The burden of everyone's expectation
''My parents would yell at me if they could see me right now," says 21-year-old Ben Wei of Queens. It's not as if he's selling drugs on a street corner or playing Beer Pong at 2 in the afternoon.
He's sitting at a table in Boylston Hall at Harvard, where he's a sophomore. With him are seven other members of the school's Asian-American student association. The conversation -- frank, intent, and engrossing enough that it will extend more than 90 minutes, far longer than any of them budgeted for -- is about the proverbial elephant in their lives, the stereotype that they are among the best and brightest in America.
So why would Wei's parents be unhappy? ''For being here," he says. ''For taking time away from my studies."
Knowing glances skitter across the table. There is appreciative laughter, but this is no joke. One way or another, these students know about pressure.
''A lot of kids embrace the elephant. They see themselves as 'special,' " says freshman Susan Yao. Others go to what she considers unhealthy extremes to buck the stereotype, herself included: ''I did varsity sports, volleyball, to get away from it. I dropped physics. People would say, 'Oh my God, you're Asian! You can't do that!' "
The occasion for the conversation is the book ''Top of the Class, How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers and How You Can Too" (Berkley) by sisters Jane Kim and Soo Kim Abboud. The members of the Asian American Association are abuzz about it; it's cathartic to have the subject out in the open.
''Just check out the following statistics," the authors exhort on the book's first page: ''Asian-Americans make up only 4 percent of the US population [but] . . . Among Ivy League schools, the percentages are astounding: 23 percent at the University of Pennsylvania, 25 percent at Columbia and Cornell, 15 percent at Brown, and 18 percent at Harvard."
There are more knowing glances as the passage is read aloud. Slowly, they begin to share stories of how they became part of that statistic.
Sophomore Chen Xie is one of the lucky few. His expectations for himself meshed with his parents' and everyone's expectations aligned with his abilities and interests. That made the relationship symbiotic. ''It felt like support," Xie says. ''They would always pressure me to agree with their decisions but they didn't punish me if I made a different decision."
Sophomore Anant Gupta and his mother share a love of math and of competitions. ''She would enroll me in them and I succeeded. I enjoyed it," he says. Not his brother: ''She set impossible standards for him. It caused a lot of tension for the family."
When alignment doesn't exist, and depending to what degree it's off, ''that mismatch is what breaks a child's spirit," says Arlington psychologist Michael Thompson, author of ''The Pressured Child" (Ballantine). Senior Maurice Chen knows about that. ''It becomes a wedge in a relationship," he says. ''Children become resentful."
The trick, author Kim says in an interview, is to strike a balance. The book offers a template of sorts, 17 ''secrets" to success ranging from imbuing your child with senses of family pride and loyalty to helping him view America as a land of great opportunity.
But this book is as much memoir as how-to, and it's a cautionary tale as well. ''It's all about how Asian kids are raised, and, yes, some Asian parents push their kids too hard," Kim says.
Chen says his parents focused on one goal only: that he get into a good college. That pressure robbed him of passion. ''I didn't get to enjoy the ride," he says. ''Once I got here, I felt lost because the goal was gone. I realized I don't even like math and science. It took me four years to figure out I want a career in the music industry."
Asian or not, there is bound to be some pressure if a student is to excel academically. Typically, parents exert pressure by punishing a child for doing poorly, or rewarding him for doing well, says University of Kentucky educational psychologist Eric Anderman. When a child feels strongly connected to parents -- she can talk to them about her social life as well as her academics, and feels supported in her decision-making process -- punishment can sometimes work. By far, though, there are better results with positive pressure, says Anderman.
Like most parents, he wants his third-grade son to do well, but it's not grades he will judge him on. ''I want him to be able to talk to me about what he's learned in each subject area," Anderman says. ''If I reward a demonstration of knowledge, hopefully the grades will come."
Angelico Razon, a sophomore, is grateful his parents emphasized learning for the sake of learning rather than for grades, and not only in academic subjects. ''They let me find my passions," he says. That they happen to be choices they approve of -- math, science, and community service -- is a bonus for all. On the other hand, who's to say which came first, their influence or his interest? Razon grins, and says he's seen firsthand what can happen when children are not as capable as parents expect and parents aren't as flexible as children need.
''My cousins, they fell apart," he says.
That's the dark side of the stereotype. Researcher Peter Kiang, director of the Asian-American studies program at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, says there is a high incidence of mental health issues among Asian-American students, even at the elementary age. Kim and Abboud note at the end of the book that Asian students are ''plagued by the highest suicide rate" among college students.
Some of these students feel like failures. For others, the system fails them. It's the stereotype again.
''There's an assumption in the American educational system that Asian-American kids will do well, so there isn't as much intervention available," Kiang says. What's more, there aren't enough Asian-American adult role models in the schools to help students, especially with racism, which he says parents may not even be aware of: the 8-year-old, for instance, ''who gets harassed in the lunch room because he brings rice to school."
Researcher Paul Watanabe, director of the UMass Institute for Asian-American Studies, says Asian-Americans occupy not only some of the highest reaches of educational attainment, ''but also some of the lowest," including having some of the lowest scores on standardized tests in Massachusetts. Those students typically are from struggling working-class families where parents may be holding two or three jobs and lack time and interest or knowledge of school life. That can be an issue in any working-class family, immigrant or not, but it's a specific problem for Asian-Americans who may not place a value on anything other than academics.
Harvard senior Sarah Paiji's parents never told her she couldn't join clubs, play sports, or be with friends after school. ''But I sensed it made them uncomfortable," says Paiji, copresident of the student association. Wei says, ''If I had only listened to my parents, I would have missed out on wrestling and on dating."
Which gets back to the balance Kim advocates for. She tells parents to communicate their hopes for their child, but she urges ongoing conversations about how a child feels about the goals. And she emphasizes the importance of having fun, like going to birthday parties or watching TV.
When she was growing up, there was no TV watching allowed, but she was OK with that limitation because there was one exception. On Thursday nights, the whole family watched ''Cosby" and ''Family Ties" together.
''It was fun," she said. ''It made us feel normal."
Contact Barbara Meltz at email@example.com.