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Asian-Americans Are Successful, But No Thanks To Tiger Parenting


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. This is Asian-American and Pacific Islander heritage month. That's a time set aside to acknowledge the contributions of people from these backgrounds to the bigger American story. Undeniably, when many Americans look for role models for educational achievement, many find them in Asian-American homes.

Now, the idea of Asian-Americans as academic powerhouses has been fueled in recent years by many things, but perhaps most publicly by Yale law professor Amy Chua, author of "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" and co-author of "The Triple Package." Now, we've spoken with her about both of these books and she argued that the extremely high standards and no-nonsense style that she sees among Chinese-American parents is what accounts for better grades and higher test scores. Now, one criticism of Amy Chua's work has always been that her background in these areas is actually very slight.

Well, two scholars who do have a background in this wanted to dig into the question. And they say that the story of Asian-American achievement is much more complicated. They are both sociology professors. Jennifer Lee is at the University of California at Irvine. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

JENNIFER LEE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Amy Hsin teaches at Queens College in New York. Welcome to you.

AMY HSIN: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: They both recently published studies about the foundations of Asian-American success. And they are with us now.

MARTIN: Professor Lee, let me start with you. You've challenged the idea of tiger parenting in your current research and actually even earlier. What's missing in the conventional wisdom that tough parenting styles are responsible for success?

LEE: That's an excellent question. And I would say that there are a couple of things that's missing. One is that even from Amy Chua's background - she is the child of very highly educated parents. Her father was a professor at Berkeley. And so she is afforded a number of class resources that helped her get ahead, as are many of us who are East-Asian or South-Asian.

If you look at profiles of these groups, they're more highly educated than other immigrants who come to the United States. And they're more highly educated than the average American. And so the children of Asian immigrants, like Chinese immigrants, tend to achieve high educational outcomes in part because their parents are so highly educated.

MARTIN: Professor, you actually took on something that I think is rather sensitive - the idea of inherent genetic advantage. What did you find out? And what would you like to add to this conversation?

LEE: My co-author, Yu Xie (ph), at the University of Michigan and I, we analyzed over 5,000 Asian and White students who were followed from kindergarten through high school. And we find that Asians aren't doing better because they're smarter. There are also the advantages and family background. But it's an insufficient explanation as well because even poor disadvantaged Asian immigrants tend to do better than their white middle-class peers.

MARTIN: So that's what I wanted - I wanted to dig into that question. So even when you take away the benefit of having highly educated affluent parents who presumably can supplement - you can have tutoring and all that other good stuff - what did you find that accounts for those higher scores and grades?

LEE: We found that work ethic primarily explains the Asian-White achievement gap in terms of grades. This is work ethic as measured by teacher ratings of children's attentiveness, their motivation, how hard they are perceived to work in the classroom.

MARTIN: You know, I wanted to ask you about that though and I'm glad you brought up - you used the word received. Were you able to test that they actually did work harder or is it that their teachers believed that they did? In fact, if we could say perhaps they benefited from a positive stereotype, if I can put it that way?

LEE: We do find that, for example, Asians report spending more time doing homework than their White peers. And so some of it is, I think, due to actual differences in behavior. But Asians are also perceived to be the model minorities. They're perceived to be more naturally gifted in terms of intellect and more studious by nature. And so this certainly affects the way teachers perceive students by having higher educational expectations for Asian students, giving them more second chances. It also affects the way Asians see themselves and see achievement as both attainable and expected and may certainly help affect their performance.

MARTIN: You're both knocking down the idea that there's some genetic advantage. You're saying - so let's put that to the side.

LEE: Yes.

HSIN: Yes.

MARTIN: And you're both kind of knocking down the idea of - am I right that you're both knocking down the idea of like the tough parenting? Lock the kid in the basement to, you know, practice the violin and this business or - Professor Lee, you're saying in part it's affluence and Professor Hsin, you're saying it's in part work ethic. Professor Lee, what about habits?

