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The Academic Success of East-Asian American Students


Elizabeth Cay, ‘24

May 25, 2023



Introduction

For as long as I can remember, East-Asian American students have been automatically assumed to be high achieving. As a child, my elementary school life was thoroughly seasoned with backhanded comments like, “You’re Asian, aren’t you supposed to be good at math?” Then, slowly trickling into my high school career with similarly uncomfortable questions like, “So what’s your [grade point] average?” Naturally, I had always felt a little uneasy hearing these comments, but it was never unusual to be grouped into the pool of “typical” East-Asian American students. The phenomenon persisted online as I was constantly met with video essays, mini-documentaries, and articles that depicted East-Asian students in grueling study conditions.



Highlighting Education in Asia for myNetworkHer Blog
(Via Youtube)

More specifically, I can recall numerous, nearly identical articles that cover the unfortunate losses of East-Asian American students. They would have had perfect SAT scores, multiple AP class credits, and impressive extracurriculars, all for them to be rejected by top US colleges. Oddly enough, the unfortunate narrative has almost become repetitive as we’ve slowly become accustomed to the plethora of high-achieving East-Asian American students. But why exactly do so many East-Asian American students consistently achieve academic success? Does it really have anything to do with their “Asianness”, or have we stretched a racial monolith over an exceptional group of students?


Shadow Education 

 In East-Asian countries, students often receive shadow education alongside their regular day schools. The word is loosely translated from (학원, hakwon), (学習塾, gakushu juku) and (補習班, buxiban) — terms in Korean, Japanese, and Chinese that refer to for-profit, private institutions that provide supplementary teaching. Aside from elongated school days, added pressure, and overall student dissatisfaction, cram schools prepare students for East-Asian educational models, which greatly emphasize testing. For example, the Nationwide Unified Examination for Admissions to General Universities and Colleges, known as Gaokao, is the national undergraduate exam of China. It is considered one of the most difficult exams in the world and often requires students to seek out cram schools to perform well. To paint the picture, a famous cram school in China, “Maotanchang High School,” was criticized after publicly sharing its rigorous 16-hour daily study schedule. 




A Chinese student stacks their Gaokao preparation books. For myNetworkHer Blog
A Chinese student stacks their Gaokao preparation books.(Via The World of Chinese)

The nearly unsurvivable schedule offers a glimpse into the importance placed on exams like Gaokao. As they determine how students will advance into postsecondary education and which job opportunities they might receive, many students prepare with the utmost determination. A user on Quora wrote, “Gaokao is the fairest system there is for the population [in China] whether you are rich or poor...it is the “only way” for a poor village kid who studies hard to make a good future for himself.”


However, in American contexts, top colleges similarly consider an applicant’s performance on the Scholastic Aptitude Test — more commonly known as the SAT. After all, an American-born Chinese student could perform exceptionally well without ever experiencing Gaokao and still have their success attributed to a lifestyle they just haven’t lived. Though I am not comparing the difficulty nor content of Gaokao and the SATs, it’s notable that when researching this phenomenon, I found that researchers Soo-young Byun and Hyunjoon Park attributed the success of East-Asian American students to cram-school-inspired SAT prep centers. As both scenarios utilize supplementary educational aids that prepare students for standardized high-school level testing, they attempt to reason said academic success to forms of additional and paid SAT prep in America. 


Byun and Park argue that with the long history of shadow education in their countries of origin, East-Asian immigrant parents may feel inclined to turn to these SAT prep institutions to improve their children’s academic performance  (Byun and Park 2013). As immigrant parents may place a higher emphasis on their children’s education, they might also feel restricted by American education systems due to limited English language skills. In a census report published by the TCDSB, parents from China and Hong Kong are said to have less contact with their children’s school yet are much more likely to expect their children to attend university. 


(Via TCDSB Census Report)
(Via TCDSB Census Report)

Further, they mention that many SAT prep centers are frequently opened by East-Asian American entrepreneurs. Thus, shadow education is particularly appealing as East-Asian immigrant parents can effectively communicate with shadow educators with similar ethnic backgrounds. Also, the study emphasizes social collectivism in SAT prep centers. As they generally serve a large population of East-Asian American students who reinforce similar educational goals, they can encourage each other to achieve academic success. Together, the students promote a positive environment that strengthens their academic competition and their desire to keep up with their peers. The following statement was made by a non-Asian mother who sent her son to a Korean cram school in New York: “When they see all these other kids studying, my kids don’t feel weird. The peer pressure is positive. Studying has become a habit- second nature  (Byun and Park 2013).” 


