Asian Americans' Rising Suicide Rates -- Three Students Take their Lives

New America Media, Analysis, Andrew Lam Posted: Aug 13, 2009

Three Chinese-American students at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have killed themselves in the last three months. Two died by helium asphyxiation and the cause of death of the third student, though deemed a suicide, is yet to be determined. Their stories have been covered in the Chinese language media, but remain virtually unreported in the mainstream.

These suicides are anything but isolated incidents. Popular opinion may project Asians and Asian Americans as super achievers, scoring high on the SAT, dominating prestigious colleges and working as high-paid professionals, but the dark side of that narrative is that they are much more likely than the average American to commit suicide, according to a recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

At Cornell University, for instance, 13 of the 21 student suicide victims between 1996 and 2006 were Asians or Asian Americans. That picture is not complete unless you consider that Asians make up of only 14 percent of the total Cornell student body. Cornell is so concerned that in 2002 it formed a special Asian and Asian American Campus Climate Task Force to look into the reason behind the high number of suicides.

Stanley Sue, a professor of psychology and Asian-American studies at the University of California at Davis who has studied suicide rates among Asian Americans, believes part of the problem is that Asian Americans are not likely to talk about their psychological problems.

"Community practitioners notice that Asian Americans are less likely to self-disclose their personal problems," Sue told Time magazine article in 2008. Asian Americans are also less likely than other groups to rely on mental health services, according to studies, and they prefer instead to rely on culturally acceptable traditions of discipline and family order.

For years, while reporting from East Asia, I often read stories of students throwing themselves on train tracks or out the windows, when they failed an important exam. From Hong Kong to Tokyo to Taipei to Hanoi, these young people cracked under pressure and, robbed of what they know best, many are often confronted with dreaded feelings of loss and despair.

At UC Berkeley, more than half of the members of the Vietnamese Student Association I belonged to in the mid-1980s majored in computer science or electrical engineering. A few told me they didn’t want to become engineers. These fields were highly competitive and difficult.

One friend literally went mad and had to be hospitalized because he broke under the pressure of failing grades. Another was an “anchor kid,” someone whose family sold practically everything they owned to buy him a passage on an escaping boat out of communist Vietnam. He barely had time to think. Alone in the United States, he faced the burden of having to support his family back home while going to school full time. If he didn’t succeed, it could very well mean death for the family that relied on his income to survive back in impoverished Vietnam. Failure was not an option. Back home in Vietnam, an army of hungry, ambitious and capable young men and women were dying to take his place, and for him, a boat person who barely survived his perilous journey across the South China Sea, "dying to" was no mere idiomatic expression.

I remember, too, an incident during my freshman year at Berkeley when a studious Chinese student living in my dorm tried to jump from the Campanile, the tallest structure on campus. He wanted to kill himself because, according to the gossip, he had never gotten a B before, until vector calculus or some such difficult class overwhelmed him. It took hours before he was talked down. After that incident, authorities put up metal bars to stop future jumpers.

More telling is this mindset: Another friend, when he first moved to the dorm, painted a picture that harked back to a distant Asian past, and hung it above his desk. In it, a young Mandarin in silk brocade and hat, flanked by soldiers carrying banners, rides an ornate palanquin as peasants stand and watch.

We had just met, and when he saw me looking at his painting, he said, "Do trang nguyen ve lang" -- Vietnamese for "Mandarin returns home after passing the imperial exam." His was a visual sutra that would help him focus on his studies. But he didn't need to explain. Like many Asian students from Confucian countries -- what a family friend often called the "chopstick nations": Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, Japan and, of course, China -- I could easily decipher the image. For us scholarship boys, it was the equivalent of Michael Jordan flying in the air like a god doing a slam-dunk -- a dream of glorious achievements.

But why is education so deeply ingrained in the Confucian culture?

Long before America existed, something of the American dream already had taken root in East Asia through the scholarship and examination system of the Mandarins. Villages and towns pooled their resources and sent their best and brightest to compete in the imperial court, hoping that one of their own would make it to the center of power.

