Would my life be better if I were a Harvard graduate, valedictorian, and/or recruited by corporate America?
Recently, my friend shared a post on Facebook called, “An Open Letter to Asian American Parents” by Vijay Pendakur, a higher education consultant. It was an interesting read on how too much of Mr. Pendakur’s experience with Asian-American college students was that of an absence of critical race consciousness among them. (It should be noted that this post would have been quite problematic were it to have been written by a non-Asian-American) While the post was not about graduating from Harvard, it did move me to reflect on a deeper issue with many of us Asian-Americans: the expectation of greatness placed on children by a parental generation who “sacrificed” so much for the success of their progeny.
High expectations are necessary and helpful in life because excellence determines the course of history for human society. If I am racially profiled by the “justice” system, I want an A+ attorney. If two countries are at the brink of war, I want A+ diplomats. If an entire continent is in need of a massive anti-poverty programme, I want A+ economists. But, what I do not want any of these A+ people to answer if they were asked what motivated them to achieve A+ grades is that their achievement redeemed their parents’ sacrifice.
On the one hand, it is indeed a glorious answer and a marvelous source of motivation. No reasonable child of immigrant or otherwise non-dominant class parents would refuse the opportunity to allow her or his parents to enter a room with pride of their child’s achievement. But, on the other hand, such burdensome expectations placed on our young people have resulted in scores of two types of psycho-spiritually debilitated Asian-Americans: 1) those of high academic and career achievement who might lack nothing when it comes to determination and perseverance, or 2) those of low academic and career achievement who are hesitant to care about anything at all.
Both types are those whose souls are bereft of that one thing that gives life the possibility of deep meaning: agency.
Agency has to do with one’s possibility and potential for self-determination, for being able to make decisions despite unhelpful duress or advice from others. For the high achievers, agency is contextualized by the limits placed on by others. This is simply a false sense of control in life. For the low achievers, agency is without efficacy as it cannot not fulfill the expectations of others. This is simply another form of learned helplessness. In both cases, the need for freedom is clear. The question is, “how might we get there?”
My suggestion is to replace our way of defining greatness with degrees and titles (for which both Asian and Anglo capitalist cultures take responsibility) with a way of defining greatness with character and willingness.
Our Asi-Am young people, and asian+ people everywhere, should be expected to choose paths in life based on personal convictions that the world could become a better place through the employment of their gifts and talents. And, their greatness should be judged by how willing they are to let go of the mirage of prestige offered by degrees and titles and embrace a life of meaning based on social impact.
Once we define greatness in this way, we will begin to see parents spend as much time, energy, and money on their children’s personal character development as much as their SAT scores or youth athletics. Once we define greatness in this way, we will begin to see young people worry first about whether or not a job means “selling out” than how much money it will make them. For once we define greatness in this way, our Asi-Am young people will make sacrifices in their life in working to make the world a better place from which their own future children will learn, not so that they feel a burden to get good grades but, so that they will want, without duress, their own lives to be much like their parents’.
By James J. Kang, Founding Editor of SUBTLE magazine