While attributing academic success to supplementary education is believable, Byun and Park disclose that little research has empirically investigated the relevance of shadow education to East-Asian American students. So, I posed a similar question to five of my high-achieving classmates of East-Asian and Southeast-Asian American descent.


Testimonials 

Abby K. has a 4.0 GPA and was admitted to the University of Toronto for Life Sciences. She has never received any forms of private tutoring or attended a cram school-inspired institution. She recognizes that as the youngest child of 3, her parents' expectations were lowered and only began to motivate her once she received good grades. Saying that, “My parents only directly encouraged me after noticing that I had the potential to do well.” Although Abby’s parents were involved, she felt the most accountable for her academics when forming relationships with her teachers and feeling positive peer pressure from her similarly high-achieving schoolmates. 


Jade B. has a 4.0 GPA and was admitted to the University of Toronto for Civil Engineering. She has never received any forms of private tutoring or attended cram school-inspired institutions. She is the middle child of 3 and felt that her parents' expectations were more subtly mentioned when they shared their reasons for immigration. Jade points out that her efforts were never dramatized, as consistently receiving good grades became a normal standard. Though she was congratulated for her admission into what is arguably Canada’s top engineering program, her parents quickly moved on to another conversation. 


Alexa M. has a 3.7 GPA and was admitted to the Toronto Metropolitan University for Nursing. She has never received private tutoring but briefly attended a learning center before quitting in the 2nd grade due to stress. As the oldest of two, Alexa attributes most of her academic motivations to being a first-generation immigrant. Her parents, both from large families, encouraged her to do well in terms of a fuller life and carry out their wishes for a well-educated experience. Lastly, she mentioned that school is her extracurricular activity and that performing well is satisfying.


Rachelle D. has a 3.7 GPA and was admitted to McMaster University for Nursing. She has never received private tutoring and notes that it was unaffordable for her family. She is the youngest of two and acknowledges that her parents are less intense about her academic pursuits than her older brother. As a child, Rachelle was forced to do well in school and believes the mindset has ingrained itself into her work ethic as a teenager. She recalls the extra reading her mother assigned in hopes that her English grades would improve, but Rachelle grew to dislike the subject. Lastly, Rachelle says that taking a gap year is out of the picture as her parents don’t want to delay her studies or have her fall behind — she must begin her professional career as soon as possible. 


Elhen M. has a 3.7 GPA and was admitted to the University of Toronto for Chemical Engineering. She has never received private tutoring but attended a learning center in the Philippines which taught advanced level courses in preparation for high school. She felt that her academic motivation was drilled into her as a child and became less prominent as her discipline became self-inflicting. Finally, Elhen notes that her academic success isn’t for individual efforts but are commutative achievements that are celebrated with her family. 


While the majority of the testimonials did not receive any form of shadow education, there is one common theme throughout their experiences. As we separate East-Asian and East-Asian American experiences, the key difference is immigration. It seems like the motivation of their families' sacrifices serves as a greater aid than shadow education. Arguably, one might receive shadow education alongside this goal but private tutoring and other forms of supplementary education act as the ladder and do not serve as the greater goal or motivator. 


Though many immigrant and first-generation students might harbor similar feelings — with East-Asian American students specifically, Min Zou and Susan S. Kim credit these students' academic success to sociocultural differences. Stating that East-Asian immigrants encounter the difference and flexibility of the American education system and its abundant opportunities, but also the disadvantages without it. This reaffirms their existing emphasis on education and strengthens their perceptions of it being the only realistic means to achieve social mobility. More narrowly, East Asians are associated with the “model minority” stereotype, subconsciously holding them to a standard above other Americans and instilling greatness. Thus, combining the two becomes a more believable and larger reason behind the success of East-Asian American students. 


Simply put, the success of East-Asian American students cannot be attributed solely to affording and being able to reap the benefits of shadow education; Zou and Kim argue that this success transcends socioeconomic class. Their article reads, “What is more striking is that young Asian Americans — not only the children of foreign-born physicians, scientists, and engineers, but also those of uneducated, low-skilled, and poor immigrants and refugees — have repeatedly shown up as high school valedictorians and academic decathlon winners, and have enrolled in prestigious colleges and universities in disproportionately large numbers (Zhou, Kim 2006).


