Debunking myths about the Asian American academic experience

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(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images).
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images).

Asian Americans and their experience with higher education.

It’s not all about the stereotype of high achievers and elite universities.

Today, On Point: Debunking myths about the Asian American academic experience


Julie J. Park, associate professor of education at the University of Maryland, College Park. Author of "Race on Campus: Debunking Myths with Data" and "When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education."

Also Featured

Sen. Susan Pha, Minnesota state senator representing the 38th district. Second Hmong woman elected to the Minnesota Senate.

Misha Shahid, graduate student at the University of Connecticut studying political science. President and founder of AAPI Wellness.

Samuel Song, professor and director of the school psychology program at San Diego State University.

Simon Wong, On Point listener in Los Angeles, California. Software engineer and a father of two.

Albus Du, On Point listener in College Park, Maryland.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This past June, The Supreme Court issued its decision overturning affirmative action in college admissions. And ever since then, something's been nagging at me that just won't quit. It's got nothing to do with the court's decision. This nagging feeling that's bothering me has to do with how we, in the media, talked about one of the groups at the heart of the case.

It's about how we talked about Asian American students. So whether in print, television, on social media, on the radio, including on this show, typically the coverage would ... it would go something like this. There'd be a headline or an introductory line, a couple of sentences about the legal background of the case, who was suing, who was defending, then soundbites from various stakeholders in the case.

And when Asian American students were quoted, It'd likely be a sentence or two from one student who opposed affirmative action, maybe tied to the plaintiff's group. And sometimes there'd be one student for affirmative action, and then the story would move on. So it's been a while now, and I'm, I don't know.

This is still nagging at me, because first of all, Asian American, quote, end quote. To be honest, to me this term verges on the meaningless. Because according to the U.S. Census, there are more than 24 million people of Asian origin in this country, and they trace their heritage to dozens of nations and more than 50 ethnic groups.

Now, it's not so outrageous for me to say that Cambodia has about as little in common with Pakistan, as Sicily does with Luxembourg. But we don't use the term European American, do we? Okay, so I'm simply seeking some accuracy. And as a journalist, frankly, I don't think we've been accurate. Because in all of that affirmative action coverage, it's understandable if people came away with the feeling that most, quote, Asian students are super achieving, elite college aspirants. And as a little sidebar, full disclosure, that absolutely was and is me.

But the truth is, college attainment among those 24 million Americans varies tremendously. More than 75% of Indian and Taiwanese Americans hold at least a bachelor's degree. In the Laotian American community, that number drops down to 16%. In order to rid me of this nagging feeling, here's what we're going to do today.

We're going to chip away at the imaginary monolith of Asian Americans in higher education. And we're going to look at the actual broad spectrum of their educational experiences. And I suspect those stories will reveal as much about this nation as a whole as it will about the communities themselves.

For example, Senator Susan Pha, she's a Minnesota State Senator representing the state's 38th District. She's part of the Hmong community, and Senator Pha never went to college.

SEN. SUSAN PHA: My mom and my father had always instilled in us how important education was. Historically, girls, especially in our home countries were not given the privilege to go to school. And so they had always emphasized how important it was for us to go to school.

The only difference between me and my brothers was that girls were always taught at a young age, go to school, do well. Learn as much as you can, and then when you are of married age, then that's when you can stop your education and get married and become a good wife, a good daughter in law, and a good mother.

That was your role.

CHAKRABARTI: The Hmong ethnic group originates in China's southern provinces, under pressure from an expanded Han Chinese population. Over the past couple of centuries, Hmong people moved into Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. That's where Senator Pha's family comes from. They arrived as refugees to the United States from Laos when she was three years old.

According to the 2020 census, there are about 368,000 Hmong people in America. Now, 23% hold a bachelor's degree or higher. 77%, like Senator Pha, do not.

PHA: I remember in my third grade, I was reading so many books and I was thinking, wow, like these stories in these books would take me on an adventure and how much I love that.

And so I grew up thinking I wanted to become an author someday. And I remember telling my mom one day when I came home from school about wanting to write a book. And my mom just looked at me and giggled and thought I was just silly. Because especially our moms, who grew up in a different time from us, really didn't want to feel like they were filling their girls' heads with a lot of dreams that weren't real, that were never going to happen.

