Stereotypes: Too Asian Too Much?

By Jessie Peng

You’re drenched in sweat as you clench last week’s calculus test in your hands. The red pen mark is etched into the paper: 16/20. You furiously punch it into your calculator: 80%. You’re a little disappointed. You pulled half an all-nighter to study for that test, went in for extra help, and even peeked a bit at Bobby’s paper beside you.  Bobby turns to you, sees your mark, and smirks. You brush it off. But his next words are what get to you most. “Aw shucks, an Asian fail, guess your parents are taking out the bamboo stick tonight.”

The person described in this scenario may not necessarily be you (especially if you have blond hair and green eyes), but the Asian stereotype should not have come as a surprise. In today’s education system, the Asian stereotype has come to define the “ideal” student: she’s motivated, hardworking, has a 99% average, is a human calculator, and is wanted by universities from across the country.  But just when you think that being labeled an overachiever is a compliment, think again.

In the November issue of Maclean’s, an article titled “Too Asian?” criticized the high Asian population at top-tier institutions such as UofT and UBC, claiming that the strong work-ethics and competitive attitudes of its Asian students have deterred many elite, private-schooled Caucasian students from attending. It went on implying that Asians are “segregated from mainstream campus life” as they prioritize academics over “social-interaction, athletics, and self-actualization,” goals that a Caucasian student would aim for.

Having said this, why has the Asian race become so synonymous with words such as “nerd” and “geek”?

One explanation behind the stereotype is that Asians, most having immigrated to Canada within only the last twenty years, have been pressured by socio-economic reasons to work hard. In a new country, and in the face of discrimination, the only way to gain status, recognition, and merit would be through obtaining high academic achievements, and in turn, a well-paying job. Or as Tracy He, a grade 12 student puts it, “Competition arises as Asians all know that we have to study to be successful…unlike some private school kids, we don’t have inheritances or trust-funds to rely on.”

Another theory is that due to Canada’s high immigration standards, Asian parents who come are usually highly-educated, and most likely expect the same from their children. “Getting here was not easy. My parents had to study a lot to be able to come here, so the least I can do is bring home a good report card. At the same time, we don’t have bamboo sticks at home…I do what I do out of self-motivation,” says Jenny Peng, another grade 12 NT student.

Obviously, with a timetable bombarded with demanding courses like enriched English, three maths, and physics, there’s little time left to organize a club, let alone make hockey practices three times a week. And that applies to everyone, not just to Asians. The problem here is that because majority of the students facing this hectic course-load happen to be Asian, Asians have become falsely labeled as being “socially awkward” as well.

However, Sabrina Ren, a grade 12 student, goes perfectly against this “socially awkward” title. While maintaining an average well over 90%, she’s also managed to juggle editing for Graffiti and Pentagon, orienting new students as a P.A.L.s leader, and designing for the fashion show, just to name a few. “Marks are really important to me, but I know it’s possible to do extra-curriculars at the same time. It’s just a matter of time-management.”

It’s undeniable that Asians are very academically focused, and are heavily populated at institutions such as UofT. But the ultimate question now arises: at NT, how much does this unspoken racial dilemma affect our university decision?

“Not at all,” says Jenny. “UofT is competitive, but at a university ranked in the top 20 world-wide, that sort of competition is inevitable. I don’t think Asians have anything to do with it. I think that some of us are simply intimidated by the intense competition, and are trying to find a scapegoat for it. And at majority of the student body, why not pick the Asians?”

Tracy agrees. “Ideally, I’d love to leave home and see what’s beyond, but coming from a racially-diverse city like Toronto, I know a lot of Asian students pick UofT because it’s easier for their families. I’m sure UofT can be just as much of a party school; it all depends on what your priorities are. You shouldn’t choose based on generalizations.”

Sabrina adds a similar input, “I’d love to keep doing the activities that I’m doing now, and that shouldn’t matter whether it’s at UofT or at Western.”

In the end, all three students come to one consensus: their university decisions will rely little on the demographics of the school, and more so on factors such as geographic location, program highlights, unique extra-curricular opportunities, and scholarships.

“UofT is competitive,” says Jenny, “But every school will have its ups and downs. The important thing is to not let one smudge ruin the bigger picture.”