‘As an Asian, You Have to Work Harder Than White People’
The words in this headline are a translation from my conversation with my father. I am currently studying for the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) and will soon be applying for evening law school to do while I teach and get more involved in special education. My father says this especially when I update him on how I’m doing — I’m currently in the 80th percentile of the exam on practice tests. I tell him the studying is going well. I tell him I want to eventually do as well as my friend who scored in the 99th percentile on the exam. He asks me a strange question of what race my friend is, and I tell my dad he’s white. He pushes back, usually angrily:
You can’t be as good as white people. As an Asian man, you have to work harder than white people.
I know this is in reference to the contentious issue of affirmative action in Asian American and particularly Chinese American communities. Some in my Asian American circles think affirmative action is a form of racism where Asian Americans are being discriminated against in college admissions.
I will admit I did feel a tinge of jealousy in high school when my white friends would seemingly have a much easier time with admissions than I did despite my having better scores, better grades, and more athletic accomplishments. I imagined who I was to a college admissions officer — just another run-of-the-mill Asian kid with good test scores, good grades, and impressive extracurriculars but someone who did not stand out in the entire grand scheme of holistic admissions. How many people like me, with Chinese-sounding names, did an admissions officer cast into oblivion because they didn’t stand out?
I support affirmative action, even if many of my friends did not. That’s a debate that’s getting significant coverage in the press and the Supreme Court and is a debate for another time. And I love where I did my undergraduate studies at Emory University, seeing getting rejected from my first-choice school as one of the best things that happened to me.
But I know my dad was also speaking holistically. He always had to work harder than his white peers to get by and be accepted. And he also meant I would have to work harder than any of my white peers to stand out in the grand scheme of college admissions processes. Now as I am about to go through the law school admissions process as a very nontraditional applicant, he suspects the numbers game is not in my favor and that, somehow, the world of elite, postgraduate institutions is biased against Asian men. I have no proof of this, but I can see how he views the world this way. In the same conversation, he was telling me being in the 99th percentile was not enough to be considered for law school. I had to get a 174 or 175 — upward of the 99th percentile.
There was another element to his comment. Perhaps I didn’t just have to work harder to stand out. Perhaps he meant he had to work harder, as an immigrant, to be equal. Comments that tell me anything I do is not enough and that I have to do better are pretty standard and all within this game or dance — I have always associated demands like “You have to go to medical school” or “You have to go to Harvard or Yale” throughout my life as attributed to toxic values in my community of prioritizing reputation, prestige, and appearance.
This is not unique to Asian American communities — my girlfriend, who is half African American and half Nigerian, sees many of the same trends within her Nigerian part of the family. To some degree, the hyperfocus on status and achievement is emblematic of many immigrant families. As much as I rebelled against that self-inflicted model minority-ness (the stereotype’s reinforcement has come internally, from my family, more than anyone else) and put a label of “toxic” on those values, I’m starting to see more and more why my dad thinks as he does.
It’s because the existence of my father in America, as an immigrant, always feels insecure. There’s an indescribable feeling that this house of cards can just vanish at any point. Someone like Donald Trump becomes president, and everything can collapse at once. Someone also brought up a great point when I railed against the constantly absurdly high expectations I had of me throughout my life — my parents have experienced extreme hunger and poverty. Where they came from when China was still a third-world country is a place they never, ever want their children to experience. I had an aunt die at age three from malnutrition. To my family, America was and is a mythic place where that does not happen, and an almost religious adherence to working “twice as hard” was how they got here.
Meizhu Lui, author of The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide, also had her parents tell her “You’re not white! You work twice as hard to be equal!” Lui goes into detail about the racial wealth gap between white Americans and other races as the backdrop between her parents’ comments.
Perhaps this is a tone-deaf thing to admit in an age of anti-Asian hate crimes and racism, but I’ve always seen being Asian with a certain amount of privilege. Compared to my Black and Brown friends, being seen as docile and harmless leads to not having many negative interactions with law enforcement and not needing to fear for my life when I’m pulled over. I have also seen stereotypes like “being good at math” to be vastly more privileged than society’s stereotypes of other races.