Mandarins of various ranks were selected by how well they fared on extremely rigorous examinations. The brilliant few who passed ran the day-to-day operations of imperial China and Vietnam. A Mandarin could become a governor, a judge, or even marry into the royal family. A peasant thus could rise high above his station, elevating the status of his entire clan and honor his ancestors in the process. It all hinged on his ability to pass the difficult exams.

Of all the temples in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, the most beautiful is arguably the Temple of Literature, dedicated to all the laureates who passed the extremely rigorous imperial exams of centuries past and became mandarins. Their names are etched on stone steles that go back nearly 800 years. Dedicated to Confucius and founded in 1070, it was Vietnam’s first university. It eventually became a temple, as if only befitting a trajectory in a world where education is literally worshiped.

So worshiped that not getting good grades often means failing to achieve your destiny and thereby failing your own and your family’s expectations. Many of us consequently learned to measure the world and ourselves solely through a pedagogic lens. You are how well you do in school. Indeed, many are being caught in the Asian educational pressure cooker and, with little time for anything else, also robbed of much-needed social skills and independent thinking that could give them a different way of looking at themselves.

An old mythology follows many of us across the sea: Only perfection matters and, by logic, its opposite, failure is rooted in shame. In his analects, Confucius recommended this philosophy when it comes to ruling people: “Lead the people with excellence and put them in their place through roles and ritual practices, and in addition to developing a sense of shame, they will order themselves harmoniously." Even if much of the Confucian ethos have eroded, many old rites and ritual practices long forgotten since communism takeover and modernization began, the one thing that remains in operation is that sense of shame, and how it still profoundly grips the East Asian psyche. To lose face may still cause many an Asian to commit suicide.

Asian Americans have excelled higher education in the last few decades. Less than 5 percent of the country’s population, Asian Americans typically make up 10 to 30 percent of the best colleges. What’s barely explored, sadly, is the darker narrative, that subterraneous stream that runs parallel to this shining path to academic success: stress, disappointment, depression, and, when failing to make the grade, a profound if not deadly identity crisis.

Andrew Lam is author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" and "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres" both books deal with generation gap within the Vietnamese community and his own family and his struggle to become a writer.

Chinese version: 亞美裔學生自殺率上升—三名學生自尋短見

Japanese version: 増え続けるアジア系アメリカ人の自殺 - 学生三人、自殺する

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Andrew Lam explores the dark side of academic achievement among Asian American students. In a growing trend, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that Asian American students face an increasing risk of suicide when compared to the average American.


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User Comments

TJ on Aug 30, 2009 at 21:05:18 said:

The 'extreme sacrifices' of these Confucian 'wild goose' fathers, who are absent from their families for 5-7 years, are sure to have some 'extreme' results: 1) research has been done on the 'gender role identity and orientation' issues these kids have. 2)research akso shows these kids may have high test scores, but they don't work well in group projects. This doesn't bode well for future job prospects (there are MNC's that don't hire engineers from China or Korea for this reason). 3) research shows that many Korean mothers don't know the basics about child rearing - disturbing when they are raising the kids all on their own. 4) sounds like Korean public education needs to be reformed - sounds eerily familiar to Japan's problems 25 years ago. The guise is adhering to 'Confucian values' and sacrificing for the family - the result is emotionally stunted, suicidal kids who may be excellent at regurgitating facts/info but can't problem solve effectively in a group.

TLing on Aug 22, 2009 at 04:35:30 said:

I think one of the great tragedy in life is not to try. There is such a thing as honor in failure, and just as true, shame in (perceived) success. The means (tao, or the way, per Confuscius) to whatever end is its meaning defined. The unique honor system at Caltech also has that in mind. We should strive for and praise valient effort, which is different from focusing on the outcome. Mindful, the bigger picture is we are here to make a difference, for others more than for our selves. This is the leap that man-child makes to become man. There are causes bigger than you, me, or any one person. Yet, the young have the right to make their choices, and sometimes, what we think may be mistakes, for we know never enough and judge too quickly, and that is human. There may be causes worthy of martyrdom, but the circumstances are usually extraordinary. Repeat suicides in our very best and brightest calls for re-examination of the overarching mission of our education. I believe a top choice should be uncompromising humanitarianism, of which love (and mercy) for thy neighbor as thyself should be the cornerstone. With deep sorrow and respect for the deceased Caltech students and their families. TL

Nan Chen on Aug 19, 2009 at 01:16:32 said:

This was a very poorly thought out and irresponsibly written article. The author does not provide any evidence that the cause of these suicides is attributable to any aspect of a "Confucian culture" (never mind the specific aspect within such cultures which emphasizes education). Yet the author does seem to make precisely such an claim.

