Monday, October 17, 2005

On Being Asian part 2

Speaking of exposes of Asian secrets, I guess a couple Korean women wrote a book about how white people can turn their kids into overachievers. There's an article about them at the New York Times. Since I'm not sure if being a member is required for this article I'm just going to include it here and hope they don't sue me. I'm curious what people think about this article so hopefully some of you comment. I'm still thinking so I'll hold off on my own comments at the moment. You can read the article here and see the book here. As usual, I read about this at

WHEN they were growing up, Dr. Soo Kim Abboud and Jane Kim used to sit, like many children, in the shopping cart next to the candy racks at the checkout line and wail loudly, hoping that their humiliated mother or father would cave in and shush them with a Snickers bar.
But their parents, who were hard-working middle-class immigrants from Korea, had other ideas. Eventually they set a rule: Read one book from the library this week, receive one candy bar the next. Looking back on it, the sisters are not complaining. Instead, in "Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers - and How You Can Too" (Berkley), to be published Nov. 1, they applaud their parents' coercions. "We read the book, and we got the candy," said Dr. Abboud, 32, who is a surgeon and clinical assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania medical school. "We didn't go without."
In "Top of the Class" the Kim sisters advise parents who want successful children to raise them just as the Kims did - in strict households in which parents spend hours every day educating their children, where access to pop culture is limited, and where children are taught that their failures reflect poorly on the family.
But while this approach is common in many Asian countries and among many immigrant groups in the United States, it runs counter to an American culture that celebrates if not venerates self-expression and the freedom of youth. (This is, after all, the country that invented the teenager.) And some educators believe such a single-minded focus on achievement can be harmful. "Often I will see Asian-American kids become lost when they get to the university," said Kyeyoung Park, an associate professor of anthropology and Asian studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, who teaches many first-generation Asian students. "They feel disoriented, because they realize they've been sheltered and the world is not as their parents said it was."
Still, the sisters insist that in an age in which competition to succeed has never been greater and American parents are spending thousands of dollars on tutors and counseling for their children, traditional Asian methods are proven to work. They note that students of Asian descent make up about 25 percent of undergraduates at top universities like Stanford and Penn (and 41 percent at the University of California, Berkeley), even though Asians are less than 4 percent of the population, and that as of 2002 Asian-Americans had a median household income about $10,000 higher than the national average.
Part of their motivation for writing the book, the sisters say, was to counter the assumption that Asian students perform better simply because they are smarter. "My sister and I are not exceptionally gifted," said Dr. Abboud. "We're O.K. This is something anyone can do. It doesn't take a lot of money or private schools just to get kids learning on a daily basis."
As children the Kims were not learning on a daily basis, but an hourly one. One daughter's C-minus in biology could cast shame upon them all, so the Kim family reviewed each report card as a group in order to strategize about how each child could address weaknesses. The Kim parents also insisted their daughters come straight home to study after school instead of hanging out with friends (whom they could see on weekends only), and limited each girl to one hour of television a week and 15 minutes on the phone a day.
Every night the girls would complete hours of homework assigned by teachers and then do more lessons with their parents. Even artistic pursuits were approached with achievement in mind. Both girls played the piano and won several prizes.
"Our parents viewed competition as a necessary and unavoidable part of life," explained Ms. Kim, 29, who has a law degree from Temple University and works as an immigration specialist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "They wanted us to embrace, not fear, it."
Dr. Abboud and Ms. Kim, who were educated in public high schools, believe that Asian-Americans succeed in part because Asian parents are willing to sacrifice their own leisure time to micromanage their children's educational progress. While neither woman has children - Dr. Abboud is married to an orthopedic surgeon, Ms. Kim is single - they don't hold back from prescribing parenting advice. "It's tough, because parents are so much more busy now," Dr. Abboud acknowledged. "Not many could do the three hours of teaching that we had. Even we couldn't do that. But you can still do 45 minutes."
They are less understanding about what they view to be a particularly pernicious form of American overindulgence. "Too many parents now are into positive reinforcement for everything," explained Dr. Abboud. "In America people are so scared about doing anything that might negatively impact their children that they applaud every little thing they do. In Asia they expect both effort and results."
Both Kim sisters recall struggling at times with their parents' discipline and expectations. Dr. Abboud said she felt alienated and lonely at times during high school in Raleigh, N.C., and Ms. Kim, who was more gregarious and rebellious, initially wanted to be a writer. Her parents gave her a year after college to pursue it, but after Ms. Kim's efforts to find a job at a magazine foundered, she agreed to go to law school. Today she is happy she did. "American parents will say, 'Do whatever makes you happy, even if the talent isn't there,' " Ms. Kim said. "You need a reality check."
The Kim parents moved from South Korea to Los Angeles in 1971 so Mr. Kim could study computer science at the University of Southern California and pursue a more comfortable life in this country. Mr. Kim, who had been a math teacher in Korea, arrived in the United States with only a few hundred dollars and went to work as a janitor for a time to make ends meet before eventually finding work as a network manager in telecommunications. His wife, Dae Kim, worked 14-hour days as a seamstress before Soo was born.
For immigrants like the Kim parents, pursuing a life organized around the single principle of career achievement makes a certain sense because their children will be rewarded by better lives. Still, the relentless pressure to succeed can backfire. Peter A. Spevak, a psychologist who runs the Center for Applied Motivation in Rockville, Md., where he strives to help patients build career success, says that children who are pushed too hard may eventually prosper but can end up being "very frustrated" adults who feel like they "missed their own childhood."
"They can become a successful attorney," Dr. Spevak said, "but there's an emptiness to them."
The authors themselves acknowledge that Asian career values can be hazardous to one's health if taken to an extreme degree, as in Japan, where pressures to excel in an exam-focused educational system have been linked with high dropout rates, social withdrawal and suicide. "That's one stereotype we don't want to perpetuate," said Dr. Abboud, who said rules of the house should be strict but not oppressive.
Without even considering the psychic costs, American readers might find the book's narrow definition of success myopic in a country with such a vast plate of career options to sample from. Even some first-generation Asian-Americans do.
One such person is Minya Oh, a host for the New York radio station Hot 97 who goes by the on-air name Miss Info. Ms. Oh grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where her Korean-born parents owned a toy store. Like the Kims, the Oh parents pushed their daughter relentlessly and hoped that the academic intensity found at the nearby University of Chicago would rub off on her. They tirelessly attempted to steer her toward a career as an architect, she said, even though she had no interest in math or buildings.
Unfortunately for her parents, it was the rap music she heard around the neighborhood, not the hushed conversation on the campus, that made Ms. Oh prick up her ears. Her parents, she said, were gravely concerned when she decided to pursue her love of hip-hop as a career. They still are. After a decade of writing for magazines and appearing on radio and television, Ms. Oh still must endure her mother's reminders that it is not too late for, say, law school. The needling still rankles Ms. Oh, who said she considers herself a rebel against the old-world Asian success ethic.
But she is not sure her voice would be heard daily by 2.2 million listeners without it.
"Even when you rebel as a Korean-American child, you can only rebel so much," Ms. Oh said. "You have no option of absolutely falling off the overachiever wagon and being a schlump."


