Sunday Forum: Bearing the weight of the past

Journalist ANDREW LAM examines the extraordinary pressure to achieve that drives and burdens young Asian Americans

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His first semester at the University of California at Berkeley, a freshman painted a picture that harked back to a distant Asian past. In it, a young Mandarin in silk brocade and hat, flanked by soldiers carrying banners, rides an ornate carriage as peasants stand and watch.

We had just met, and when he saw me looking at his painting, he said, "Do trang nguyen ve lang" -- Vietnamese for "Mandarin returns home after passing the imperial exam."

He didn't need to explain. Like many Asian students from Confucian countries -- what a family friend often called the "chopstick nations": Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, Japan and, of course, China -- I could easily decipher the image. For us scholarship boys, it was the equivalent of Michael Jordan flying in the air like a god doing a slam-dunk -- a dream of glorious achievements.

Dan Marsula, Post-Gazette
Click illustration for larger image.

Andrew Lam is the editor of New America Media, based in San Francisco (

My freshman friend, let's call him "H," was driven with an iron will to achieve academic success. While his dorm-mates put up posters of movie stars and sports heroes, the image he drew and hung above his desk was a visual sutra that would help him focus on his studies. There was no question of failure. Back home in Vietnam at the time, an army of hungry, ambitious and capable young men and women were dying to take his place, and for H, a boat person who barely survived his perilous journey across the South China Sea, "dying to" was no mere idiomatic expression.

So it is no surprise to me that almost two decades since my college days, Asian Americans dominate higher education. Though less than 5 percent of the country's population, Asian Americans typically make up 10 percent to 30 percent of the students at the country's best colleges. In California, Asians form the majority in the vast U.C. system. At Berkeley, Asian freshmen have reached the 46-percent mark this year (whites are at 29 percent, blacks at 3.9 percent and Latinos at 11 percent).

Academic success is a source of collective pride. The mythology of Asians who win scholarships and honor their parents by getting straight A's, then embark on brilliant professional careers, has been sown deeply into our psyche. Many of us consequently learn to measure the world and ourselves solely through a pedagogic lens. You are how well you do in school.

Inevitably, there's a dark subterraneous stream that runs parallel to this shining path to academic success: stress, disappointment, depression, low self-esteem, a crisis of identity. At one far end of that continuum we now have a name: Cho Seung-Hui.

When news reached the world that the person responsible for the worst modern-day mass shooting in the United States was an Asian student at Virginia Tech, many Asian Americans were shocked. But shock slowly gave way to collective shame, and then some modicum of recognition.

The most telling sign in the news reports for me was that, when Cho was asked to write his name, he drew a question mark.

That struck a chord. Until I defied my parents, refusing to go to med school after graduating in biochemistry at Berkeley and becoming a writer instead, I wrote down questions in my notebooks. What am I doing? Who am I exactly? Why am I studying so hard to please my parents who aren't happy anyway? When do I begin to live for myself? I was more or less on autopilot in college.

Like so many of my bright-eyed peers, I was trained to take exams, but my life was woefully unexamined. In mine and many Asian- American families, especially immigrant ones, there's an unwritten contract. Parents will sacrifice -- work two jobs, eat less, take no vacation, wear old clothes, sell blood if necessary -- to guarantee their children the best education. In return, their children will do well in school and succeed. Failing is the same as breaking a sacred oath, not to mention one's parents' heart. In the Confucian mindset, an Asian child who drops out of school is a child who reeks of dishonor and shame.

The same year I met H, a Chinese boy from my dorm unit attempted to jump from the Berkeley campanile tower after receiving a bad grade. It took police several hours to talk him down. He considered suicide because, it was said, he got a lowly B in vector calculus.

When I became a journalist, one of the biggest stories I covered in the early 1990s was about four Vietnamese teenagers who took over an electronics store in Sacramento, Calif., and demanded a million dollars and helicopters to fly back to Vietnam. They shot hostages when their demands were not met, and a SWAT team went in, killing three and wounding one, who now serves several life sentences. The news media originally thought the boys were gang members, but it turned out that they were anything but.

They had failed school. Being recent arrivals from the refugee camps, they no longer saw a future for themselves. Education being the be-all and end-all, they took the Hong Kong-gangster-movie way out.

Reporting from East Asia, I often read of students committing suicide in the local papers. He didn't get into university so he jumped from a building in Hong Kong. She did badly on the high school exam and threw herself onto the train track in Tokyo. The stories were similar everywhere.

Why is education so deeply ingrained in the Confucian culture? Long before America existed, something of the American dream already had taken root in East Asia through the scholarship and examination system of the Mandarins. Villages and towns pooled resources and sent their best and brightest to compete in the imperial court, hoping that one of their own would make it to the center of power.

Mandarins of various ranks were selected by how well they fared on extremely rigorous examinations. The brilliant few who passed ran the day-to-day operations of imperial China and Vietnam. A Mandarin could become a governor, a judge or even marry into the royal family. A peasant thus could rise high above his station, bring his entire clan with him and honor his ancestors in the process. It all hinged on his ability to pass the exams.

The East Asian penchant for education hasn't changed much since the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1905. If anything, it has intensified because most modern education systems -- especially in the United States -- accept students from everywhere and may be even more fiercely competitive.

In 2005, The American College Health Association reported that four of 10 college students said they "felt so depressed it's difficult to function." One out of 10 had contemplated suicide. I wonder, given the high number of Asians in higher education, whether they suffer disproportionately from depression and stress?

Which comes back to the question of Cho Seung-Hui. That his murderous rampage is due to mental illness and not race or culture is indisputable. But I wonder if Cho's parents, who knew that he had problems, didn't take his illness and rage as seriously as they might have because, well, how crazy could their son possibly be when he had managed to get into Virginia Tech? Didn't he, after all, fulfill their expectations by getting into a prestigious college? And did being caught in the Asian educational pressure cooker rob him of much-needed social skills, given his psychological impairment?

I do not know the answers. I do know that a more typical and more muted tragedy is that of H. He was a talented painter. The background scenes he drew for the Vietnamese Student Association's Tet Festival at Berkeley were so beautiful that an art professor in the audience offered to buy them and offered him a place in graduate school. Though tempted, H declined. He wanted to be a doctor, as his mother expected of him. He wanted to return home in the modern equivalent of silk brocade and Mandarin hat.

A few years ago, I saw him again. There was a deep sadness in H that I hadn't seen before, despite his coveted position as a doctor and his beautiful home. The old iron will to do well was gone. He had no vision left, no tests to take.

I asked him if he still painted. No, he said.


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