Chen’s imagination make an interesting analog for Asian Americans. Just as vampires are perceived as dangerous, Asian Americans are perceived as “perils” despite being largely harmless. Just as vampires are often portrayed as possessing accrued wealth—doesn’t every Anne Rice vampire own buildings around the world?—Asian Americans are often assumed to be financially well-off when in fact many are financially insecure. For example, a 2019 Census report found that the median household income in San Francisco’s Chinatown was $21K and that Chinatown was one of the most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city. And because of their lack of powers, the vampires of this book are particularly food insecure. Unlike werewolves, who presumably eat normal food 29 days of the month, and ghosts, who presumably eat nothing at all, Chen’s vampires live in precarity, always worrying about their next meal. Thus they form an invisible, vulnerable minority that mainstream society both fears and commends, much like Asian Americans.
Vampire Weekend also explores the Model Minority myth on a textual level. Louise Chao is not a Model Minority. A college dropout and runaway, she spent her human years listening to punk rock, playing guitar, and following bands on tour. As a vampire, she spends most of her waking hours at a dead-end job (pun intended) and her remaining time trying out for bands. She is rebellious, not rule-abiding. She is emotional, a little unpredictable, and just plain messy, not composed or hyper-competent. In many ways, Louise the vampire more closely resembles the Asian Americans I know in my own life than do many media depictions of Asian American humans.
Louise’s family members, in contrast, have utterly bought into the Model Minority stereotype. Chen’s decision to set Louise’s childhood in 1960s/70s American suburbia was smart for a couple of reasons. The first and most obvious reason, of course, is that this period saw the rise of punk rock, the genre that inspired Louise to pursue music. The second is that this period marked the emergence and then popular acceptance of the Model Minority stereotype, a development welcomed by some Asian Americans and denounced by others. Vampire Weekend is thus also a sociopsychological study of what can happen when Asian American parents put too much pressure on their children to conform to the stereotype. Here’s Louise describing what it was like growing up in the suburbs:
Whenever I’d complained about the sprawlish hell, I’d get a trio of tsks and a story of how I needed to learn to appreciate why my parents immigrated, how every moment was an opportunity to “build something” and “fit in” for “a better life” than what they had.
Even when my dad would come home radiating a silent anger, it dissipated in a flash. At most, he’d slip a quick whisper and the “lazy and stupid” people who got promoted over him. But then he’d quickly revert to being appreciative of what they had, what they built, a blind patriotism to this life, as if criticizing any element of it was a personal affront to the effort of their American life.
(pps. 176-177, uncorrected proof)
Like some Asian Americans past and present, Louise’s parents did everything in their power to meet the expectations of white American society, believing that playing by the rules of a deeply unjust system would eventually result in acceptance. Though Vampire Weekend is fictional, the negative effects of the Model Minority myth are quite real—psychology studies have found that Asian American adolescents and adults who feel pressured to conform to the myth report more stress, interpersonal conflict, shame, and depression, among other negative outcomes (Chan & Mendoza-Denton, 2008; Chu, 2002; Siy & Cheryan, 2013). As teenagers, Louise and her brother both suffered as a result of this pressure, though in different ways: Louise’s rebellion against the stereotype led to her feeling unworthy and unloved, whereas her brother’s capitulation to it led to frequent conflicts with Louise and lifelong regret. In the case of Louise’s parents, the desire to conform was strong enough for them to abandon their own daughter for not living up to expectations, for Louise’s mother to disown her own sister because she’s queer.
If there is one way in which Louise does conform to the Model Minority stereotype, at least early in the novel, it is her tendency to keep her head down. Louise is isolated from the local vampire community, skipping out on meetings despite the community organizer’s attempts to get her involved. Though she spends most of her waking hours working at a hospital for access to its blood supply, she has little interest in questioning or upsetting the existing system, which forces her to live paycheck to paycheck, blood bag to blood bag. It is only when blood becomes scarce in her neighborhood that she finally begins asking the right questions and, eventually, to throw herself into what one might call vampire activism.
