‘Mighty’ Asians

PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDREW TOLSON/ SIMON HAYTER

I have been thinking of writing about this for some time, after reading a blog entry by angry asian man with an interesting title “Are Canadian Colleges ‘Too Asian’?” last year. It was outlining the writer’s take on a MacLean’s article on colleges and universities that have a reputation for being Too Asian, a terms coined to talk about racial imbalance at Ivy league schools in US having quite a number of Asian students who are so academically focused that some other students feel they can no longer compete or have fun. Apparently, the phenomenon is also apparent in Canada with the growing number of white students avoiding big-name schools to apply to less competitive (translation: not-as-Asian) colleges. This phenomenon also becomes such a cause for concern to university admissions officers and high school guidance counsellors that several elite universities to the south have faced scandals in recent years over allegedly limiting Asian applicants and keeping the numbers of white students artificially high.

I was not surprised when I continued reading and found that the ‘Asian’ was loosely used for ‘Chinese’. What do you expect? We live in a Sinophobic time so much so that mentioning ‘Chinese’ in delicate issues makes readers (and editors) cringe. But my question –and probably yours, too- is: come on…are Chinese students (and Asians in general, you may say) that scary? Well, there is no definitive answer here, but majority will say yes. Facts have it that more than 70 per cent of students in the Toronto District School Board who immigrated from East Asia went on to university, compared to 52 per cent of Europeans, the next highest group, and 12 per cent of Caribbean, the lowest. This is in contrast to English-speaking Toronto students born in Canada—of which just 42 per cent confirmed admission to university. Other fun fact, you open Youtube and search Sungha Jung. He is a 14-year-old South Korean guitarist prodigy who has risen to fame for covering popular tunes on Youtube and other sites with an amazing technical skill, and for simply being Asian kid at that. One comment on his Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean rendition says ‘damn you asians, you and your superpowers’ with 182 thumbs up! One other comment even goes further by saying ‘I’d seen a statistic somewhere that showed Asians have higher I.Q.’s that Americans. I don’t doubt it.’ I watched Modern Family and once again was reminded of the whole ‘Asian has super powers or at least is insanely ingenious’ when Alex, Phil and Claire Dunphy’s smart kid studies religiously because she doesn’t want to come in second to her smart classmate, Sanjay Patel. And the next day, she comes home breaking the news that indeed Sanjay beats her in the test.

The value of education has been drilled into Asian students by their parents, likely for cultural and socio-economic reasons. “It’s often described that Asians are the new Jews,” says Jon Reider, director of college counselling at San Francisco University High School and a former Stanford University admissions officer. “That in the face of discrimination, what you do is you study. And there’s a long tradition in Chinese culture, for example, going back to Confucius, of social mobility based on merit.

Of course, immigrants work harder. Government policies work so effectively in reminding that this country is not yours to begin with, you are a second-class citizen, you have to work harder than the ‘inlanders’ to get public or government-subsidized facilities. Yes, the above-mentioned are extreme cases of discrimination towards Indonesian Chinese for several decades (1950s-1990s). Insecurity haunts immigrants and their children. And education is the only way they know to have access to a better and more certain future. With good education, comes a good job. With a good job, comes good money. And money doesn’t discriminate 🙂

Asians are often quoted in US as ‘model minority’. Highly educated, respected jobs, low rate of committed crime, good tax payers. Still, discrimination lurks in. In his 2009 book ‘No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal’, Princeton University sociologist Thomas Espenshade surveyed 10 elite U.S. universities and found that Asian applicants needed an extra 140 points on their SAT scores to be on equal footing with white applicants. Scandals over such unfair admissions practices have surfaced in recent years at Stanford, Harvard University, the University of California at Berkeley and elsewhere. Hsu, the Oregon physicist, draws a comparison between Asian-Americans and Jewish students who began arriving at the Ivy League in the first half of the last century. “You can find well-documented internal discussions at places like Harvard and Yale and Princeton about why we shouldn’t admit these people, they’re working so hard and they’re so obviously ambitious, but we want to keep our WASP [white anglo-saxon protestant] pedigree here.

