Aiming for Perfection: Asian American Parents and Affirmative Action

Approaching my final semester at Brown, I wanted to write a reflective piece on the effects of affirmative action on the perceptions of Asian American parents in regards to themselves and their children. During my senior year of high school, I applied to Brown University and was granted admission the coming December. When I logged on to my computer and checked my admissions decision, I was at a loss for words and beyond ecstatic to begin the next chapter of my life in Providence. Standing beside me while I viewed my admission letter was my mother, who held an equally pleasant smile. Providing me with the opportunities to strive for excellence, it was my mother who drove me to violin lessons, SAT tutoring sessions, and even to Yale for an Economics summer program. All of my hard work had paid off, but all of her efforts had also come into fruition. Through her investment in my academic life, my extracurricular achievements, and my willingness to succeed, our commitments became intertwined. My success became her success, and my failures became her failures. This relationship, the one shared between my mother and myself, would become deeply relatable for a number of other Asian American peers, whose parents, in making personal sacrifices and steep investments, would see their accomplishments and failures through their own children. Through an assortment of political, social, and educational forces, affirmative action challenges this relationship on a variety of different levels that I will closely examine in this paper.

In 1961, affirmative action was publicly recognized by John F. Kennedy, when he urged government contractors to utilize the program as a means “to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin” (Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity). As time passed, the term progressively evolved and affirmative action became known as “any action or policy favoring those who tend to suffer from discrimination especially in relation to employment or education” (Penn State). With the college admissions process growing more and more difficult each year, the pressure mounted on the shoulders of students and their parents only continues to stagger; the political forces behind affirmative action’s fight for equality began to encounter more opposition from unhappy college applicants. In wake of a recent lawsuit against Harvard that supports a more equitable admissions process for individuals defined as “Asian Americans,” tensions have flared among many individuals within the academic community regarding the topic of affirmative action; the primary arguments presented in the lawsuit were that Asian Americans were penalized for their high achievements as a collective group and that Harvard’s admissions committee uses an illegal quota system on Asian Americans (Hartocollis). A particular group that has become deeply invested in understanding this lawsuit process and the role of affirmative action in the admissions process is Asian American parents. Though not all Asian American parents are in support of the lawsuit against Harvard, there have been Asian American parents who have expressed strong agreement with the case in search of more color into the admissions process (Hartocollis). In my reflection, I will review some of the more significant driving forces behind how affirmative action has affected the perceptions of Asian American parents in regards to themselves and their children; there will be a particular emphasis on the following contributing factors: the Chinese Education System versus the American Education System, the competitive academic landscape within the Asian American community, and the high expectations placed on Asian Americans.

With different foci on the necessary qualities needed to succeed in an academic setting, the Chinese Education System and American Education System serve as polar opposites to one another on a variety of levels. To begin, the Chinese Education System emphasizes the importance of knowledge accumulation, where students are assigned merit based primarily on their abilities to perform well on examinations. In addition to attending everyday classes, most students under the Chinese Education System also participate in additional tutoring lessons and evening classes after school (Butrymowicz). Before applying to colleges in China, students are required to complete the National Higher Education Entrance Examinations, or Gaokao, which provides students with a variety of standardized number scores based on their relative performances (Lucenta 76). Afterwards, students apply to colleges in China, where their candidacies are evaluated by their number scores from the entrance examinations; therefore, academic preparation for the examination is crucial in China, since it serves as the sole indicator of a student’s capabilities to colleges within the Chinese Education System (Lucenta 76).

 A traditional daily academic schedule of a student in Chinese Education System (The Hechinger Report)

In contrast, the American Education System allows for a more fluid educational experience, emphasizing the idea of holistic applications when considering a wide assortment of contributing factors that define a successful student. For example, Harvard recently released some of its admissions criteria to the general public in an effort to shed more light on its holistic process; according the Wall Street Journal, Harvard’s considers approximately 200 variables in total, which include ethnicity, intended major, parental background, geography, etc. (Wang). “All of these factors are considered to assess candidates in a holistic manner, Harvard says, with the goal of creating a student body comprising people who are different enough from one another to provide a rich educational experience” (Wang). As a result, it is clearly visible that the Chinese Education System carries more concrete steps to academic success, while the American Education System allows for a more fluid educational process; these are education systems that will continue to impact students into their long-term successes. “One can easily understand why Chinese students get gold medals in Math Olympics Competitions, but Nobel Prize winners are often Americans” (Liu).

