About the author and the Alliance of Chinese Americans San Diego (ACA) Scholarship: Ms. Amy Wang is a recipient of the ACA Scholarship. She is currently a senior at Westview High School (San Diego, CA). This article is a part of her work within the ACA Scholarship programs. The views and opinions expressed belong solely to the author, and do not represent those of ACA and its members. ACA Scholarships are established to encourage API youth’s involvement and awareness in community events.
As college admissions season begins, there’s been a resurgence of parental and societal pressure for many Asian Americans students. Ivy-league expectations have once again crept into the room, like an ever-present elephant that has been a household staple for too many kids.
Speaking as a rising high school senior, college admissions is an immovable institution to me in a way that nearly nothing else is. For the past 3 years of my life, I have worked up to this moment. I have spent hours of my life, waking and sleeping, dreaming of the idea of attending a good school, all for the distant promise of success and employability. I’m no stranger to the sleepless nights and copious hours spent on studying and test prep and all manner of extracurricular activity. I know acronyms that stand for some of the highest institutions in the process (HYPSM, ISEF, AIME) because I’ve spent so long online, browsing through discussions that debate the merits of one competition over another, even if I’ve never participated in them myself. The allure of prestige feels undeniable at times — the promise of a well-paying job and connections that’ll help me later in life are like a siren song. I’ve spent nearly my entire childhood spoon-fed the idea that a good college will help me go places, that an institution with name recognition big enough can unlock doors like nothing else can.
And although I wouldn’t describe my parents as nearly as hardcore as those I’ve heard my peers bemoan, there’s certainly a pressure to succeed. To write more, and work harder, and win more awards. Therein lies the cultural and familial expectation to do well.
But why? Why do Asian Americans, particularly East Asian ones, pursue college education with such vigor, pursuing masters degrees and PhDs in statistics and in chemistry and in other ungodly numbers? Why has college admissions become such a paramount obsession to so many Asian Americans? And perhaps more importantly, why does this cultural phenomenon often go unquestioned?
The reasons presented for this surge in Asian American college admissions are as tired as my first-year calculus notes: Asians have higher test scores, are more educated, and have parents who emphasize education. Rather than critically analyzing why I expect myself to go to a good college, I have found myself far too often accepting this idea as objective truth, a given, something that everyone accepts and follows out of course.
But this course is one that’s ultimately unsustainable. Now more than ever, I’ve realized that there needs to be reckoning with the “elephant” in the room, this ever-growing pressure to do well academically that seems to have no dearth of demand. The stakes are high considering the continued employment gap that persists between Asian Americans and every other racial group in the United States. Some of us will find ourselves lucky enough to be selected as the lucky ones who make it through the rigorous process and discover a world that’s welcoming, but many of us will have to deal with a very different, far less forgiving reality. Youth suicide rates are going up among Asian Americans, with immigrants and those whose first language isn’t English particularly at-risk. “Failure” is not a pleasant word for many Asian Americans, but it can be especially cruel to those who have been conditioned to think that their self worth is tied to their academic performance.
For many Asian Americans, our parents and our communities want us to live up to the stereotype that all Asians are studious, good at math, and excel in institutions of higher learning. At the same time, none of us are seriously asked why we want this. We don’t reflect on what the consequences may be of valuing education so highly, not just for those who have internalized this value, but for our society as a whole. We need to critically engage with these stereotypes and expectations and interrogate them. There are huge benefits to asking why this is demanded of us, and immense potential for dialogues that can lead to solutions. But we can only do that if we collectively recognize that there is a problem, that the elephant is not just some imaginary entity, but a real, present weight on us.
Being Asian in this process already means that you are constantly challenging who you are and what you’ve achieved. Because of existing stereotypes that tie our cultural backgrounds directly to work-ethic and success-driven culture, we are constantly looking to do better, to work harder. It’s important to remember the value that we carry within ourselves, as Asian Americans and as people. But by placing the blind focus of education above all else, we’re denying ourselves a voice, as well as denying our peers and our children the chance to be seen for who they are and for what they can do.
Instead of letting ourselves be subsumed by this monolithic ideal of the “successful Asian American” in academia, it’s important for parents and students alike to explore who we are and the value of our own perspectives. College, after all, is just one of the many steps in the staircase of life. Getting caught up on it and viewing it as the end goal is indescribably damaging to future growth and progress.