On October 31st of 2019 at 11:30PM, I sat at my desk, intently staring at my laptop screen. I scrolled slowly and carefully, scanning every sentence for mistakes. Half an hour later, I made my way to the final page. With a shaky, reluctant finger, I pressed ‘Submit’.
That night, I sat back and sighed one of the deepest, most intensive sighs of relief I’ve sighed in my life. As I sat at my desk, basking in the respite of finally submitting my college application, I reflected.
It’s finally over. This was the most important task of my life, and I completed it.
The uneasiness and pressure that had gradually accumulated over the last few years had come to a screeching halt. That night sitting at my laptop was one of many, where I pored over my college application essays, worked on my extracurriculars, studied, and worked tirelessly. My entire life had been consumed and directed by one goal. And all of this was to fulfill the expectation I felt had been thrust upon me: to be excellent.
Giving up your identity for excellence
To me, college admissions meant a few things: pressure, excellence, and perfection. As a teenager, surrounded by Asian-American authority figures, I was told that getting into an elite university would enhance my value, make me ‘successful’. The truth seemed black-and-white: achieving the coveted key to an Ivy League gate would make me special. It would magically improve the quality of my life and my value as a student.
This pressure, combined with mainstream media’s promotion of the elite college admission narrative, led me to internalize the idea that my self-worth was inextricably tied to my fulfillment of a cultural stereotype of success.
I wasn’t alone—I saw this narrative being imposed on many of my peers in my predominantly East-Asian high-school. Together, we as a community swallowed the idea that success could be compartmentalized and packaged into one uncompromising stereotype: the hyper-intelligent Ivy League student.
The result? Stress, anxiety, self-esteem issues, and a neglect of wellbeing. As a result of the incessant reinforcement of the ‘success’ stereotype, me and many other students deprioritized our wellbeing. Stress culture took over, with symptoms showing up in student microcosms like the r/ApplyingToCollege subreddit, student blogs, as well as remote East-Asian friends overseas. The cultural messaging was so intensive and pervasive that students allowed their identities to be vulnerable to external opinion.
Elite college admissions are only one example of the complexities of stereotypes within the Chinese community, however. The effects and impact of Asian-American specific stereotypes extend far beyond the class-specific phenomenon of elite college admissions culture.
Asian-Americans of all classes, ages, backgrounds, professions, and aspirations are equally subject to the same kind of dangerous cultural pressures to achieve and ‘succeed’. In the meantime, we subvert our identities to meet unrealistic expectations.
Asian stereotypes and mental health
Stereotypes, as we know, are preconceived notions about a certain group, based on oversimplified ideas. When it comes to racial politics, stereotypes play an important and often harmful role in how people perceive each other. As stereotypes circulate–even “innocent” or positive ones–beliefs about a certain group become increasingly fixed. This eventually leads to society at large perceiving stereotypes as truth.
In the United States, a country in which minorities are often stereotyped and subsequently discriminated against, a popular set of stereotypes surrounds the East-Asian, or Asian-American, community.
What are asian stereotypes?
Perhaps the most popular stereotype is that Asians are smart, perhaps smarter than the average white kid, for example. This stereotype relates to another prejudicial idea that Asians are more hardworking, technically skilled (i.e. in mathematics and sciences), and studious. Similarly, you’ve probably heard and even internalized the stereotype that Asian kids are always good at math. As an Asian-American, I have certainly heard that Asians, in school and in the workplace, always work hard, act seriously, and do a good job. There is this idea that you can always count on the Asian kid.
Why asian stereotypes are harmful
These stereotypes regarding intelligence and work ethic set the foundation for how Asian kids see themselves represented in media discourse, as well as in everyday life. Asian kids grow up knowing that they are perceived as smart, hardworking, and studious. It would be an ego boost, except for the pressure involved; you’re expected to model those qualities at all times.
Asian stereotypes create the convenient opportunity to quickly profile and categorize Asian individuals; as a result, society treats young Asian adults less like unique individuals, and more like a homogeneous group with shared qualities. This reinforces the idea and expectation that Asians will perform in a certain way in school and the workplace.
When society tells you that Asians are smart, work hard, and are often successful, a young, impressionable Asian kid grows up knowing that this is what is expected of them. In schools and environments where young adults navigate social settings and begin to develop a sense of identity, these stereotypical beliefs can stifle an Asian kid’s sense of individuality.
Kids who are not good at math or aren’t naturally studious quickly get the idea that they are inadequate. A kid might think, “I am not as good as other Asian kids. I am a bad Asian. Why am I not good at math? I’m supposed to be good at math.”
A kid that is good at math and tends to be studious, on the other hand, may devalue and overlook their own achievements, acceding to the idea that their individual achievements have less to do with their unique strengths, and more to do with the fact that they’re Asian.
