When UC Irvine sociology professor Jennifer Lee asked her class to estimate the percentage of China’s population with a college education, they confidently responded with large values between 80 to 90 percent; many students were shocked when they learned that, in reality, only a minimal 4 percent of China’s population graduated from college (Fish). These UC Irvine students’ thought processes are representative of many people’s understanding of Asians due to the media’s stereotypical portrayal of Asians. With movies in which the single Asian role is a flat character obsessed with school and Asians commonly being known as a model minority focused on thriving economically, Asians are often described in a singular, limited way in popular culture. Even Crazy Rich Asians, a movie released in 2018 and lauded for its multidimensional Asian characters, did not escape this defining characteristic, with the main character serving as a college math professor. Those living in developed countries are influenced by the Asian characters represented in the media and many believe that all Asians are genetically intelligent, although this is not the case. Portrayals of South and East Asians in the media do contain some truth, however. Due to longstanding cultural values and the continued restrictions on immigration, many Asians in developed countries and in Asia emphasize the importance of education.
Both Australian and American citizens maintain a skewed perspective of Asian people because of historically racist and restrictive Asian immigration policies. There were limitations on Asians immigrating to the United States starting with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In a 1924 amendment to the act, all Asians were prevented from immigrating to America (“Chinese Exclusion Act”). Rooted in racism, this act and later amendment was in response to the influx of Asian immigrants from the Gold Rush, during which white Americans wanted to protect their wages but Asian immigrants were willing to be paid far less. Eventually, as a result of the Immigration Act of 1965, the systematic exclusion of immigrants from certain countries was eliminated (“The 1965 Immigration Act”), although its effects still linger. Australia’s history with immigration policies is similar. Australia had a “White Australia Policy” for the first half of the 20th century, in which there were extremely low rates of immigration from all non-European countries (Vasta). Similar to America’s reasoning, Australia followed this policy to “protect” Australia’s culture from non-white people and to ensure Australians’ jobs were safe from Asian workers. In the early 1970s, the policy was finally abandoned, and Asians were allowed into the country (Vasta). But unlike before, the Asian population that would now immigrate into developed countries were no longer poor or working manual labor jobs.
Contributing to Americans’ and Australians’ skewed perception of the ethnic group, Asians immigrating to developed countries are often not representative of the average social status or education level for those in their home country. Many Asians move to developed countries in order to pursue their higher education; for instance, over 30 percent of the international students in Australia alone are Chinese (Robinson). Since the cost of international schooling is expensive, these students usually come from more privileged backgrounds and have had access to greater resources to help them succeed in school in comparison to their peers. Because the main source of their contact with Asians are with the wealthy international students, many people residing in developed nations are vulnerable to believing that all Asians are smart. Additionally, Asians often obtain visas to immigrate to Australia and the United States based on working in specialized industries that require higher education, such as technology (“The 1965 Immigration Act”). Thus, there is hyper-selectivity of those who immigrate from Asia. Illustrating the disparity in education rates between those of Asian ethnicity in the U.S. compared with China, Chinese-Americans are twelve times more likely to graduate from college than people living in China (Lee). Hyper-selectivity has also caused Asian immigrants’ children to have a more privileged starting point, with children of college graduates more likely to pursue higher education themselves. Highlighting this discrepancy in education levels, Chinese- Americans are twice as likely to have a college degree compared to Americans of other ethnicities (Lee). Hyper-selectivity, then, has skewed and generalized Americans’ and Australians’ perception of all Asians, as many people in developed countries are only exposed to highly skilled, wealthy, and educated workers. These characteristics, however, are not representative of a majority of people in Asia.
Many Asians living in both Asian and developed countries value education as a means of social mobility. The effects of the caste system, a hierarchy of social classification that is technically illegal now, are still prominent in Indian society. Historically, people of lower castes have been discriminated against and have had less opportunities to receive an education (Fraser). In order to escape the trappings of their social situation, Indians in a low caste are increasingly investing in their education. Emphasizing the reason why Indians value education, people with more schooling receive more compensation from their jobs, become upwardly social mobility, and reduce stigma for their caste. Asians who live in developed nations also hold education in high regard. Many Asians believe that earning a degree from a top university will allow them to break the “bamboo ceiling,” the invisible barrier stopping Asians from attaining leadership positions in their jobs. In 2017, 27 percent of Goldman Sach’s workforce was Asian-American, but a minimal 11 percent of executives and senior managers of its American workforce were of Asian descent (Gee and Peck). This trend is also prominent in other developed countries such as Australia. In contrast to Australia’s population that is 9.6 percent Asian-Australian, only 1.9 percent of executive managers in Australia are of Asian descent (Olsen and Pekarek). Believing that attending a prestigious university will reflect their potential and assist them in actually obtaining leadership positions in their careers, many people of Asian descent in developed nations are products of their environments. To break through the bamboo ceiling and reach the upper echelon of social class, they work hard to do well in school to have the chance to attend top universities. Using education as a means of social mobility ultimately reinforces the notion of Asians’ dominance in education for others living in developed nations.