I just started hiding what I really wanted from my family because I knew that it was making them unhappy. I was the oldest of eight children, so I was second mom to almost all my siblings and my mom had a tough life, right? I knew our family was struggling and I did not want to add on to her stress. And her struggle. So I, after a while, I understood that she was never going to see it my way.

It was really tough. Because when I was 17 years old, I had dreamt about going away for college. And my mom basically said to me, there's no way. (LAUGHS) There's absolutely no way you could ever go away for college. Girls who go away to college are not good girls. They end up getting themselves in trouble.

They end up getting themselves pregnant and not married. They end up doing all kinds of things that will shame their families. And so there's no way you would go away for college. And she said, the best thing you could do to make me proud is finish high school, find a good husband, be a good wife, and be a good mom.

That's how you would make me proud and make all the sacrifices that I had to give and do, so that you could have a better life here in America, worthy. And, as someone who saw her struggle, and as the oldest daughter, that was really hard. It was really hard to give up your dreams. Because you knew that was how you were going to honor and pay tribute to your family.

But for a very long time, I tried to be that perfect daughter and that perfect person for my family. And it wasn't until I was much older in my adult life, after I've been married and had a couple of kids, that I finally found myself and I finally went back to my dreams. Not what other people told me I had to do.

But what did I want to do?

People always say, why didn't you go back to college? You could have done that anytime. There was still a lot of expectations about now you're a married woman. So now you're under the expectations of your husband's family. And in the Hmong culture, that's very strong. And education was not something that people wanted to see their daughter in laws to pursue.

I just didn't see politicians and leaders that looked like me, with a history like mine, but it was through passion and through the commitment to try and make a difference in my community that led me to public office.

Looking back, I would say I wish I could have rebelled more. Because other people's expectations of you and their restraints on what you can or can't do should not be your own. And I would say that's also why now in my adult life, I am so rebellious. It's almost the opposite now because I'm like, no way.

No one's going to set limits on me. It's because you start to see that for so long, you let those things oppress you and decide for you what your future is. And that's also why, again, I went to public office is really to fight against some of that.

CHAKRABARTI: Minnesota State Senator Susan Pha. She represents Minnesota's 38th district. So as you heard, Senator Pha hails from the Hmong community now in the United States. They're one of the 50 plus ethnicities represented when we talk about Asian Americans. So joining us now is Julie Park. She's an associate professor of education at the University of Maryland, College Park.

She also directs the College Admissions Futures Collaborative, whose research seeks to gain a greater understanding of how admissions policies have an impact on equity. Professor Park, welcome to the program.

JULIE PARK: Yes. Thank you for having me. Okay. So first of all, tell us what you hear in Senator Pha's story.

PARK: Yeah, I'm first just deeply moved. And it's funny because I'm actually doing this interview from Minneapolis today, because I'm here for a conference. And so it's interesting just to be in this different context or just this context that has shaped so many people's lives, Minnesota and just the rich history of migration and the vibrant communities that are here.

A couple of things came to mind. One, I think, was just trying to, was curiosity, right? Trying to make sense of why her experience, and the experience of some in her generation, or a number of especially women, in her generation, may have experienced that. And what are the different, both community related dynamics, but also, and as a social scientist, generally, we oftentimes zoom out and sometimes there's a bigger picture or set of structural factors that influence, why people do what they do.

And the behaviors that sometimes communities take for granted or see as normal are shaped by broader developments. And part of me was just curious about how those things play out with the gender dynamics. And so it was a note to self to do some more learning. Another thought was that maybe I should let my kids rebel a lot right now.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Stay on the straight and narrow.

PARK: When they're older. I don't know.

CHAKRABARTI: Although Senator Pha tributes her rebellious streak to the thing that brought her into public service. So there's a positive there. But Professor Park, stand by for just a moment, because when we come back, I want to talk first about some of those, the zoom out impressions that we get regarding quote-unquote Asian Americans and their educational experiences.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today we're exploring the true spectrum of Asian Americans' experiences with higher education. And every time I say Asian Americans, I'm saying that in quotes, because part of the point, part of the exploration of this hour is the fact that Asian Americans are absolutely not a monolith, and they represent more than several dozen nations and more than 50 ethnicities as their stories of origin.

