The Dark Side of the Asian American 'Model Student'

New America Media, News Analysis, Long Le Posted: Aug 02, 2006

Editor's Note: Asian American students on average scored the highest in the SAT last year and earned admiration from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. But according to NAM contributor Long Le, there is a dark side to stereotypes of Asian academic success. Le is a research scholar and lecturer at the University of Houston Asian American Studies Center.

HOUSTON, Calif.--In his recent essay “Stellar Academic Achievement Has an Asian Face,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof admired Asian American students’ performance on the SAT. In 2005, Asian Americans had the highest average combined math-verbal SAT, at 1091, compared with 1068 for whites, 982 for American Indians, 922 for Hispanics, and 864 for blacks.

Kristof wonders why this group is so good at school. “Frankly,” he laments, “you sometimes feel at an intellectual disadvantage if your great-grandparents weren’t peasants in an Asian village.”

In explaining Asian Americans as “model students,” Kristof cites Confucianism’s reverence for education with enforcement via filial piety, in which “Asian American kids often manage both to exasperate and to finish their homework,” while non-Asian teenagers rebel.

But before anyone else starts to stress out on not having a Confucian background, there is a “dark side” to Asian American academic achievement that Kristof’s admiration piece veils.

First, non-Asian individuals may indeed perceive Asian American students as exceptional, but some are also likely to interpret how the success of Asian-Americans reflects negatively or positively on their own social position.

For example, Professor Stacey Lee of University of Wisconsin, who studied one particular high school found that high-achieving middle-class white students respect the academic talents of their peers. Some, however, hold up the successes of Asian-Americans to dismiss African-American students’ charges of racial discrimination in America. In addition, she found that low-achieving, working-class white students are more likely to refer to students of Asian descent as “chinks and gooks” who are invading their school. And some African-American students believe that the success of Asian-American students has been achieved at the expense of their own.

According to another study, Asian-American college students say that positive stereotypes that non-Asians have of them focus on educational achievement only. Most of the stereotypes, they say, are negative, such as non-Asians’ perceptions that Asians “don’t speak English well,” “have accents,” and are “submissive,” “sneaky,” “stingy,” “greedy,” etc.

Here, the seemingly positive stereotypes conceal negative stereotypes casting Asian American students as “perpetual foreigners."

As a researcher of Asian American issues, I recently conducted a survey at the University of Houston on campus perceptions of Asian-American and Asian international students, with more than 750 student participants. A preliminary analysis shows that non-Asian students perceive students of Asian descent as “model students” and more often than not as a homogeneous group with more similarities than differences. Non-Asian students also have unfavorable impression of both Asian-American and Asian international students, saying, for example, that students of Asian descent are hard to make friends with.

Moreover, non-Asian students were less likely to prefer a student of Asian descent as a candidate for president of student government relative to other ethnic candidates.

Second, as the stereotype of Asian Americans as “model students” spreads, it may affect how some Asian-American students behave and how they construct their self-identity.

Professor Stacey Lee discovered that some middle class Asian-Americans embrace the “model student” image, perceive their role as having to live up to that image and look down on other Asian groups, particularly those from Southeast Asia, who they believe to be welfare-dependents who give Asians a bad name. Such students, however, tend to mask their feelings of depression and desperation, especially when they don’t meet the stereotype's high expectations. In fact, there has been a recent spike in the number of “unexplained” deaths and suicides among high-achieving students of Asian descent at a number of prestigious universities. Similarly, students of working-class families from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos also mask their depression when they feel ashamed about not living up to the “model student” image. They tend to be reluctant to seek academic or emotional support.

In fact, the overall data on Asian American students’ SAT score hides the variation in academic achievement across Asian groups. Southeast Asian students and other student subgroups from South Asia have different standardized test scores, high school dropout rates, college enrollment and completion rates. Their data, in fact, mirror those of African Americans rather than the overall Asian-American numbers.