Different cultural identities between Asians living in developed countries and their non-Asian counterparts also contributes to the perception that Asians are naturally more intelligent. Many Asians around the world continue to follow the Confucian belief system. As education is highly valued in Confucianism, the highest social class in Ancient China was composed of scholars (Leung). Additionally, followers of Confucianism believe that everyone is capable of being educated. Influenced by this ideology, many people of Asian descent believe that getting good grades is representative of the amount of effort a student has put into studying. This contrasts to non-Asian people’s belief that higher grades prove intelligence. Others in developed nations may believe Asians are naturally smarter, while in fact, Asians may only study more to obtain good results because they believe in their ability to achieve high grades. The importance of a stable family unit in Confucianism explains why Asian households are more likely to be two-parent households and therefore are less likely to be in poverty (Leung).
Children born into economically well-off families are twice as likely to receive special educational instruction (Caucutt). Spending money on education is an investment that yields an increase in children’s future income, which leads to these children spending more money and time in their own children’s education, developing a cycle of high educational achievement for Asians in developed countries. Even when their family is not wealthy, students oftentimes prioritize their education over enriching their social lives. Students who are of Asian descent and are from lower-class backgrounds may study more to validate their parents’ sacrifices as well as receive praise and attention from recently immigrated and tired parents who often work long hours (Fuchs). Besides Asian people’s own cultural importance of education, people in developing nations may also contribute to Asians’ expectation of educational success.
Due to their unconscious expectation that students of Asian descent will earn better grades in comparison to their peers, teachers also contribute to the academic excellence of Asians in developed nations. The Pygmalion effect is a psychological phenomenon in which higher expectations yield increased performance (Kristof). In relation to education, this translates to Asians, who are believed to perform better in school, working diligently to rise and meet these expectations, in turn becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, many people believe that the conventional wisdom that all Asians are smart is actually a benefit to people of Asian descent because it inspires them to excel in school. While this is the case sometimes, the expectation of success also has unintended, negative repercussions. Many variables affect how well a student does in school, including personality, privilege, and simply how an individual’s brain functions (Karson). All these factors are often ignored in the place of ethnicity. Consequently, students of Asian descent may feel hesitant or ashamed to ask for help in school since they think they are supposed to naturally perform well.
By lumping all Asians into one homogeneous group, people in developed nations disregard Asians’ individual experiences and ignore Asian ethnic groups that are not performing well academically. Collectively, Asians are more than half of the world’s population. Hence, there are differences between the host of Asian ethnic groups. Americans of Hmong descent have higher high school dropout rates than any other minority group in America (Krupnick).
This can be attributed to the Hmong people’s historically low levels of education and how they immigrated to the United States. Unlike people of other Asian ethnic groups who immigrate to developed countries due their specialized job skills, the Hmong were refugees who came to America after the Vietnam War, in which they helped American soldiers (Lor). Before fleeing to a new country, the Hmong people were not in a position of privilege in terms of being highly educated or wealthy. The Hmong people’s history continues to affect them; compared to the 15 percent poverty rate for all Americans and the even lower 12 percent poverty rate for Asian-Americans, Hmong-Americans have a poverty rate of an astounding 28 percent (“Hmong in the U.S.”). In part due to their high poverty rates, the Hmong people have extremely low education levels. Unfortunately, focused and strategic intervention catered to people of Hmong descent is uncommon. Many people in the United States today are unaware of the struggles the Hmong people face as a result of the belief that Asians are uniformly smart. Instead of having the same viewpoint of all Asians, people should analyze the experiences of people of Asian descent more deeply in order to effectively recognize and address issues that affect some Americans. While the Hmong people are only one example of the differences between Asian stereotypes and reality, there are a variety of ethnic groups with their own experiences and history that make up the broad category of “Asian.” It is irresponsible and damaging to group together all Asians without being cognizant of the differences between them.
Ultimately, the conventional wisdom that all Asians are smart is based on some truths. Resulting from hyper-selectivity in immigration and the need to prove oneself to be socially mobile, Asians focus on education as a way to demonstrate their value and usefulness to society. By viewing all 4.54 billion Asians as one entity with the same characteristics and no differentiation in delineations, people lose the opportunity to learn about the individual experiences of people in the variety of Asian ethnic group. People should expand their Eurocentric view of Asians to gain a broader and more truthful understanding of all Asians. After all, Asians make up a majority of all people on Earth; it is constricting to only have a close-minded view of such a heterogeneous, large group of people.
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