The idea that Asian Americans are politically inactive, that they don’t rock the boat, is baked into the Model Minority myth because it is advantageous to the white establishment. In fact, Asian Americans have been involved in activism for a long time. From the 1800s until the mid-1900s, Asian American organizing was largely group-specific, with various ethnicities individually speaking out against exclusionary immigration laws, poor labor conditions, and so on. With the emergence of the “Asian American” identity in the 1960s, Asian Americans continued to protest poor labor conditions and anti-Asian violence while also lending support to Black, Chicanx/Latinx, and other activists. For example, Grace Lee Boggs worked with James Boggs to improve food availability and education in Detroit’s Black neighborhoods. Yuri Kochiyama, who is probably best known for her association with Malcolm X, also worked with the Young Lords, an organization seeking self-determination for Puerto Rico and other colonized peoples.
Much of the joy in the book, then, is watching Louise progress from personal to systemic rebellion—rebelling from your parents is one thing, Chen seems to be saying, but rebelling against unjust systems is real punk rock. Punk rock, of course, is fundamentally anti-establishment. British bands like The Clash and The Sex Pistols sang about high unemployment rates and the struggles of the working class in a monarchy amid the rise of Thatcherism, while Americans like Patti Smith and The Dead Kennedys wrote songs protesting war and satirizing political figures. In Louise’s life and afterlife, punk rock is a propulsive force. It shapes her decision to leave home, to help her community overthrow the vampire oligarchs who keep the rest of the vampires hungry and weak. Throughout the book, Louise draws on Blondie’s “One Way or Another” for courage:
From the waist-high speakers, the kicking bass drum of Blondie’s “One Way Or Another” thumped along, a stinging attack of guitar chords whipping the air. Debbie Harry’s angry snarl announced itself, burrowing within me so deeply that I found my fist clenched.
“One way or another,” I muttered under my breath.
(p. 177, uncorrected proof)
Chen also makes a connection between music and rebellion in his discussion of political folk music, which greatly influenced proto-punk. Louise’s aunt Laura, who was disowned for being gay, introduced Louise to the music of Joan Baez. Baez’s “Here’s to You,” which Chen describes as “a celebration of resistance over injustice” (p. 114), is another song that makes multiple appearances in the book. Louise’s political education, in effect, comes out of her listening to punk and political folk. Without those influences, she would simply be a rebel without a cause.
By the end of the novel, the vampire world has dramatically changed—the vampire aristocracy has been overthrown, replaced with a more democratic system—and Louise, with her punk rock ethos, was an important part of that change. The book’s climax sees Louise distracting the aristocracy by playing “One Way or Another” and then physically attacking one of the aristocrats with a guitar named after Joan Baez. So much for the myth of the docile Asian American who assimilates into the system instead of defying it.
In one particularly poignant scene, Louise recalls a conversation with her aunt Laura before her aunt died. Laura had this to say regarding her sister (Louise’s mother):
“I feel bad for her, really,” Laura said. “Wu Jin-Yi. Mary, the instant we got here. She was eighteen, I was sixteen. The most American names they could give us… She was whomever imprinted on her. Our parents. Her husband. China. America. Her greatest tragedy is that none of them ever let her be herself.”
(p. 330, uncorrected proof)
Living by the expectations of the Model Minority myth means never fully getting to be yourself. Louise’s parents never learned this, and if Louise’s brother did, he came to the knowledge late. Louise rebelled against these expectations, but it came at the cost of her family. Those myths about vampire superpowers might be false, but at least they’re myths without, well, teeth. A myth that reduces an entire group of humans to a stereotype, that additionally leads to stress, depression, and family conflict? Now that’s a myth that really bites.
Arjana, Sophia Rose, Muslims in the Western Imagination (New York, 2015; online edn, Oxford Academic, 18 Dec. 2014), https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199324927.001.0001
Rita Chang-Eppig’s novel about the legendary pirate queen of China, Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea, will be published by Bloomsbury June 2023. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Best American Short Stories 2021, Clarkesworld, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Conjunctions, One Story, and elsewhere.