By Laylita Day
It is a common stereotype: if you are Asian, then you must be smart and successful. Asian immigrant parents are always portrayed as pushing their children to study all the time so that they can be successful later by getting good and high paying jobs. These people are seen as geeks, nerds and scientists aka the model minority. As my Asian grandparents always told my mom and her sisters, “Study, study, study. Study is most important”.
This was seen recently when the New York Times discussed the tensions between Asian parents and White parents over curriculum changes in Princeton, N.J. Students were facing problems of being overburdened and stressed out. 120 students were recommended for mental health assessments while 40 were hospitalized. The White parents feel that the curriculum is being adjusted to fit with Asian parents rather than non-Asian parents. The Asian parents though feel that changing the curriculum would be lowering the quality of education and would weaken their children’s ability to succeed later. They feel that Asian children have to work harder to have the same chances as White children. Thus they fear racial discrimination in the job market and in the workplace as well as hoping to achieve a good middle class life.
Model minority stereotypes of Asian Americans live on.
But what if you are biracial? What if you are a mixed Asian like myself, the daughter of an Asian immigrant mom and a White American father? How does race and culture play into one’s educational goals in such cases? For me, it is not what one would probably imagine at first.
When it comes to school, one could say that I very much live up to the Asian nerd image. I strive for A’s and have a deep-seated fear of getting anything below a B. Does that make me part of the model minority, a victim of the Asian nerd stereotype? Maybe, maybe not. Because when I look back at where I got my strong desire to do well in school, the Asian immigrant parent, is not the one that comes to mind.
My White father is the one who always told me to study and do well in school; saying that one has to get a good education to do well in the future. My mom agreed, but she never pushed. In fact, whenever I ask her about her time in school she always says she disliked it, especially reading and writing. My dad on the other hand excelled in those areas and is the parent I would consider a nerd and who, when I was a child, filled an entire room with books. I can safely say that I am the same way. Thus his views on education were a far greater influence than my mom’s. In this way, it seems that it was not race or culture that dictated my educational goals but simply which parent felt more strongly about it. But looking closer, the push of Asian parents concerning education, might have indeed played a part in terms of how my mom views such issues.
As I mentioned before, my mom’s parents did live up to the stereotype of “must do well in school” Asian parents. Their heavy and demanding attitude toward education may have caused my mom to view it in a more negative light and thus not associate as much importance to it as other Asian parents would, which in turn may have created her more relaxed attitude toward education with her own children. One Asian mom, Karen Sue, interviewed for the New York Times article said there is too much pressure put on students. This mother though is American born with immigrant parents. Perhaps she too faced demanding parents and too much school stress, and thus decided that she would not expect the same of her own children.
At the heart of this then is what should Asian (and mixed-couple) parents do? Should they continue on being the model minority, telling their children to study harder than anyone else otherwise they are failures, or should they lower their expectations and perhaps try to find a balance between education and mental health? The answer seems obvious; all students should strive to do their best, while being healthy both mentally and physically. In this basic statement, I agree.
Looking at myself, I can see how my own quest for all A’s and being the perfect student has caused me severe mental and physical stress. This highly focused desire on getting good grades was apparent when I got my first F on a math test. I immediately was so ashamed of myself I cried and hid the paper from my parents, who even now have no knowledge of it. Thus the statement in the New York Times article by one White parent of a fourth grader about her son’s worry about not amounting to anything and having nothing for his resume seems not all that strange to someone like myself. After that situation with the F, I did everything I could possibly to do make sure I never got anything below a B and always was able to show how well I had done on any assignment. This continued until my family moved to Japan and I started going to a Japanese public school. After that everything changed.
Going to a school where I could not speak the language meant I did poorly in every subject (except English). I suddenly was getting F’s, D’s and C’s all the time. It was a shock and one that added to my already growing depression and anxiety issues. Here I was in a country known for its high education standards and very smart students who all went to juku (cram schools after regular school) and yet I was a complete and utter dunce. In one way, this forced me to work harder. I had to not only learn the material, but also learn Japanese at the same time. Thus my days involved not juku, but Japanese lessons. And after that I would spend countless hours trying to translate the textbooks and assignments so that I could learn the material. In this way, I had to work twice as hard as everyone else and experienced perhaps just what Asian parents and their children in America face: feeling that one has to go above and beyond just to have enough of a chance to make it through. In this way, for Asian parents and students it may not entirely be about trying to “outwhite the whites,” a statement made C. H. Chen in 2003 in an article about the model minority discourse, but simply about fighting racial discrimination in the workforce and giving one’s child the best chance at a good life as possible. What needs to change and improve though is Asian’s parents’ view on the stress and a mental health issues that go along with such educational goals.
