The difficulties of growing up Asian American

The life of a student is rarely easy, each day presenting new challenges and tests that can help build a successful future. But what happens when a student’s views on education, social life and relationships conflict with those of his more culturally traditional parents?

This was the prevailing theme at the Asian American Association’s (AAA) True Colors Discussion, which shed light on the many aspects of growing up Asian American in a society that is not always attuned to the traditional norms of Asian culture.

The event, held Nov. 16 in the Allen Drawing Room as part of Experience Asia month, attracted several dozen students who eagerly shared their views on numerous topics, ranging from the academic expectations of Asian parents to depression among Asian Americans.

The discussion allowed students to “say what they go through as Asians and how they deal with it,” Nishan Bhagat, junior psychology major and head of Experience Asia month, said.

The evening was led by Dr. Hue-Sun Ahn, a licensed counseling psychologist for Psychological Counseling Services at the College who also leads the support group “Race, Culture and Identity” for students of color. As a Korean American who immigrated to the United States at age 8, Ahn led the discussion with understanding, emphasizing the pressure on Asian American youth to conform to the standards of their culture.

“A majority of Asian Americans in the U.S. are from immigrant families,” Ahn said. And as a result, “a lot of children end up becoming more like their parents.”

After a series of skits designed to set the stage for the evening, Ahn began the discussion by pointing out several common difficulties many Asian American youth face, including dating those of different Asian and non-Asian backgrounds.

One participant spoke about the difficulty involved in telling her parents about a new boyfriend, describing the fear of disapproval that resulted in a two year period of silence on the topic before she finally broke the news. Another participant shared the sentiment, explaining that she “had to almost ask for permission” to date.

Noting the common experiences among many Asian American youth in this respect, Ahn suggested that some Asian parents may see things in terms of a “hierarchy of races” – a cultural view that sometimes results in a reluctance to accept romantic involvement with members of different ethnic groups.

“It’s not that one culture is better than another culture, it’s just a difference,” she said.

The evening’s discussion also featured dialogue on the rigorous academic standards commonly associated with Asian culture, with several students describing the high expectations of their parents.

“I think a lot of our egos are based on grades,” Joyce Lee, sophomore elementary education/English major and member of AAA, said.

Other participants talked about pressure to excel in certain majors, explaining that future career success in math and science related fields tend to be crucial among Asian Americans. “Profession is very important to my family,” one student said.

Cultural pressures often come with an emotional price. Ahn noted that particularly high instances of depression and anxiety among Asian Americans often go unnoticed. Some participants suggested that traditional culture encourages keeping emotions inside. “I feel with my parents I can only talk about certain topics,” one student said. Another added that some parents can “value success” over affection and emotional directness.

But a need for understanding of parental needs and emotions was not discounted by discussion attendees. Some noted that their parents, being first generation immigrants, see them and their siblings as a cultural bridge to American society, as well as someone to relate to in a country where other family may be scarce. Students told stories of being a crucial link in helping their parents adapt to a new society, while others described their responsibilities in helping parents with practical tasks that native English speakers would consider routine.

“The role between a parent and a child is almost flip- flopped,” one student noted.

While much of the evening focused on the pressures faced by Asian American students in making their way through the college experience, James Huynh, sophomore history major and member of AAA, reminded everyone to follow their dreams and never doubt their own abilities. “The minute you set your mind to something, you can accomplish it,” Huynh said.