Perhaps, as the Asian mental health expert was quoted as claiming (in the article!), it is because Asians are less likely to seek professional mental health services that is responsible for the higher suicide rates? This could be because of many factors such as lack of money, knowledge, health care, or trust for such services, etc. Or maybe because Asians face lots of racial discrimination in this country that is (partly or mainly) responsible for their high suicide rates? Or maybe some other reason(s) is the culprit?

How presumptuous of the author to make the association without any evidence to support it that it is the pressure to succeed academically that is the cause. The author also claims, under a very superficial understanding of The Analects of Confucius, that Confucius advocated that failure to be "perfect" academically or within the ancient Mandarin examination systems should be shameful. That is absolute nonsense. First of all, Confucius never introduced the examination system nor advocated for it; such a system was introduced hundreds of years after his death. 2nd, the quote attributed to Confucius was a reference to moral excellence, not necessarily academic "perfection". 3rd Confucius believed that moral perfection was a goal that mortals *can never attain* but should always strive toward (he said that he himself has never attained moral perfection). He never said that it was shameful to fail to attain such perfection; the ambition of actually attaining moral perfection would have been considered ludicrous and maybe even conceited under such a conception of morality. There is always room for improvement in such a moral conception, never will perfection be attained, and thus failure to attain such perfection is not only expected, it is necessary part of the process for anyone that seeks such a path.

Ed C. on Aug 18, 2009 at 08:18:40 said:

The reason for the higher asian suicide rate is because "Confucian culture" ..of.. "chopstick nations" !!!.

The writer is simply doing a lip service to the stereotype explanation that is being used by people in Europe and U.S. for 100s of years. Might as well call it: Orientalistic view of life.

Suicide is link to depression and focus on students who are depressed should be the key to reducing suicidal rate instead of try to look for some simplified explanation of culture.


Xiao Lei on Aug 18, 2009 at 06:44:42 said:

Assiana, I think you have a very valid point. Some Asian American students do feel isolated in a white majority college. Many second generation Asian Americans hardly had a chance to social with white kids while growing up, due to their immigrant parents. I am an immigrant myself and I do make sure my kids are well assimilated and integrated in the mainstream culture. That's very important for this simple reason of college social life for my kids. Most immigrant parents don't understand the problem and push their kids to their limit on the piano, academics, Chinese language and that's about it. Talking about Asian males being emasculated in the American culture, I personally believe Asian parents are to partially blame. How many first-generation Asian American parents (I am talking about professional immigrants, not restaurant workers who have to work all hours) would sign up their kids for youth sports? Very, very few. In my area, I have tried to rally other fellow first-generation professional Chinese parents to sign their kids up for youth sports like soccer, baseball and football, but few has even tried. Three families did try for 2 seasons and their kids did very well, but parents decided to drop out with all kinds of nonsensical excuses. As a Chinese myself, I understood the motives of these Chinese parents very well. To them, youth sports is not Chinese. They want to find other Chinese to compare with. It's Chinese culture - in a sense Asian culture - that we must compare within our own. The narrow-mindedness of Asian culture seems to drive our lives.

I have also known many 2rd- and 3th-generation Asian Americans who are parents now. Compared with the first-generation Asian immigrants, they don't push or isolate their kids. I think what we are discussing here is by and large the immigrant's problem - the imported Asian culture.

Ed on Aug 17, 2009 at 21:30:48 said:

I would think that's it is quite wrong to blame culture and Confucius for Asian American suicides.

The article might as well say, 'Asians kill themselves so blame yourselves'.

That is pathetic attempt of representing the real issue.

Most Asian Americans as we know are westerenized to the point of being non 'asian-like'.

So I really this article is nothing more than a pointless far fetched rambling .

People Commit suicide for all different reasons.

I would suggest looking at the obvious problematic American Society.