If the Confucian culture emphasizes and facilitates educational achievement, it may also promote silence on the expression of social and psychological needs.

Kristof’s column admiring Asian American achievement is ultimately a kind of shorthand that the mainstream media continues to use in their assessment of Asian Americans. But such shorthand conceals negative stereotypes toward Asians, as well as the differing psychological, social and educational needs of different ethnic student groups.

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User Comments

Richard Gerome on Sep 18, 2006 at 13:24:54 said:

Everyone holds biases if they are human. But what matters is the self-awareness of personal bias. Mr. Le needs to draw a greater distinction between promoting this personal self-awareness, and the strategy of attempting to portray or modify the biases of others according to his own.

It’s a bit ass-backward to give credence to the reasoning that the success of Asian-Americans reflects poorly on those with the alternate behaviors. Does anyone really believe that the vice of envy is upon those who are envied rather than upon those who envy the enterprise of others?

Jean Libby on Sep 11, 2006 at 02:58:27 said:

I have been looking at this article and responses from the point of view of a trained social scientist (B.A., Social Science, UC Berkeley, 1986) and Ethnic Studies M.A., (San Francisco State University, 1991). I taught U.S. History and Ethnic Studies at community colleges in northern California for ten years and am now retired. In teaching, I was assigned the topic of intergroup relations as a required class for any A.A. degree. I taught US History from the ethnic vindication perspective (rather than from my own European American perspective) by engaging students as experts about their own ethnicities and to share their culture and experiences with the rest of the class.

After a successful campus-wide discussion of racial epithets that I organized at San Jose City College in 1999, this discussion became a part of my teaching of all classes, especially US History. What are "fighting words" and how are they privileged? I see these sterotyping concepts in a negative way in the article by Long Le of the University of Houston. Perhaps he did not know better, but New America Media should not have kept his title, "The Dark Side of the Asian American Model Minority" in an article that then makes a negative relationship to African Americans. What kind of survey results in characterization of white students as likely to use racial epithets? What were the questions and who asked them?

This article is presented as a news analysis. The editors have an obligation to view the source--the actual survey and its methodology--before publishing it as news.

Sid on Aug 09, 2006 at 11:12:40 said:

Americans of Southeast Asian heritage are at a disadvantage because they are refugees! They came here escaping war, brutality, etc. with nothing but the shirt of their backs so they start off at the bottom. Whereas other Asians came here as immigrants with substantial savings like Taiwanese, S. Koreans, et al. Their family came to America together as a whole family. It depends on the circumstance of their arrivals. If North Koreans were to come here with no capital, do you think they will be driving around BMW's? Lets not get too high and mighty with the simplistic judgemental attitude. Ethnocentrism will always be a part of humanity. It is a weakness of humankind to judge others who different.

Reflective SAM on Aug 08, 2006 at 06:43:51 said:

Lastly, I want to say that it is not that Asians are smarter than whites or blacks or latinos. We are raised to place an importance on hitting the books. If all the other cultures were to raise their kids in the same way, Asians would not be dominating like they are now. Working hard by forcing yourself can get you to a certain level, but I think the truly successful people are the ones who really love what they do. They have passion.
I heard somewhere that many of the entrepreneurs in business were not so good in school, and many of them got Cs. They succeeded somehow because they took risks in life. And, now, the people who work for them are those people who used to get As and Bs who took no risks. It's ironic, but again, the point is that getting good grades doesn't make you truly happy, and it doesn't make you rich, either.

lauren on Aug 07, 2006 at 06:43:17 said:

it's true. asian students do better. but i dont really look at asians as asians any more. now that i ahve some asian friends, its not just asians. theres chinese, japanese and koreans. i like koreans the best. they're really proud of their culture and i like that! and some korean boys are really cute too

pleiotroph on Aug 06, 2006 at 15:21:20 said:

Forgive me for saying this but:

"It takes a village to raise a child."

