Andy* a 34 year old Taiwanese American living in San Francisco, could easily be seen as a person who has “made it”. A UX designer at a prominent company, he spent 7 years steadily climbing the career ladder, receiving much praise and acknowledgement for his artistic talents and focused work ethic.
But shortly after he became promoted to a senior position, he realized that he was completely miserable.
Amazed, I asked him, “How did this happen?”
Andy took me back to his childhood. As a teenager, Andy hardly had any spare time for a social life because he was too busy with school and extracurricular activities. His parents, who were worried when they saw too many B’s on his report card, put him through hours of after school Kumon tutoring, SAT prep courses that started in the sixth grade, violin lessons, Mandarin lessons, and sports. He was given math textbooks to read over the summer. He became a hardworking perfectionist, conditioned to strive for the best.
Andy’s story is common for today’s young people in an increasingly competitive society. We see a lot of concern in the media about whether we are putting our youth through too much stress in school without enough consideration for their emotional wellbeing. Parents are encouraged to look for warning signs of excessive anxiety in their children, and many schools incorporate “socio-emotional learning” within their curriculum.
But if you ask an Asian American family, you might hear that it’s entirely appropriate and necessary to push our kids to excel and reach high goals with a hearty dose of tough love. On the recent hit show “Glee”, there was a memorable episode called “Asian F,” where Asian American character Mike Chang is scolded by his father for getting an A- on a chemistry exam.
That’s right, an A- is equivalent to an Asian F.
Despite the exaggeration, the story resonated with many former Asian kids. They remember what it was like to be reminded of their immigrant parents’ struggle and sacrifice, so that they could have a better life. Even if they didn’t receive the messages overtly, immigrant children are likely to feel that their family’s future weighs on their shoulders. Being smart, hardworking, and studious is the only way to a bright and secure future.
As a result, Asian American college enrollment and academic achievement has surpassed that of any other race including whites, demonstrating the immense value of this type of parenting. The media has highlighted the phenomenon of Asian American success as either a sign of great accomplishment, or a threat to American security.
But lately, people have started to pay attention to its emotional cost. Research shows high instances of depression and suicide among Asian American high school and college students, a fact often masked by their achievements. A recent study at Cornell University found that among 21 on-campus suicides between 1996–2006, 13 were Asian American. A task-force and outreach center was created at the school specifically to address the needs of their Asian American students.
In 2002, San Francisco’s Lowell High School lost 16-year old Thomas Hoo , described as a “seemingly untroubled” teen, whose hidden depression led to his suicide. Lowell High School is the most competitive public high school in San Francisco that selects its students based on merit and academic performance. Their student body is predominantly Asian American. More recently, Palo Alto experienced a spike in suicides among upper-middle class high school youth, many of them Asian.
Being good at school doesn’t mean you’re good at life, and we often overlook this fact. Asian American students frequently fall under the radar when screening for mental health issues in schools.
Andy said that he never questioned what it was that he wanted for himself. In complying with his parents’ demands, Andy developed the strengths he needed to meet similar high standards in college and graduate school, although always driven by a perpetual feeling of inadequacy.
It wasn’t until he started his career when his mental strategies started to fail him.
“When you’re in school, there’s a sense that you’re stressed out now, but at least there’s an end in sight. But when you apply that same mentality to work, you realize there is no end. The way that you’ve always done things, it’s not sustainable. You look into the future and think, ‘Am I going to do this until I retire?” And that’s when the hopelessness sets in.”
Like Thomas Hoo’s story, Andy’s perfectionist battle with himself went unnoticed. Feeling disconnected from his colleagues, he became irritable, resentful, and even developed serious physical symptoms, including tendonitis from computer-related repetitive stress.
One day, he finally decided he had to do something about it.
“I realized that all of the rewards in the world won’t make me feel good about the work I was doing.
“I had this feeling that I’m missing out on a whole world of emotions that I don’t know how to express,” Andy explained. He decided to begin personal therapy and career coaching to think about what it would mean to live and work for himself and not others.
His journey to find himself began, and he now works in a different field.
Beneath the image of the hardworking, successful Asian American, people like Andy have complex and nuanced desires and feelings that are a part of what makes them human. A lifetime of avoiding failure and disappointment can prevent one from ever sharing who they are inside- and as we’ve seen, the consequences can be deadly.
The truth is, if we don’t allow ourselves to make mistakes and disappoint others, we won’t be able to ever know who we are beyond what people expect us to be. And that is never a sustainable way to live.
Perhaps a better way to thank our parents for all that they’ve done for us, is to show them that we’re not afraid of failing. Every once in a while, that is.
*Name has been changed to protect confidentiality