The overwhelming academic pressure placed on 16-year-old Mira Hu was palpable as she took this recent selfie to describe her terrifying level of stress.
Over the weekend, the San Marino High School student ran away after her parents dropped her off to take the SAT college entrance exam.
To understand the context of the pressure placed on Hu, San Marino High school is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top schools in the nation. Nearly one-third of last year’s graduating class surveyed had a 4.0 GPA or higher and the class’ average SAT score was 1880 out of 2400, with four students receiving perfect scores. In addition to the test-taking pressure, many of the classes are geared towards getting students into Ivy League schools. “Most of the students are taking five AP classes,” said Marina Hashimoto, who graduated from the school this year. “The tests are hard. There’s a lot of Asians, and they’re all really smart.”
The test itself is rigorous enough without the Asian cultural expectations placed upon Hu and countless other Asian American students to perform well, get into a prestigious university, and perpetuate the family’s sense of honor in the tight-knit Asian community.
Hu texted her older brother hours afterward, telling him that the pressure of tests, classes, and acculturation (she had transferred to the prestigious high school in 2012 after attending school in China) were too much to handle so she boarded a Greyhound bus to San Francisco. She returned home, unharmed, two days later when she called her family and asked them to pick her up from the Los Angeles Public Library. During her disappearance, her father Ken Hu told news reporters, “She’s the perfect kid and everything’s good but I don’t know what happened”.
“Perfect” is part of the problem. As a psychotherapist specializing on Asian American issues and addictions, this notion of “perfection” is what traditional Asian parents strive for in their children: perfect grades, perfect behaviors, perfect cultural image. Nowhere is imperfection allowed. To encourage Asian parents to embrace imperfection would be considered a cultural anathema.
Another problem with Asian academic perfection occurs when reality doesn’t line up with expectations (it never does). In this case, Hu’s father believed “everything’s good” up until his daughter ran away but he (and the rest of the family) had no idea she was struggling with depression and homesickness.
“Life is not filled with ups and downs, there are only downs” Mira wrote in one of her Facebook posts after enrolling at San Marino High when she expressed sadness of missing her friends in China. In addition, Hu’s ever-present need to succeed was palpable to those around her. 15-year-old Billy Wu was in a debate class with Mira Hu and sensed there was a lot at stake for her. “When she lost a round, it would impact her,” Billy said. “I feel like it affected her a lot.”
Fortunately, in this case Mira Hu did not reach the point of being suicidal. Nor did she run away never to be seen again out of the fear of disappointing her parents or culture. She returned home physically safe, but this should be an admonishment to parents that kids need an emotionally safe place as well, which all-too-often is lacking in Asian households.
About the author: Sam Louie is a therapist with a private practice in Seattle specializing in multicultural issues and sexual addiction.