I have wondered about the prevalence of unhappiness, depression, and social disconnect among some Asian-Americans. There are possibly many factors: 1st gen parents unable to help their children acculturate and cope with American culture, racism & bullying from other children, negative/racist media stereotypes chipping away at a healthy self identity, etc...

In Asia, students are known to study alot and value achievement more than Asian-Americans. However, societies there don't send the message that studying is "geeky" and "uncool." Children aren't put into the odd choice of trying to fit in with "cooler" kids or being studious. Studying alot and postponing dating is a social norm, rather than a pattern of "uncool" behavior that could cause feelings of deprivation or of social inadequacy.

Also, a major part of emotional happiness comes from good friendships and a supportive social network. A 1st gen family from Asian country X, transplanted into a non-Asian community Y, may find it hard to be accepted, or re-form those social networks.

Of course, AA children who go to schools with significant populations of AA's could help social adaptation, as well as belonging to AA family friendly social networks -- mostly AA churches (large non-religious AA family social networks are unknown to me).

Also going to school with friendly AA children who have learned to well combine Asian and American culture would also be a positive influence on 1st gen kids. On the other hand, AA children in an environment that forces them into a false exclusive choice of "being Asian" vs. "being American" would be detrimental to personal identity and may cause family friction with 1st gen parents.

Tim on Aug 06, 2006 at 10:41:51 said:

This article reminds me of my belief that "Asian parents = grade Nazis." In case no one believes me, it was reported months ago that 1/10 of 40+ yr old Japanese men are virgins. Yes, you read me correctly: 1/10 of Japanese men of that age group in Japan are 40-yr old virgins.

If anything, I find it shameful that Asians use "saving face" as an honorable way to see one's self honorable.

SAM SAM on Aug 04, 2006 at 14:37:09 said:

Rkang, I'd like you to read your own comments. All you list are external/superficial things which you consider 'success'. High salaries, degrees, and grades aren't a good measure for internal peace, happiness, or spirituality. I know a lot of Asian doctors, lawyers, MBAs who aren't happy. My Korean friend's brother went to West Point, was a start athlete, super intelligent, but he committed suicide by jumping off a building. I challenge you to think about your motivations and see if they aren't caused by the pressures placed on you by your parents. Why did you strive to be an honor student? It wasn't just by accident that all your Asian friends at school were getting great grades. We were conditioned by your parents to be that way. Lots of older Asians have a very simplistic view of success, and it's just superficial. And, as the article says, not every kid can handle the role.

I didn't say it was a 'Western' idea of mental unhealthiness. I, as an Asian American, feel it's universally psychologically unhealthy. The whole point of the article is that there are a lot of Asians who feel depressed because of that pressure to be superficially successful. And, that's a problem. Great topic. I'll add more on

abraham seto on Aug 04, 2006 at 04:25:38 said:

What's this white-bashing nonsense? I have been in white high schools - yes - their are a small number of stupid kids who call us Gook and Chink but I have never seen violence done to Asian students - in inner-city schools however - i have seen the violence - I've seen non-white kids beat up chinese students for nothing - and they always call the Asian kids bad names. Get real - it's obvious you lived in a nice white neighborhood growing up

Vince on Aug 04, 2006 at 00:21:09 said:

In your article, you mostly fault the white media for perpetuating the model minority myth . However the majority of Asian Americans are quite satisfied with their role of "honorary white" and are more than happy to play the role. In order to feel accepted by white society, we strive to be better than "black people" and "mexicans".

Why is there such a desire? Asians especially Northern Asians are very proud of their civilization and feel they are superior race. They feel a need to rise above their secondary status

Rkang on Aug 03, 2006 at 22:33:43 said:

maybe there is a model student "stereotype" because it's true. Every upper-Asian I went to high school with scored in the 1500's on the SATs (old version) and graduated with honors (myself included).

stereotypes exist for a reason, if Southeast Asians have difficulty meeting the stereotype it will only be a matter of time before mainstream media catches on and excludes them.

