Being a 'model minority' comes with a price

The Local Control Funding Formula, passed in 2013, provides extra money to California school districts and also requires that they listen to parents, teachers, and community members as they decide how to spend it. This story is the fourth in a series where Alhambra Source Reporter Corps participants explore how they would spend the funding. If you would like to learn more, there will be an Alhambra Unified School District board meeting on June 17.

Raymond Penaia in 2014.

In high school I was your cliché Asian overachiever. I took multiple Advanced Placement classes, participated in a variety of extracurricular activities such as my high school orchestra and Key Club, and even volunteered on the weekends. But although I appeared successful, I was struggling on the inside. Often, I would stay up all night just to complete assignments, study for exams, and work on projects. There were times where I would cry out of frustration from being overwhelmed with the endless list of things I needed to do.

The constant stress and pressure I felt during high school was linked to a 50-year stereotype that Asian Americans are essentially perfect, according to Sefa Aina, vice chair of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. “The whole model minority myth was created out of the 1960s, during a time when other people of color were fighting for access and fighting to be enfranchised in this country,” Aina says. “The media and powers-that-be start to hold up this one community and say, ‘Well, look at them. They have achieved despite setbacks and historical injustices. They persisted.’”

From a very young age I felt these pressures. For instance, whenever it came time for parent-teacher conferences in elementary school, I always nervously awaited the results hoping that my parents would only hear positive remarks. I strived to meet the level of success expected from my family by being a high achieving student.

The assumption that Asian Americans are high achievers has a foundation. Nationally, Asians outscore other groups, including whites, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card. In the Alhambra Unified School District in Southern California the trend is repeated. There, the student population is evenly divided between Asian and Hispanic students, and Asian students scored highest on the district’s 2013 Academic Performance Index, which is based on a variety of academic measures, including test scores.

But there is a downside to this success. Asian students suffer from depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts more often than their peers. According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, Asian, Native Hawaiian, and other Pacific Islander high school students report higher rates of suicidal behaviors than the general population of U.S. high school students. Studies have also found that poor academic performance and anxiety about performing well enough were major risk factors for suicidal ideation amongst Asian students.

Sophia Teodoro, a program coordinator at the Asian Youth Center in San Gabriel, sees how the “model minority” stereotype affects the mental health of local students. “Some of the stress that I see with our students is pressure that they feel that they have to excel in every topic and GPAs matter,” she says. “And we have students that come here sometimes without sleeping because they feel that they have to be the best. They have this idea of who they have to be in order to excel.”

While the “tiger mom” stereotype is prevalent — a representation of a strict Asian parent with high expectations — Mike Pedro, youth and community coordinator at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, says the pressure comes from various sources. “The student hears it at home, then they go to school and they hear it from their friends, and then they go to class and they hear it from their teacher about this model minority stereotype,” he says. “And when they realize that they don’t fit this stereotype, it has an effect on their mentality.”

At Alhambra High School, where 44.6 percent of students are Asian or Pacific Islanders, students have taken note of what happens when their peers are unable to deal with these pressures. “A lot of people cry because they get a C on a test or something like that,” says Andrea Hong, a sophomore. “It’s coming from the pressure that other people expect you to get. It’s going to have a major impact on their lives whether or not they get an A in that class or transcript.”

I’m very familiar with the pressures these students feel. There was never a question of whether or not I would go to college, but rather which of the nation’s top colleges I’d go to. To get in, I needed to be on the honors and AP courses track while simultaneously participating in multiple extracurricular activities. My parents expected me to do well, my peers expected me to keep up, and I continually pushed myself to meet these expectations. Falling short didn’t seem like an option.

Those Asian students who don’t fit the stereotype — who don’t get perfect scores, play an instrument, and join an extracurricular activity  — often suffer from low self-esteem and perform even lower academically because of the heightened pressure on their group, according to Pedro. “There’s been many times when students have come up to me and said, ‘I’m not cut for this stuff,’” he says. “It’s ingrained that they’re not good enough cause they don’t fit into [the stereotype], so they check out and they don’t participate and they don’t invest in the situation.”

“If they get bad grades and they can’t really bring them up, then they don’t really care anymore. It’s to the point that they give up,” says Angel Hyun, a sophomore at AHS.

AUSD offers resources for Asian and Pacific Islander students who are feeling the negative impacts of the pressures to be successful, including a mental health program called Gateway to Success. Gateway offers school community coordinators who speak multiple languages, a Parent University program, and translators with cultural competency, according to Dr. Laurel Bear, program director.

Asian students should know that they aren’t alone in dealing with these pressures and that there are available resources for them. Other such resources are the after school programs and mentorship offered by organizations such as Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the Asian Youth Center.

Parents should recognize the negative repercussions that result from too much pressure and the need to provide a supportive environment for their child’s well being. The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), a California law passed last year that will send more money to school districts with disadvantaged populations, provides an opportunity for parents to have a more powerful impact on the lives of their students and their future. More programs focusing on supporting students can be funded if the need is voiced. For instance, the school community has already identified Gateway to Success as a necessary program and it will be integrated into AUSD’s LCFF plan, according to Bear.

The school system should ensure that it develops counseling resources sensitive to Asian students whom teachers might assume are "model students" but are suffering on the inside. That and the ability to talk with Asian students who have already gone through similar struggles and pressures would have been beneficial to me as a high school student. I would have had a better understanding of where these expectations come from and been better prepared to deal with the stress and pressures. It’s important for Asian students to realize that there are different pathways to achieving success. And what defines success should be relative to one’s talents and passions rather than an outdated, stereotyped misperception.

This story was produced by USC Annenberg's Reporter Corps, which trains young adults from diverse and under-represented neighborhoods to report on their own communities, in partnership with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University. Alhambra Source, which is also affiliated with USC, hosted the project.

1 thought on “Being a 'model minority' comes with a price”

  1. Somewhere I read that Asian-Americans are not necessarily “smarter” (than the general population), but they work harder

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