LEE: I think that that is an excellent point that Professor Hsin brought up. And I would say a couple of things that we also find that the children of working-class parents who are Chinese and Vietnamese actually attain high educational outcomes. And so one of the things we find is that because Asian immigrant parents understand that mobility is possible in the United States, but they also fear that their children may face discrimination in the labor market as non-white Americans, they really supplement their children's education with afterschool programs.

Many of these are offered in their ethnic communities - so SAT programs, college-prep courses, tutoring services. And some of those are either available at a low-cost or free. The importance of the fact that these are resources available in the ethnic communities and not equally available to all groups is an important point that I wanted to bring up.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking about myths and facts around Asian-American academic achievement with two sociology professors who have dug into this question closely in their research. We're speaking with Jennifer Lee of the University of California, Irvine. And Amy Hsin of Queens College in New York. Did either of you detect - I think this was you, Professor Hsin - that there was a downside to that positive stereotyping or that expectation of high academic achievement? Can you talk about that?

HSIN: Yeah, we analyzed this in our data and we find that Asians, relative to their White peers, tend to have poor self-image. And they also tend to have more conflicts with their parents. And we speculate that this is in part due to the high educational expectations placed on them by their families, by communities.

MARTIN: You know, we've heard this before from other groups. In fact, there's even jokes about this. What is it - is it something like a Jewish drop-out is someone who only has a BA. That sort of thing. Or is there kind of a similar kind of cultural expectation on Asian-Americans that if you don't meet that standard becomes very painful?

HSIN: It's not only just that when you don't meet those high expectations you're less satisfied. The people we interviewed felt like they weren't Asian-American, and they were likely to reject their racial or ethnic identities because they didn't feel like they were like other Chinese. And their image of other Chinese-Americans are those who are the highest achievers. So they're measuring their success against this exceptionally high bar. And I wanted to also take this moment to mention one of the more serious consequences of this. In the past few weeks, three Asian-American college students committed suicide.

And the most recent of whom was Jiwon Lee, a 29-year-old, who was a fourth-year dental student at Columbia University. And she left a note in her room apologizing for not living up to expectations. And so I mention this because I think it's very important to understand that the stereotypes of the model minority are dangerous and have very real consequences that need to be addressed.

MARTIN: I'm glad you brought that up because one of the things I was going to ask you since both of you have delved into these sensitive areas is that, you know, you've got other people whose intelligence is continually demeaned, whose standing at academic institutions is consistently questioned. And they might wonder, why should we care? Help me again understand why you feel it's really important to understand these nuances, Professor Lee?

LEE: I think the downside, of course, is that most Asian-Americans don't live-up or meet this strict success frame. They're not all high-achieving. They're not all doctors, lawyers, engineers, and so many who don't meet that exceptionally high bar feel like they're failures or ethnic outliers and in extreme cases can lead to suicide. And it's not by accident that the number of suicides among Asian-American students is higher than any other racial group in the country.

MARTIN: One other intriguing conclusion of your research that I wanted to ask you about before we let you go is that you say that the most successful immigrant community is actually Mexican-Americans. Could you tell a little bit about why you say that?

LEE: I am so glad you brought that up because I think so much of the way we define success is really about outcomes. Who has achieved the most? Who drives the nicest car? Who makes the most money? And when you look at where groups started, which I think is an important part of the success story that's often lost, you see that second-generation Mexican-Americans have made the most mobility.

They double the high school graduation rates of their parents. They're doubling the college graduation rates of their fathers and tripling that of their mothers. And this is in Los Angeles, where there is an enormous Mexican-American population. And so when you think about how much success second- generation Mexican-Americans had based on public resources without the help of ethnic resources, it's very remarkable.

MARTIN: Jennifer Lee is a professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine. She joined us from KUCI on campus. Amy Hsin is a professor of sociology at Queens College in New York. She was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Professor Hsin, Professor Lee, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

HSIN: Thank you very much.

LEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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