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The New Whiz Kids PDF Print E-mail
This article from the 1980s represented an important landmark in the history of reporting on the model minority phenomenon. -- Ed.


By David Brand
August 31, 1987

Some are refugees from sad countries torn apart by war. Others are children of the stable middle class whose parents came to the U.S. in search of a better life. Some came with nothing, not even the rudiments of English. Others came with skills and affluence. Many were born in the U.S. to immigrant parents.

No matter what their route, young Asian Americans, largely those with Chinese, Korean and Indochinese backgrounds, are setting the educational pace for the rest of America and cutting a dazzling figure at the country's finest schools. Consider some of this fall's freshman classes: at Brown it will be 9% Asian American, at Harvard nearly 14%, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 20%, the California Institute of Technology 21% and the University of California, Berkeley an astonishing 25%.

By almost every educational gauge, young Asian Americans are soaring. They are finishing way above the mean on the math section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test and, according to one comprehensive study of San Diego-area students, outscoring their peers of other races in high school grade-point averages. They spend more time on their homework, a researcher at the U.S. Department of Education found, take more advanced high school courses and graduate with more credits than other American students. A higher percentage of these young people complete high school and finish college than do white American students. Trying to explain why so many Asian- American students are superachievers, Harvard Psychology Professor Jerome Kagan comes up with this simple answer: ''To put it plainly, they work harder.''

All this would appear to be another success story for the American dream, an example of the continuing immigrant urge to succeed and of the nation's ability to thrive on the dynamism of its new citizens. But there is also a troubling side to the story. Asian Americans consider the ''model minority" image a misleading stereotype that masks individuality and conceals real problems. Many immigrant families, especially the Indochinese refugees who arrived in the years fol lowing the fall of Saigon in 1975, remain mired in poverty. Their war-scarred children, struggling with a new language and culture, often drop out of school. Further, the majority of Asian-American students do not reach the starry heights of the celebrated few, and an alarming number are pushing themselves to the emotional brink in their quest for excellence. Many also detect signs of resentment among non-Asians, an updated ''yellow peril" fear. In particular, the country's best universities are accused of setting admissions quotas to restrict the numbers of Asian Americans on campus.

Even with these problems, many Asian-American students are making the U.S. education system work better for them than it has for any other immigrant group since the arrival of East European Jews began in the 1880s. Like the Asians, the Jews viewed education as the ticket to success. Both groups ''feel an obligation to excel intellectually," says New York University Mathematician Sylvain Cappell, who as a Jewish immigrant feels a kinship with his Asian-American students. The two groups share a powerful belief in the value of hard work and a zealous regard for the role of the family.

The term Asian American covers a variety of national, cultural and religious heritages. In only two decades Asian Americans have become the fastest-growing U.S. minority, numbering more than 5 million, or about 2% of the population; in 1960 the figures were 891,000 and 0.5%. Then in 1965 a new immigration law did away with exclusionary quotas. That brought a surge of largely middle-class Asian professionals -- doctors, engineers and academics from Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, India and the Philippines -- seeking economic opportunity. In 1975, after the end of the Viet Nam War, 130,000 refugees, mostly from the educated middle class, began arriving. Three years later a second wave of 650,000 Indochinese started their journey from rural and poor areas to refugee camps to the towns and cities of America. As the children of these immigrants began moving up through the nation's schools, it became clear that a new class of academic achievers was emerging. One dramatic indication: since 1981, 20 Asian- American students have been among the 70 scholarship winners in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, the nation's oldest and most prestigious high school science competition. One of this year's 40 finalists -- out of 1,295 entrants -- was Taiwan-born David Kuo, 17, of New York City. The name is a familiar one to the competition's organizers: David's brothers John and Mark were finalists in 1985 and 1986. ''My parents always equated a good education with doing well in life, so we picked up on that," says David.

Such achievements are reflected in the nation's best universities, where math, science and engineering departments have taken on a decidedly Asian character. At the University of Washington, 20% of all engineering students are of Asian descent; at Berkeley the figure is 40%. To win these places, Asian-American students make the SAT seem as easy as taking a driving test. Indeed, 70% of Asian-American 18-year-olds took the SAT in 1985, in contrast to only 28% of all 18-year-olds. The average math score of Asian-American high school seniors that year was 518 (of a possible 800), 43 points higher than the general average.

