Asians have moved to the U.S. to own homes, enroll in American schools, and take jobs in the U.S. work force, and their presence is quiet and understated, yet competitive and high achieving. At impressively high rates, Asian students are entering gifted and talented classes in elementary schools and advanced placement classes in high schools. Many go on to attend Ivy League universities, receive advanced degrees, and easily find work at international companies that rely upon Asia for manufacturing needs, purchasing power and lending credit.
Clearly, Asian-Americans have a lot to be proud of and their fellow Americans — especially parents and educators — should take the time to get to know them and learn what they’re doing right when it comes to the educational arena.
In 2009, students from 65 countries participated in an international standardized test for reading, math and science given by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Called the “Programme for International Student Assessment,” the exam is given every three years to 15-year-olds in the leading industrialized nations to evaluate the knowledge they have acquired throughout their schooling.
When the test results were announced in December 2010, U.S. educators were shocked at the findings — students in Shanghai had the highest scores in all three categories, while the United States placed 17th in reading, 31st in math and 23rd in science.
Despite the high academic marks from Chinese schools and the robust economy in China, more Asians than ever are coming to the United States to live, study and work. As indicated by data from the 2010 U.S. census, Asians are the ethnic group with the largest population increase in the U.S. within the past decade. From 2000 to 2010, the population of Asians (which includes more than 20 different countries, including China, Japan, Korea, India, Pakistan and the Philippines) has grown 43.3 percent in the U.S. and now comprises 4.8 percent of the country’s population.
One such Chinese immigrant is 29-year-old Ming, who was born, raised and educated in Shanghai. Brought up by parents who believed education would open doors to her future, Ming respects the values her family instilled in her.
“Because we were not very wealthy, I was told by my parents, ‘Don’t ever compete with others [over] shoes, the digital gadgets, the beautiful hair or whatever. Compare with that person your test score. Which college would you go to? Like, who laughs in the end?’ ”
Although her parents ingrained in Ming a competitiveness that gave her “that fire and desire,” she doesn’t regret the impact this mentality has had on her life.
“It can be very devastating for kids, but also it’s very practical. It teaches us how to be competitive in the future in the work force,” she said matter-of-factly. “If you look at the work force nowadays, Asians and Chinese are doing very well, and the reason they are doing very well is because they are very educated — most of them.”
Ming moved to the U.S. two years ago with her American husband. At the time, she was teaching Chinese at an international school in Shanghai that was run by Americans. Although Ming and her husband both had good jobs there, they ultimately decided to move to New York City at the urging of her husband’s family, who missed their only son. She is now a teacher at a New York City private school
Since Ming has been a teacher and student in China and the U.S., she is familiar with the educational systems in both countries. According to Ming, Chinese students are well-versed in test taking, as it is what they have been taught to do since elementary school. She attributes Shanghai’s high 2009 test scores to the Chinese educational focus on standardized tests.
In the U.S., however, there has been a recent backlash toward standardized testing after, in 2001, Congress passed the “No Child Left Behind Act,” which requires all public schools to administer state-wide standardized tests. If the test scores are low at a particular school, it receives less federal funding than a higher-performing school. Consequently, many U.S. teachers and school administrators now feel they spend so much time preparing their students to take this test, there is less classroom time for students to engage in more creatively stimulating tasks.
“Taking [a standardized] test is a skill. It doesn’t really necessarily test how smart you are, how innovative you are,” Ming remarked. “It’s a lot about your skills. Could you sit there for half an hour or concentrate for half an hour taking that test? We started getting that discipline when we were very young.”
Ming believes so strongly in her current students’ ability to pass standardized tests that she is now teaching a club at her school called “Test Prep.”
“Many times, it’s not really about the content,” she noted. “I think if you give any American kid extra time, they can finish it. They can do a very good job, but they just can’t do it in a testing setting — like in a classroom — quiet, taking the test by yourself, independent. [American students] just can’t do that.”
Within the past five years in New York City, there has been a proliferation of tutoring centers for math, reading and writing, such as E.nopi and Kumon, which are based on the Asian philosophy of repetitive exercise until a student achieves a perfect score and can advance to the next level.
Although E.nopi is a Korean company and Kumon is Japanese, Ming sees both instructional approaches as “very Chinese. It’s just repetitive. You just do that within five minutes, within 10 minutes, just again, again, again, again. Just, practice makes perfect. It’s based on that philosophy.”
