Guest Post | James Chan | On Asian-American Overachievement Culture

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The following guest post was written by my college roommate and good friend James Chan. We’ve had many conversations through the years about the topic he covers in-depth in this post, so I know it’s near and dear to his heart. James currently works in the Education Technology (EdTech) industry and shares some great insight in a comprehensive post that looks at the roots of and potential solutions to the Asian-American overachievement culture.


By now, many of you may have heard of the shocking story of Jennifer Pan, who hired hitmen to kill her overbearing parents. While it is the most extreme manifestation of the widespread tension between East/South Asian immigrant parents and their children, it is sadly nowhere close to being the first incident related to this tension. From Tiger Moms to a recent uptick in suicides at Asian-heavy high schools, it’s clear that something has gone very wrong with the process by which high school students prove themselves “worthy” of attending elite universities, particularly in Asian-American suburban enclaves with which I’m most familiar and will focus on here. How have things, for lack of a better phrase, gotten so fucked up? 

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How “Harvard Or Bust” Came to Be

The Parents

The archetypal tale goes like this. Parents bust their asses off to accumulate savings in the hopes of moving their families to a better life in America – and succeed. They want their kids to also succeed and have the luxurious, comfortable lifestyle they were never able to enjoy as young adults, so they try their best to instill in their kids the attributes to enjoy that success.

However, that aspiration quickly turns into desperation and fear – parents are convinced that unless their children go to Harvard/Stanford/Princeton/Yale and become doctors/lawyers/engineers, they are doomed to a life of failure, shame, and abject poverty. From that fear, these parents use increasingly heavy-handed tactics to discipline their kids to force out of them the superhuman achievements needed to get into these schools.

As a result, these kids experience stress, burnout, and depression, something normally associated more with working professionals in their 30s than with adolescent teens. Although they rarely resort to throwing themselves onto train tracks or going Godfather on their parents, these children learn to camp out at their mailboxes to intercept their report cards, lash out at their parents’ expectations in the form of drugs, cutting, and other forms of self-harm/self-escape, and generally develop a sense that their human worth is determined by their GPA, SAT scores, and club presidencies.

How did this happen? Let’s take a look at things from the parents’ perspective.

First, most Asian parents grew up in an even more stressful high school culture. In countries such as China, Korea, Japan, and India, a single exam determines which college students get into. Also, the colleges these people attend is almost the sole criterion of the job opportunities they receive, so one test literally determines the rest of their lives. Kids who grow up in this system have their (and their parents’) lives revolve around this exam (this article and the image below provide a good summary of the testing system in China). Parents who grew up in such a system assume that American colleges similarly determine the lives of applicants, and regard 80+ hours of academic study a week as “normal.”

Translation: 6933 days until Chinese college entrance exams

Translation: 6933 days until Chinese college entrance exams

Once these parents immigrate, often to majority-Asian suburbs, the extreme focus they bring to these communities on academic achievement creates a Fox News-like echo chamber that further reinforces the Harvard-or-bust mentality. Since immigrant parents often make friends amongst themselves, they never hear about alternative methods of raising children. On the contrary, parents often gossip to each other about how this kid got some science fair award or that kid scored a 2400 on her SAT (the cause of the dreaded “Why can’t you be like X?” talk). There’s even a cottage industry of college admissions consultants and test prep academies whose marketing campaigns trigger this fear to make thousands of dollars per student on SAT prep material and college admissions advice that one can get through 10 minutes of Googling.  

Yes, there are some tiger parents who view their kids’ achievements as something to gloat about, a vanity metric for their next dim sum lunch hour. But in my experience, most parents genuinely care about their kids’ well-being as well as their academic achievements. However, their own schooling experiences and the echo chamber of other parents and college consultants convince them that well-being is a long-term goal achieved by sacrificing the short-term happiness and judgment-free exploration we used to refer to as “childhood.”

The Students and Schools

Yet it would be unfair to lay the misery of college admissions all in front of parents’ feet – students’ peers and the school environment also contribute to the problem.

Frederick_Jones

Back in 2001, NYT columnist David Brooks wrote an article called “The Organization Kid”, which described a cohort of Princeton students as an example of kids that “work their laptops to the bone, rarely question authority, and happily accept their positions at the top of the heap as part of the natural order of life.” This is extremely prevalent among Asian-American communities. Workaholic, high-achieving students are regularly held up as examples for the rest of the school to emulate. Schools, happy of the rankings boosts they get through college placements and high API and AP scores, have little incentive to discourage unhealthy overachievement.

As a result, students learn that in order to be successful, they must have 18-hour daily schedules of classes, club meetings, sports/instrument practices, homework, SAT prep, and maybe some sleep at the end if they can afford to. They start measuring themselves against idealized images of extremely successful students, then against like-minded peers in their class. Some schools facilitate this by offering grading curves and focus on AP test prep over collaborative exercises like group projects. The message: keep up with your most talented classmates or you’ll be viewed as a failure.

One particularly disturbing trend is that schools and peers often conflate the quantity of a student’s accomplishments with the quality of that student; they hold up as paragons of excellence students that run three clubs, captain two sports teams, and take seven APs. The result is that “being successful” in high school eerily resembles fantasy football; Kid A has more extracurricular activities and higher test scores than Kid B, so everybody praises Kid A while complaining that Kid B can’t measure up (“my kid just cost me 8 fantasy bragging points by getting a B!”). Maybe Key and Peele should’ve also had a “StudentCenter” sports show.