This inclination for math and science is partly explained by the fact that Asian-American students who began their educations abroad arrived in the U.S. with a solid grounding in math but little or no knowledge of English. They are also influenced by the promise of a good job after college. ''Asians feel there will be less discrimination in areas like math and science because they will be judged more objectively," says Shirley Hune, an education professor at Hunter College. And, she notes, the return on the investment in education ''is more immediate in something like engineering than with a liberal arts degree.''

The stereotype of Asian Americans as narrow mathematical paragons is unfair, however, and inaccurate. Many are far from being liberal arts illiterates, according to a study that will be published this fall by Sociologists Ruben G. Rumbaut and Kenji Ima of San Diego State University. They found that in overall grade-point averages, virtually every Asian-American group outscored the city's white high school juniors and seniors. Many Asian-American students excel in the arts, from photography to music. New York City's famed Juilliard School has a student body estimated to be 25% Asian and Asian American. Juilliard President Joseph Polisi rejects the view that Asian students are uniquely talented. ''It's not just being Asian that makes them good musicians," he says. ''It's a matter of dedication, family support and discipline.''

Successful Asian-American students commonly credit the influence of parents who are determined that their children take full advantage of what the American educational system has to offer. For many parents, personal sacrifice is involved. Daniel Pak, an 18-year-old from Dallas entering Harvard next month, shines in everything he does, from math to violin. His brother Tony, 20, is studying physics at M.I.T. Their parents had such colleges in mind when they moved to the U.S. in 1970. The boys' father gave up his career as a professor of German literature in South Korea. Unable to get an academic position in the U.S., he eventually found work as a house painter.

A telling measure of parental attention is homework. A 1984 study of San Francisco-area schools by Stanford Sociologist Sanford Dornbusch found that Asian-American students put in an average of eleven hours a week, compared with seven hours by other students. Westinghouse Prizewinner John Kuo recalls that in Taiwan he was accustomed to studying two or three hours a night. ''Here we had half an hour at the most." To make up the difference, John and his two brothers were often given extra assignments at home. ''Asian parents spend much more time with their children than American parents do, and it helps," says his brother David.

Some Asian Americans may be pushing their children too hard. Says a Chinese-American high schooler in New York City: ''When you get an 80, they say, 'Why not an 85?' If you get an 85, it's 'Why not a 90?' '' Many Asian-American parents even dictate their children's college courses, with an eye to a desirable future. New York City Youth Counselor Amy Lee, 26, remembers that when she changed her field from premed to psychology, her parents were upset, but pressed her at least to get a Ph.D. ''They wanted a doctor in the family, and they didn't care what kind it was.''

Many Asian Americans come from an educated elite in their native countries. Their children seem to do especially well. Julian Stanley, a Johns Hopkins psychology professor, studied 292 preteen high scorers on the math portion of the SAT, nearly a quarter of them Asian Americans. He found that 71% of the Asian-Americans' fathers and 21% of their mothers had a doctorate or a medical degree, vs. 39% of the fathers and 10% of the mothers of the non-Asians.

How then to explain the accomplishment of children whose refugee parents were less well educated? One claim is that Asians are simply smarter than other groups. A subscriber to this theory is Arthur Jensen, a controversial Berkeley educational psychologist. Jensen tested Asian children -- 500 in San Francisco and 8,000 in Hong Kong -- then compared the results with tests of 1,000 white American children in Bakersfield, Calif. He contends that the children with Asian backgrounds averaged ten I.Q. points higher than the whites, and believes there are ''genetic differences" in the rate at which Asians and whites mature mentally.

Most researchers are unconvinced by the natural-superiority argument. But many do believe there is something in Asian culture that breeds success, perhaps Confucian ideals that stress family values and emphasize education. Sociologist William Liu, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, argues that immigrants from Asian countries with the strongest Confucian influence -- Japan, Korea, China and Viet Nam -- perform best. ''The Confucian ethic," he says, ''drives people to work, excel and repay the debt they owe their parents." By comparison, San Diego's Rumbaut points out, Laotians and Cambodians, who do somewhat less well, have a gentler, Buddhist approach to life.

Both the genetic and the cultural explanations for academic success worry Asian Americans because of fears that they feed racial stereotyping. Many can remember when Chinese, Japanese and Filipino immigrants were the victims of undisguised public ostracism and discriminatory laws. Indeed, it was not until 1952 that legislation giving all Asian immigrants the right to citizenship was enacted. "Years ago," complains Virginia Kee, a high school teacher in New York's Chinatown, ''they used to think you were Fu Manchu or Charlie Chan. Then they thought you must own a laundry or restaurant. Now they think all we know how to do is sit in front of a computer." Says Thomas Law, a student at Brooklyn Law School: ''We're sick and tired of being seen as the exotic Orientals.''