Through a more rigid academic foundation, China owns the largest share of STEM graduates in 2016 (Forbes)

Following the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, national-origin quotes against Asian and Arab countries were removed, prompting massive increases in the number of Asian immigrants to the United States (Zong). “The number of Asian immigrants grew from 491,000 in 1960 to about 12.8 million in 2014, representing a 2,597 percent increase” (Zong). During their respective journeys to the United States, individuals brought not only their physical selves to this new world, but also their culture, traditions, and values. While growing up under the American Education System, my parents had always stressed the importance of academic excellence through achieving high marks on homework assignments and examinations; they would prioritize academic excellence above all else. Even though I engaged in other activities such as playing the piano and swimming, nothing would ever trump the importance of maintaining high grades in school, at least to my parents. Additionally, they oftentimes elaborated on the Chinese Education System and their respective educational upbringings to me.

 

“We studied day and night. There wasn’t time for anything else. We had to work harder at school because that is all that mattered back then.”

 

While growing up, I was continually taught that academic excellence led to success in life, but I never questioned my parents or asked why. In time, everything began to piece together when I learned more details about the Chinese Education System and going through the American Education System myself. Since they were raised under the Chinese Education System, my parents laid down an academic foundation for me that was similar to their own. However, the processes of a holistic review and the utilization of affirmative action in admissions made the American Education System vastly different, spanning beyond a simple score on an examination that can serve a sole criterion for college admittance, like in China (Lucenta 76). Consequently, this could greatly affect the perceptions of Asian American parents on not only their own parenting styles, but also their perception of their own children.

In another example, the Asian American community also fosters an aggressively competitive landscape in terms of education and academic achievement. I believe that this competitive attitude is fostered by three main forces: the first being the consideration of ethnicity in the admissions process, the second being the idea of “tiger parenting,” and the third being the comparison of Asian American students to their peers by their parents. “Harvard itself has found that its share of incoming Asian students would more than double, to nearly half the class, if it considered only academic merit in deciding whom to admit” (Hartocollis). In another lawsuit against Harvard’s admissions processes in 2017, there were accusations regarding Harvard’s use of a racial quota system that limited the number of Asian Americans admitted into Harvard. (Hartocollis). Affirmative action, in an effort to create a more diverse student population, encourages colleges to consider ethnicity in the admissions process, which prompts ethnic groups, such as Asian Americans, to believe that they are pitted against one another when applying to colleges (Eligon). By adding pressure in the college admissions process among Asian Americans, there becomes more intensive and extreme measures implemented by Asian American parents to ensure that their children succeed; such measures lead us to the concept of “tiger parenting,” which is defined as the stringent parenting and micro-management of children to achieve academic excellence through strict methods (Davidson 115).

Tiger parenting was utilized by Asian American parents to raise competitive and economically and socially successful children (Anthropology Now)

In his New York Times column, Ryan Park writes, “my teachers anointed me a genius, but I knew the truth. My non-Asian friends hadn’t spent hours marching through the snow, reciting multiplication tables” (Park). In another example, Davidson evaluates the notorious “tiger parenting” methods of Amy Chua who rejected a hard-drawn birthday card from her daughter “for its shoddy artistry, and enforced hours and hours of piano practice with no bathroom breaks, no grade below “A,” no play dates, and a performance at Carnegie Hall” (Davidson 115). With Asian Americans believing that affirmative action holds them to higher standards than other ethnic groups within the college admissions process, the demand for academic, extracurricular, and professional excellence in children became more coveted than ever by Asian American parents (Eligon). As mentioned in the example of Amy Chua’s two daughters, it is visibly evident that the anxiety behind higher standards in Asian American students has forced the hands of some Asian American parents to control most, if not all, aspects of their children’s lives. Academics was mounted as the core pillar of educational brilliance among Asian American parents, who gradually ingrain it into the everyday lives of their children. From personal experience, I recall the afterschool carpool rides with several of my Asian American peers back in elementary school. Our mothers would take turns dropping us off every morning and picking us up every afternoon. During these carpool rides, I clearly remember the numerous comparisons that our mothers would make about us while we were driven to our afterschool math lessons.

 

“You see, Andrew got a 100% so you should too”

“Steven, do you want to play the piano like Brian?”

