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Column: Combatting Asian American 'study culture'

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Posters decorate the UNC Department of Asian and Middle Eastern studies bulletin board on Monday, March 27, 2023.

The stereotype that “Asians love to study” remains a pervasive trope, with roots connecting it to a "study culture" that emphasizes collectivism and routine. While this study culture has tangible benefits for those who practice it, the stereotype that accompanies it is harmful. 

Asian "study culture” is difficult to define, but there are overarching themes. On his website, author Yu-Kai Chou explains that “in Asian societies, getting a strong degree... is the determination of if one is successful." He goes on to say, “It’s really ingrained in the Asian culture that studying is everything."

Throughout Chinese history, studious individuals were rewarded after passing an imperial examination, showcasing their expertise in calligraphy and Chinese texts. Those who excelled were granted governmental positions and social esteem. This studious mentality, coupled with historical precedent, is where such stereotypes emerged. 

In modern times, a study by Rubén G. Rumbaut explained that Chinese immigrant parents often pressure their children into feeling like their families' honor depends on their success.

This pressure does have some tangible effects. Asian Americans have the highest income among racial groups and they account for the largest percentage of Harvard’s class of 2026. Though socioeconomic factors influence a person's ability to find success, these statistics indicate that many Asian Americans succeed in academics and beyond — no matter their initial status. 

However, socioeconomic and academic successes are not everything. Well-being is essential, and I've experienced some of the worst impacts of equating personal merit and academic prolificacy. 

The model minority stereotype says Asians are inherently studious and successful. I, along with others, have felt pressure to conform. My Filipino-American background — a group usually ignored in Asian American dialogue — heightened this feeling. I had to succeed to prove myself and my worth as a human being. 

Tyler Xia, a sophomore at UNC, shares this feeling.

“I do feel societal pressure to be a model minority, to be on top of things and to be at the top of my class," she said.  

A study by the American Psychological Association shows that pressure to live up to the model minority stereotype is a common source of stress among Asian Americans.

“I would always compare myself to others," UNC sophomore Manu Srinivas said.  

UNC sophomore Willow Taylor Chiang Yang explained how study culture can be detrimental to performance. 

Asian study culture, she said, heavily emphasizes rote memorization over critical thinking skills. This appeals to an education system that values test scores. As colleges embrace a more “holistic" education, rote memorization is less emphasized and less effective. 

She said that rote memorization can lead to the “underrepresentation of Asians in the humanities and social sciences" because these fields do not value it as much.This observation aligns with statistics showing Asians comprise only 4.3 percent of humanities majors, according to the American Council on Education. 

Economic well-being and intellectual innovation rely on creativity and individuality, traits that a rigorous study culture does not allow to flourish.

Although Asian study culture's emphasis on academic success has proven to be practical for furthering one's career, factors such as wellness, individuality and creativity can not be undervalued. Asian American students today are acknowledging this and working to break the stereotypes of the model minority myth. By continuing to do so, we can create a healthier academic culture at UNC and beyond.

Editor's note: Willow Taylor Chiang Yang  is a former staff member of The Daily Tar Heel. 

@dthopinion

opinion@dailytarheel.com

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