By Yangzi Qian
“…I am doing much more than what I used to do when I was in Shanghai! In Shanghai, I only had to focus on my schoolwork. But, here, not only do I have to keep a great GPA at school, but I also have to do so many extra activities to distinguish myself from others! I feel so burned out that I cannot even breathe! If I could choose, I would rather have never been here!”
In a family crisis at midnight, my 17-year-old sister, who’s in high school, yelled at our mother, asking her why she took her to America. Without finishing her sentences, she burst into unceasing wails. I have heard her wails and lived through many of these crises. I am fed up with the pressures placed by parents on Asian teens to excel, regardless of the consequences.
Newly immigrated Asian parents want their children to go to Ivy League schools, since going to such schools can help their children integrate into and even gain a step up in American society. However, in order to achieve this goal, these parents place too much pressure on those adolescents, who are not supposed to—and many times are unable to—handle so much pressure and stress.
Top-ranked colleges require not only excellent academic performance, but also sports, arts, research and many other external activities. In order to transform their children to appeal to this “American standard” created by colleges, Asian-immigrant parents push their children to learn more, accomplish more and be more successful both inside and outside of school. Their children are sent to all-day, all-weekend tutoring classes, forced to learn and practice instruments or sports and essentially pile on the activities in order to try to gain a slight advantage, so they can be granted a spot in an elite university.
Moreover, acknowledging the perceived prejudice against Asian students’ admissions to these top-ranked colleges, parents see college admissions as an “Asian-against-Asian” competition, which puts even more pressure on their children. These teens keep hearing tons of their parents’ comparisons: “He got an A, why didn’t you get an A?” “She is doing all AP classes this semester, but you…” All they tend to say is, “You are not excelling, you’d better work harder.”
My sister is an 11th grader in a top-ranked public high school. Like many other parents in Asian-immigrant families, my parents want her to go to an Ivy League school. They send her to a tutoring school that touts itself as an expert in preparing students for college admissions. At this particular school, they have had a number of students who received offers from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia and many other top schools. They claim to know how to boost the students’ grades and also customize a path to open the door to a top school.
My sister goes to the tutoring center seven days a week to have all her classes tutored and all her tests prepped, including AP Biology, AP Physics, Spanish, Calculus BC, AP History, SAT, ACT, etc. Additionally, she attends many after-school activities, including piano, flute, drawing, golf and science research.
I see her constantly working and rarely sleeping before midnight, all because she has to finish not only the schoolwork, but also many extra assignments. All this is forced upon her to “help” her get into an Ivy League school. I remember when I asked her if she felt overwhelmed with the things she was doing, her answer was, “Do I have a choice?”
I also remember when I asked her if she likes the external activities she is doing. She responded with hesitation, “I guess…I don’t hate them.” The pressure these teens are under is real and crushing. The consequences of that pressure are sad and troubling.
These adolescents are at risk for serious health problems, both physically and mentally. At the least, they might suffer from eye problems, due to overstraining while reading incessantly and from lack of sleep. They might suffer from insomnia, because of the stress of an exam the next day. They might suffer from eating disorders, as the result of the unreleased anxiety.
At worst, they might injure themselves because of deep depression and despair. They might even think of committing suicide because they see no hope. On top of the ordinary stresses of puberty and adolescence, is it worth it to add the additional stress of commanding excellence in every aspect of their lives? What is more important than the health of these young people?
One day, my sister said out of nowhere, “I think I have to see a doctor or something, I don’t know why I can’t cheer up.” I asked her if she wanted to talk. She responded, “I want to, but I don’t have time.” She is a typical example of an overworked, extremely stressed-out adolescent who wants to seek help and should get help from a psychiatrist.
Attending the tutoring center has dissuaded her from relying on herself. She’s now dependent on her tutors and is always encouraged to seek out “the best” and follow “the recipe” that the tutoring center has developed for her college admission’s journey. This mentality manifested itself recently when I spoke with my sister regarding her admission to a highly selective summer camp. I asked her why she wanted to go to this particular camp. Her reply? “It has a good reputation.” She did not even consider whether she thought she would enjoy the activities, the location or even the experience of being away from home. Rather, her first thought was that this is a “good” camp.
Isn’t the fundamental ideal of American education to develop creative innovators who are self-motived, passionate and confident critical thinkers? While excelling in academics can prove one’s ability to learn material, haven’t elite universities always sought the student who has the ability to self-discover his or her interests or talents and then develop them.
While the extracurricular activities were intended to make students discover “what makes me different from others,” this intention is altered to answering the question, “what can make my kids look different?” This leads to children who have no personal time to explore and reflect upon their interests, because they have to fulfill the paths that the tutoring centers design for their acceptance to Ivy League schools.
Creativity suffers—and is all but lost—because students are unable to choose their own paths to seek out what they truly are passionate about. This also produces children who have become dependent on the tutoring institutions, since they obey instructions from their tutors instead of thinking on their own. The students are taught to become followers, instead of leaders, as they lose the essential skill of thinking critically. They become exam machines.
In the end, these children from Asian-immigrant families are giving up the essential qualities that elite schools are looking for. Their packed schedules leave them no time to explore their true interests. They are doing things that they are told are “good,” but not things about which they are truly passionate. We are creating robots. My sister pined for her previous life back in Shanghai. Wouldn’t it be more prudent to protect my sister and her peers and encourage them to find their own paths?
Yangzi Qian attends the School of General Studies at Columbia University and is a professional Mandarin Chinese instructor for the Berlitz Language Company, teaching at St. Joseph’s Academy in Astoria, where her sister and many Great Neck students attend. She was born in Nanjing, China, and resides in Manhasset.