“Tony doesn’t talk back like you, Jimmy”

 

These statements only represent a mere snapshot of the mass comparisons made by our Asian American parents. In our academic performances, extracurricular activities, and social habits, we were constantly juxtaposed to one another. As Asian American students, we were held to the same standards based on our common skin colors. However, there was always a higher test score, a better cite reading of a piano sheet, and a more mannered tone of speaking. On the inside, we were completely different humans with unique passions and personalities, but our skin color provided us with the exact same expectations. In time, those expectations became the defining forces behind the successes that would give us and our parents a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. Overall, through affirmative action’s inclusion of ethnicity in the college admissions process, we begin to see a more competitive academic landscape among Asian American students, who see themselves as directly competing against one another. To address this, some Asian American parents have adopted “tiger parenting” or developed tendencies to juxtapose their children to other Asian American children in regards to their various academic, extracurricular, and social capabilities.

A third driving force behind affirmative action’s influence on the perceptions of Asian American parents is the high expectations that Asian American parents impose onto their children. With affirmative action already increasing the relative competition among Asian American applicants in the college admissions process, it becomes more and more difficult for Asian American students to meet the expectations set by their parents (Eligon). “Like my parents, many of these new arrivals brought two cultural values that would carry their children far: a near-religious devotion to education as the key to social mobility and a belief that academic achievement depends mostly on effort rather than inborn ability” (Park). Operating under the presumption that an elite education and perseverance can help their children get to any destination in life, some Asian American parents have created an unreachable ceiling of expectations for their children, that they eventually adopt for themselves (Goyette 22). With consistently higher mathematics scores, GPAs, and rates of attendance into undergraduate college programs, Asian American parents have crafted high expectations to assist their children in scholastic achievement and eventual financial success (Goyette 22). However, even some of the brightest Asian American students fail to meet their own expectations in the college admissions process. “In 2012, Michael Wang, a senior at James Logan High School, in the Bay Area, was confident he had done enough to get into one of his dream school…the following spring, Wang was rejected from all Ivy League universities he had applied to, except the University of Pennsylvania” (Hsu). Despite meeting every expectation—an amazing GPA score, a perfect ACT score, co-founder of the math club, performer in San Francisco Opera, etc.—Wang had failed to gain admission into Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or Princeton. The affirmative action policy has put forth an array of evaluative criteria that make the admissions process unpredictable on every level, as seen in the admissions notes released by Harvard this year (Wang). Though Wang could not have done anything better to improve his application, he failed to succeed and to meet the high academic expectations that his parents set for him. In another example, I can vividly recall the moment when one of my closest friends, who was an Asian American, was accepted to an elite college. His parents congratulated him, but upgraded their expectations shortly after.

 

“What about the other colleges you applied to? Did you get into all of them?”

“What about long-term? What type of job would give you good money?”

 

A few days after his acceptance into a college, my friend’s parents imposed another set of expectations onto him. Despite four years of academic excellence and a successful college application process, my friend’s sense of achievement was short-lived, as his parents were already devoted towards crafting the next set of goals for his life. Under the belief that the college admissions process would be the ultimate accomplishment to his parents, my friend realized that his parents only viewed the college acceptance as a simple step on a long path with an unknown end. Though he had strived so relentlessly for perfect academic marks, excellence in the violin, and competitive records in track and field, my friend only received slight nods of approval from his parents, who continued to approach his aspirations with a forward-looking mindset. In time, it became clear that my friend would never reach the ceiling pushed upwards by the expectations set forth by his parents; he could always advance his life in some capacity, and this is what his parents focused on.

Within this paper, it has been evident that affirmative action has significantly affected the perceptions of Asian American parents in regards to themselves and their children. Through a multitude of factors—the Chinese Education System, the competitive academic landscape of the Asian American community, and the high expectations set forth by some Asian American parents—I was able to holistically piece together an assortment of contributing factors that explain affirmative action’s impact on the academic, extracurricular, and social backgrounds of Asian American students. In a college admissions process where evaluation involves more than just a standardized test score, the American Education System serves as the polar opposite of the Chinese Education System, which influenced Asian American parents to originally honor academic excellence above all other factors in the admissions process. In terms of the competitive academic landscape, I acknowledged three factors—the consideration of ethnicity in the admissions process, “tiger parenting,” and the consistent comparison of Asian American students to their peers—as the primary forces behind increased tensions within the Asian American community amidst the presence of a more rigorous college application process due to affirmative action. Finally, I examined the forward-looking mindsets of several Asian American parents and their high expectations for their children in wake of a more competitive Asian American academic landscape created by conditions of affirmative action. To end, affirmative action carries powerful political, social, and educational forces that have evidently affected how Asian American parents view both themselves and their children in an ever-changing college admissions process that only grows more mysterious with time.

 

Written by Brian Tung