POV: The Young Asian American Experience

How much do you know about the Asian American students in your class? You’ve heard the model minority myth, the stereotypes, the “toxic” parental pressure, and probably even witnessed the statistical success of the Asian American student. But how much of it is really true? And which of these perceptions are detrimental to the Asian American community and the young minds of Asian American high school students? 

I interviewed 12 students from the ages of 15-19 with all different Asian American ethnicities, and we spoke about the different pressures they felt, the positives and negatives, mental health, their parents, the harmful stereotypes surrounding them, how these all fit together, and what they felt the world needed to know… and I learned a lot. 

Although I can’t generalize every topic that we covered into a single pan-Asian experience, I try to convey these students’ authentic experiences and emotions, as well as point out any emerging patterns. As an Indian-American high school student myself, I’ve noticed the small differences, discriminations, and just regular old parental pressure that my fellow Asian American students experience around me. I have tried my best to amplify their voices and analyze their words to hopefully bring some light to their genuine feelings.

. . .

Positive or Negative?

To understand the impact of this “extra Asian parental pressure” or its existence at all, I wanted to see if the students had experienced it and if they believed it was a good thing or a bad one. I asked every student if as an Asian American teenager they felt they got more pressure from their parents compared to other non-Asian teens, nine out of the twelve said yes. However, when it came to if the pressure was positive or negative, it was hard to understand the general feeling. Most students acknowledged that this pressure had taken a pretty big toll on their mental wellbeing or that they felt they had been pushed to their limit at some time in their life. Still, most students emphasized the positive effects of this pressure. 

One student explains, “My parents taught me that if I’m given the opportunity to be better, why would I sit back and let that opportunity go, whereas I could jump at the chance and improve myself and be the best that I can be.” Being ambitious and wanting to be the best you can is something I notice in so many students around my age, especially the ones I spoke to. One of the older students expresses, “I feel like in Asian cultures there was always this notion of a strong work ethic. Their parents have grown up with that strong work ethic and they pass it on to their children, and their children, and we’re very hard workers because our parents have pushed us to be. I think that work ethic is a very common Asian American trend that is enforced.” Many parents, regardless of race, work hard to find ways to help their children achieve. One student says, “The pressure that my parents have given me is just to work harder and study more to get my grades up. They give me resources to help me with that, so any pressure is mostly positive.” And most students honestly felt that way. I specified in my questions to consider looking at the big picture. One student says, “I think the pressure will be a positive thing in the big picture, even though it currently feels like more of a negative thing now. These are hard experiences but they will positively affect your future.” Another student says, “In the long run, I do think that my parents’ strictness will give me success in the world… I think it will help me in the future knowing to be tough on myself but also knowing when to stop.” 

Quite a few students also noted how pressure from themselves was just as influential. One student says, “If you are someone who pushes themselves generally, you’re not going to get that much of a negative effect from academic pressure. But if you’re someone that doesn’t study, or only focuses on a hobby, then you’ll definitely feel some pressure and discomfort.” Another student says, “I feel like there has to be a certain amount of stress in order to have the motivation to work hard.” One of the older students felt differently. They recall, “In high school, I didn’t learn how to properly apply pressure to myself and would always depend on my parents to push me, and that wasn’t a good thing in the long run… I also never really enjoyed my courses because I wasn’t doing them for myself, I was doing it to get A’s for my parents.” Another student breaks down some of the bigger misconceptions concerning any extra pressure saying, “We grew up in such a ‘you need to be successful’ kind of harsh environment. And people sometimes hear that and think we have mean parents, no, it’s just the way we grow up, we’ve learned that anything other than success is not acceptable,” they continue, “I think Asian American students know that yes, their parents can be strict and even say horrible stuff, but they still are human and they still love you.” 

Pushing kids hard can come from parents of any race, but it always seems to have some sort of an upside. One student shares something they’ve noticed saying, “I know a lot of people who had parents who were very chill with them and grew up not really forced to do anything. Now, they don’t have hobbies or anything they particularly like.” 