Professor Julie Park, before we get into slicing that monolith down, I would love to understand if there are any generalities that can roughly be applied to the 24 million Asian Americans in this country and their experiences with education. Because, for example, when you look at some studies or again, media reports about Facebook, academic achievement.

Here's one from the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It says that many explanations have been offered to account for Asian Americans' advantage in education. So there's this idea there that overall, there's some kind of advantage. Or how about this other study that says Asian American students typically score higher than other students on America's most popular college gatekeeper, as they do on other standardized tests.

For instance, among high school students who graduated in 2020, Asian American students scored an average of 632 on the SAT math section, compared to 547 for white students. Similar pattern in the language section. Is there any truth to that, about general performance?

PARK: Yeah, so, as an academic, I have to say, it's complicated for everything, there are trends, and when you look at averages and kind of aggregates, that's where Asian Americans, when you compare them to other racial ethnic groups, on the whole, when you're lumping everyone together, we do tend to see higher scores, or higher outcomes related to educational attainment.

And part of what drives that is that even though it's a tremendously diverse group, made up of so many different ethnic subgroups who have all of these different histories with migration. and the reasons why people came over to this country in the first place, six groups, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, and Indian Americans actually make up 85% of the overall Asian American community, and that's not to say their experiences are more important or anything like that, but just to say that you have certain groups that dominate, or that make up well over half of this group.

And sometimes, and of course, all of those communities are diverse in and of themselves. But when you have certain groups, for instance, that on the aggregate, within their ethnic subgroup, for instance Indian Americans or Chinese Americans, who have somewhat higher, for Indian Americans having higher median household income, for example, that can tip the scale in a way that sometimes can overshadow some of the tremendous diversity. That when you peel back the curtain, and you look underneath the surface is more complex.

CHAKRABARTI: So let's talk about some of the reasons that people offer when they look at that aggregate data as you were talking about. First of all, there's this discussion I've read frequently about maybe it's because Asian Americans are more likely to have dual parent households.

They're more likely to either live or try to live in in school districts with better schools. Any truth to that?

PARK: On average, right? Or within certain groups, but certainly not all groups. So on average, we, at least when we compare to other racial ethnic groups on the whole, Asian Americans, for instance, on average, are more likely to go to racially integrated schools, say, than in comparison to Black, Latinx, and Indigenous peers.

They're more likely to go to schools that have more socioeconomic resources, which naturally are linked with higher outcomes.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so there are a couple of other reasons that have been offered in the past. We'll come back to those in a little bit. But since you mentioned the fact of the great diversity within these 50 different ethnic groups, even if they're generally lumped into those top six countries of origin, we actually have a great example of that, the diversity within those particular groups. Because this is Misha Shahid.

She's a 23-year-old graduate student at the University of Connecticut. She's South Asian American, specifically Pakistani American.

MISHA SHAHID: My dad immigrated to the United States about 23 years ago and he's worked in computer science and insurance for mostly all of his life and so we're like aggressively middle class.

CHAKRABARTI: Back in Pakistan, Misha's dad had two master's degrees in political science and computer science. He had a career as an IT manager of a power plant and as a part time professor. However, like many other immigrants, it didn't mean that his credentials automatically carried over to the United States when he came here.

Often the U.S. does not recognize certain degrees from abroad because they come from non-accredited universities or lack the certifications and licenses required to practice those professions in the United States.

He struggled a lot acquiring an education when he came to the United States, he was working 24/7 at small, part time jobs in order to pay for his tuition.

SHAHID: And it was hard for him. Because in Pakistan, he was already a professor. So just to see that differentiation in the United States versus his homeland created this like unwavering expectation for us to excel academically, so we wouldn't struggle like he did.

From kindergarten to eighth grade, I would say I was like doing really well in school, which opened up AP classes, honors classes for high school. But the problem was when I actually began taking those classes, I was getting C's and D's for the most part. A lot of times I would say that I didn't want to be in honors.

I didn't want to be in AP classes, but was pushed by my educators to do it because they thought I was apt enough to do it. One class I really remember advocating for was geometry honors. And I remember going to my counselor, having a 57%, and my counselor straight up just told me and went, "No, you can't do this because colleges are not going to see once you drop down that you were in an honors class."

