In recent years, the “Tiger Mom” has carved out a space for herself in the American imagination: SAT prep booklet in one hand, bamboo backscratcher-turned-bludgeon in the other, dragging her exhausted brood from tennis practice to art class. Make no mistake about it — the Tiger Mom is a stereotype, reductive and, some would argue, emblematic of white America’s dogged commitment to ridicule any hint of minority success in the Land of the Free. But the sad truth is the tiger mom is not purely mythical in nature.
I went to Arcadia High School, a perennially high-producing factory of UC Berkeley and USC matriculates that made headlines this past summer when an Arcadia sophomore went missing for several days, having blown Dodge on the first bus to San Francisco after being dropped off by her parents for an SAT session.
I’ve seen friends and classmates ridiculed publicly by their parents on account of their grades or scores; I’ve seen the SAT score augmentation clinics — places with ridiculous names like “Little Harvard” and “Princeton Square” — and I’ve had friends who were shipped off to these places for a summer.
Much has been made of the Asian commitment to education, the supposed “model minority” paradigm held up to other ethnic groups in America as a template for success. In a story run by the New York Times last week titled “The Asian Advantage,” Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof begins by asking, “This is an awkward question, but here goes: Why are Asian Americans so successful in America?”
The answer, he goes on to tell us, is the emphasis that Asians place on education. “Immigrant East Asians often try particularly hard to get into good school districts,” Kristof argues, “or make other sacrifices for children’s education, such as giving prime space in the home to kids to study.”
I think Kristof has got it right here, although I do think he’s wrong in assuming that all Asian Americans place such a high premium on education. Rather, I think that the monolithic term “Asian American” encompasses a wide range of economic circumstance, and those with the means to place a premium on education — to move to an area with a strong school district, to hire expensive private tutors, to pay for art and music lessons — do so, but other Asian Americans, those who don’t have the means to relocate to expensive neighborhoods with good schools or shell out thousands of dollars for tutoring and art and music classes, cannot and do not.
But the assumption that many Asian Americans place a premium on education — specifically higher education — is not unfounded. I’ve seen parents go to extraordinary, superhuman lengths to ensure their children have the best possible shot at admittance into an elite university. But to ensure that their children receive the best possible education? Not so much.
Arcadia was a bit insane. That day in March — I think it was March 15 of my senior year — when private schools announce who’s in and who’s out, is something like Judgment Day in my hometown.
It’s the day when parents find out if their thousands-of-dollar investments have paid off; it’s the day when many children, indoctrinated with the sick ideology of their parents, learn where they figure into the hierarchy of the adult world.
I’m not being hyperbolic here — on Arcadian Judgment Day, kids cry, teachers dole out impotent back-pats and parents deposit screaming, 10-minute amalgams of diatribe, threat and cajolery into the voicemails of university admissions offices.
For many Asian American families, the name of the college one attends functions like the name of a watch or the marque of a car. It distinguishes your place in the social hierarchy; it is the absolute and most accurate gauge of a person’s intelligence.
And while one might argue that there are worse labels than educational labels to buy into, that a good education seems less arbitrary an indicator of intelligence and hard work than, say, mere wealth, the name on one’s diploma is nevertheless still a label — shallow, reductive, marginal.
While this is in no way unique to just Asian families, Arcadia is very much a hotbed of what I call the “bumper sticker culture” that reduces institutes of learning to brand names.
Never was this culture more apparent than when one of my friends, who attends Vanderbilt, a highly regarded and historically rich university, was urged by her parents to transfer to an Ivy League school, simply because many of their friends had never heard of the small private school in Tennessee.
This is the perfect distillation of bumper sticker culture, the outcome of the Tiger Mom’s insanity. For many Asian American families, a great deal of emphasis is placed on the quality of a child’s education, but an even greater emphasis is placed on the prestige of his or her diploma.
It’s for this reason that the US News and Princeton Review college rankings are followed so religiously — they tell us whether our worth, like stock in a company, has gone up or down from the previous year, as if the height of our intelligence correlates directly with the diminutiveness of our university’s acceptance rate.
And yet in truth, quality and prestige are two separate things, often with little or no correlation between each other. Now that I’ve been here for two and a half years, a small, unheralded liberal arts school might have given me a better humanities-based education than a research-oriented behemoth like Cornell.
As I said before, there are worse labels than academic prestige to subscribe to.
The name on a diploma is usually a more telling indicator of one’s intellect and hard work than the name on a watch.
Placing a premium on academic achievement with the end goal of matriculating at an elite university is not the worst thing a parent could do for a child. It encourages and rewards diligence, and the kid might pick up an extracurricular or two — a musical instrument, a sport, dance — that he or she actually enjoys enough to continue after the college app has been submitted.
But like all labels, and like the larger brand-name culture it emulates, this premium on prestige is revealed to be nothing more than another scrabbling attempt to clamber above the rest, with nothing more substantial than a name and an acceptance rate to sit atop of.
Like the man who reaches reassuringly for the label inside his suit jacket when confronted by any attack on his confidence, like the woman who reminds herself of the designer (and the price) of her handbag whenever she finds herself questioning whether she really is better than everyone else, I get the feeling that many of my former classmates from Arcadia, as well as their parents, are too eager to fall back on their academic laurels as reassurance of their superiority.
Self-respect — and the respect of one’s parents, for that matter — shouldn’t be constructed on so shallow a foundation. As Asian Americans, we certainly shouldn’t ditch the emphasis on education, but we should evaluate where our priorities lie, and determine whether we care more about learning or branding.
As cliché as it may sound, the true value of a diploma lies in the process it took to obtain it, the development of an ability to think critically, analytically and creatively. And something so nebulous as this ability cannot be condensed to a singular, point-and-see designation the way that wealth can be evidenced by the price of a car or the size of a house, and academic prestige by a dwindling acceptance rate.
Perhaps we’ll never find a label to publicize our ability to think, one that we can plaster on the rear windshield or wear on a T-shirt. Perhaps we’ll never find a substantial or meaningful way to feel superior to others. And perhaps that’s the way it should be.
Matthew Ormseth is currently a student at Cornell University majoring in English. He seeks to give an honest portrayal of life as both a university student and member of the Millennial generation.