It’s become cliché: Asian parents browbeat their kids into pursuing prestigious professions in technology, medicine or law, and their children suffer the resulting stress and depression.
So writes Pueng Vongs in her article “Inside the Asian Pressure Cooker“. From a 2001 survey of middle school students in San Francisco, she reports that “Chinese, Filipino and other Pacific Islander youths topped the charts of groups reporting symptoms of depression.”
For some, this “push to achieve is also often cited as a factor in suicide“, although other factors may also be involved in these situations.
Let me start with Elizabeth Okazaki, even though she was the second one found. For four years, Okazaki attended graduate physics classes, used their labs, chatted with various students, and perhaps even slept at their labs. The reason for her stay is not known, though “many students said they felt sorry for Okazaki, who they speculate is homeless.” One commenter even wondered if “she’s mentally ill, she seems normal at first, but after talking to her you get a sense she’s a little ‘off’.”
Azia Kim is a graduate of Fullerton’s Troy High School, one of California’s most competitive high schools. She pretended to be a Stanford student for eight months before being caught. Her elaborate ruse included telling some she was a displaced freshman, telling others she was a sophomore majoring in human biology, buying textbooks, studying for exams, and sneaking into her dorm room through an open window because she didn’t have a Stanford student ID.
The reaction has been varied, from “What a psychopath, seriously. Serious mental problems” to “I think that Stanford should probably let her stay. After figuring all that out, doesn’t she deserve a shot to do it for real!”, according to the comments on that article. One parent also wrote, “Hope parents learn from this unfortunate situation.”
And that’s what struck me. Little is said of the parents, or the reasons for Azia Kim’s actions, though the article offered this hint:
Friends aren’t sure of her motive for sneaking onto campus and living a lie, but many speculate that she felt pressure from overbearing parents to attend Stanford — regardless of whether she was admitted.
While it’s pure speculation, I can’t help but wonder if parental pressures are involved here. Vong’s article cites a number of anecdotes about the heavy academic demands of Asian immigrant parents. “For the bulk of Asian parents it is all about succeeding, and there is no middle ground.” “Oftentimes Asian immigrant parents don’t know how to give positive reinforcement or show their kids that it is OK to make mistakes.”
But before we blame all our parents for all our problems, let’s look at it from their point of view. Many Asian immigrant parents come from disadvantaged backgrounds and are trying desperately to give their children a better life. In other words, they have the best of intentions and sometimes flawed executions. Says Sandy Dang of the Asian American Leadership Empowerment and Development for Youth and Families:
Many are refugees. Others were brought up with corporal punishment, and that’s what they know. Others are orphans of war. How do you teach someone who has not been parented to parent?
Indeed, how do you teach anyone to be a good parent?
Mix that in with the stigma of mental illness, and you have a bitter recipe. One that puts perhaps an unrealistic burden on children, without the necessary emotional and social support they’d need to properly cope.
Is that the case with Azia Kim and Elizabeth Okazaki? I have no idea; perhaps Stanford’s investigation will reveal more.
But if so, I want to end this entry with a ray of hope. There are organizations trying to help, as Cheryl Wills of NY1 reports in her coverage of Asian-American Heritage Week. In her article, Wayne Ho, the executive director of Coalition for Asian-American Children and Families, explains that his organization’s goal “is to challenge the stereotypes that all Asians are successful and let the community know that we do have needs and we need services in order to address these needs”. Their projects include mental health services for children & related support for their parents, child abuse and neglect support services, school improvement projects, and advocacy skill-building workshops. Though they mainly serve the New York City area, they are affiliated with similar organizations across the US. (Disclaimer: I was once involved with CACF and have a friend there.)
If you or someone you know may benefit from such services, please reach out to them. Especially if you’re thinking about pretending to be a college student somewhere!