Why Asian American kids excel. It’s not ‘Tiger Moms.’

Why do Asian American students outpace everyone else academically?

The most publicized attempt to answer that question — a few years ago, by Yale Law School professor Amy Chua — set off a controversy that rages to this day.

Chua’s answer, originally set out in a 2011 Wall Street Journal opinion article “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” was that “tiger mothers” were prepared to coerce kids into doing homework and practicing the piano, in part by calling them names. Chua (who’s latest book is “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America) held herself and her academically successful children out as examples.

But a new study published in the journal “Race and Social Problems” by two California scholars takes on Chua, suggesting that with all the economic resources at her disposal — she and her husband are Yale professors with highly-educated parents — her children’s success is just as likely the result of socioeconomic and cultural advantages, generally cited by scholars as the main reason some children do better than others.

The authors of “The Success Frame and Achievement Paradox: The Costs and Consequences for Asian Americans” are Min Zhou, professor of sociology and Asian American Studies at the Univ. of California at Los Angeles, currently on leave at Nanyang Technological University, and Jennifer Lee, professor of sociology at the Univ. of California at Irvine.

Scholar Min Zhou, is the co-author with Jennifer Lee of new study. (Courtesy UCLA)
Scholar Min Zhou, the co-author with Jennifer Lee of a study about Asian American success. (Courtesy UCLA)

A better way to understand Asian American academic success, they write, is to look at families who don’t have resources and succeed nonetheless.

That is exactly what they’ve done. And their findings are pretty straightforward: Young Asian Americans have all kinds of good role models to emulate. Their communities and families make sure they get extra help when they need it. Their families, even on limited resources, manage to seek out and move to neighborhoods with good schools. And they aspire to success with specific goals in mind: medicine, law, engineering and pharmacy. And they aim for the best schools.

It’s not about coercion or some mysterious ethnic gift, they write. It’s about the way they view their horizons, with extraordinarily high expectations — so high that kids who don’t rise to the occasion feel like “black sheep” and “outliers.”

Zhou and Lee studied Chinese American and Vietnamese American communities in Los Angeles without a lot of financial resources or parental higher education — factors that tend to skew other academic studies of success. They focused on two groups: the so-called “1.5 generation” — foreign-born immigrants who came to the United States prior to age 13 — and second-generation families. They conducted 82 face-to-face interviews to get a picture of why these communities are doing so well in advancing their children through high school and college.

Here’s what they found: Although their means are limited, Asian families in the study choose neighborhoods carefully to make sure schools offer honors and advanced-placement courses. To do this, parents use the “Chinese Yellow Pages,” which the researchers describe as “a two-inch thick, 1,500-page long telephone directory that is published annually and lists ethnic businesses in Southern California, as well as the rankings of the region’s public high schools and the nation’s best universities.” They also make sure their kids get plenty of supplementary help such as tutoring.

These families have incredibly high standards, according to the study. If kids come home with a 3.5 grade-point average, parents are disappointed that it’s not 4.0 — and they show it.

If a child gets into, say, Cal State, the question is why they didn’t make it into Stanford.

If a son or daughter comes home and settles for a bachelor’s degree, they’re made to feel less accomplished because they don’t have a PhD.

Both groups in the study, Zhou and Lee reported, adopt a similar “frame for what ‘doing well in school’ means: getting straight A’s, graduating as valedictorian or salutatorian, getting into one of the top UC (University of California) schools or an Ivy, and pursuing some type of graduate education in order [to] work in one of the ‘four professions’: doctor, lawyer, pharmacist, or engineer. So exacting is the frame for ‘doing well in school’ that our Asian respondents described the value of grades on an Asian scale as ‘A is for average, and B is an Asian fail.’’’

Such high standards have positive and negative impacts, the researchers found.

If expectations are that high, many young people will try to meet them. They will get into Stanford and they will get that PhD.

The downside is that those who fall short — the ‘A-minus’ student’ — wind up feeling alienated from their ethnicity. In short, they feel less Asian and more, well, American.

They describe a young man named Paul who chose to be an artist instead of following the path prescribed by his parents. He called himself “the whitest Chinese guy you’ll ever meet.”

They tell of one young woman they interviewed, Sarah, who when asked whether she feels successful compared to her friends who are not Chinese, pauses “as if she had never considered that comparison before and finally replied, ‘If I were to look at my white friends of that same age range, yes I’m more successful. If I were to look at all of my friends, yes, I would say so.’”

They write:

Sarah is not unique in this regard; none of the 1.5- and second-generation Chinese and Vietnamese respondents considered measuring their success against native-born whites (or native-born blacks for that matter). Rather, they turn to high-achieving coethnics as their reference group — a finding that highlights that native-born whites are not the standard by which today’s 1.5- and second-generation Asians measure their success and achievements.

…So strong is the perception that the success frame is the norm among Asian Americans that the 1.5- and second-generation Chinese and Vietnamese who cannot attain it or choose to buck it find themselves at odds with their immigrant parents and with their ethnic identities.

While acknowledging the benefits of this “success frame,” Zhou and Lee are not entirely happy with it. They say they would prefer that academic prowess no longer be “coded as an ‘Asian thing.’”

Then, they write, “Asian American students may be more willing to measure their success against a more reasonable barometer, which may result in a boost in self-esteem and self-efficacy.”

Fred Barbash, the editor of Morning Mix, is a former National Editor and London Bureau Chief for the Washington Post.
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