He and other young Asian Americans are also exasperated with being seen as ''grade grinds" who do nothing but study. Asks an indignant Henry Der, who heads Chinese for Affirmative Action: ''Is anyone telling black and Hispanic kids to engage in extracurricular activities? No, they are being told to study." Moreover, a 1984 study by Samuel Peng, of the Department of Education, showed that Asian Americans actually do participate in a broad range of extracurricular activities, much as other U.S. students do. Nearly a third of the Asian Americans he studied competed on varsity athletic teams, and more than 20% were active in student government. Still, the image of Asian Americans as relentless bookworms persists. ''If you are weak in math or science and find yourself assigned to a class with a majority of Asian kids, the only thing to do is transfer to a different section," says a white Yale sophomore.

The performance of Asian Americans also triggers resentment and tension. ''Anti-Asian activity in the form of violence, vandalism, harassment and intimidation continues to occur across the nation," the U.S. Civil Rights Commission declared last year. The situation can be particularly rough in inner-city schools. Young immigrant Asians complain that they are called ''Chink" or ''Chop Suey" and are constantly threatened. At New York City's Washington Irving High School, for example, there were reports last year of some 40 incidents of harassment and violence against Asian- American students. To Asian-American activists, one of the most serious signs of discrimination is the admissions quotas they believe leading universities have established. ''If you are an Asian-American student applying to Harvard, you have the lowest chance of getting in," says Peter Kiang, who teaches Asian-American studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. John Bunzel, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford, says he has found indications that Stanford, Harvard, Princeton and Brown discriminate against Asian Americans in their admissions policy.

For this fall's freshman class, Harvard's figures show it accepted 15% of the overall pool of 14,144 applicants, but only 12% of the Asian-American pool of 2,482. After a review of their admissions policies, Harvard and Princeton conceded that Asian-American applicants were accepted at lower rates than whites and other groups, but only because so many of them do not fall into two preferred categories: varsity athletes and children of alumni. Brown also concedes that it accepts a lower percentage of Asian-American candidates and explains that too many of these students have middle-class backgrounds, and that more than half expressed an interest in medicine. The college turns away a disproportionate number of them to enhance socioeconomic and academic diversity. Stanford, whose new freshman class will be 16% Asian-American, has acknowledged the possibility of an ''unconscious bias" and no longer seeks ethnic identification on admissions forms.

The quota problem is not confined to colleges. At San Francisco's ultracompetitive Lowell High, Chinese Americans constitute 45% of the student body. But no city school may have more than 45% of its students from any ethnic group, a rule originally set by the courts to prevent de facto segregation of blacks and Hispanics. As a result, Lowell is having to turn away qualified Chinese- American students, a task that School Principal Alan Fibish describes as ''odious.'' Nowhere has the issue of Asian-American student admission been more bitterly fought than at Berkeley. Activist groups charge that if acceptances were based purely on merit, there would be even more Asian-American students than the 5,610 who now make up a quarter of the 22,000 undergraduates. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ken M. Kawaichi, co-chairman of the Asian American Task Force on University Admissions, assails Berkeley's ''good old boy" administrators. ''The campus they envision is mostly white, mostly upper middle class with limited numbers of blacks, Hispanics and Asians," says Kawaichi. ''One day they looked around and said, 'My goodness, look at this campus. What are all these Asian people doing here?' Then they started tinkering with the system.'' The university admits its Asian-American acceptance rate dipped three years ago, after some technical changes in admission procedures, but denies discrimination and says the rate is going back up.

The recent case of Yat-Pang Au has intensified the debate. A straight-A student, Yat-Pang, 18, lettered in cross-country, was elected a justice on the school supreme court and last June graduated first in his class at San Jose's Gunderson High School. Berkeley turned him down. Watson M. Laetsch, Berkeley's vice chancellor for undergraduate affairs, insists that Yat-Pang was rejected only for a ''highly competitive'' engineering program. Had he applied to other colleges at Berkeley, ''very likely he would have been accepted." Instead, Yat-Pang will study electrical engineering at DeAnza College near his home, and hopes to reapply to Berkeley for his junior year.