No matter how you look at it, living under the threat of stereotypes and expectations, Asian American students can feel stifled. The burden of others’ stereotypical beliefs leads to feeling simultaneously overlooked and not even worth looking at. Stereotypes foster a culture of comparison, self-devaluation, and confusion about one’s identity.
Race factors into and interrupts young Asian kids’ personal growth, influencing their perception of themselves. Dr. Lance Lee, Harvard clinical psychologist, puts it this way: “Societal messages create the basis of young adult Asians’ internal dialogue. It influences the way they speak to and think about themselves.”
The idea of ‘asian success’: origins & influences
The most popular Asian stereotypes focus on how Asians perform academically and professionally—this extends the further idea that members of the Asian community all share certain priorities. These stereotyped priorities, namely being hyper focused on education and being career-oriented, albeit being generalizations, stem partially from one specific aspect of Asian culture: the desire for success.
What is success, anyway?
In Asian culture, becoming successful is seen as a desirable achievement and worthy goal, especially for young Asian adults transitioning into professional life. Being perceived as successful can take many forms in Asian culture. It can mean traditional success, where the individual achieves socioeconomic security, wealth, and secures a ‘good’ job. The popular colloquialism (often modified in the form of a joke) is that Asian children will only become successful if they are a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. These three occupations are respected and admired for their high salaries, level of required education, and the overall ability to grant socioeconomic mobility.
This version of success is often marketed to East-Asians/Asian-Americans at a young age. Authority figures (in the family, for example) often advise children to become skilled in certain fields, prioritize preparation for certain occupations (i.e. doctor, lawyer, engineer), and overall accept and angle oneself towards a pre-set career and life trajectory. In many ways, pursuing a certain lifestyle is praised to the extent that it is normalized. Students may internalize the idea that going ‘pre-med’, ‘pre-law’, or ‘pre grad-school’ are stable, impressive, and excellent academic choices. This creates and enforces the norm that 1) success can only take a certain form, and 2) following this norm results in success and a good life.
While this fixated version of success may yield some positive results, like a higher number of East-Asian/Asian-American individuals becoming wealthy, this also reinforces the dangerous idea that other forms of personal success, such as emotional or spiritual fulfillment, are ‘bad’. Any deviation from the norm is stigmatized, and the potential consequences (e.g. being seen as lazy, unfocused, or unsuccessful) can create a strong emotional fear of rejecting traditional success.
How the quest for success affects identity
The immense popularity of following the ‘traditional’ path can have a significant impact on how a given East-Asian/Asian-American processes and perceives their own identity. Children who grow up in households that uphold the ‘stereotypical’ values of Asian culture may model their own identity after achievement–rather than on fulfilment and wellbeing.
For example, the traditional path of grade school, to a 4-year college, and to a graduate school/job market is one that many parents prioritize and follow without a second thought. Failure to complete any of these educational milestones comes with a heavy stigma; an Asian individual may be shunned by their family, or treated/talked about like a disappointment. Additionally, the trajectorial nature of how traditional success is represented reinforces the idea that becoming successful is confined to one upwards, linear path. One must surpass a certain degree of achievement to be considered successful.
Dr. Lance Lee says, “In families where there is a prescribed degree of achievement, it creates a pathway where one may feel that they have an identity only when they achieve a certain level of success. In the inverse, it can create an identity of inferiority of inadequacy.”
That is to say, identity becomes completely binary: success V.S. failure. And before an individual can even attribute one of these labels to themselves, they must completely a certain amount of success ‘milestones’, creating a warped view of identity and trajectory. The subconscious thinking process of a given individual may be I haven’t arrived at where I’m supposed to be until I’ve finished my JD. In order to be someone, I have to do something. Dr. Lee describes this thought process occurring with many of his Asian clients: “Clients often feel that their identity isn’t complete until they fulfill something. Essentially, they feel as if they do not exist entirely until they finish that finish line. It puts at bay the perception of a fully formed identity until I get to finish a certain academic or professional goal. Psychological experts describe this thought process as a product of an internal cognitive schema (developed at a young age from external influences) dictating what counts for success, and what doesn’t.
Whereas in other cultures identity may be formed and developed through other measures like satisfaction in relationships, being happy, and having friends and family, Asian families (and other authority figures) push the idea that in order to become complete, they must have some accomplishments. Dr. Lee says, “[Asian cultural values] stifles the formation of an identity grounded in anything other than achievement. The identity of an Asian-Anerican young adult may be “I am somebody significant because of just my being.””.
Asian-American mental health
The impact of Asian stereotypes being internalized both by society and young Asian adults growing up in traditional families are far-ranging. From children, teenagers, young adults, many Asian individuals grow up with high levels of expectations being imposed on them (both externally and by themselves).
The main mental health effects are described as “two-fold” by Dr. Lee. The positive effects are that Asian kids may end up achieving at high levels. Asian kids who attain this success through hard work and perseverance may feel fulfilled professionally/intellectually, and can be proud of themselves, hence boosting self-esteem and confidence. The negative effects, however, are significant and harmful.