As for SAM- why blame the parents when we make high salaries, achieve academic success, and pursue postgraduate work? Who cares what westerners feel is "unhealthy"?

SAM / SAM on Aug 03, 2006 at 09:56:57 said:

Yes, interesting article, and interesting comments, too. I say BLAME THE PARENTS!

Personally, I feel that grades mean nothing, and I feel this way through personal experience. I was one of those kids who was always studying hard getting good grades. The problem is, once you get a good score, you forget all the content! I went through high school and college doing that, and frankly, though I graduated with a 3.76 in college, I don't remember anything! :P So, it's a very unhealthy approach to education. True education is when you find a passion in learning a subject, and you pursue it. It should be fun.

I think the problem with Asian parents is that they want their kids to succeed so much that they forget to be parents who support their kids. Most Asian kids live in fear of their parents, so when they need help or support, they cannot go to them. It's a very unhealthy relationship since the parents are disciplinarians, and not really role models. That's why so many Asian kids become intelligent, awkward kids who don't know how to socialize. And, they have no outlet for their depression.

Like the people who commented above, this requires a strong peer system for Asian Americans where they can vent their frustrations and speak with others who are having similar experiences. Only through communication and awareness can we change this problem. That's why the internet is so powerful. Actually, I have a site called where we discuss issues like this. Share your concerns, tell your friends, and let's support each other.

Mike Li on Aug 03, 2006 at 05:51:02 said:

Thank you, Long Le, for providing a bit of much needed perspective on this issue. During my time as an undergrad in the Asian American Studies program at UCLA, I scrutinized the Model Minority Myth and discovered not only that it is a flawed and inaccurate stereotype, but also that there is a political agenda behind its perpetuation. Falsely portraying Asian Americans as perfect students simultaneously undermines programs for the empowerment of historically discriminated and marginalized groups (such as Affirmative Action) and scapegoats Asian Americans for the persisting social inequalities and inequities caused by an trenched power structure seeking to maintain the status quo. Unfortunately, mainstream American society continues to embrace the Myth at face value. However, it is my sincere hope that by analyzing and deconstructing the Myth--which your article does admirably--we can show people what's really going down.

Don't believe the hype!

angrylilasiangirl on Aug 03, 2006 at 00:38:11 said:

This article finally highlights a question that I've unconsciously had but had never been able to put into words: Who the hell are "Asian-Americans"?

This article seems to make a distinction between the REAL so-called Asian-Americans and those other Americans of Southeast Asian heritage. So when references are made in this article to "Asian Americans" or "Asian American achievement," it seems to be implicitly referring only to what I must presume are only Chinese or Japanese Americans. No wonder there's no Asian unity.

I, for one, am of Vietnamese heritage. I have always considered myself to be of the pool of Asian Americans who have to fight to excel in school and in the work-place, who have to confront various types of ethnic stereotypes and adverse discrimination in the real world, just like anyone else. But according to this article, I am NOT such a person -- I'm NOT a part of the Asian American sub-population of the United States struggling to make my way on my own terms just like everyone else. Instead, by virtue of the geographic location from whence my family came, I'm not a hard-working, excelling person but someone who should be destined for welfare lines and to suffer depression. Whatev. It's time to stop for certain folks to stop making ethnic generalizations based on their own prejudices against other peoples from their origin-continent that they seem to be ashamed of.

Sovath Nhar on Aug 02, 2006 at 22:45:04 said:

Mr. Le I love your article, it is inspiring and many things you list in the article are good face. We felt that we have to work harder than any ethnicity, we have to put more effort into school and work and at the same time we lack of getting support when we need. Southeast Asian tend to be quiet and work hard because of where we came from. Our community and our family have high expectation and sometimes it is hard for students to live up to that expectation, that drive them into depression and they do not seek professional mental help. This is the first article that I read that write well about the face. Best, Sovath




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