By all accounts, I am a typical success story.
I’m a daughter of two Chinese immigrants who came over to America to pursue postgraduate studies. I grew up in a small town in the San Francisco Bay Area, and played piano, and did public speaking, and otherwise worked my ass off in high school. In the spring of my senior year, I got into some Ivy League schools, and I committed to Columbia University—a shiny school with a shiny pricetag and a shinier reputation. The Asian-American dream.
And at that time I thought that was enough.
It’s a common Columbia narrative: students who performed well at their high school suddenly realize that they’re not so special anymore. Average at best, bottom of the pecking order at worst––4.0 high school honor roll students are suddenly thrown into a sea of textbook-writers, award-winners, I-Shook-Obama’s-Hand-ers. Suddenly your salutatorian status at your small suburban high school has no meaning. Everyone else around you is just as good and probably better than you.
It’s a shock for anyone, coming into college and realizing that everything you thought made you special bears little to no significance. Whether it is trying to speak in Literature Humanities for the first time or failing miserably on an exam, I think all of us as Columbia students have a moment arriving here when we realize that we are no longer the best nor the brightest. However, I think it means something else for those of us who were bred to not only dream about attending an elite school, but also succeeding there.
Asians, and more specifically Asian-Americans, are generally brought up in a culture of academic stress. Although not universal, the experience of being pressured to attain good grades, participate in multiple extracurriculars, and pursue success in all things is ubiquitous enough that if you’re Asian, chances are you were raised with the “get into Harvard to validate your parents’ struggles” mentality. This is no secret. We all know the “Asians are good at math and school and music” stereotype, because a good majority of us have lived it. It’s a direct result of the Asian diaspora—many Asians, particularly East Asians, came over to the Americas in the late ’90s to take a shot at achieving what they believed to be the American dream: attending a prestigious college to pursue a financially lucrative and stable career.
So what does it mean for us, who were raised in a culture expecting us to succeed, when we start to lag behind in college?
Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that my self-confidence began to plummet. My motivation levels tanked. Half the time, I didn’t have the energy to drag myself to class because everything that I had worked so hard to maintain was crumbling beneath me. I thought I was smart––I thought I knew how to work hard, get good grades, and balance my extracurriculars. Instead, I came out of my first year with a C+ and ever-dwindling self-esteem.
Asian Americans are brought up with the expectation of desiring perfection and excellence. For someone like me, that really took a toll during my first year. Once I started school at the pressure cooker that is Columbia, I absolutely started to deteriorate. My mental health hit rock bottom not only because of my inability to perform up to the standards that my culture had inadvertently placed on me, but also because other students around me were doing far better than me.
I know for sure that I’m not the only one from this community who went through this experience during freshman year. And though it’s hard to change an entire culture, we need to take steps in supporting those of us who are struggling to keep up under societal, parental, and internal pressures to do well.
A step we can take as a campus is to start a conversation around the mental health of our Asian-American students. As high-achieving students, we don’t like talking about our failures, and if you’re Asian-American, you’re especially adverse to admitting your academic faults. But that’s exactly what we need to do if we want to combat the toxicity of cultural pressure. Asian students at Columbia need to be honest with themselves and with others about how they’re doing mentally and academically, because only then will other students, Asian or otherwise, realize that we as a group on campus need support too.
To all my Asians out there—there’s a lot we have to do to reverse the damage that years of overwhelming expectations have done to us, especially this culture of keeping your head down and your mouth shut. We can start by talking candidly about our shortcomings and failures to combat this idea that Asians have to be perfect at school.
I know it’s hard. Trust me, I know. But maybe it doesn’t have to be.
Victoria Hou is a sophomore in Columbia College studying political science with a concentration in economics. She hopes that this column will help you think more about Asian-American issues on campus this semester. Her column, Chop Suey, usually runs alternate Mondays.
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