For many Asian immigrants, these dreams of academic success have survived long journeys and refugee camps. Yet there are dark perils that run along the same path to achievement.

New America Media, Commentary, Andrew Lam, Posted: May 16, 2007


His first semester at UC Berkeley, H, a freshman, painted a picture that harked back to a foreign and distant past. In it, a young mandarin in silk brocade and hat, flanked by banner-carrying soldiers, rides an ornate carriage down the road along which peasants stand and watch.

We had just met then, and when he saw me looking at his painting, H said, “Do trang nguyen ve lang” – Vietnamese for “Mandarin returns home after passing the Imperial Exam.”

H didn’t need to explain. Like many Asian students from Confucian-bound countries – Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, Japan, and of course, China; what a family friend often called “chopstick nations” – I could easily decipher the image. In some ways, for us scholarship boys, it is the equivalent of Michael Jordan flying in the air like a god doing a slam-dunk – a dream of glorious achievements.

H was driven with an iron will to achieve academic success. While his dorm-mates put up posters of movie stars and sports heroes, the image he drew and hung above his desk was a visual sutra that would help him focus. There was no question of failure. Back home, an army of hungry, ambitious and capable young men and women were dying to take his place, and for H, a boat person who barely survived his perilous journey across the South China Sea, “dying to” was no mere idiomatic expression.

No surprise then that almost two decades since my college days, Asian-Americans dominate higher education. Though less than five percent of the country’s population, Asian-Americans typically make up 10 to 30 percent at the country’s best colleges. In California, Asians form the majority of the UC system. And at Berkeley – considered by U.S. News & World Report as a top ranked university – Asian freshmen have reached the 46 percent mark this year (whites are at 29 percent, blacks at 3.9 percent and Latinos at 11 percent).

On the surface, academic success is a source of collective pride. The mythology of scholarship Asian boys and girls who honor their parents by getting straight A’s and then making their ways to brilliant professional careers has been sown so deeply into our collective psyche. Many of us consequently learn to measure the world and ourselves solely through a simple pedagogic lens. You are how well you do in school.

Inevitably, there’s a dark subterraneous stream that runs parallel to this shining path to academic success. Stress, disappointment, depression, low self-esteem, and, identity crisis. And at one far end of that continuum we now also have a name: Cho Seung-Hui.

When news reached the world that the person responsible for the worst modern day mass shooting in the United States was in fact an Asian student at Virginia Tech, many Asian-Americans were shocked. But shock slowly gave way to collective shame, and then some modicum of recognition. The most telling sign in the news report was – for me at least – that when Cho was asked to write down his name, he instead drew a question mark.

That struck a chord. Until I defied my parents, refusing to go to medical school after graduating in biochemistry at Berkeley and became a writer instead, I wrote down questions on my notebooks. What am I doing? Who am I exactly? Why am I studying so hard to please my parents who aren’t happy anyway? When do I begin to live for myself?

Without these questions, I was more or less on autopilot in college. Like so many of my bright-eyed peers, I was trained to take exams, but my life was woefully un-examined. For often in many Asian-American families, especially immigrant ones, there’s an unwritten contract. Parents will sacrifice – work two jobs, eat less, take no vacation, wear old clothes, sell blood if need be – in order to guarantee their children the best education. In return, their children will do well in school and succeed. Failing the grades is the same as breaking a sacred oath, not to mention one’s parent’s heart. In the Confucian mindset, an Asian child who drops out of school is a child who reeks of dishonor and shame.

The same year I met H, a Chinese boy from my dorm unit attempted to jump from Berkeley’s Campanile tower after receiving a bad grade. It took police officials several hours to talk him down. He considered suicide because, so goes the rumor, he had never gotten a lowly B before, until Vector Calculus bested him.

When I became a journalist one of the biggest stories I covered in the early 1990’s was about four Vietnamese teenagers who took over an electronics store in Sacramento, California, demanding one million dollars and helicopters to fly back to Vietnam and thousand-year-old ginseng roots. They shot hostages when their demands were not met, and a SWAT team went in, killing three and wounding one who now serves several life sentences. The news media originally thought the boys were gang members, but it turned out that they were anything but. They failed school. Being recent arrivals from the refugee camps, they no longer saw a future for themselves. Education being the be all and end all, they took their own Hong Kong gangster movies-inspired way out.

Reporting from East Asia, I often read stories in the local papers of students committing suicide, throwing themselves on train tracks or out the windows when they failed an important exam. Robbed of what they know best, many are often confronted with dreaded feelings of loss and despair.

But why is education so deeply ingrained in the Confucian mindset?

Long before America existed, something of the American Dream had already taken place in East Asia, through the system of Mandarin examinations. Villages and towns pooled resources and sent their brightest to compete in the imperial court. Mandarins of various rankings were selected by how well they fared through the extremely rigorous examinations. Those brilliant few who passed were given important bureaucratic duties and it was they who ran the day-to-day operations of imperial court. A mandarin could become governor, a judge, or even marry into the royal family. A peasant thus could rise high above his station, honoring his ancestors and clans in the process. It all hinged on his ability to pass the exams.

That East Asian penchant for education hasn’t changed a whole lot since the fall of the late Qing dynasty in 1905. If anything it has become intensified because the modern education system in various countries – but especially in the United States – has given opportunities to far more people than ever before. But the competition remains fierce.

In 2005, The American College Health Association reported that four of 10 college students said that they “felt so depressed it’s difficult to function.” One out of ten had contemplated suicide. I wonder, given the disproportionately high number of Asians in higher education, how many suffer from depression and stress, and how many contemplated suicide?

Which comes back to the question of Cho Seung-Hui. That his murderous rampage is due to mental illness and not race is indisputable. But I wonder if Cho’s parents, who knew that he had problems, didn’t take the illness and rage as seriously as they should have because, well, how crazy could their son possibly be when he managed to get into Virginia Tech? Didn’t he, after all, fulfill their expectations in some ways by getting into a prestigious college? And for that matter, given his existing psychological impairments, how much had being caught in the traditional educational pressure cooker robbed him of much needed social skills?

I do not know the answers but I do know that a far more muted if typical tragedy is that of H. He was a talented painter. His paintings were so beautiful that art professors offered to buy them. In fact he was offered a place in graduate school in the arts. Though tempted, H declined. He wanted to be a doctor as his mother expected of him. He had to come home in his own way in the modern brocade and mandarin hat.

A few years ago I saw him again. There was a deep sadness to H that I hadn’t seen before, despite the coveted title of doctor. That old iron will to do well was gone. He had no vision left, no tests to take. I asked him if he still painted. “No,” H answered and looked wistfully away.


Other Recent Readings of Interest

  • Letter from Kolkata: It’s Summer But School’s Not Out
    By Sandip Roy, New America Media
    In India the pressure to get onto the information superhighway is intense, and doing well in school and beyond requires going to coaching centers year round. The results of this competitive drive can be deadly.
  • Not All Asians Are at the Top of Their Class
    By Carolyn Goossen, New America Media
    The myth that all Asians excel academically has created a data gap that excludes several Southeast Asian communities, such as the Hmong and Laotian. Many do not fit the stereotype of an Asian “model minority” and advocates say that without the data to prove they exist, there is no way to address the low-performance problems that persist for students in these communities.


A writer and editor with New America Media, Lam is the author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.”

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