I also function in a predominantly Black city in Baltimore, teach in schools that are 99.9% Black, and work with mostly Black co-workers. In discussing being an Asian teacher, a distinct memory was one of my students calling me white and yelling, “Shut your white ass up!”
In the grand scheme of society’s white-Black binary, there tends to be a lack of nuance around everyone who fits in between. My students also referred to one of the only Hispanic students in the school as “that white girl,” and I had a hard time explaining what Hispanic was or what Asian was. It seemed a bit strange to me to try to explain how race was a social construct, but as much as race is biologically just a social construct, how society treats race is much more than that.
Anyway, I digress. It was also strange of me to explain I struggle to fit in with a white society too, just in more invisible ways.
These days, I have great relationships with most of my students. Many say I’m their favorite teacher, which I take with a grain of salt because I think all their teachers should be their favorite teachers and because I’m big on teacher solidarity. However, I navigate the nuance of being an Asian educator in an almost all-Black space every day, even if it’s not the top topic on my mind every single day. Even as a teacher, I have encountered many of the same comments I heard throughout my childhood. Students will often ask whether I’m “crazy smart” or whether I was dating the other Asian teacher in the school. Some kids when they first meet me have called me Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee.
A couple of months ago, I found it especially awkward reading To Kill a Mockingbird and stumbling upon the n-word on every other page of the book. I did not read the n-word and always would summarize a sentence it was read in rather than actually read it. But whenever we use audiobooks (an accommodation for many of my special education students), the reader would more often than not read the word. My students talked about whether the woman reading the word was racist, and it ended up being a subject of much debate — some students said it wasn’t because it was just in the book, and others said it was. I’m not the most rule-following and CYA kind of person, but I certainly did not want to be the subject of the same debate or read a word I know to be extremely racist. Those of you who are especially heavy on free speech and the nuance behind time periods and the author’s intent might disagree with me, but this is 2021.
I reference my daily life, as well as the expectations of my parents, to simply say I’ve been in many predominantly white spaces and predominantly Black spaces. It’s not that I don’t have Asian friends, but I’ve never been in predominantly Asian spaces, and the only way I’ve had to work “twice as hard,” in my mind, is fitting in. I’ve never quite felt completely “othered” in any of these spaces, but I think about why my dad always tells me I have to work twice as hard.
He sees relationships, particularly at my age, as ephemeral and vanishing. Prestige, accomplishments, and status do not go away, and test scores, schools you get into, and salary take precedence over relationships. I am the golden child, and my brother is the wayward son within this lens of looking at the world — I went to Emory University and am getting a master’s from Johns Hopkins University. These accomplishments pale in comparison to some of my family friends, those who went to Harvard University and Duke Medical School, those who can make their parents look like the best parents at the table. It’s depressing to think that as a teacher, a profession seen as lesser and not as prestigious as an engineer or doctor, I, in these conversations, am the model of mediocrity.
I don’t see the world the same way. But I don’t want to villainize the mindset at the same time —it was my parents’ work that put me in a particularly privileged place. Yes, I knew what it was like to be poor when I was younger. But I never knew what it was like to be poor like my parents knew, to have to distribute who gets each grain of rice between multiple siblings and adults.
So do I have to work twice as hard as white people? I never thought about it like that, and my father has a point. But I don’t see it that way. I can’t live in a world where relationships do not take precedence. I can’t live in a world where how hard I work and what I achieve are all that matters. I have many relationships among friends and co-workers where I’m treated like family — and I know the numbers game of prestige or admissions does not love you unconditionally. Because of these relationships, I feel like I belong. I also think my dad is partially wrong. The past year or so has told us you can work as hard as you want and still not be treated as an equal.
In this period of rising anti-Asian hate, the suffocating pressure tied to so much of the Asian-American existence, coming from internal and external influences, is an invisible stressor that often goes untold.