Analysis by Andrew Lam, Editor at New America Media
Three Chinese-American students at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have killed themselves in the last three months. Two died by helium asphyxiation and the cause of death of the third student, though deemed a suicide, is yet to be determined. Their stories have been covered in the Chinese language media, but remain virtually unreported in the mainstream.
These suicides are anything but isolated incidents. Popular opinion may project Asians and Asian Americans as super achievers, scoring high on the SAT, dominating prestigious colleges and working as high-paid professionals, but the dark side of that narrative is that they are much more likely than the average American to commit suicide, according to a recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
At Cornell University, for instance, 13 of the 21 student suicide victims between 1996 and 2006 were Asians or Asian Americans. That picture is not complete unless you consider that Asians make up of only 14 percent of the total Cornell student body. Cornell is so concerned that in 2002 it formed a special Asian and Asian American Campus Climate Task Force to look into the reason behind the high number of suicides.
Stanley Sue, a professor of psychology and Asian-American studies at the University of California at Davis who has studied suicide rates among Asian Americans, believes part of the problem is that Asian Americans are not likely to talk about their psychological problems.
“Community practitioners notice that Asian Americans are less likely to self-disclose their personal problems,” Sue told Time magazine article in 2008.
Asian Americans are also less likely than other groups to rely on mental health services, according to studies, and they prefer instead to rely on culturally acceptable traditions of discipline and family order.
For years, while reporting from East Asia, I often read stories of students throwing themselves on train tracks or out the windows, when they failed an important exam. From Hong Kong to Tokyo to Taipei to Hanoi, these young people cracked under pressure and, robbed of what they know best, many are often confronted with dreaded feelings of loss and despair.
At UC Berkeley, more than half of the members of the Vietnamese Student Association I belonged to in the mid-1980s majored in computer science or electrical engineering. A few told me they didn’t want to become engineers. These fields were highly competitive and difficult.
One friend literally went mad and had to be hospitalized because he broke under the pressure of failing grades. Another was an “anchor kid,” someone whose family sold practically everything they owned to buy him a passage on an escaping boat out of communist Vietnam. He barely had time to think. Alone in the United States, he faced the burden of having to support his family back home while going to school full time. If he didn’t succeed, it could very well mean death for the family that relied on his income to survive back in impoverished Vietnam. Failure was not an option. Back home in Vietnam, an army of hungry, ambitious and capable young men and women were dying to take his place, and for him, a boat person who barely survived his perilous journey across the South China Sea, “dying to” was no mere idiomatic expression.
I remember, too, an incident during my freshman year at Berkeley when a studious Chinese student living in my dorm tried to jump from the Campanile, the tallest structure on campus. He wanted to kill himself because, according to the gossip, he had never gotten a B before, untilvector calculus or some such difficult class overwhelmed him. It took hours before he was talked down. After that incident, authorities put up metal bars to stop future jumpers.
More telling is this mindset: Another friend, when he first moved to the dorm, painted a picture that harked back to a distant Asian past, and hung it above his desk. In it, a young Mandarin in silk brocade and hat, flanked by soldiers carrying banners, rides an ornate palanquin as peasants stand and watch.
We had just met, and when he saw me looking at his painting, he said, “Do trang nguyen ve lang” – Vietnamese for “Mandarin returns home after passing the imperial exam.” His was a visual sutra that would help him focus on his studies. But he didn’t need to explain. Like many Asian students from Confucian countries – what a family friend often called the “chopstick nations”: Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, Japan and, of course, China – I could easily decipher the image. For us scholarship boys, it was the equivalent of Michael Jordan flying in the air like a god doing a slam-dunk – a dream of glorious achievements.
But why is education so deeply ingrained in the Confucian culture?
Long before America existed, something of the American dream already had taken root in East Asia through the scholarship and examination system of the Mandarins. Villages and towns pooled their resources and sent their best and brightest to compete in the imperial court, hoping that one of their own would make it to the center of power.
Mandarins of various ranks were selected by how well they fared on extremely rigorous examinations. The brilliant few who passed ran the day-to-day operations of imperial China and Vietnam. A Mandarin could become a governor, a judge, or even marry into the royal family. A peasant thus could rise high above his station, elevating the status of his entire clan and honor his ancestors in the process. It all hinged on his ability to pass the difficult exams.
Of all the temples in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, the most beautiful is arguably the Temple of Literature, dedicated to all the laureates who passed the extremely rigorous imperial exams of centuries past and became mandarins. Their names are etched on stone steles that go back nearly 800 years. Dedicated to Confucius and founded in 1070, it was Vietnam’s first university. It eventually became a temple, as if only befitting a trajectory in a world where education is literally worshiped.
So worshiped that not getting good grades often means failing to achieve your destiny and thereby failing your own and your family’s expectations. Many of us consequently learned to measure the world and ourselves solely through a pedagogic lens. You are how well you do in school. Indeed, many are being caught in the Asian educational pressure cooker and, with little time for anything else, also robbed of much-needed social skills and independent thinking that could give them a different way of looking at themselves.
An old mythology follows many of us across the sea: Only perfection matters and, by logic, its opposite, failure is rooted in shame. In his analects, Confucius recommended this philosophy when it comes to ruling people: “Lead the people with excellence and put them in their place through roles and ritual practices, and in addition to developing a sense of shame, they will order themselves harmoniously.” Even if much of the Confucian ethos have eroded, many old rites and ritual practices long forgotten since communism takeover and modernization began, the one thing that remains in operation is that sense of shame, and how it still profoundly grips the East Asian psyche. To lose face may still cause many an Asian to commit suicide.
Asian Americans have excelled higher education in the last few decades. Less than 5 percent of the country’s population, Asian Americans typically make up 10 to 30 percent of the best colleges. What’s barely explored, sadly, is the darker narrative, that subterraneous stream that runs parallel to this shining path to academic success: stress, disappointment, depression, and, when failing to make the grade, a profound if not deadly identity crisis.