Suffer a Rising Toll
From Heavy Pressures
Suicides and Distress Increase
As They Face Stereotypes
And Parents' Expectations
You Add Up the Check, Ming
By Joan E. Rigdon
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 1991, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.)
SAN FRANCISCO -- At age 17, Kio T. Konno seemed to fit the
stereotype perfectly. Hard-charging, industrious and bright, she was
destined for stardom, like so many of her Asian-American "whiz kid"
A senior at this city's prestigious Lowell High School, she pulled a B-plus
average, spoke fluent Japanese and snagged national swimming awards.
Her Japanese parents cared so much about her education that they
moved closer to the school to ease her commute. Brown University was
actively recruiting her.
But last October, a week before her 18th birthday, Miss Konno walked
into her closet and hanged herself.
Miss Konno's parents decline to comment on their daughter's death. But
people familiar with the case, as well as a friend, say Miss Konno was
distraught over the pressure to succeed -- from her parents, from Asian
and non-Asian society and even, in a sense, from Asian history.
Miss Konno's tragic fate is becoming all too common. Suicide rates
among Asian-American teen-agers have risen as much as threefold over
the past two decades. A 1989 study by the U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services found that the suicide rate among
Chinese-Americans 15 to 24 years old was 36% higher than the national
average among that age group. The rate for Japanese-Americans was
The number of Asian-American youths who kill themselves is quite small,
of course, but it is the most dramatic evidence of a more widespread
emotional distress. "The problem is much more pervasive than many of us
think," says Leland Yee, a psychologist who sits on the San Francisco
school board. "If you're an Asian who's alive, eating and breathing, you're
expected to be a genius. It's not unusual for Asian kids to have nervous
Asian-American youths face many pressures that children of other
immigrants don't. Many are even born with names that translate to lofty
titles such as "Treasure of China" or "Universal Versatility." Many grow
up with the burden of carrying on the legacy of their entire ancestry, not
to mention the wishes of their immediate families. In school, they are
saddled with the "Model-Minority" myth, which says that Asians are
bound to excel at whatever they do. Thinking this way, many educators
expect Asians to overcome academic and emotional difficulties without
help from special programs available to members of other minority
groups. Meanwhile, students of other races, goaded to do as well as
those of the Model Minority, resent Asians.
Asian youths of the U.S. are, in fact, a tremendous success story. They
are vastly overrepresented, for instance, in the Ivy Leagues and in
prestigious contests such as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. But
not all of America's approximately three million Asian-Americans under
age 25 fit this mold. Asian youth gangs have emerged as a major criminal
force in California and New York. Almost 10% of juveniles in detention
or on probation in San Francisco are Asian, up from 5.7% in 1988.
(Asians are about 30% of San Francisco's population.)
Some talented Asians graduate from high school with top honors, only to
flunk out in college. David Rue, a psychiatrist at the Cleveland Clinic
Foundation, says he sees many cases like these: an Ivy League man who
slit his wrists after failing three classes in one semester, and a 16-year-old
high-school valedictorian who went on welfare in college and then tried to
kill herself to escape her parents' control.
Asian parental pressure for academic success dates back to the ancient
Chinese philosopher Confucius, who influenced other Asian countries
with his teaching that the scholar sits at the apex of social hierarchy.
Under this philosophy, education is the only route to success.
The result: Some Asian-American parents choke off their children's social
lives while expecting nothing less than stellar academic performance. Even
star students come under scrutiny. One 17-year-old Korean-American
high-school student in suburban Los Angeles was allegedly beaten in May
by her father because her A-minus grade-point average fell short of his
hopes for straight A's. He has pleaded innocent to felony child abuse.
That case is extreme. More typically, the pressure is subtle, and often
unintended. Consider Anthony Shong-yu Chow, a 22-year-old
psychology student at San Francisco State University. Mr. Chow's father,
who has a doctorate in chemistry, and his mother, who has a master's
degree in botany, abandoned academic careers to start a Chinese
restaurant to make more money. They eventually set aside some profits to
pay for college for Mr. Chow and his older brother. The sons weren't
expected to work regularly in the restaurant because school was more
Their father, Chak Yan Chow, moved to the U.S. in 1958 at the age of
21. He says he misses his chemistry career, but it is his duty to provide
the best education possible for his children. Paraphrasing Confucius, he
says, "If a youngster isn't well educated, the parent is to blame."
The younger Mr. Chow is grateful, but he feels guilty. "They say they
want you to be happy," he says. "But they also say, `I'm working for you.
I'm sacrificing for you.' Their happiness is us doing well."
Asians suffer many of the same problems that have always faced
American-born children of immigrants, they must straddle two cultures.