So it's just possibly better if you fail it or graduate with a 60 for the course rather than dropping down. And I remember telling her, "But the problem is, I'm not learning anything."

So I have an older sister who went to UConn, and typically in like South Asian households, whatever the older sibling does, the younger ones look up to that, and that's their expectation. And on the navigation system for college applications, there is like this little like formula thing, which if you put in your grades, your SAT scores, it tells you if you had a likelihood of entering that university. And I remember plugging in everything with my advisor and my advisor had basically encouraged me, "Don't even apply because you're not going to get in."

So I remember hearing my heart break because I was like, "Oh my gosh, this is the expectation of me and now I'm not going to be able to fulfill that."

I ended up going to a community college at first. My parents were really hesitant, but thankfully by then like my dad had also established himself as a professor in the United States. And sometimes I guess immigrant parents have this like mentality that community college is for people who quote-unquote gave up, but he you saw the resiliency in students who come from community colleges.

So he was just like, "Listen, I get it. It's not conventional, but you have to work hard." It was like that kind of expectation that if I'm letting you do this, then don't disappoint me.

I promised myself I wouldn't take classes that were going to be mentally burdensome and just really try to explore. Just learning. So I took an anthropology class, English class, a math class, just a whole bunch of classes, I guess, that sparked interest. And right off the bat, 4.0 GPA. And then got inducted into honor societies for community colleges.

So after that, I was like, "Listen I think I'm ready to go to UConn." I got accepted as a transfer student.

A lot of South Asians have this narrative where if girls aren't educated, they go through a lot of hardship in their adult life, where it's like this expectation that in order to be self-autonomous, you have to be educated. So for so long, like my main role was just like being a student and then taking like political science classes, which is my major. I realized, "Oh my God. Like I actually love learning about all of this." So bringing that to my own self, like school then became something I look forward to.

CHAKRABARTI: Misha Shahid. She's a graduate student at the University of Connecticut, where she's pursuing a master's degree in political science. Okay, so Professor Park, Misha's story is one that brings us to, I think, perhaps the most important thing there is to understand about the, again, quote-unquote, Asian American education experience. It sounds like it's tied very strongly to the immigration that various families have taken to come to the United States.

Can you tell me more about that?

PARK: Yes, very much and so one of the dominant explanations for why, on average, are there these higher educational outcomes for Asian Americans is related to this concept called hyper selectivity. And so for a number of the biggest wave of Asian migration happened during the post 1965 wave.

And so basically there's Immigration Reform Act, immigration policies were drastically revised, right? And reform that opened the opportunity for Asians to come over, but oftentimes not a random sample of Asians, not just any Asians, but highly educated ones who are coming over for graduate school.

Ones who were fulfilling key needs in the U. S. economy or in just related, different needs related to health care and whatnot. And so because this was sort of the most prominent wave of Asian migration up to date, the idea and scholars like Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou have written, and the scores of others have written on this, is that this wave set the pace for everyone. For a lot of people who were to follow, these people who came over, they naturally, they tended to be well educated. They had strong aspirations for their children, et cetera, and they expected them to meet them. And in turn, they set up these different types of infrastructures within their communities, what we call ethnic economies.

They can provide things like test prep and ethnic newspapers that put, "Hey, so and so went to Harvard" in the headline, right? And that kind of creates this feedback loop for even some individuals of that group, even if they're from more moderate or lower SES means. If they are bright, or if they're interested in school, right?

Or their parents see that, and they say, "Hey, you should do what so and so's kid is doing." And they get swept into that feedback loop.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. So then let me ask you something else about that. As you said, that first wave post the immigration act of 1965, so '65 into the 70s. When it came to the different groups of South Asian, East Asian, Southeast Asian Americans coming over, it tended to select for, as you said, more highly educated and people with means.

But then thereafter, there's a lot of family-based immigration coming into the United States, and there's a great diversity of socioeconomic diversity within these groups. Now, does that sort of change the picture when it comes to education?

PARK: Yes. Yeah, somewhat, but the idea is that for instance in later decades, we saw family reunification policies which sponsor, where, to which, where families were allowed to sponsor relatives, and you had more economic diversity from that wave.

With that economic diversity, I think, you did see more diverse outcomes, but at the same time, because that initial post-1965 wave had set the pace in terms of what are the expectations, later waves of immigrants and their children, they were either, they were able to either in some way access or benefit those resources, or they were, even if they didn't live up to them, they had to wrestle with them in other ways, right?

