It is a difficult thing to make sense of: In a sea of diverse interests, identities, and voices, it seems easy—and almost second nature—to predict an Asian student's path of study. This belief has become something of a maxim, an expression of identity that is as ingrained as it is widespread. For many Asian students at Columbia, it is not a matter of what they are pursuing, but whether it is like the choices of their Asian classmates.
And for most Asians, it is.
Ansh Kothary, a first-year at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, is from Mumbai. In India, he found himself among the majority of students at his school, taking a rigorous science sequence called the Indian School Certificate examinations.
"People who took science were considered the smart kids. Where I was from, there was definitely a bias toward those who liked more technical fields." But he acknowledges that his choice of study stemmed from his own passion for science, not that of the greater system. "Even without that bias, I still would have preferred science because it's something that I've always liked."
For those at Columbia who are not familiar with various Asian cultures or communities, it can be a challenge to identify the forces behind these choices.
"People think, for whatever reason, that kids from Asia are naturally good at math and science, so if you're a smart Asian, you're expected to be good at those things," Kothary explains. "I don't think that's true, though."
It is certainly true that a large number of Asians gravitate toward fields in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. According to the National Science Foundation, Asians are better represented in STEM occupations than they are in the general population. (About 5 percent of the American population identifies as Asian.) Furthermore, according to the Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO, Asians are the largest minority group in STEM fields. In 2012, the density of Asians in computer- and mathematics-related occupations was a staggering 17.5 percent. In architecture and engineering, it was 10.8 percent.
"I think Asian parents really emphasize math and science, especially because we come from immigrant backgrounds. There's this idea that because immigrant parents don't speak English as a native language, we may not be as strong in the Western humanities or in the arts," Vincent Li, a Columbia College senior majoring in neuroscience and music, says. Li was born in Beijing but hails from Dallas. He speaks with an easygoing Southern lilt, stopping to smile when talking about the influence of his parents. "My parents motivated me, but I don't feel like they pressured me in a negative sense."
(Vincent Li / Photo by Melanie Shi)
Tulsi Patel, a Columbia College first-year who is looking to major in neuroscience, elaborates on this parental influence. "My parents weren't the wealthiest people in India, so they didn't necessarily have that stability," she says. "Many Asian parents falsely believe that the only way to guarantee that is to go into medicine or law."
But Patel acknowledges that her choices are her own. "I wouldn't go so far as to say that I'm only doing this because I'm pressured to do it. I really do enjoy medicine and neuroscience, and I like what I'm doing so far," she says.
But for some, parental pressure precedes personal interest. Rachana Gollapudi, a first-year at SEAS, grew up in an Indian-dominated region of New Jersey but attended a competitive international school in India.
A prospective chemical engineering major, she is an accomplished student in the sciences; however, she recognizes that parental and cultural pressure may have played a role in determining her future. "When I was younger, I wanted to be a psychologist, and I remember how people would judge me for that. That sort of drove me away from it. But around that time, I also discovered my passion for science. That worked out well for my parents, I guess," she says.
But there are also those who move away from STEM after encountering more appealing choices in college. Columbia College sophomore Daisy Miranda Cheng, a former deputy arts and entertainment editor for Spectator, had initially intended to study science but is now majoring in political science with a concentration in visual arts.
"I came into the college thinking I was going to do biology, and it was just way too much. I've always been a humanities person, but I think that being in Asian society, you're led to believe that sciences are more important than the humanities," she says. "So I kind of forced myself to go into the sciences. But after I came here, I realized I couldn't do it anymore."
Cheng acknowledges that claiming independence is not necessarily a common experience. "When I told my friends what I'm studying, they were like, 'Oh, you're so lucky—you get to do visual arts!' I think that there may be a little bit of bitterness, especially because talking back to your parents is not a thing in Asian culture."
"In some ways, I think I've already pushed the limits."
Cheng says that the culture of Columbia, along with her own personal preferences, encouraged her to push the envelope.
"Columbia is such an independent community—everyone just does what they want—and I was also bored, especially given the kind of person that I am," she says. "I'm definitely an artistic, humanities-type person, so I knew I couldn't take it anymore and just forced that decision on [my parents]."
However, some forms of parental pressure are more subtle. "I actually wanted to minor in music performance, but my parents said no—they said I couldn't do two things at once," Soyeun Carol Jung, a sophomore at SEAS, recalls. "But now I want to minor in computer science, and when I told them that, they were OK with it."
(Soyeun Carol Jung / Photo by Yasmine Akki)
There are also cases in which parents do support non-STEM academic pursuits. XingJian Li, a first-year and prospective anthropology major at Columbia College, was born in China but has lived in Canada for most of her life. She characterizes her intellectual life as one dominated by the liberal arts and activism.