Many students also shared some of the things they think can help with the balance between too much pressure and none at all. One student says, “I definitely think having your own private time is really important, as well as having your boundaries and some independence.” Another student says, “I think if you just talk [to your parents] once in a while about what they could do better, it can really help.” Although some students spoke about their anxiety concerning how their parents will view some of their decisions, all of them mentioned how supportive they knew their parents really were. One student says, “I feel like in the end they still will be happy for me. Even if it’s not their ideal thought of what I should go into and be, they will be happy for me.” 

So what did I learn from all of this? Students spoke to me about fights with their parents’ overpressure and mental breakdowns, as well as the times all their hard work paid off and their parents had been right all along. One student summed up pretty nicely what everyone seemed to be telling me: “When I sit back and actually reflect, I look at this pressure and think okay, my mom is using what she knows has gotten success and applying it to me so that I can get into a good college and whatnot… she genuinely wants me to do good and be good. The extra pressure is honestly both a positive and negative thing, it just depends on your mindset and situation at any time.”

Sacrifice

One thing I noticed that almost every student I interviewed mentioned was their awareness of the sacrifices their parents and family have made before them, and why that is the main reason for the amount of pressure they get today. One student explains saying, “I think my parents are in the mindset of how they were able to bring themselves from basically nothing to here, and they want to have that bar set for me so I can go to a good college, get a good job, and support myself and my family and have these privileges that they weren’t able to. It can seem harsh, especially for me when I’ve grown up with a ton of non-Asian people and seen the way their family works. But it’s important to remember that our parents have good intentions and want us to be the best we can.” Since I was little my parents always reminded me of the sacrifices that they, and their parents, made to get us to the place of privilege we enjoy today. This is the case for so many Asian American families. Although we may seem to forget in the moment and our parents are quick to remind us, it is clear that the knowledge of what has come before us is something that so many second and third-generation Asian Americans carry with them. Another student put it simply saying, “Asian parents sacrifice a lot for their kids’ futures. So naturally, they just want their kids to succeed, because of what they have given up to get us here.” And for many, the pressure to succeed is generational. A student says, “Their parents were tough on them so they feel that they have to be tough on their kids. My parents will always say ‘you have to be better than us.’ So the pressure can sometimes be hard, and you can definitely get pushed to your limit.” This awareness is always in the minds and hearts of all of us, and is something that we constantly remind ourselves of when we think about why our parents push us the way they do. This acknowledgment of roots and privilege was a prevalent pattern to me when interviewing these students, and really showed the impact and beauty of the strength and culture that comes from immigrant families.

Mental Health

Mental health and its de-stigmatization has been one of the biggest universal conversations in the past few years. When I asked if the students thought Asian Americans have worse mental health than others, it was about a 50% split response. Some students felt strongly saying, “It’s always a competition with Asian parents, you have to be the best. We grow up thinking that we always have to win everything.” Others felt like there was no racial pattern at all: “Mental health isn’t something defined by race, it just depends on the person’s mental state and how they respond to pressure.” Whether defined by race or not, about every student spoke of how pressure from their parents had affected their mental health at some point in time, especially the older students. One student expressed a main conflict pattern they had noticed with Asian American students saying, “We have really strict parents that are kind of always sitting on top of our heads, and we want to be able to express ourselves more freely in this American world. There’s a huge gap between what is acceptable and what’s not between us and our parents, and I think that contributes greatly towards lower mental health.” They also explain a major reason that there may seem to be a disconnect between us and our parents when dealing with mental health: “I think their version of mental health is a little different than what we think of it, because they think of eating well, getting good sleep, and that kind of stuff. They may not realize that there are other parts of mental health that may involve not comparing your kid to every other kid, or not trying to put your kid in every single activity. I think a lot of Asian parents tend to overlook those parts of mental health and instead focus on more tangible things.” While this can definitely be true, another student brings up a different explanation, saying, “For my mom, she grew up where mental health was just ignored in the Philippines… you could never show people how you felt. So I do understand why she didn’t believe in mental health at first.” While this strain on Asian American students’ mental health can be strongly attributed to our parents, that’s not always the case. One student says, “I’m the oldest in my entire family out of all my cousins and everyone, so I feel like I have to be a good role model and I just can’t fail.” Another student says, “honestly just society and my own expectations are a lot more detrimental to my mental health than my parents.” So what is the relationship between race and mental health?