And so sometimes that led to different pressures on young people, right? Or stress and, feeling stereotype or, "I have to live up to this stereotype." And Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou call that the success frame. This idea that young people feel like whether they want to or not, there's this image that they have to live up to that was very much shaped by that post 1965 cohort.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. But then I'm thinking back to Senator Pha, right? Because two things about her story, which I think are important to mention again. A, her family came over as refugees, right?

Because we have a lot of, particularly from Southeast Asia, Southeast Asian communities who, let's be frank, due to American military activity in Southeast Asia, many refugees arrived in the United States because of that. And then also we have a diversity of cultural values within the various groups of Asian Americans that can influence the path that their children take. Those are things that we ought to pay attention to, right?

PARK: Yes, very much. Senator Pha, she was a refugee, her parents were refugees. And so it's an incredibly different pathway than, for instance, the student whose story we just saw or, my own father, he came over for graduate study in the early 1970s, right?

And so it's a very different path.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. But then, it does, is that often enough factored into, I started out by putting a mirror on us as, on me and the media as a whole, on how we talk about the various groups of Asian Americans. I don't see this immigration story, diversity being reflected adequately enough and in coverage.

PARK: Yeah, I agree. I think there are a lot of things about Asian Americans that aren't talked about. Of course, the Harvard case dominated the headlines. But it was rarely mentioned that well over 40% of Asian American undergraduates, they attend, not the Ivy League, they attend community colleges, right?

That's a huge portion of the community. But no one was suing anyone there. So I guess it didn't make the headlines.

CHAKRABARTI: Actually, swinging back to affirmative action, given what you said about socioeconomic diversity, and for many Asian Americans their kids may be the first to even apply to college.

Just want to get your quick thoughts about if there is some disadvantage now with the elimination of affirmative action that those groups of Asian Americans may be feeling.'

PARK: Sorry, could you rephrase the question? No. I just wanted to take it all in.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Yeah, no, you are right to call me out about an overly complex question here.

Instead, what I'm going to do since we have to take a break here. Is I will give myself a minute to think of a simpler way to ask that question, when we come back from the break.

PARK: No problem.

CHAKRABARTI: So today we are talking about the true diversity of educational experiences within this monolith that we call Asian Americans, and we'll have more simply and elegantly when we come back.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Park, I apologize for my absolute word salad before the break (LAUGHS). But what I was trying to get at is when it comes to affirmative action, I'm trying to put together some dots that we've laid out for you during the show. You said that when it comes to elite schools and Asian Americans, what we're really talking about are mostly Chinese Americans, Indian Americans, and maybe one or two other subgroups. That means that there are many Asian Americans who are coming from places, refugee families, lower socioeconomic group families who actually relied on things like affirmative action in order to maybe be one of the first people in their families to attend college.

This is becoming less clear than it was in my mind during the break, but so would the loss of affirmative action have a negative impact on those families?

PARK: Sure, absolutely. And I definitely get where you're going now. I should say I served as a consulting expert on the Harvard case on the side of Harvard.

So my opinions are my own, but very much in terms of who was going to say the Ivy League, et cetera, probably the most prominent groups included Chinese Americans, Korean Americans, Taiwanese Americans, Indian Americans, et cetera. But there are race conscious admissions, which was the ability to consider race and ethnicity.

That's important for Asian Americans, that ethnicity part in a limited fashion did open the door for Asian Americans of different ethnicities. Including, Hmong, Cambodian, Vietnamese Americans. But also within East Asian Americans as well. And something that people might not realize is that the Georgetown Center for Education in the Workforce, they did this study where they looked at test scores of those who were attending the most selective colleges.

And they said, if admissions was only based on test scores, 20% of the Asian Americans who are currently enrolled in those colleges, they would not be admitted. They would lose their seats. So there's this perception that, oh, all the Asian Americans at these schools are super high-test scoring, et cetera, and that isn't the case at all.

And so very much race conscious admissions policies were a critical tool in expanding opportunity across the spectrum for Asian Americans from different communities.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so thank you for that answer to my initially muddled question. I'm going to blame it on Friday-itis. But so let's get back to sort of immigration stories, the diversity of the educational experience.

