Paper Tigers

New York magazine recently featured an article on Asian Americans that’s become fodder for increasing commentary and social media buzz. It’s a piece by Wesley Yang titled Paper Tigers: What happens to all the Asian American overachievers when the test-taking ends? I liked the piece overall, and especially how much attention it’s gotten nationwide. It’s fascinating to see a feature article like this show up in a national magazine, and being given so much prominence and attention. Until recently, the kind of critique Yang performs was mostly confined to ethnic studies classrooms and scholarly discussions in academic books. It’s impressive that Asian American issues–often confined to op-ed articles in cities with large Asian Am populations–have found such a large and significant forum.

Reading the article, I was reminded of a writing composition class I taught back in the day, a class that happened to be composed almost entirely of Asian American, Middle Eastern, black and Latino/a students. This was in Los Angeles, at a very ethnically diverse college, and the students had self-selected by choosing a sociology course about racial conflict. I remember two students particularly well, both Asian. One happened to be in a rock band and wrote endless drafts of his essays; I’ll call him “Defoe” since his own name took after a famous British writer. He spent almost thirty hours working on a single essay, and his work was spotless. The other, who I didn’t know much about, did the bare minimum and was often disruptive in class. I’ll call him “Ted,” after the time-honored Asian habit of parents naming their children after American nicknames.

Defoe was, obviously, my favorite student–I swooned over his papers and took credit for his brilliance, as young teachers often do. He had talent, but above all, he wanted to please his teacher. Ted, on the other hand, did not appear to care. Once, he was so disruptive, I had to do a little trick you learn in teacher-school on how to handle difficult students: I walked over from my desk, bridged the physical distance between us, and stood literally right in front of his desk. Usually, when I do this (and by usually I mean the one time I’d done it before, having decided after this never to repeat this cheap trick), the student quiets down and we move on. But with Ted, something unexpected happened: Ted, a big, burly kid who reminded me of the bully in The Simpsons, looked panicked and agitated when I stood in front of him. He literally looked like he might break into tears. Oh my gosh, I realized, he cares about my approval, just like the others. He just has a different way of getting my attention. 

Later, during a writing tutorial at a coffee house, I discovered that Ted in person was quite different from the inattentive, disruptive student that he was in class. In fact, he was funny, kind, and even sweet. Above all, he was young–he was very much an 18-year old. I found him immensely likeable. But he wasn’t getting an A in my class; he didn’t have the patience for the kind of continuous, sustained life of reading required to be a strong writer. Ted was the kind of Asian American kid who seems invisible in discussions of Asian overachievement, where the focus is on the Defoes of this world. What if Ted wasn’t going to be a doctor, or an engineer, or a CEO? I understood why he was so terrified when I stood in front of him in class. He probably thought I’d seen through him–you’re not a real Asian, you’re a regular person. What could be a bigger burden, at that age, than not living up to the Asian myth of being really good at school? What does that do to the Teds of this world? What happens to the Asian underachievers when all the test-taking ends? This obsession with achievement is not emotionally healthy, to say the least.

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