The truth is generalizing mental health by race is nearly impossible to do. However many students brought up the fact that they felt Asian Americans would be less likely to seek help or do anything about a mental health issue. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says that studies have shown that Asian Americans are three times less likely than their white counterparts to seek treatment for their mental health concerns. This is an important issue in the community and one that many Millennials and Gen Zers have begun to speak up about. Mental health is a big part of so many communities and again, not something we can generalize in any way. However, I did notice a couple of patterns among the students regarding things that greatly impacted their mental health. 

Multiple students brought up a “front” that they felt they had to uphold around their parents or families. One student says, “Growing up, I kind of had to brand myself in a way because I was scared of what my parents would think if I did something, or the type of friends that I hung out with, or just that whole part of my life.” They continue: “I’m often scared to tell them things and I have to filter myself in front of them.” Another student says, “It definitely stems from the environment we grew up in, but also the fact that we can feel like we’re inadequate, and we have to almost project this false narrative of ourselves.” The lack of authenticity and vulnerability is not apparent in every family or with every Asian American student. However, this unspoken pressure to project a certain narrative of oneself is prevalent in so many, from young kids to even adults. Whether the fear is disappointing parents, not being the role model for your family, or a duty you’ve placed upon yourself to be the best or the happiest, this is incredibly detrimental to one’s mental health and something that can only be addressed by open communication and understanding. 

Comparisons between kids is another well-known pattern among immigrant families. When I asked about it, most students felt that there just needed to be a balance. One student says, “I think comparing to an extent is good for a kid and it’s healthy for them and makes them want to do better… but I definitely think that when you compare yourself too much or when your parents are always comparing you to somebody else, it can become detrimental to your mental health and you will learn to constantly compare yourself to people when you shouldn’t.” Most students acknowledge that it can be hard, but just have a thick skin about it. A student said simply, “It can weigh on you a bit because being constantly compared to other people will make you feel inferior sometimes.” While another expressed how it eventually got better: “I guess it’s just a thing in the world because whenever someone’s better than you, you can become insecure about it. I grew up always comparing myself to others. But my parents have definitely gotten better at that because they realized that comparing me to others is not always going to be a push for success.” Some students felt like it was nothing more than a healthy motivator: “When comparing me with other kids, they are basically telling me that they have put everything in front of me, and these other kids are grasping for it more than I am. So I’m more motivated to be better and do better.” 

Comparisons and competition have always been a pretty big part of the culture for many Asian Americans, but societal pressures can have just as big of an impact. One student says, “I feel like Asian American students are typically pitted against each other because they know other people are comparing them. So we may not necessarily achieve more success, but are simply held to a higher standard.” 

While the importance of competition is definitely something many young Asian Americans are taught, another significant pattern I noticed was the idea of many things being a “trade-off.” One student explained a conflict between them and their parents over the activities they were doing: “I enjoy being able to do stuff I want and the stuff they want me to do, but I think some of the things they want me to do can still take a much bigger toll on my mental health than they think. For example, I take an extra math class as well as do a sport I enjoy and is a good stress outlet for me. But my parents don’t even understand the level of stress I get from that math class, and that I can’t just put that all into my sport because a sport just isn’t enough for all that.” Many students felt that their parents were often “caught up in their vision” of what they wanted their kids to be doing. The idea of making trades or constantly bargaining with your children about what they can do is a commonly-used technique in immigrant families and is another issue that can be detrimental to one’s mental health. 