But I want to talk for a moment about maybe some commonalities that do exist. And we're going to do that through listening to Simon Wong. He's an On Point listener from Los Angeles. He's ethnically Chinese, came to the United States from Hong Kong when he was nine years old. And Simon tells us that from early on, his parents always emphasized the value of education, but not in the stereotypical tiger parenting way.

SIMON WONG: When we immigrated into the United States, we had very little. They were so busy trying to put food on the table to make sure that I was actually housed and clothed and fed that they did not have the time or energy or the resources to be tiger parents.

CHAKRABARTI: But now, as a parent to two children ages 7 and 12, and a software engineer with the means to provide opportunities for his kids, Simon says he's become a tiger parent who encourages his kids to push themselves to be their best.

And he admits that of course doesn't always go over well with the kids.

WONG: They do say sometimes, "How come Nathan next door, how come they have to do so much less homework, how come they do less extracurricular activities, they don't have to practice piano 45 minutes every day." That has come up and the way that I have explained to them, I said, "Look, this effort that you are spending is a way for you to prepare for the future."

And that it is, again, a way to build your skills, build your confidence, practice perseverance.

CHAKRABARTI: And Simon says that for him, tiger parenting isn't necessarily about his children going to the elite schools. It's more about their learning important values that his parents passed on to him. I want to build my children's character first and foremost because I believe that is a way to overcome future obstacles in life later on.

Life is so demanding of us. And maybe it is part of my kind of immigrant experience that the work that we put in hopefully would have a direct correlation to how much we can achieve and how our life could be successful later on.

CHAKRABARTI: That's Simon Wong. He's the father of two and a software engineer and listens to On Point in Los Angeles.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Julie Park, Simon's experience really echoes with my own and it also reminds me of something that's frequently thought about Asian American families, regardless of what ethnicity they represent. And that's about this general sense that there's perhaps a greater work ethic, greater motivation, greater focus on specifically education as a means to advancement in this country.

That feels generally true to me, but feelings aren't facts, is there evidence to back that up?

PARK: It's an interesting thought. And so oftentimes I'll hear things like, "Oh, Asians, they value education so much, or they value hard work," et cetera. And I often ask questions like, "Oh, do you think other groups don't value education or other groups don't want the best for their children?"

And we actually do have polling data about how different groups, racial, ethnic groups feel about education and wanting their children to succeed. And generally last time I checked, pretty much all parents want their kids to do well. I think all parents want the best for their children.

That's like a very kind of like primal desire. Where Asian Americans differ between other groups, I think, is in terms of what sorts of payoffs they've been able to see for that hard work. And how some of those dynamics differ between the roadblocks that different communities of color may hit. And so for Asian Americans, and not all Asian Americans, but especially I'd say among certain segments of the East Asian American community, South Asians.

Where there's been this sense of, once again, I talked about that feedback loop, right? You look, you see what others in the community are doing. It seems to be benefiting from them. You're going to be like, "Okay, my kids are going to do those piano lessons and that after school math worksheets and things like that."

And generally, in this society, where some Asian Americans are able to reap some of the benefits they have on average, higher access to certain types of labor markets, or educational markets or resources that other groups don't have. They're able to get, I think, the payoff from that hard work.

So the shorthand would be, I think every community values education. It's just how are different communities able to translate those aspirations into concrete gains? And we know from the research that Asian Americans have created some kind of unique infrastructures to be able to see that payoff for their children.

And of course, that creates and fosters that feedback loop in a way that, to the point where people are like, "Oh yeah, this is just normal." They see culture as, "Oh, everyone's doing it."

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. So this is really interesting because, I was also looking at studies about educational achievement overall, K-12 here, we're not talking about college, but I guess it's factored into college readiness, and there seems to be a lot of evidence in educational research. That it's not just like academic capabilities that matter, but things such as self-regulation, motivation, resilience, as we call it, that all have an influence on academic performance.

Some people suggest that is there something about various forms of, I'm pausing here, because I don't think there's any such thing as typical parenting, but Asian American parenting that might better cultivate those qualities.

PARK: That's an interesting question. So I think in thinking of the feedback loop, right?