This culture of chasing success and a pressure to uphold Asian stereotypes often leads to extreme pressure. When an individual fails to uphold a stereotype (e.g. becoming wealthy, getting a corporate job, attending an elite university), whether by choice or not, this has an impact on self-worth. They may feel useless, inadequate, or a disappointment to their family (or in a grander scale, a disappointment to their own stereotyped racial obligations). Psychological experts say that this can lead to depression and anxiety.
Asian individuals may also develop a critical spirit and attitude towards themselves. Feeling of inadequacy or shame, which can be felt amply from a young age, warps an individual’s internal dialogue to be overly negative and self-critical. Especially for individuals who grow up in an environment where Asian stereotypes are openly expressed and incorporated into their life (e.g. familial expectations, magnet schools, America in general), accumulated negative feelings strengthens this habit of self-criticizing. This internal dialogue is conducive to both depression and anxiety, but also directly correlates to the development of certain personality traits. This habit of perfectionism can easily grow into personality disorders, including compulsive personality disorder, obsessive compulsive personality disorder or anxiety. Perfectionism can also be mistranslated into a desire of wanting to have the perfect body. This results in body dysmorphia, and in more serious cases, eating disorders.
Eventually, these mental health effects can become so prevalent within the East-Asian/Asian-American community that they can become genetic; these psychological effects and situational anxiety/depression/perfectionist disorder are picked up by an individual’s biochemistry. The harm of Asian stereotypes and the pressure to uphold them is then perpetuated generationally. This harm can grow endlessly.
Success despite stereotypes, pressure, and toxic stress
Asian stereotypes and their influence on Asian culture can lead to pressure, toxic stress, and negative mental health effects. So how does one escape this toxic culture?
The values that lead to the prominence of Asian stereotypes and their deep engrainment in culture trace back hundreds of years, historically. So an individual trying to escape and unlearn this culture will not succeed overnight. It may even be a continuous lifelong process. However, according to psychological experts, there are a few tangible steps individuals can take that might help.
Nurture friendships for perspective
Firstly, developing friendships with individuals who are not a part of stereotypical Asian culture can help strengthen the message that there are alternative cultural imprints out there. Observing different models of success (e.g. focus on emotional health, fulfillment in relationships, happiness) can allow the individual to realize that their own culture only pushes one idea of success, and is not the end-all be-all. This also allows individuals to see that there are alternative pathways to success; seeing real-life examples of this from close friends/trusted peers can encourage them to view alternate pathways as legitimate options.
Seek experienced counseling
Another option is to seek counseling or therapy. Seeing a therapist, especially one that is familiar with the intricacies of Asian culture, can help the individual work through the navigation of toxic aspects of Asian culture, and help to gain a healthy understanding and perception of these cultural issues. Therapy can also help with issues of self-esteem, internal dialogue, and provide the individual with the tools to change the automatic thought patterns that have developed as a result of Asian stereotypes and culture. Help and guidance from a professional can also aid in mitigating the impact of negative psychological effects, and can help significantly in minimizing the risk of future afflictions such as personality disorders, depression, or anxiety. One disadvantage to this proposed solution of therapy, however, is that it may not be financially accessible to everyone. Finding a therapist that is additionally specialized in treating Asian clients/Asian culture may also incur further costs. Alternatives to this problem can include more affordable versions of therapy (in-school therapists, texting hotlines, online self-help article resources like Supportiv!).
Choose to defy expectations
The boldest way to escape this culture is to simply defy it. Choosing to wholeheartedly pursue a pathway in life that is unconventional is perhaps the strongest move you can take to evade the negative effects of stereotypes/culture. Have a passion for film? Want to become an artist? Just do it! Moving against the current not only results in ultimately more fulfillment in life, but also allows you to completely detach yourself from traditional ideals of success. Proactively removing yourself is a commitment to yourself, and that is a beautiful thing.
So, now what we know about the pitfalls and negative effects of Asian stereotypes and their engrainment in Asian culture, what can we do about it?
If you grew up in an environment where you felt pressured to achieve success, just know that detaching yourself from the expectations and feelings associated with it is not an overnight thing. For many of us, we are not aware of the harmful effects of this culture until we are suffering the harmful effects themselves. We may have already deeply internalized these cultural ideals of success, and modelled both our lives and internal emotional world/dialogue after them. If you are feeling anxious, depressed, or inadequate, the first step to address this pain is to realize that you are not the problem—the culture is.
For any East-Asians/Asian-Americans that resonated with this article: Remember that you are your own person. You have thoughts, feelings, dreams, and passions that are unique to you and only you as an individual. Growing up alongside Asian stereotypes may have affected your formative experience, but they in no way define you. Success is not a binary project—doing something your culture tells you to do does not necessarily mean that it is the only way to achieve success. Success is what you make of it. Your identity is yours and only yours to figure out.
There’s no rush. Take your time, and tread your path the way you truly want to.