Asian students struggle to meet the expectations, demands and success of their parents. This piece also ran in the Spring 2009 issue.
By Lauren Glass
After receiving an 85 percent on her first Arts and Ideas exam, sophomore art history major Emily Wen ran to the bathroom and broke down into tears. Sobbing uncontrollably, she called her mom for comfort.
“I still remember exactly what she said: ‘This is not what I taught you to be. I thought you were worth more than an 85 percent.’ I had never received anything lower than a 90 before. I was absolutely heartbroken and hearing the disappointment in my mom’s voice felt worse than anything I’ve ever felt before,” she says.
The immense pressure that Wen’s parents put on her to succeed, combined with the stress of homework and exams, proved unmanageable for Wen, leading her to take a leave of absence this semester.
Many of Syracuse University’s Asian students know this struggle well. According to research conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2006, the vast majority of adults in Asian countries believe that students face too much parental pressure, while adults in the U.S. believe that students face too little. The implications of these findings are clear: in general, Asian parents demand higher grades, harder course loads and more prestigious internships than their Western counterparts. Parental pressure can be a huge issue for college students in particular since they have to struggle to meet high expectations and define their personal identities against the demands of their parents.
For students like Wen, that pressure starts early. From age 10, Wen was expected to set an example for the rest of her siblings by balancing her home chores with extracurricular activities, such as piano, theater and yearbook committee, while also maintaining A’s and graduating salutatorian of her class.
Other parents enroll their children in “cram schools,” after-school tutoring program that teach study techniques and provide preparation for standardized tests. Cram schools have become something of a social epidemic in Asia; the Chinese Ministry of Education lists them as a crucial part of its curriculum, claiming they use “rich and colorful extracurricular activities…to mould [sic] the students’ temperament and temper their willpower.” Recently, such cram schools have also spread to the U.S.
Lu Yu, a sixth-year graduate education student from China, spent between 48 and 56 hours in school each week.
“I went to school six days a week, from eight o’clock in the morning until four or five in the afternoon,” she says. “Then you have to do your homework at night at home, you couldn’t finish your homework at school, that’s impossible. My parents wanted me to go to school seven days a week, and I had to go to a private tutor to help me study for exams on the weekends.”
Sociologists have found this enormous pressure hard to explain. According to some, the emphasis Asian parents place on education could be due to one’s ancestral history. Because Asians have long been a minority in the U.S. and because labor unions often discriminated against them, education became a huge incentive for Asians to advance as a minority culture.
The issue may be as simple, however, as basic mathematics: Asian countries are densely populated, so competition for virtually anything is fierce. There were more than 29 million students enrolled in Chinese secondary schools as of 2002, the most recent year for which data is available, so students have to be exceptional in order to gain admittance to top colleges and to later succeed in crowded job markets.
“It’s really competitive. It’s a lot of people in a tiny place,” says Cynthia Lin, a sophomore fashion design major from Taiwan. “The way [Asian parents] believe they are going to survive is to educate their kids in a different way than the Western parents.”
Dr. Susan Wadley, the associate dean of the South East Asian Studies program and a professor of anthropology at SU, says the pressure that Asian parents place on their college-aged children actually reverses the Western parenting model.
“In Asian cultures, in particular South Asia, there tends to be more pressure and more control as young people get older, where in the U.S. it tends to be lighter as you grow older,” Wadley says. “Asian parents are more likely to define what you are going to study in school…whereas we start telling children no and putting controls on young children and we lighten it throughout the years. In South Asia, it’s the opposite.”
Consequently, this pressure can translate into demands that students pursue a particularly prestigious profession or course of study.
Lin was a biology major until she transferred from the College of Arts and Sciences to the College of Visual and Performing Arts this year.
“My parents really didn’t want me to major in fashion,” she says. “I don’t think many Asian parents would like their children to study fashion…Design is not accepted by the majority of Asian parents.”
Anthony Chung, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, faced a similar situation. Like many other Asian adolescents, Chung spent his childhood summers taking classes to enhance his knowledge and prepare him for college entrance exams. But when he came to college, Chung decided to rebel against the academic standards set by his parents.
“I feel like when Asian parents try to pressure their kids into doing all that work, you tend to see all these Asian students who are not very social,” Chung says. “If all they do is do work, they lose out on making friends…I try to break away and separate myself from that.”
Likewise, Emily Wen’s mother and grandmother demanded a 4.0. For Wen, struggling to find a balance between enjoying her college experience and satisfying her family’s expectations led to overwhelming anxiety.
“It’s all psychological. It’s all mental,” Wen says. “It’s a battle between myself and how I can prove to them that they have a worthy and special daughter and granddaughter…I never felt as if I was performing up to par.”
For some students, that psychological strain proves dangerous or fatal. In 2007, the National Institute of Mental Health funded the opening of the Asian American Center on Disparities Research, concentrating on mental health issues as a direct result of an exponential rise in depression and suicide rates among Asians and Asian Americans on college campuses. Approximately 1,100 suicides occur on college campuses each year, according to the Jeb Foundation, a non-profit organization that seeks to reduce the college suicide rate; Asian-American women account for the highest suicide rate among women age 15 to 24.
Dr. Lawrence Lewandowski, a psychology professor at SU, emphasizes the importance of a controlled amount of pressure, but admits that too much anxiety can actually cause students to perform badly in school and potentially lead to life threatening physical side effects.
“A little bit of pressure due to wanting to achieve is not necessarily a bad thing. The issue then becomes how much is enough,” he says. “If people are stressed to the point of having physical symptoms – anorexia, sleeplessness, depression, more generalized anxiety, avoidance behaviors so that they are staying away from studying because it brings them the most discomfort – all those are good signs that this individual has got things out of balance.”
The solution to this anxiety, Lewandowski says, is to seek help from a mental health professional on or off campus. Attempting to communicate concerns and anxieties with parents and trying to understand their motivations can also help.
Freshmen Samantha Okazaki and her father, Ted Okazaki, have not struggled with the pressure issue the way other students have. Ted Okazaki came to the U.S. from Japan, where he struggled to meet his parents’ high standards; since then, he’s strived not to place the same amount of pressure that he endured on his children.
“I’ve tried to hopefully show them that hard work and doing the right things makes a difference, but [I’m] not hammering it in as hard as my parents did for me,” he says. “I try to give them a little bit more time to do some of the things that they would like to engage in, rather than what I would like them to do.”
Likewise, Wen’s semester off has helped her to come to terms with her family’s sometimes overwhelming criticism.
“I realized that besides our friends, our families are the backbone of who we are,” she says. “I realized that I was putting too much pressure on myself to get all A’s, because I wanted to please my family, when in fact my family didn’t want me to push myself over the limit. They just wanted me to do my best.”