November 11, 2011

Asian, not alien

Media portrayal of Asian students reinforces negative, unjustified stereotypes.

Much as I love The New York Times, there is one type of story that consistently induces immediate face-palming. I’ve recently noticed articles that are similar enough that I am convinced that multiple writers are using the same template. Pick an East Asian country (China, Japan, South Korea). Pick a grade level (high school, college, graduate school). Find a few Asian students to interview. Mention their prowess in taking tests (choose from GRE, TOEFL, or SAT), and add balance by citing their supposed deficiencies (poor English skills, insularity, lack of creativity). Write a story about how hordes of Asian students are flooding American schools, and how they detract from the other students’ educational experience. Bonus points if you mention a university ranked in U.S. News’s Top 10. Even more bonus points if you mention the phrase “Ivy League.” I guarantee you that the article will be one of the paper’s top 10 and will probably have a few hundred comments within hours of publication.

The latest incarnation of this type of article is “The China Conundrum,” jointly published by The Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times. It’s actually an interesting article about how U.S. colleges that recruit students from mainland China are adapting to their changing student demographics. While I think the topic is important to learn about, neither universities nor Chinese students come out looking very good in the article. Remarks like “American concepts of intellectual property don’t translate readily to students from a country where individualism is anathema” and “students have proudly told [an Iowa State assistant admissions director] about memorizing thousands of vocabulary words” are entirely consistent with stereotypes about Asian students. The article also emphasizes that colleges are driven to recruit Chinese students who can pay full tuition. The implication seems to be that your worst fears about universities and international students are, in fact, true.

Oh, boy. Unlike pieces such as Amy Chua’s infamous “Tiger Mom” Wall Street Journal excerpt, this article hasn’t become an Internet sensation. Nevertheless, it’s part of a trend that concerns me. I am not an international student, but plenty of people have mistaken me for a foreigner (interestingly enough, no international student has ever done so). Therefore, people’s perceptions of international students are personally relevant to me. I feel as though the media’s reaction to Asian students is split between “My goodness, look at that freak show!” and “My goodness, we need to figure out how to become more like that freak show!”

Naturally, I have to assert that the Asian students I know (both international and American) bear no resemblance to common stereotypes. Just as naturally, someone else will assert that the Asian students they know fit the stereotypes to a T. We’re probably both right. Playing a game of “my anecdotal evidence is better than your anecdotal evidence” is not going to be fruitful. Journalists who write about Asian students are smart enough not to make reckless generalizations. They’ll present one case for Asian students being test-taking machines and another case for Asian students livening up class discussion. Honestly, though, which anecdote are you going to remember: the one about the student taking dozens of practice SATs, or the one about the student who raises her hand in class an average number of times?

Whenever I encounter media coverage of Asian students, the same thought crosses my horror-stricken mind: Is this how my professors/classmates/TAs secretly view me? The correct answer is probably no—but nevertheless, I often have lingering doubts. Am I participating enough in class? Am I asking the TA too many questions? The really unfortunate aspect of stereotypes is that I can’t singlehandedly shatter them, but I can certainly singlehandedly reinforce them. At any rate, if you end up working for the Times, the Post, or the Journal (and I’m certain that some of my classmates will), please be kind and remind your readers that we’re really not that alien.

Jane Huang is a second-year in the College majoring in physics.