One vexing dilemma of the Yat-Pang case is not in dispute. Young Asian Americans tend to target the best schools, which have limited places even for students submitting top marks. While choosing this fall's freshman class, for example, Berkeley turned away 2,200 students from all backgrounds who had perfect grades.

To be that good and face rejection is tough for anyone, but seems more difficult for many Asian Americans. ''They have almost a maniacal attitude that if they just work hard enough, they can do it," says Counselor Ilse Junod of New York's Baruch College. To some Asian Americans (and their parents), being only ''very good" is tantamount to failure. In 1982, Leakhena Chan, a Cambodian student at South Boston High School, overwhelmed by the pressure of school and adjustment to a new country, tried to take her own life. She was one of eight Cambodians at South Boston who attempted suicide that year. Now a student at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass., Leakhena can talk openly about the desperation that overcomes many Asian Americans who feel they cannot attain the academic success they expect of themselves. ''I go to bed at 1 or 2 and get up early to study. You study so hard and still you don't have enough time to complete all the work. For me, whatever I do, I want to be perfect." For Cambodians, in particular, stress also results from terrible memories of killing, torture and starvation as the Khmer Rouge savaged their country. The nightmare of those years, says Psychologist Jeanne Nidorf of the University of California at San Diego, produces a ''posttraumatic stress disorder that just doesn't go away." Asking for help is not easy for Asian Americans. ''They are likely to say that willpower can resolve problems," explains Psychologist Stanley Sue, who has specialized in their emotional difficulties. He has found that the problems of these young people ''are highly submerged" because they have been ''taught not to exhibit emotions in public." Nidorf notes that youthful Indochinese are so conditioned to polite behavior that they hesitate to complain. She recalls the case of a Cambodian girl who was given the wrong textbook but said nothing. Because she was afraid to tell the teacher about the error, she suffered for months as she tried to keep up with the class. Indeed, the view of Asian Americans as passive and obedient is a stereotype that teachers tend to reinforce by not urging students to express themselves, says Hunter College's Hune.

To these problems must be added the strain of being poor. In California, at least 50% of Indochinese immigrants are on welfare, and according to the 1980 U.S. census, more than 35% of Vietnamese families in the U.S. are living below the poverty line. One of the toughest jobs facing educators is keeping many of these young people in school. "For every success story," says Hune, ''there are also a lot of average students and an increasing number of dropouts." The Boston school system knows that only too well: with an increased number of Southeast Asian teenagers, the dropout rate went up from 14.4% in 1982 to 26.5% in 1985.

Ultimately, assimilation may diminish achievement. The Rumbaut-Ima data from San Diego show lower grade-point averages for Chinese-, Korean- and Japanese-American students whose families speak primarily English at home compared with those whose families do not. The New York Times has reported that a Chicago study of Asian Americans found third-generation students had blended more into the mainstream, had a lower academic performance and were less interested in school. To some Asian Americans, that is not such a bad thing. Hung Pham, 31, a Vietnamese refugee who attended UCLA, now works as a software engineer. He and his wife have just bought a home near Los Angeles and are talking about having a family. But he worries about the life his children will face. ''Too much peer pressure. There are too many material things to distract them," he says. Then he pauses. ''If you live in this country, maybe that's the way it should be. If I raised my kids the way my parents raised me, they would be nerds.''

If assimilation and other trends mean that the dramatic concentration of superstudents has peaked, talented young Asian Americans have already shown that U.S. education can still produce excellence. The largely successful Asian-American experience is a challenging counterpoint to the charges that U.S. schools are now producing less-educated mainstream students and failing to help underclass blacks and Hispanics. One old lesson apparently still holds. ''It really doesn't matter where you come from or what your language is," observes Educational Historian Diane Ravitch. ''If you arrive with high aspirations and self-discipline, schools are a path to upward mobility." Particularly when there is a close working relationship between the school and the family. ''Schools cannot do the job alone," says Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation. ''But schools must work much harder for all parents to be partners in the process.''

As for those who fear or resent Asian-American academic accomplishment, their anxieties may be understandable but are unmerited. ''It seems to me that having people like this renews our own striving for excellence," observes Emmy Werner, professor of human development at the University of California at Davis. ''We shouldn't be threatened, but challenged." Mathematician Cappell, part of a Jewish immigrant success story, is thrilled by the new inheritors. ''Their presence," he says, ''is going to be a great blessing for society."

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