Mental health cannot be defined by race, and Asian American teenagers may not experience any more mental health issues than others. However, there are emerging patterns within our community that clearly do affect the mental health of young Asian Americans. This doesn’t mean that non-Asian people don’t experience these things too. This also doesn’t mean that Asian parents are monsters and don’t care or believe in mental health, which is still a common perception. What it does mean is that Asian Americans are learning like everyone else, and we need to take a closer look at the patterns in our community and make sure we are communicating honestly.

Stereotypes

Something else that can be detrimental to someone’s mental health? Stereotypes. And you’ve probably heard them all. Tiger parents, math geniuses, burnt-out young adults, brilliant students, and of course the model minority myth. But what is really true, and what is really harmful? The students I interviewed had a lot to say. In regards to the model minority myth, one student says, “Why I think people have these stereotypes is because oftentimes Asian Americans have been perceived as immigrants to the U.S. who wanted to take a place and take a stand in a foreign country. This means that of course, they had to work harder. But as more Asian Americans grow up here, we really shouldn’t keep upholding these stereotypes because they can hurt people.” And these stereotypes do hurt people, a lot. Although most of the areas these students live in today are considered “politically progressive,” most of them have experienced the impacts of these hurtful stereotypes. One student says, “I think definitely the stereotype about Asian American students working harder or just being better than other kids is problematic. I don’t think any race should be seen as working harder than any other race, because we’re all human beings.” Another student says, “There’s the stereotype that Asian kids are good at everything. I definitely hate that. Because it makes this false expectation for me, and I don’t need to be perfect. I hate that we’re forced to be the best and we’re forced to be the leaders. It may sound good at first like ‘oh, you’re just expected to be smart.’ But really the expectations are so much higher because everyone thinks that you’re perfect, when I literally cannot do geometry… Asian Americans just always feel like we have to put on this false narrative of ourselves.” Expectations are a huge part of why stereotypes are so detrimental. One student explains this saying, “In order to be successful, we have to not only compete with other kids but also compete against the stereotypes and extreme expectations that are placed upon us. So yes, Asian parents typically put more pressure onto their children, but it also stems from societal pressure.” They continue, “I think the stereotypes that have been placed on me because I’m Asian American are harmful. It’s like trying to live up to an unrealistic standard, and it’s too much to carry because you have to constantly compare yourself to these stereotypes.” These unachievable standards are perpetuated by stereotypes, and it doesn’t seem like they’re going away anytime soon. I had asked students what their parents pushed them the most about academically, and surprisingly the answer often related to common stereotypes. One student said, “I’d say [they push me the most] on English because there’s just this stereotype that Asians are not that good at English, especially since I came from a foreign country.” Another student said, “I think STEM is something that Asian parents kind of push their kids into because the stereotype is so prevalent.” And these stereotypes are ones that many students, unfortunately, had to feel the effects of at a young age. One students says, “In elementary school, it really pissed me off when kids were like ‘oh you’re Asian so you’re smart, do my homework.’” 

Another student shared a story from their childhood that seemed to sum up how everyone was feeling. They said, “I remember in elementary school and middle school I had good grades because my parents sent me to extra classes, but none of my classmates knew that. I remember I had all these achievements, and they were completely beaten down by my classmates because they were like ‘well of course she gets good grades, her parents are Asian and they’re from China, so of course she does better than we do.’ I remember I didn’t understand why they were so pissed at me. On the contrary, one of my friends is Korean-American and her parents were very different from mine and not very strict. Kids would say to her ‘you’re so whitewashed, you guys don’t even act Asian anymore.’ So they shame families that don’t fit the stereotype, and they shame families that do.” 

Although some students I interviewed said they have never felt the pressures of stereotypes, it’s clear that there is a problem and it weighs heavily on the entire community. So what can we do? One student puts it clearly and says, “We need to be more careful with what we say and how we think about these stereotypes, and honestly just need to constantly question the truth of them.”