nien said...

I’m indifferent really. I didn't live through any of that. I mean, I’m glad someone wrote a book to explain to people that it’s only because we work harder. But on the other hand, people already associate us with hard work so maybe they already know. Also I think they conveniently pass up the fact that quite a few of us suck at school and end up as deadbeats too. But that wouldn’t be good for marketing right? And then there is all that AAS stuff that they ignored on their way to justifying why we kick so much butt. But then again, that’s marketing.

I don’t know if it’s really marketing or just their own ignorance. I bet they hated being Korean their whole life until 3 weeks ago when they figured out that they could make money off of it and wrote the book. Too bad they didn’t have this revelation in the mid 90s when everyone had yellow fever. Now it’s just passé.

But hey, it was a good article. At least it was balanced.

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Jamaica said...

Hmmmm. What this reminds me of is actually that one study they told us about in Intro Psych, where people's test scored varied with the aspect of their identities that was being emphasized. On the same math test, if you reminded a group of female asian students that they were female (by having a questionnaire at the beginning about how they felt as girls, whether they played with dolls when they grew up, that sort of thing), they performed relatively poorly, whereas with a group of the same makeup, on the same test, you would see much higher scores if you reminded them that they were asian.

I knew quite a few people whose parents were like that, though it wasn't the case for most of my close friends. There is a lot of similar pressure within the middle-class black community (though the forms it takes are slightly different, of course), and between my mom and my dad, I got both. I remember being really little... not having started school yet, and my dad would make me recite the Pythagorean theorum, or Einstein's theory of relativity, even though I couldn't really understand them. If I forgot my homework from school, or if I looked bored, or if it was summer, my parents would make up homework for me... usually either reading (and writing book reports) or defining words or something like that. I went to Saturday school and after-school programs... and look how I wound up. =p I'm an awful student, as far as things go, but I think I learn all right.

Anonymous said...

If you dont mind me asking, what is your family's history? Are you guys several generations african american?

Just curious :)


BillyBob said...

Loveless did a nice job trying to provide a fair and balanced review of a book review. It made me want to read more on the subject, as well as to read the actual book.

One thing was missing though, and it is understandable. You have to live in America (and probably in or around a major city)in order to see the deterioration of the average American's scholastic abilities and the ensuing failure to have a successful adult life. That would be, of course, fairly much the opposite of the life of the authors of the book, and for many Americans of Asian Descent who we must all hope will be able to help save America from itself.

Not being Asian I can only surmise that the book may help to break down some stereotypes which are probably perceived as negative. That should be a good thing.

There is no doubt in my mind that there are a number of people growing up in America who would benefit from the book's authors' experience in growing up in America.

Given a choice and if I were King of the Land I would make all Americans grow up the way they did. My guess is America would be a way better place to live than it is now.

A common rumor in the press during the hurricane news was that people in New Orleans sat by a road for up to 6 days waiting for their government handout to keep them alive. Some of them reportedly did not make it. I will bet my lunch for the next three years that NONE of those people were Asian Americans.

Right, Wrong or Indifferent no one can argue, let alone prove, that American kids should be allowed to continue to grow up stupid when there is obviously a better way staring them right in the face.

I wish I had the chance to grow up in a house where education and success in life were inculcated from the very beginning. I expect that I might be getting paid for my opinions instead of just offering them for free at places like this.

Given a better chance from the start there is no question in my mind that I would have been one of the winners in the game of life. I'd like to thank the women who wrote this book for giving the country a chance to get back in that game.

lovelesscynic said...

Well, Billy Bob, you're sort of wrong about what's "missing" from my review, since I am American, born, raised and went through the public school system, so I've seen the degeneration of Americans that you've seen rather first hand.

The mistake you make is assuming, as many Americans do, that all Asians are the same. Most "overachieving" Asians come from the upper middle class and therefore have access to a lot more resources than poorer immigrants. Furthermore, for poorer immigrants particularly Vietnamese and other South East Asians, poverty, crime, and gang activity are rather high. So there's a lot more than ethnicity at play here.

Furthermore, I believe you owe someone lunch for the next three years. You may not have seen these articles because generally the media doesn't really give a crap about Asians and doesn't report when we do have problems, thereby giving the impression that we don't have any.