Returning to America for college, I saw a chance to redeem myself. I vowed to never get anything below a B ever again and so far I have done just that. But the cost to my mental health may have been too much. When I was applying to college my mom’s family told me to go to a community college because I was not smart enough to get into a four year university. Hearing that from the people who grew up with “study is most important” made me both angry and determined to prove them wrong. I pushed myself to study for the SAT and the subject tests as well and ended up getting into two four year universities out of the three I applied to.
After that I graduated with two degrees and received only two B’s in the four years I was there. College of course is a stressful time for all students and almost everyone has at least one major breakdown, but for those of us who are determined to be perfect especially because of parental pressure, this lack of acceptance to be less than an all A student, such as getting the “Asian F,” means that students could be setting themselves up for a lifetime of depression and anxiety. In this way, the “positive” stereotype of the model minority is anything but that.
Now that I am in graduate school, I am finally seeing how much damage I have done to myself in pushing beyond my limits. My desire to go to graduate school was also a product of my need to go beyond. Part of it was my dad saying one needs to have a master’s degree to get a good job these days because a bachelor’s degree will not cut it anymore. This again shows how my dad was more inclined to push for higher education than my mom, who in fact did not see a reason for me to get a master’s and wanted me to just get a job instead. Neither of my parents have a master’s degree so being the first to get one seemed to be just another goal I had to achieve. One could say that this is what all parents want for the children, to have more and be better than they were, but my decision to further my education seemed to be more out of fear of failure: not getting a job, not being able to prove that I could get a master’s degree and so on.
After finishing my undergraduate degrees, I had originally planned to take a semester off but ended up going straight from undergraduate to graduate school, fearing that taking too much time off would make it difficult to go back to school. Looking at my current state, I feel that may have been a mistake. While I had expected that graduate school would be more demanding than undergraduate school had been, it was even more so with non-stop reading and writing.
Now in my second year of graduate school I feel completely and utterly drained. I have lost all interest in working on my thesis and completing my degree. I have finally reached my breaking point and must struggle with anxiety and possible anxiety attacks every day. The two things I used to love, reading and writing no longer hold much interest for me because of the intensity in which I performed those activities during my first year of graduate school.
Because of my experience, I actually am more inclined to agree with creating a balanced approach to education. Yes, students should always strive to do their best and aim for A’s, but it should not be so all consuming as to become the only reason for school or even the only reason for living (get good grades, get good job, the end). Because in the end, there is only so far one can push themselves. For some like myself, it felt like I could go on forever, always being the best no matter what. But what good is that when one has anxiety or depression or worst of all, suicidal thoughts, something that can be found among many Asian America students.
All my life I heard that education is the most important thing and I am not saying it isn’t extremely important, but it would have been nice to also know that education does not have to be all consuming, that I can get B’s and C’s and still do well. This then is what I think other Asian American students need to hear as well. Just because something is a good thing does not mean it is the only thing. Such students, including myself need to know that it is not shameful to take a break or not push yourself 100% all the time. It may seem like one is giving up but that is not so. If one needs to take a semester or even a year (however long one’s school lets one take an academic leave) then do it. Do not drive yourself so far that you end up hating school (or your master’s thesis) to the point that you just want to stop and drop out. If one really wants to do well in school then do it. Just do it at a pace that balances both your academic goals with taking care of your mental health.
I know that there are many such students who do not fit the super smart Asian stereotype and who take school seriously but not to a detrimental extent. This change in attitude and thinking about education may be where future generations of Asian Americans are heading, but until it becomes more common Asian Americans will continue to butt heads with Whites and other non-Asians on educational matters.
It is also worth noting that the model minority stereotype really applies mainly to certain ethnic groups, such as Chinese, Indian, Korean, Japanese and so on. There are in fact many Asian ethnic groups who do not fit such a stereotype at all, such as the many Cambodians who live in Long Beach, CA. In such communities there is poverty, violence and racial discrimination, which prevents them from achieving better lives. Pushing a model minority stereotype onto them is even more damaging because of the lack of understanding and help these communities receive. Not only do we need to let go of the model minority myth, but we also need to acknowledge the differences within the Asian American community, so that we can address specific issues within these different communities, including unique issues facing mixed-Asian people.
While my situation shows an opposite of what one would expect with an Asian immigrant parent, it would be interesting to see what the educational influences of other mixed-Asian families is like and whether race and culture determines such factors or not. Perhaps this will become a more prominent issue as the biracial community continues to grow and receives recognition.
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