What They Want You to Know

My last question in my interview was “What should non-Asian people understand about Asian students, parenting, or culture?” Instead of writing about their responses, I thought the best way to authentically share their feelings was to simply include their original quotes.

  • “I kind of hate that they make us feel like robots and emotionless, almost like we don’t have value, and just have to be perfect. And it also comes from these outside stereotypes which can really affect my mental health.”
  • “I wish that people would accept that we do something different than they do in the aspect of parenting and being a student. So they shouldn’t feel the need to always comment on it, and just sit and listen and accept that there’s other people with other cultures in this world too.”
  •  “I don’t like when my friends compare our lives because they are very different. I grew up with Asian parents and you grew up with white parents… you grew up with the privilege of being able to speak your mind where I couldn’t say anything when I may have wanted to.”
  • “I think first of all they have to understand that it’s a completely different culture from American culture. Because especially in Korea during war times, it was very hard to come up from a first-world country. I mean they worked their butts off, day and night, and I think that’s true for a lot of other countries in Asia. So I don’t think that non-Asian people can really have a say or judge other kids and their parents.”
  • “For some people who are looking on the outside, it can seem like it’s ridiculous, like why would you make your kid do this? But I mean it’s kind of the way we grow up. It’s not like our parents are always just forcing us to do all this stuff against our own free will, we’re not prisoners… I want to do well for myself too.” 
  • “When these stereotypes are not true they can be very hurtful to Asian students, or other minorities. At least keep these thoughts to yourself.”
  • “Just don’t assume anything because it can always have the power to make someone feel bad and be detrimental to their wellbeing.”
  • “I think they should understand that our parents are very hands-on and a huge part of our lives. I know a lot of Caucasian families that aren’t too involved in their kids’ lives, but we have a different family dynamic… and it’s not like they care any more than Caucasian parents, they just show it in a different way.”
  • “Not every parent is a tiger mom. At the same time, some kids have a harder time talking about mental health or their problems. Just be open-minded and offer friendship and kindness to anyone.”
  • “Non-Asian people should definitely not make fun of our culture. And when Asian American kids are complaining about their parents, they don’t need to give their opinion on it.” 
  • “I think a lot of the pressure on Asian Americans comes from societal expectations and deeply rooted stereotypes. Teachers, other students, friends, etc., need to not automatically expect academic success out of Asian American students. Treat them like people, not like statistics.

Conclusions

I wanted to take a closer look at parental pressure, stereotypes, mental health, and how they all fit together. It’s impossible to generalize all Asian Americans and their experience, and these challenges aren’t only apparent in one culture. But by talking to these students I learned so much about how their experiences and feelings both related to their race and didn’t, and why having conversations like these are important. I learned that parental pressure couldn’t just be categorized as good or bad, and depended on a person’s mindset, situation, and mental health status. I observed how deeply instilled the sacrifices of parents and grandparents are in young Asian Americans’ minds and hearts, and how they are a big part of the different parenting approaches many immigrant families take. I realized that it’s infeasible to generalize mental health by race, and instead we must look at the patterns in our community and how we can do our part to fix them. Lastly, I saw how stereotypes pick apart important pieces of someone’s individuality, and criticize, insult, or devalue them while shoving people into boxes and diminishing their identity as a whole.

As teenagers, we are constantly trying to navigate who we are through our peers and culture around us, our family, and the rest of our own complex and evolving identity. The topics I talked about with these students are all subjects that greatly impact one’s identity and intersectionality, and these students brought up crucial questions about the way we view people that we all have to continuously ask ourselves.

Although there’s no one answer or takeaway from all of this, my biggest learning was how important it is to listen to teenagers and young people, specifically minorities and BIPOC. Their voices matter and give contemporary insight into communities and experiences that are often overlooked. As the younger BIPOC generations get louder, I hope that we all are able to listen. Because these voices are moving us forward by not only promoting diversity and tolerance but pushing for widespread understanding.