“Too Asian?” is too simplified

Writer’s Note: This article is written in response to Maclean’s Magazine’s controversial piece originally titled “Too Asian?” that sparked backlash from the Asian Canadian and Asian American communities. The link to the article, now renamed “The enrollment controversy”, can be found here: http://www2.macleans.ca/2010/11/10/too-asian/

An article recently published in Maclean’s magazine, titled “Too Asian?” has generated controversy by presenting non-Asian Canadian students and families as concerned about attending universities with large Asian populations. Campuses that have the reputation of being too academically focused at the expense of a robust social scene are negatively cast as “too Asian.”

While the article is light on political correctness—one high school counsellor says, “Asians are the new Jews”— its real flaw is the oversimplification and gross generalization of a minority culture.
But for the authors to boil the discrepancy down to Asian students as “strivers, high achievers and single-minded in their approach to university” and white students as “more likely to choose universities build their school lives around social interaction, athletics and self-actualization—and, yes, alcohol,” is a comparison that unfairly promotes an “us versus them” mentality.

At other times, the article is grasping for straws to stir its drink. The authors write that “there is little Asian representation on student government, campus newspapers or college radio stations.” The University of British Columbia’s student life is cited as an example, where the student executive contains no Asian members for the 2010-11 year. I have a hard time believing the demographic makeup of one unspecified student body at UBC is representative of Canadian student life in general. It’s comical to think that a reputable magazine hires such nonsensical inductionists.

Reader response has not been surprising. The Chinese Canadian National Council criticized the Maclean’s article as “fear mongering.” One Toronto executive director of the council labelled it “definitely racist.” It also unfairly targets one visible minority group as cliquish when the problem of self-segregating communities is really an immigration issue. If there is a silver lining, it’s that the Asian Canadian community can use this opportunity to re-evaluate the group’s self-identity within a multicultural society.

As “model minorities,” Asians have often been depicted in mainstream media as academic superstars who are hardworking and career-focused. My own parents, extended family, and friends of Asian descent have often embraced the virtues of being perceived in such positive light. Whenever I pondered if our group’s overachievement and success can sometimes breed backlash, my concerns were dismissed as foolish and illogical.

But living in an oblivious bubble is an unhealthy mentality that should be remedied. If there are members of another culture who are discouraged from attending a prestigious university because the high number of Asians presumably raises the curve, then we shouldn’t be afraid to examine the concerns. When Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade claims that Asian students require an extra 140 points on the SAT to have an equal chance at university acceptance as white students, we need to scientifically test and peer review the phenomenon, and if true, make the community conscious of it.

The publication of “Too Asian?” and the subsequent outrage reminds us that it’s important not to sweep contentious matters under the rug. If some feel that Asian students are more socially challenged, that Asian students segregate into their own campus cliques, and that there is a correspondingly higher standard for academic success, then these issues should all be spotlighted for discussion, even if it makes us cringe.

I’ve also encountered those who are very cognizant of the repercussions of being a model minority. When I interviewed for Columbia University in my last year of high school, my Chinese-American interviewer and Columbia alumni bluntly asked, “There are so many qualified Asian candidates applying to Ivy League schools. Trip, what can you bring besides good grades and an affinity for the piano?” I proceeded to explain how impressive my bench press-to-height ratio was.

While most Columbia rejectees reluctantly attend New York University or Cornell, I was lucky to end up at McGill. And it seems the stars have aligned—I’ve even met a couple of Asian students here who are involved in student life, like to drink, and can interact with others without speaking Mandarin or Korean.

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