Ever since Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother came out in early 2011, mainstream American media has paid special attention to the academic success of Asian American students. Chua’s sensationalized memoir has become a warrant to frame all of the community’s successes and failures within the model minority stereotype. For example, in late October, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal published articles titled “For Asians, School Tests Are Vital Steppingstones” and “Rise of Tiger Nation,” just one day apart from each other. Both articles discuss Asian American students’ success in standardized testing and their overwhelming presence in selective colleges and high schools, clinically crediting all this academic and professional success on the burden of immigration.
But these stories fail to nuance the various struggles of first, second, and in-between generations of Asian American students and adults alike. When we’re praised as a group solely for our grades, or when the “heroes” all work in the same stereotypical industries, it’s easy for students to be pressured into feeling like there is only one option: a straight A, science- and math-oriented life leading to careers as doctors, engineers, accountants, or lawyers.
I learned this lesson the hard way. I spent my first year in college completely bewildered and overloaded with the opportunities in front of me. It took some time to realize that so much of the pressure I felt to take certain courses was actually self-pressure to fulfill this model minority role. At some point, I realized that I didn’t need to join five different clubs. It was okay not to max out my class schedule every semester and even—gasp—take a class pass/fail instead of getting a grade. If I sometimes struggled to juggle everything, that didn’t mean I was doomed for life.
Once I freed myself from that idea of what I should be, I started with a fresh slate. As a senior, I’m studying philosophy and not interviewing for accounting jobs or applying to law school (not that there’s anything wrong with that if it’s what you love). I’m working on the special studies course that I proposed myself, on Asian American mothers’ work and family conflict. Along the way, I’ve surprised myself with what I actually enjoy and what I can accomplish. I had to get out of my own way by rising above the pervasive stereotype.
Perhaps I’m feeling especially introspective because I’m graduating soon, or perhaps it’s because it’s the end of another year. Either way, here’s my advice to college students, from one to another: Take advantage of the four years you have before the “real world.” Don’t sell yourself or your instincts short because of societal influences. Challenge what society might think by forgetting about it and owning what you really want. Isn’t that what college is supposed to be about?