By Heaja Kim, Independent College Admissions Consultant, KKM College Consulting
A couple of years ago, I read about an interesting study that attributed the difference in how peoples of the East and the West think to the labor requirements for the type of grain grown in their respective regions. The theory goes like this: because rice required so much more labor than wheat before the recent mechanization of agriculture, rice farming necessitated cooperation among farmers, and hence, promoted a collective outlook. Underlying the thesis is the premise, and a seemingly widely-accepted view, that Westerners are more individualistic than those who hail from the East.
With this supposed tendency toward a collective outlook, it may not be very surprising that many Asian American students are perceived to be virtually indistinguishable from one another on their college applications because they pursue similar academic interests and extracurricular activities. The stereotypical Asian student has a high GPA and test scores, plays a string instrument in the school orchestra, plays a racket sport or golf, and competes in science or math competitions. The town in which I live has a sizable Asian population, and examples of the stereotypical Asian student abound. When I walk down the hallway of my local high school administrative office, which is adorned with framed pictures of athletic teams, I am hard pressed to find non-Asian faces in the tennis and golf team photos. And, you guessed it, the orchestra is almost entirely composed of Asian students. A Google search of “typical Asian activities in college admissions” turns up such disconcerting search results as “College Admissions Advisors Work To Make Asian Kids Less ‘Asian’” and “The Asian Penalty.”
I believe the tendency of Asian students to present very similar applications is a product of the lack of information and insecurity on the part of Asian parents, rather than a collective outlook deeply embedded in the psyche of Asians, outlasting the bygone agrarian society that putatively bred and fostered such outlook. Because I am of Korean descent and my primary contact points are Korean American parents in my particular community, my perspective is limited at best and may even be flawed. Nevertheless, what I have observed is that the first generation immigrant parents are subject to a particular information gap as a result of arriving in the United States after school-attending years and lacking English language skills to navigate the unfamiliar college admissions landscape. Thus, they are susceptible to anxiety arising from it.
Their anxiety is compounded by the fact that they hail from a very different academic environment. I don’t think I am going out on a limb to state that all East Asian countries value education highly and spend a lot of resources on education. Korea, in particular, has gained notoriety for what one writer describes as a “culture of educational masochism” that has resulted in extremely stressed and deeply unhappy students. For a long time, college admissions in Korea were based solely on a grueling 8-hour test given only once a year, and if you could not take the test for whatever reason, you had to wait an entire year to take the test and apply to colleges. Every year, I read news stories on Korean web portals of students who would not allow a broken leg from a car accident or a spine injury caused by a fall or (this is absolutely true) symptoms of cerebral hemorrhage deter them from taking their tests, even from their hospital beds. High unemployment rates for young people under 30 and the scarcity of “good jobs” raise the stakes even more.
Many first generation Korean American parents packed up everything and crossed the Pacific Ocean to come to a land whose customs, language, and institutions they are not familiar with for the primary purpose of educating their children in a less exacting and more forgiving environment. But because they come from an educational environment that leaves no room for error, they are filled anxiety and fear, opt for what they perceive is tried-and-true, and impose their choices on their children. It is a shame because countless hours and much money may be wasted on activities that students may not truly care about when those resources could have been used to develop true passions and interests.
As an independent college counselor who is bilingual and bicultural, I want to reassure these parents that their children can achieve success as long as they are engaged, motivated, and industrious and that there is room for mistakes and failures along the way to self-discovery and fulfillment. Encouragingly, among the 1.5 and second generation Korean American parents, I do see much greater confidence and willingness to let their children exercise agency, as they are better aware of the qualities and qualifications to thrive in our society. I hope that all of us parents will gain the discernment and courage, in the face of extreme pressure to join the race to nowhere, to do right by our children and prepare them well to become good, productive, and happy citizens who are optimistic about their future and confident about their ability to meet the challenges that are ahead of them.