I got an email newsletter from my alma mater with a topic that caught my eye: “Health expert explains Asian and Asian-American students’ unique pressures to succeed” (View PDF copy), written by Krishna Ramanujan.
The school’s director of mental health, Timothy Marchell, said, “There is no single solution to challenges faced by Asian and Asian-American students, the problems are complex, and they require a multi-faceted approach.” The article goes on to say that Cornell is researching student mental health with “an analysis of Asian-American/Asian students’ experiences.”
More than 50% of Cornell’s Student Suicide Victims are Asian American
Out of 4,790 Cornell undergraduates surveyed in 2005, Asian-American/Asian students seriously considered or attempted suicide at higher-than-average rates. Also, 13 of the 21 Cornell student suicide victims since 1996 have been Asian or Asian-American – and Asian/Asian-Americans comprise only 14% of the total Cornell student body. Source: “Health expert explains Asian and Asian-American students’ unique pressures to succeed“.
I hope my colleagues at Cornell and in colleges across the U.S. (particularly the Ivy Leagues) – that want to know what the most critical factor in this trend may be can find this article –
BEGIN WITH THEIR PARENTS!
I love my parents, as I know many of my Asian American friends love their parents. But I am not joking when I say the main driver of how dysfunctional and “screwed up” we have learned to think about our roles in life comes from our parents. Our parents in turn, learned from their parents, and so on.
Cultural and Social Issue
This goes back to many thousands of years ago, when the main ticket out of poverty in ancient China is to become a politician. You can become a politician by passing a rigorous exam and scoring the highest score. (This tradition is alive in well in Taiwan, at least back in the 70’s and 80’s.) If you don’t get the highest score, and you don’t become a politician, well, I guess you’re off to be a butcher or a coffin-maker or some manual laborer that will not bring fame and glory to uplift the “face” of your family.
And it’s all about “Face.” I’d explain this concept to my Western counterparts as “the pride of your parents, your immediate relatives, your extended relatives, and all your dead ancestors rolled up into this brand you will forever bear on your forehead for the rest of your life.” Essentially, if you don’t excel (we’ll go into that in a minute), then you will “lose face” and bring shame not just to yourself, but more importantly your parents, your relatives, your ancestors, and any being dead-or-alive that would bear the same last name as you.
If that kind of pressure applied day after day and year after year – doesn’t make a person mentally crack – I don’t know what will.
Doing Your Best Means Being Better Than Someone Else
Asian American students are expected to excel. More accurately, “be better than.” Excelling in our culture is based squarely on “being better than someone else, preferably someone whose parents your parents can’t stand.” I grew up being constantly compared and contrasted with other kids. Why couldn’t I play the piano and the violin and be the first seed on the Tennis team like so-and-so’s kid? Why couldn’t I speak three languages (Chinese doesn’t count) like so-and-so’s son? Oh- why didn’t I score a perfect 1600 on the SATs and get early admission with full scholarship into Harvard, Yale, and Princeton like those twins? And my favorites: “You scored a 99% on your test? Why didn’t you get 100%” and “You scored 100%? How many more students scored 100% in the class?” We’re just never good enough.
When you are brought up to think of yourself mainly in reference to someone else, you aren’t sure exactly what to think of yourself, or how to see yourself. For most of my life, I saw myself as a portfolio of academic grades, scholarly achievements (or lack thereof), SAT scores (and it was nowhere near 1600), what schools I got into, and whether my chosen vocation would bring pride to my ancestors.
I haven’t even gotten into the subject of emotional abuse in the Asian household. That would be a whole website in itself.
Is it any wonder that I suffered from depression most of my childhood, adolescent, and adult life?
Here, in a separate article, are some of the ways Asian American students could approach these issues, or more accurately, how I personally “overcame”…. sort of.
Related… (and a 2011 update) - This post is, in many ways, the start of a long journey of me writing a book that I’ve wanted to write for 9 years but wasn’t ready to write it or knew who I was writing it for. To read about it, go to “About This Book” for The Youngest Light.