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Marc Fisher

Asian Students Contend With Expectations

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page C01

"H ow many of you play piano?" I ask. Nearly everyone raises a hand.

"Been in an SAT prep course since seventh grade?" Oh yeah.

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"Go to Chinese school on Saturdays?" Check.

By this point, the Asian students who fill a room at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville are laughing -- at their stereotype, at themselves, at life as immigrants' kids.

The students summoned me here because there's a story they want told, a story about lives that others assume are copacetic -- straight A's, top colleges, smooth sailing.

Other kids at RM may see the Asians -- who make up 23 percent of students there, and 14 percent countywide -- as a privileged class, and there's something to that.

"We can get away with things that other kids can't," says Maddie Jalandoni, a senior. "They never stop us for a pass in the hallway. In ninth grade, I lost my calculator and went to the security office. Normally, they ask you for ID before they give you anything. But she just said, 'I trust you.' "

"That just happened to me today," adds senior Jessica Dinh. "Security stopped this African American girl in the hall, and I was right there and I didn't have a pass either, but nobody says anything to me."

I heard three more stories along those lines before we switched to the flip side. Asian students say teachers hold them to higher standards because they know Asian parents press their kids hard. The students say they put harsh pressure on themselves as well: Non-Asians may see 18 Asians among 26 students in a BC calculus class and think, "They have it made." Asians look at that scene and, as Dinh puts it, "you feel this pressure: I'm surrounded by Asians who are really studying hard, so now I really have to study even harder."

That attitude stems from a life of competition and striving. "I took every lesson possible," says senior Jamie Chen. "Ice skating, gymnastics, violin. Later, I asked my mother why she made me do all that, and she said she always wanted those chances."

Add the punishing quotas that Asian students face in the college admissions game -- colleges don't admit to using quotas, but the numbers tell the story -- and the result is pressure through every step of childhood.

Parents pepper them with stories about the cousin who got into Cal Tech or the neighbor who slacked off and got hosed by all his colleges, and kids can only laugh or cry.

Dinh speaks reverently of her mother, who fled Saigon a day before South Vietnam fell in 1975. Dinh understands the insecurity that molded her childhood boot camp of ballet, piano and swimming lessons, yet "I pushed all that away. It made my parents very nervous, but I said, 'No, I want to be a cheerleader and do student government. I want to do my own thing.' "

A few students go further. Senior Jeff Wang felt alienated in Chinese school, and "I fell out of the Asian stereotype. My mother encouraged me to play the piano and get straight A's, but I was more interested in being like my American friends. I'll do my homework, but then I'm going to play ball."

Rebellions here are not exactly radical. When Chen yearns to range beyond her parents' expectations, she dreams not of joining a motorcycle gang but of "playing bassoon if you want to instead of violin."

For every Jeff Wang, there is a Victoria Liu, a freshman who came from a school with few Asians. "I had completely fallen out of the Asian ways. I didn't play piano. Then I came here and Asians said, 'You're a Twinkie' " -- yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Victoria reacted by "putting myself into an Asian group. Now pretty much all my friends are Asian. My old white friends -- I've drifted apart from them."

A few kids say their parents see them as the retirement fund they cannot afford on their own in a new land. But most have a more generous view of their parents' motivation.

"Before we start complaining about our parents," says senior Pinyi Ko, "we should realize our parents' perspective. They came here and worked so hard, and they could have done so much more, but they're at such a disadvantage because of the language barrier. It's such a shame that such a beautiful culture has been turned into such pressure. But they've made so many sacrifices for us. There's a proverb our parents use: The little man can become the big man. They want that for us."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company