$40,000 college application coaches. Forcing your precocious toddler to learn fluent Mandarin Chinese. Matching your driven teen stride for stride in perfecting that college essay at 3:00 am, then starting work on the prize-winning Halloween costume for later that day. Conclusion: we Asian American “model minorities” of yesteryear are being overtaken by mainstream America.
Once upon a time an American-born child of Asian immigrant parents could count on summers filled with tedious exercises in little math workbooks from Kmart (so our quantitative skills wouldn’t rust away between spring and fall) and a perfectly good Saturday squandered on Chinese school. We got named embarrassing tokens of our parents’ ambition, like Harvard or Johns, and started studying for the SATs while in junior high. We knew not to lisp “residential address fraud” aloud to escape suspicion that we didn’t really live within excellent Public School District X’s boundaries for incoming kindergarteners.
Oh, the good old days. Around exam-time, that oh-so-flattering “model minority” myth made my Chem 101 classmates hiss and flash me sidelong hostile glances for being a reputed “curve-buster.” It was just assumed from my Asian features that I’d study so hard my ovaries would shrivel and my hardly noticeable secondary sex characteristics would become even more undetectable from the effort, throwing the grading curve totally off. (Wrong. I was a wool-gathering fool for novels who literally failed Physics and squeaked out a C- in Chem before I got a clue and changed majors.) Still, I kind of enjoyed the unfounded fear I inspired.
Nowadays it’s uptighty whiteys who are freaking out about the “right” preschools and “right” gifted/talented programs. Once, these worries were the sole province of your typical name-brand conscious, snobby, pushy, hovering, class-anxious Asian immigrant parents.
Well, I think I speak for Asian America when I say: knock it off. We don’t appreciate you biting our style—gaming the system like we do. Dare I say it? You’re curve-busting. We can’t get in to Berkeley like we used to; too many of us Asian Americans, or so they tell us. To keep a competitive edge, the upcoming generation of Asian American college applicants will be pushed to develop ever-more exotic extra-curricular talents, like World Fire Poi Twirling Champion. It’s a race to the bottom to get to the top.
See, there’s both more and less of white privilege floating around. When upper middle class white kids have gale-force winds of advantage filling their sails, it’s both an acknowledgement that the old rules have changed (so work harder!), and yet…they haven’t changed enough. Today Princeton’s still only 14% Asian American, with a whopping high of 103 African American students out of 4,000-plus undergrads in 1999. (But no one’s saying there’s too many wealthy whites there. Hmmmm…maybe Princeton needs to take a page out of Berkeley’s book?)
And now that we Asian Americans won’t have the proud rags of mythical model minorityhood to wrap around us any more, I have to confess, I’m a little verklempt. It was amusing to cause such consternation in my science courses even if I was an English major at heart. But now you look around and all you can see is fear, in everyone’s eyes. Because the stakes for college admissions seem so insanely high.
Mainstream America, we liked you better when you slacked off.