Personal Piece

As an East-Asian American student, I must admit that in my high school career, I have received a considerable amount of shadow education. Like many other East-Asian children, those studied in these articles, and my classmates’ included — it’s always been clear that my education was highly prioritized and that my parents would invest in a plethora of resources if it meant that I could excel and perform to my fullest potential. Most of these investments came in the form of private tutoring; truthfully, I’ve experienced working with over seven different private tutors. The routine significantly improved my academic performance and, of course, could not be uncovered in this blog.


Initially, it felt embarrassing to need additional help, especially when my regular day school classmates’ did not need it. I often wished that academic success came more naturally to me and that I had been born “smarter,” akin to the successful bunch of East-Asian American students to whom I was subtly upheld. I only began to feel indifferent about my shadow education during my exchange semester. There, I learned that many of my top-achieving classmates also frequently met with their own private tutors. I no longer felt ashamed of needing shadow education and subsequently learned about the similar aids of my classmates’ successes. It was relieving to know that my classmates weren’t as blissfully gifted as I had perceived and that receiving extra help was normal and common — even for the consistently high-scoring students. 


However, my gifted exchange classmates weren’t all East-Asian; in fact, they were a thoroughly diverse group of individuals who consistently scored well because they devoted themselves to it. Likewise, my regular school classmates, all of East or Southeast Asian descent, did not receive shadow education and also managed to perform exceptionally well. Their testimonials shared a general, overarching theme of immigration, but they still encompassed various socioeconomic stances, family dynamics, and portrayal of cultural structures. Thus, their successes cannot be solely attributed to monoliths, stereotypes, or supplementary education. Regardless of ethnic background or educational privileges, each of my classmates is simply astonishing, and it has nothing to do with race nor the sole aid of shadow education. 


Reflecting on this, I can self-identify with my exchange and regular school classmates. Though privileged to have received shadow education, I can understand familial values concerning education. In a place where I’m fortunate enough to assume my own identity, interests and professional pursuits — I admit to selecting a difficult career path that is personally enjoyable but recognized in my ethnic community and practically guarantees social mobility. I am not berated for performing poorly because I don’t feel bound to my family’s expectations. Although I cannot speak for all East-Asian students, I firmly believe that acts of service have always been a common love language for immigrants and their children. Simply, I and many others have viewed academic pursuits and the potential for professional success as the ultimate way to say “Thank you.” 


Conclusion

I am thoroughly tired of seeing media filled with buzzwords that portray East-Asian American students as pitiful beings whose success falls under a set array of explanations. Beyond the YouTube videos that monetize stressed students for culture-shock value, there is no singular reason behind the achievements of a certain racial group. In fabricating one, we lose the importance of commending the achievement at face value. Sure, we can recognize the various factors at play. Still, we must stop reductive generalizations and learn to applaud these students in genuine contexts separate from their ethnic and racial identities. It is clear that there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all" to this phenomenon and that the intersectionality of each student differs — even if they appear to share an outward trait. 


You’ve made it to the end! I hope this insanely long blog has provided some perspective and given you some food for thought, maybe even about your educational journeys! It’s all in gratitude, so this is for my Notre Dame girls who shared their experiences and my Science School classmates’ who grounded me and my family. :)




Works Cited

Byun, Soo-young, and Hyunjoon Park. “The Academic Success of East Asian American Youth: The Role of Shadow Education.” NCBI, 13 October 2013, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3806291/  Accessed 3 June 2024.

Hsueh, Aaron. “Gaokao Town.” The World of Chinese, 7 July 2020, https://www.theworldofchinese.com/2020/07/gaokao-town/  Accessed 3 June 2024.

Yau, Maria, et al. “Portraits East Asian.” Toronto District School Board, 2011, https://www.tdsb.on.ca/Portals/research/docs/reports/PortraitsEastAsian.pdf  Accessed 3 June 2024.

Zhou, Min, and Susan S. Kim. “Community Forces, Social Capital, and Educational Achievement: The Case of Supplementary Education in the Chinese and Korean Immigrant Communities.” Harvard Educational Review, 2006, https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Min-Zhou-41/publication/44836550_Community_Forces_Social_Capital_and_Educational_Achievement_The_Case_of_Supplementary_Education_in_the_Chinese_and_Korean_Immigrant_Communities/links/0f3175365753486a9e000000/Community-F  Accessed 3 June 2024.


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