Assiana on Aug 17, 2009 at 17:10:36 said:

People need to examing the isolation that Asian American students feel on campus. American college culture is very segregated and non-inclusive. I doubt that academic drove these kids to suicide. The most likely felt they don't belong in these white college where the notion of what college meants didn't apply to Asian males. I suspect they felt racially isolate and discriminate. We all know how American culture emasculate Asian males, no doubt these boys have a touhg time reconcile that in college.

ALHuang on Aug 17, 2009 at 15:45:24 said:

@ Xiao Lei: “we know 2nd generation American-born Chinese Americans don't do this to their children.” I believe my Dad was an “anchor kid,” from his Village. Perhaps going through that stress taught him not to put his children through that yet still allowed him to put emphases on getting a good education. That said, what I believe is that my parents were “forward thinking” enough to not make their children feel like failures if they could not maintain high grades yet making sure we understood the importance an education.

@ Linda: “If you can't knack it or don't want to, say so. If they love you, they will accept you and respect your decision, even if it doesn't come right away.”
I’m a 2nd generation American-born Chinese and can fully understand your comment and see the logic in it. As the author of this article asked, “But why is education so deeply ingrained in the Confucian culture?” It is exactly that, “Confucian Culture,” which permeates throughout East Asians just by their upbringing. Therefore it isn’t so easy to just say “No I don’t want to do that.”

It may come to a head with the suicide of a loved one, or it may manifest in other ways. The “One Child” policy in China is creating enormous stress in that child needing to succeed in education and to get that good job in that ever so scarce job market. If the child can’t make it, then that “Loosing Face” concept kicks in and things can spiral out of control. It may be suicide or it may mean that one never returns home, only to be making it out on the streets.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what may be driving these suicides, but if the stress of getting the best grades to capture that golden opportunity is causing one to loose face, then it’s not that difficult to see what is going on here especially if you are in touch with your unintentional Confucian ideals.

DLin on Aug 17, 2009 at 10:47:12 said:

I highly doubt that you can generalize that ALL asian americans kill themselves because of these academic pressures. It\'s too one-dimensional, and that\'s not what asian-americans are, right? I encourage you to re-think what you\'re saying. it may just do more harm than good.

Xiao Lei on Aug 17, 2009 at 08:41:45 said:

"But when it's too much I believe it's the responsibility of the individual to voice that and make it clear to the parents."

Linda, Sorry I have to be so blunt with you. I hope you are not a parent i fyou actually believe what you wrote. How exactly do you expect a little child to voice his/her concern to his/her stupid parents? You do understand that the parents we are talking about here are Asians who would not take no for an anwser for their kids, don't you? They would even beat up on their kids if need be to get them to appreciate the Asian culture of academic excellence and only academic excellence. A typical Asian parent is stupid because she wants nothing else for her child except for academic excellence. No, getting 95 on a test isn't good enough as long as her friend's child gets 96 or more. I am Chinese myself. I am speaking from first-hand experience with many Chinese families. It's truly sad! I don't understand why Chinese parents never change in this regard. This is very stupid aspect of Chinese culture. But we know 2nd generation American-born Chinese Americans don't do this to their children. Thank God for that.

Linda on Aug 16, 2009 at 15:05:03 said:

Different people have different goals. I don't think parents intentionally want their kids to be under pressures so great that it causes them to take their own life. But when it's too much I believe it's the responsibility of the individual to voice that and make it clear to the parents. If you can't knack it or don't want to, say so. If they love you, they will accept you and respect your decision, even if it doesn't come right away.

P.Lo on Aug 13, 2009 at 20:15:30 said:

"I not Stupid" is a great Singaporean film that examines this pressure among grade-school boys.

Jsmith on Aug 13, 2009 at 09:45:40 said:

Suicide among youth is a horrible thing and greatly under (or perhaps even un) reported.

Thank you for this article.

Armen on Aug 13, 2009 at 02:07:16 said:

It's a vicious cycle. Just like how my parents didn't really "raise" me. The "Wonder Years" on TV did, and now I'm fucked. It is important for parents to be in touch with their children, to not put so much pressure on life achievements, but to actually experience life itself. I am disappointed in people.




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