Ming, who is currently enrolled in a master’s degree program in bilingual education, said that the main topic discussed in her classes is classroom management, which she believes is the most apparent difference between Chinese and American schools.
“We have to discourage [American students] from moving too much, and we have to sort of let them know that ‘this is a class. We’re not going to be talking about something that has nothing to do with what we’re talking about,’ ” Ming said. “So I always tell the students like, ‘You know, in China we have 70 kids or 60 kids in one class, and no one would talk back to an adult, let alone a teacher, just someone who is older than them.’ ”
While Ming thinks the U.S. students are too restless and outspoken in the classroom, she also feels that Chinese students are too reserved.
“Like, our side is too quiet. We have to encourage [the Chinese students] to answer questions, encourage them to be active, be moving around.’”
As an educator, Ming is always trying to find a compromise between Western and Eastern teaching philosophies.
“I feel like both are a little to the extremes,” she reflected. “Like the Asians are always doing homework. [The Americans are] always on playdate. They should just come to the middle. The kids would benefit from it.”
Ming ascribes the difference in the students’ attitude to the level of respect teachers receive in China.
“In China, teachers make the same [amount of money] as a brain surgeon. We have the highest social status. We’re the top of the food chain. Parents, faculty — everyone — respects you, because you’re the educator. The same in Korea, the same in Japan, the same in many Asian countries.”
On the other hand, Ming thinks Americans view teaching as a second option to other professions.
“I feel like, here, it’s sort of like, ‘I don’t want to do other jobs.’ I mean, for sure there are a lot of amazing, good teachers. There are so many, but I don’t feel [U.S. teachers] are being respected by the society, and the unfortunate part of it is, parents don’t show that respect, so they pass that to the kids,” Ming stated. “When any student doesn’t respect his teacher, how could they respect the content the teacher is teaching?”
Ming credits the respect teachers receive in China to their “very hierarch[ical] type of society.”
“As long as that person is older, you need to show the respect…you should not be challenging that person even though, probably, you know whatever he’s saying is wrong or is not truthful. You should find a private moment, not challenge him or her in public.”
This tendency for Asians to be reticent and withholding in public has proved difficult for them in America, where citizens are more openly outspoken about their views. Ming describes the Chinese as being “not very confrontational,” and when they are placed in compromising situations, she says they tend to internalize their feelings, instead of vocalizing them. When others recognize that Asians are less apt to express their grievances, Asians sometimes find themselves being taken advantage of.
For example, at the international school in Shanghai where Ming taught, the American administrators paid the French and Spanish teachers more than the Chinese teachers. Ming spoke of another instance when a Chinese teacher in the U.S. was given more work than her non-Asian co-workers, because her boss told her she was “highly qualified.”
Ming thinks there are three motivating factors for Chinese to immigrate to the United States, despite the booming economy back home. First, she thinks the Chinese have always felt themselves “inferior” to Americans and Europeans after many years of lagging behind the economies and technologies of the Westernized world.
Second, Ming says many Chinese are still very poor and have a glamorized view of the United States.
“Because of all these penetrating shows, movies, celebrities, beautiful people, it gives the poor country back in China this false image like, ‘everything there is better than us. Health care is better than us. Education is better than us,’ instead of thinking, ‘maybe it’s not for everyone.’ ”
Lastly, Ming thinks that the majority of the Chinese who immigrate to the United States are wealthy and view the United States as a place where they can safely put their money into banks without the fear that the communist Chinese government will take it away from them.
Noticing that many of these Chinese immigrants frequently return to China to visit their families, Ming thinks they don’t see the U.S. as a “home,” but simply a place to secure their assets and educate their children.
For her part, Ming wants to one day feel like she can call the U.S. her “home,” yet there are times when she, as an Asian immigrant, senses she is being excluded from the culture around her.
“I want to be more included. I notice in many work places or schools, you tend to see Asian kids together, you tend to see Chinese kids together, Chinese co-workers together,” observed Ming. “For example, like the [American] co-workers, when they’re having lunch, they close the door. Maybe they have four or five in there, and they would never say, ‘You want to come and join us?’ And we’re not going to knock on the door, because you already closed the door.”
Allison Plitt is a contributing writer for New York Parenting Media and a mother living in Queens with a 5-year-old daughter. If you have any ideas you would like to share with her about topics for articles or resources for families, please feel free to contact her at allisonpli