Sometimes that means going to language school to study their parents'
native tongue every day after regular school or being pressed into service
as translators for their parents. But even here, some Asian-Americans
have a special problem: They feel torn between the American emphasis
on individuality and the Asian concern with family harmony.
They are expected to shine academically, but once they do, they aren't
free to choose their own life paths. For instance, when Lina Han, a
Korean-American, graduated from Yale this spring, she planned to move
to San Francisco with her non-Korean boyfriend and work for a few
years before studying to become a liberal arts professor. But "my mother
put her foot down," Ms. Han says. Her mother, who lives near
Cleveland, urged her to break up with her boyfriend and go straight to
medical school. For Asian parents, many of whom are scientists because
a 1965 change in immigration laws barred the entry of most others from
Asia, the science field promises financial security, prestige and less
When the 22-year-old Ms. Han balked, she says, she and her mother got
into terrific screaming matches. The rebellion was out of line with Korean
tradition. "Our parents grew up in households where they would bow
their head when giving dinner to their fathers and then walk backwards
out of the room so they would never turn their back on them," Ms. Han
During the fights, Ms. Han's mother became bedridden with a previously
diagnosed heart condition. "I felt very responsible. It came to the point
where I had to make a compromise," Ms. Han says. The truce: Ms. Han
is breaking up with her boyfriend and will work at a law firm in New
York for a few years before going back to school. But she won't go to
medical school. Instead, she will study law, which satisfies both her
mother's concerns about prestigious work and her own preference for
Lina's mother, Jane Han, says she appreciated the compromise. "I cried
with her a lot," she says. "I told her thank you a number of times. . . .
"When I was Lina's age," she says, "I had my own ideas, my own hopes
and my own dreams. But they didn't mean much because I just followed
what my parents told me to do." Mrs. Han says she went back to school
six years ago partly to understand America -- and its children -- better. "I
know I'm in a different generation here," she says. "I'm still trying to
accept the fact that I'm in a different world." One change: She agreed to
allow her younger children to attend their high school proms. But she says
she's not willing to budge on issues concerning education and interracial
Says Dr. Yee, the San Francisco psychologist: "You have to understand
that the primary identity is always family. It's as if they say, `We'll give
you a leash and it can be as long as you want. But you always have to
know who the master is.'"
Society adds more stress by stereotyping Asians. Even though Asia
encompasses countries as different as high-tech Japan and rural
Cambodia, many people expect Asians to be the same: shy, brainy nerds
who are especially good at math.
The nerd perception prompts some teachers to grade Asian students
more easily and misinterpret their confusion as deep thought or timidity. In
some cases, teachers refuse to call on Asian students in class, figuring
they know all the answers anyway. "I got away with a lot," says Ms. Han
of Yale. In high school, "My teachers singled me out and treated me with
kid gloves. In their eyes I couldn't make any mistakes -- even if I did,"
she says. She recalls teachers "fudging" her grades to give her the benefit
of the doubt on quizzes. "My work got less rigorous attention," she says.
Ming Leung, a 27-year-old Chinese-American project manager for the
San Francisco-based Asian American Health Forum, recalls being the
butt of the math stereotype in numerous settings. In high school, his
counselor tried to get him to study chemistry and physics instead of
government and psychology. When he went out to eat with friends and
the bill arrived, he was often nominated to figure out who owed what.
And at an officers' election for a school committee in San Diego, Mr.
Leung cringed when the chairwoman suggested that an Asian volunteer
for the post of treasurer for "convenience's sake."
The stereotype comes wrapped in resentment. In high school and college,
Mr. Leung endured several acerbic remarks about Asians. "People used
to say that there's a correlation between the grading curve and the slant of
the eye," he says.
Other Asian-Americans recall similar treatment. Says Sang Do Bae, an
18-year-old Korean-American biology major at Cornell University:
"Whenever I scored in the 80s, there was always someone saying, `Oh,
you mean you didn't break the A-minus mean?'"
The stereotypes "pit one group against another," says Bernard Wong, an
anthropology professor at San Francisco State University. "And it's being
used as an excuse not to give help to Asians when they need it." He adds:
"I've sat on committees where they say, `Oh, you don't need any help.
You're the model minority group.'"
What can make all this especially difficult for Asian-American youths is
that they are generally less likely to seek professional psychological help
than others. "Asians aren't accustomed to venturing to ask for help
outside," says Sookyung Chang, a Korean-American psychologist in Los
Angeles. In Korea, for instance, people seek counseling only when they
have a mental breakdown. In China, there is no word for mental illness.
Says Mr. Leung: "You're not supposed to tell people your personal
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