Everyone knows that Asian students try the hardest and learn the fastest out of any other race, right? Well, this is at least the common stereotype of Asian students. It is no surprise that this is the dominant view. Japan, for example, has one of the highest rates of child suicide in the world. A World Health Organization Report showed that Japan’s suicide rate is 60 percent higher than the global average (Olivier, 2017). According to a BBC News Report, approximately 70 people commit suicide every day in Japan (Wingfield-Hayes, 2015). This high suicide rate is largely attributable to academic-related pressures to perform highly on tests. Olivier points out that “unlike in Christian countries, in Japan suicide is not considered a sin. It is seen as a way of taking responsibility” (Olivier, 2017). In Japan, suicide has a long tradition associated with honor. It is more honorable to realize failure and to end one’s life than to continue on in shame. This same mentality has continued on with Asian students living in the United States as well.
Another study of Korean-American students showed that “Approximately 3.7 out of every 100 suicides in the United States are Korean-Americans, marking the highest number among all ethnicities, according to 2015 statistics” (Kim, 2017). Kim correlates the high rate to the fact that Koreans find it unacceptable to talk about suicide. Because of this many Koreans do not seek help for problems with depression. Furthermore, similar to the Japanese, Koreans hold academia highly. High suicide rates among Koreans are also linked with academic performance.
In his article from GreatSchools.org, Hank Pellissier points to the high academic achievement rate amongst Korean students: “According to a 2006 survey by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which evaluates the scholastic performance of 15-year-olds in 57 nations every three years, South Koreans rank first in reading, third in math (tied with Hong Kong), and 10th in science (tied with Liechtenstein) … More than 97% of South Koreans graduate from high school, the highest graduation rate in the world. Some 100,000 South Koreans now attend U.S. universities — third overall just behind China and India — despite having a population that is less than 1/20th of those nations” (Pellissier, 2016). Pellissier mentions that Former President Barack Obama called on the US to imitate the Korean school system in order to achieve higher educational standards in America. Based on these statistics it appears that Korean students fit the “model-minority” Asian stereotype that is so often attributed to them. They are also clearly under a lot of pressure to uphold the stereotype of being academic superstars.
Stacey J. Lee, in her essay “Behind the Model-Minority Stereotype: Voices of High- and Low-Achieving Asian American Students,” discusses the perspectives of several Asian American groups, including Korean Americans. Stacey performed a study at a Philadelphia high school by interviewing students originally from Cambodia, Laos, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China in order to shed light on the common perception of Asian students. The first myth she found in trying to substantiate the Asian stereotype was that not all people from the Asian continent identified as Asian. She discovered that Korean students in particular did not identify with Asian students at all. Koreans often did not socialize with other Asians and felt they “were ‘superior’ to other Asians” (Lee, 1994) when asked. Clearly, there is a lot of pressure amongst Korean Americans to uphold a certain social status – from grades to identity to jobs to income.
Lee’s study uncovers a more complex identity system amongst Asians than might have been thought. Based on her findings, Lee groups Asian students into four categories: Koreans, Asians, Asian new wavers and Asian Americans. And, as she illuminates, not all four groups fit the stereotypical mold of being high achievers. Regarding the “Asian group,” she states: “Although the students who identified as Asian worked hard and held positive attitudes toward schooling, these students ranged from high achievers to low achievers. The experience of the low achievers suggests that positive attitudes and hard work do not necessarily guarantee school success” (Lee, 1994, p.418). What Lee discovered was that just because the Asian identifying students are quiet, focused, studious, respectful and optimistic they are not automatically high achievers.
Lee studied yet another group of students she labeled Asian new wavers (because of their affinity for new wave music). Asian new wavers are mostly from lower-income backgrounds, often refugees. This group of students can be categorized as looking for a better life. Many of them are expressive with fashion and known as “partiers.” Furthermore, this group does not hold academics in high esteem. In fact, they seem to be quite academically defiant, not caring about rules, homework or getting good grades. It is seen as uncool to get good grades and study hard. Lee quoted one student saying “‘more American…more cool’” (Lee, 1994, p.423). As her study unfolded further, Lee realized that it was also negative racial experiences within society that caused Asian new wave students to rebel against academia. Lee states: “For example, new wavers complained of being unfairly hassled by police … Because of experiences with police and security guards, these students come to school suspicious of all authority figures, including teachers” (Lee, 1994, p.425). This particular group of Asian students feel discriminated against and marginalized.
A last group of Asian students that Lee labeled “Asian Americans” align most closely with Asians insofar as they work diligently and hold academia in high esteem. However, they are much more outspoken about racial prejudice than the Asian group. While they are not as defiant as the Asian new wavers, they are certainly more outspoken when it comes to challenging the stereotypes they often fall victim to.
Lee summarizes her study with a steadfast observation about each group: “The [Koreans and] Asians dealt with discrimination by emulating model-minority behavior, and the new wavers responded by resisting behavior that promoted school success. On the other hand, Asian Americans fought racism directly…by speaking out about the model-minority stereotype” (Lee, 1994, p.426). As Lee proves, totalistic assumptions about any race, ethnicity, religious group or culture are usually gross over-generalizations that can lead to discrimination, racism, hate crimes, violence and/or suicide. To assume that just because a student appears to be of Asian descent they will do well in school is one of those overgeneralizations.
Lee’s small, but powerful study sheds light on the issue of stereotyping in our world today. Any drastic oversimplification that attempts to encompass an entire group of people should be seen as absurd. Societal norms can put undue pressure on people to conform and live up to certain fictitious standards. And, while societal norms may be fictitious constructs the consequences of not living up to those norms are usually very real – suicide being one of those very real consequences. Unfortunately, stereotypes are usually instilled from a very young age and are more difficult to ignore than one may think. It takes very conscious active recognition to see past these common fictitious constructs to view people as individuals, rather than as homogenous groups.
Kim, H. (2017, April 20). 175 Korean-American Suicides a Year. Retrieved from http://www.koreadailyus.com/175-korean-american-suicides-a-year/
Lee, S. J. (1994). Behind the Model-Minority Stereotype: Voices of High- and Low-Achieving Asian American Students. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 25(4), 413–429.
Olivier. (2017, October 04). Child suicide in Japan: The leading cause of death in children. Retrieved from https://www.humanium.org/en/child-suicide-in-japan-the-leading-cause-of-death-in-children/
Pellissier, H. (2016, March 9). High test scores, higher expectations, and presidential hype. Retrieved April 24, 2018, from https://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/south-korean-schools/
Wingfield-Hayes, R. (2015, July 03). Why does Japan have such a high suicide rate? Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-33362387