What is this sort of okay, what's the formula for success? And I think what people observe around them is, this idea that, okay, in this system, we hope that hard work will pay off. And so there are some studies in terms of Amy Shin and other scholars have done on trying to hone in on what are some of these elements that might be more prevalent within Asian Americans on average than other groups.

And one is the idea that you can get better at math, in particular, through practice, through doing those extra worksheets, through getting tutoring or et cetera. And we can see that there are a number of gains that can be linked to that.

And I think, on one hand, that's an attitude or some might call it a mindset, but I think there's a broader social structure that's influencing things like the hyper selectivity that I talked about before and the infrastructure within certain segments of the Asian American community that definitely reinforce and perpetuate those norms.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. That's so interesting. Cause I'm actually looking at one of the papers that Amy Shin co-authored or yeah, co-wrote. And this is a 2014 paper, so I'll grant that it's a little bit dated, but in this paper, she said we find that the Asian American educational advantage over whites is attributable mainly to Asian students exerting greater academic effort.

And not to advantages in tested cognitive abilities or sociodemographics. Okay. In the time that we have, I want to hear from one more voice. This is another young voice, Albus Du. He's an On Point listener in College Park, Maryland. He's 18 years old and says he's of Chinese origin. And he says his parents were what he calls a softer version of Tiger parents.

They didn't put any ultimatums on him, but academics were central. And they did monitor his grades.

ALBUS DU: This all came to a head around middle school, when we would have a huge fight every time I got a C on an algebra quiz, which was almost every algebra quiz. And this kind of burnt all of us out. Towards the end of middle school and the beginning of high school, my parents slowly eased off because they were running out of energy, and they were seeing that even though they weren't watching my grades as much anymore, my grades were doing just fine and actually improving.

CHAKRABARTI: Improving to the point where Albus thrived in high school. He got straight A's, high scores on 10 AP tests, and more importantly to him, he also was able to become an Eagle Scout. He worked part-time and had a thriving social life.

DU: I think I'm a pretty well-rounded adult today, and I don't think that it would've been possible if I had a more stereotypically Chinese upbringing or a more stereotypically American upbringing.

Now I think that my stricter childhood instilled in me a high need for achievement and my looser adolescence allowed me to achieve those heights in areas that were not just academics.

CHAKRABARTI: Albus is thoughtful though, about those dual influences and that the fact is they sometimes came at a cost.

DU: I don't know if I would say it was worth it because, sometimes my relationship with my parents did get pretty rocky, but in the end it all turned out very well and I have a very good relationship with them today.

CHAKRABARTI: Albus Du, he's 18, listens to On Point in College Park, Maryland. Julie, this is the other broad stereotype, I'll just put it that way, that comes with the monolithic view of Asian Americans and education. And that is the kind of parenting people believe is prevalent.

It comes at a high cost to their children. If there's diversity in educational experience, certainly there's diversity in parenting. But I wonder what you think about that cost narrative?

PARK: Yeah, I think, definitely within the Asian American community there are significant concerns related to mental health, related to just the sort of the fallout, right?

The dark side of the model minority stereotype, right? What happens when you don't live up to expectations and how both young people can be very hard on themselves. And once again, as a social scientist, I'll zoom out a little bit and say for a lot of these families, it also doesn't help.

It's not just a matter of parenting, but a lot of these families, especially if they're working around the clock right to put food on the table. And don't always have as much time or effort just to hang out with kids and spend quality time, right? So it feels like you don't always have that time.

So you have to reinforce these norms and, your kid are, some people say, "Oh, my kid's my retirement plan," which actually sounds like it could cause some issues. And yeah, very much I think for a lot of first generation, especially Asian American families, it's something that people in the field are very, mental health clinicians and outreach programs are very interested in trying to just help reach out to Asian American young people to get them resources, to help them to navigate, to know you can survive, but you need to also get help.

And to try to normalize things like counseling or to try to have community outreach through community-based outlets, to parents themselves. Also, to help them recognize you're doing this because you love your children. Let's not lose sight of that love.

This program aired on November 17, 2023.


Headshot of Jonathan Chang

Jonathan Chang Producer/Director, On Point
Jonathan is a producer/director at On Point.


Headshot of Meghna Chakrabarti

Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.


Tim Skoog Sound Designer and Producer, On Point
Tim Skoog is a sound designer and producer for On Point.



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