"I'm really lucky because my mother and grandmother both very much value things like history and literature," she says. "My mom is a social worker, and in China, she majored in history, so she certainly sees the value in the humanities and social sciences."
But she acknowledges that for her, parental hesitation still exists. "My mom has told me that the only thing that's really lucrative in that area of study is being a lawyer. I said, 'Mom, I don't want to be a lawyer,' to which she replied, 'Well, if you're a professor, that works too!'"
In higher levels of the humanities, a world in which Asians have been historically underrepresented, the work of Western thinkers tends to dominate the discussion.
"I want to pursue anthropology, and that requires field work, which very much involves those in a position of power studying 'the other,'" she says. "As someone who has felt other-ed in society—in Canada, for example, even though I had been there for a long time, people would say things like 'Lady China' or 'Go back to China'—I feel somewhat uncomfortable perpetuating these dynamics in academia."
When asked about Asian students' tendency to pursue fields in STEM, XingJian Li remarks, "A lot of my friends, they genuinely like the STEM classes they take. Maybe I'm different in that I just don't have the same affinity."
"Certainly, I've had Asian friends tell me that they'd like to do something else, but it's just not very lucrative and their parents would never agree to it. That has always made me quite sad."
Jess Hui, a sophomore at Columbia College, grew up in Hong Kong but spent five years of her life at a boarding school in London. She is double majoring in English and biochemistry with a special concentration in jazz studies. "I feel like a lot of these pressures are unspoken. Nobody will say them out loud, but you can tell in the little things—the snide comments, the TV shows, the classes at school," she says.
Hui recognizes the perceived expectation to be successful for the sake of her parents. "In a way, I get it, because there is that feeling—at least in Hong Kong culture—that you owe everything to your parents, that everything you do in life is to make up for what they've done for you," she says. "It's not a matter of thinking about myself; it's a matter of where I grew up."
Hui explains that neither of her parents finished high school originally or attended college, and that her grandparents weren't sent to school. "I know that my parents have done so much with so little, so I feel pressured to do so much more with what I have," she says. "Everyone was so surprised when I told them I was going to England. All of my cousins dropped out of high school and are now working; I'm the only one in school."
She pauses to reflect on this way of thinking.
"Even though I'm studying English, which I love, I wonder what else I would've found had I not been pushed toward STEM," Hui says. "I love biochemistry now. I think that because I was pushed toward the sciences, I ended up being good at it. People tend to like what they're good at."
At times, hard-set stereotypes blur the lines of individuality among Asians, grouping them together, providing go-to explanations for their interests, and depreciating their accomplishments.
XingJian Li acknowledges the dichotomy between standards for Asians and those for non-Asians. "I absolutely hate the overachieving Asian American stereotype. You can have a white student who's excellent at piano and math and science, and everybody will celebrate this person as this talented young kid, whereas if you have an Asian kid who does that, they're just fulfilling a stereotype and there's nothing extraordinary about it. I think that just being able to play the piano really well or excelling in STEM is pretty extraordinary in itself."
It is a cumbersome task, this search for self. But in the end, it is about recognizing an identity that reconciles both worlds.
"I feel like there's less of a place for me in Hong Kong," Hui explains. "Not wanting to go into finance, choosing what I want to study, puts a barrier between me and a lot of other students back home. There's always going to be that separation."
But she also acknowledges the need to find room for herself. "I've always felt like it's one for me and one for my family. The English is for me, I guess," she says. "In Hong Kong, there aren't many things you do for yourself—everything is for the family, for society. In England, the culture clash was huge—before I went, I thought everything that everyone did was for their family. My wanting to study English was not something I admitted to myself until I entered the Western world."
Gollapudi is also frustrated with the flattening assumptions that accompany Asian typification. "When I tell people I'm doing engineering, they're like, 'Oh, of course you are! You're Indian.' It annoys me a bit. It's not like I'm doing it just because I'm Indian—I'm genuinely passionate about it."
"In college, people are more mindful about stereotyping Asians, but in high school, people would ask, 'Aren't you supposed to be good at math?'" Jung recalls. "If my achievements were in the STEM field, they would be invalidated because I was supposed to be good at STEM. It's as if I were born knowing these things instead of being someone who could put in the effort to be good at them."
Hui notes that Asian students react to these stereotypes in different ways. "Whenever there's a stereotype, you either move to break it or choose to conform to it. I do wonder if I'm studying the humanities because I couldn't do other things [STEM] all day. That's my fear—that I'm only studying English because I'm trying to counter the pressure to study math and science."
"I love English, but I'm still afraid of that."
This self-exploration is boundless, something that both acknowledges and extends far beyond societal expectations.
"My face does not determine my performance," XingJian Li says. "My face does not determine who I am."