And here goes the cycle, the bar is set higher for Asian applicants to get to top universities. Asian students, therefore, study harder and become smarter. The smarter they are, the more conscientious and competitive they become. ‘Killjoy’, as some of white students say. And the gap between them gets wider. Many white students simply believe that competing with Asians requires a sacrifice of time and freedom they’re not willing to make. Hence, the avoidance to enrol in top universities. University administrators, seeing the drop in WASP students, freak out and impose even higher standards for Asian students. And Asians strive harder, and the cycle continues…

The impact of high admissions rates for Asian students has been an issue for years in the U.S., where high school guidance counsellors have come to accept that it’s just more difficult to sell their Asian applicants to elite colleges. In 2006, at its annual meeting, the National Association for College Admission Counseling explored the issue in an expert panel discussion called “Too Asian?” One panellist, Rachel Cederberg—an Asian-American then working as an admissions official at Colorado College—described fellow admissions officers complaining of “yet another Asian student who wants to major in math and science and who plays the violin.”

Amy Chua and her daughters

This Asian superiority is further fuelled by a recent article in Wall Street Journal provocatively titled Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior’. The article puts forward a very strong view on behalf of Chinese/Chinese-American mothers who hold their children to rigorous and demanding standards, which, from what I can tell, means a sad, joyless existence filled with long, grueling hours of studying, homework, violin/piano practice and verbal asskicking. Needless to say, this stirs controversy in blogosphere with so many people (Chinese/Chinese-Americans, other Asian-Americans, along with people in general) react very strongly. The subject of parenting in itself is a very personal and risqué issue. Add racial profiling and you get a ball of fire. The author, Amy Chua, is a professor at Yale Law School and author of “Day of Empire” and “World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability.” The essay is excerpted from “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” by Amy Chua, to be published Tuesday by the Penguin Press.

Amy Chua can argue that she herself is a successful by-product of Chinese upbringing. Chua graduated magna cum laude with an A.B. in Economics from Harvard College in 1984. She obtained her J.D. cum laude in 1987 from Harvard Law School, where she was an Executive Editor of the Harvard Law Review. According to her, she achieved this by what others call ‘negative reinforcement’. Once when she was young—maybe more than once—when she was extremely disrespectful to her mother, her father angrily called her “garbage” in their native Hokkien dialect. And she did the same to her daughters. She once told her 7-year-old Louisa to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic when the kid couldn’t play a piano piece right.

John Cho and Kal Penn, two Asian-American actors whose their very existence defy racial stereotyping

Dang! She even criticizes Western parenting as not stressing academic success enough and too anxious about their child’s self esteem that they don’t push them enough to succeed. This once again, dichotomizes Asians as joyless, socially-isolated, singularly-focused automatons under the command of overbearing immigrant parents against lazy, underachiever (or creative at best) white kids with permissive and supportive parents who will be there despite mediocrity of their offspring. Of course not all Asian kids are academically bright and same goes, not all white kids are losers. Stereotyping is dangerous. While it has some truth, anybody who don’t fall in either category risk suffering from depression and feeling that they are not adequate or can’t live up to some crazy standards. Even people who seem like having a perfect life may secretly believe their life sucks. That you have to achieve to belong. It means a lot of people put conditions on love. Thinking that one must achieve academic and financial success to be entitled of love from parents and family is by all means a sick idea. I don’t know if it’s related, but Asian-American females had one of the highest suicide rates in the U.S.

I’m going to stop here. Continuing to write means I’m risking myself labelled as studious, weird, four-eyed Asian chick who finds kicks in hours of extensive research in front of computer. Contrary to stereotypical picture, I have friends and social life. And I know how to have fun 😉 (yes, booze included).

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