Key and Peele upon hearing the “Fantasy Student” pitch

Key and Peele upon hearing the “Fantasy Student” pitch

Obviously, no one’s saying that overachieving kids should be shamed for accomplishing too much. However, focusing on the accomplishments without discussing the lifestyle can lead to dangerous effects.

The Dangerous Effects

Burnout and Stress

Since this is a relatively new phenomenon, there hasn’t been much research done on how this breakneck pace affects students. However, there is an arena where it has been commonplace and well-documented: the workplace. Consider these studies:

  • A Business Roundtable study finds that after eight 60-hour weeks, the fall off in productivity is such that the team would have gotten more done if they had just worked 40-hour weeks all along.
  • A Harvard Business School article notes the rise in the phenomenon of “Extreme Jobs”, where people work 100+ hour work weeks and become financially successful at the cost of almost everything else in their lives.
  • The money quote from the follow-up post: “Close to 50% of extreme workers are so depleted and drained when they get home at night that they’re speechless – incapable of conversation.”

In other words, the effect of overworking on highly motivated adults has been well-documented. Extrapolate this to adolescents who don’t yet have the context on why they need to work that hard and don’t have the choice of quitting their “jobs” as students, and one can figure out the consequences on their well-being and productivity.

The scary part is that we might not even need to extrapolate – the articles above mirror high school students in overachiever environments. Sixty-hour weeks are on the low end of what a high school student seriously attempting to get into the Ivies spends on academics, homework, and extracurricular activities – and they have to keep it up for four years, not eight weeks. It’s not that hard to connect the dots between the “fantasy student” overachiever and the “extreme job” worker of tomorrow.

So the stress and burnout that people in the workplace experience? Many high school students can empathize. And as the next section will show, all this stress turns out to be counterproductive in another way.

Thank You Mario! But Our Thick Envelope is in Another Castle

In the 90’s, colleges looked for someone who was “well-rounded” – someone who ticked off all the admissions boxes. In other words, they were looking for the achievement-racking “fantasy student” described above who had an impressive quantity of APs and club presidencies. However, this type of profile, while requiring lots of willpower and hard work, was a playbook that most smart, motivated, and well-resourced students could follow. As schools, parents, and counselors (especially in Asian-American neighborhoods) started to optimize their students’ schedules towards this model, the number of “well-rounded” students skyrocketed, and colleges saw more of these students applying than they could admit. They also found out that having the majority of their students as “well-rounded” generalists led to campuses lacking diversity of thought (and often race), as everyone did the same things in high school.

In order to solve this issue, colleges pursued two main strategies to narrow down their list of applicants and diversify their student base. The first was to deemphasize box-checking in favor of specialization; as this article notes, colleges now looked for more “angular” students who excelled in one particular thing. And since colleges still wanted well-rounded classes, that one thing would preferably be different from the one thing other students were good at. The second was to actively select for students who came from different backgrounds and have shown initiative in overcoming significant challenges. So the kid who got an 1800 in her SATs while taking care of 3 siblings and holding down a job is increasingly favored over the kid with a 2200 SAT who has had the privilege (word choice intentional) of focusing purely on academics.

In general, Asian-Americans are not well-equipped to satisfy either of the above criteria. As I’ve established above, students grow up in a highly comparative and competitive environment of “why can’t you be like X?” where the objective is to execute the “well-rounded” playbook as well as possible. Potentially character-building and differentiating experiences ranging from interest projects to working a summer job are culled from a student’s calendar and replaced with a 6th AP class or extra piano lessons that, on top of making the student even more miserable, don’t provide much marginal value in the eyes of modern college admissions officers. Just like Mario in Worlds 1-7, Asian-American families often jump through countless traps and hoops only to find out that the Harvard admissions letter is in another castle.

anothercastle

How do we get out of this mess?

Possible Solutions

I don’t claim to be an expert, but I believe that any possible solution needs to highlight multiple paths to getting into top schools and jobs, help alleviate stress on both students and parents, and provide students, parents, and schools with the resources and tools necessary to maximize students’ performance and well being. Here’s my crack at several possible solutions to alleviate the issues above:

  • “College buddy” system – Schools should increase outreach to recent graduates who didn’t overburden themselves but nevertheless attended a good college to pair up with high school sophomores through senior year to provide advice and a soundboard for frustrations and stress. Students should be able to identify with recent graduates better and be more comfortable with them, and having a buddy rather than a more formal counselor may provide the support structure needed for HS students to make it through their toughest years.
  • Highlighting alternate paths/careers – Either schools or PTA associations need to make an increased effort to highlight careers beyond the usual Asian triumvirate of doctor, lawyer, engineer. Bring in alumni who have become successful doing something else and have them share their journey to their current careers. Make students and parents aware that colleges are increasingly looking for students who take these paths.
  • Creating well-being metrics for students – Grades and extracurriculars are very measurable and comparable; well-being and health are not. Students, parents, and schools should create a set of metrics that track student wellness and health that is as easy to reference as GPA. Examples include a sleep tracker to measure hours slept, heart rate spikes (to check anxiety attacks), and accelerometer-based detection of things like dosing off in class. That way, parents and teachers can know if a student is stressed out and needs to take a break; on a classroom level, administrators and teachers can use it to see if they should assign less homework and fewer tests.

Conclusion

It’s time that the Asian-American overachievement culture’s negative effects are recognized and discussed as unsustainable and harmful to students’ mental health. I strongly believe that we can create a new way of approaching high school education and college admissions that allows students to achieve excellence in more diverse ways while not causing burnout-levels of stress. Hopefully this post will encourage further discussion in recognizing how this culture came to be, what its effects can be, and additional ways to solve the problem.


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