Every other week, the Journal of College Admission will highlight a current article or other Journal-related findings. In this post, we hear more from OiYan Poon, one of the authors of “Beyond Tiger Mom Anxiety: Ethnic, Gender and Generational Differences in Asian American College Access and Choices” (Downloads: Member /Non-member). They focus on anxiety related to the Tiger parenting phenomenon, contending that it is important to understand the diversity of experiences among Asian Americans in college admission.
What was your initial reaction to the "Tiger Mom" phenomenon and what made you want to explore it further?
My initial reaction was, "Oh boy, here's another pundit getting tons of attention as some sort of expert on Asian Americans and educational attainment with no grounding in research evidence." I was pretty upset by how easily duped the public can be and how much money Chua was going to make from passing off her very privileged personal experiences as a universal representation of Asian American experiences. Ultimately, I was really upset by how racial stereotypes can pass as valid information. Asian American experiences are very diverse and this was being ignored and covered over by a pretty hackneyed racial stereotype. Chua has stated that the book was a personal memoir, but the way she wrote it and the way it was received by the mainstream suggests that it is being understood as an inside glimpse into the experiences of most Asian American families. Chua's portrayal of Asian American families, which the public was eating up as truth, did not reflect many of my former and current American American students' experiences. Her memoir of experiences was also very counter to my own experiences of being the daughter of Chinese immigrants. The contradiction between Chua's presentation, my personal and professional experiences, and extant research on Asian Americans and college choice and admission experiences presented me with an important research opportunity. Chua's book just doesn't tell much in the way of understanding the experiences of immigrant Asian American families.
What can we do to combat the mass-media-driven stereotype that Asian American students are driven overachievers with overbearing parents?
First, let's recognize that stereotypes, "positive" or negative, serve to dehumanize people. They make us think we know someone when we don't know much at all about their experiences. Research has shown that all parents, whether they be Asian American, Pacific Islander, African American, Latino, American Indian, Middle Eastern, white, etc., hold high value for education and high regard for college attainment. In fact, some research has shown that African American and Latino parents have the highest value for education, even though they are often stereotyped as having lower values for the education of their children. While all parents have been shown to highly value education, there may be a diversity of factors that motivate their drive.
Listen to students and their families, and approach conversations with students and their families in a way that allows them to tell you their stories. For example, when I was a child my father was always encouraging me to pursue studies in the STEM fields, even though my academic abilities were clearly in the social sciences. This parental guidance may seem rather stereotypical for an Asian immigrant parent. It would be easy from the outside to assume that my father was just "culturally" motivated to encourage his children to pursue STEM career paths. That is, until you had an honest conversation with him about what motivated him to act the way he did. As an adult, I've asked him why it seemed so important for him that my brothers and I pursued STEM studies and careers. Very bluntly, he told me that he experienced and recognized racism in the US, and believed that the higher numbers of Asian Americans in STEM fields might provide a buffer against racism for me and my brothers in our professional lives. In an honest and open conversation with my father, and surely with other immigrant parents, one might come to understand that parental motivations for high educational attainment among the second generation may vary and may be quite logically driven by personal experiences and recognitions of social inequalities faced by racial minorities, including Asian Americans, in the US.
Were you surprised by any part of your survey's outcome or by any individual student answers?
I was very surprised by the ways some of the male students just did not recognize the ways others had a hand at influencing their college-going pathways and choices, even though it contradicted some of the narratives they shared with me. As someone who is often focused in my work on race and racism, I had not anticipated such differences between the ways men and women may perceive their social experiences. Some past research and common perceptions present Asian American children of immigrants, both men and women, as having a strong sense of filial piety. However, my study showed that these familial ties and influences may not be as strong for Asian American men. It says a lot about how men and women are socialized in US society and reminded me about the importance of understanding peoples' identities in intersectional ways.
Now, post-publication, is there anything you'd like to add?
I'm hoping in the future to focus some of my research on immigrant Asian American parents' perspectives on the college access process. Because so many of them are often working long hours and some speak little English, I've often found it challenging to focus research on this population. The best way to evaluate Chua's characterizations of Asian American parenting related to educational attainments is to conduct a study that privileges this population's experiences, perspectives and voices. The worst part of the Tiger Mom stereotype is that it silences an already marginalized immigrant population, allowing educators and others to assume we know what their experiences and stories are.
Ultimately, I hope that this research can help to inform the ways educators like those affiliated with NACAC approach their work with diverse students and families. I look forward to receiving feedback on this particular article. I'm also very open to working with practitioners in collaborating on future research.
OiYan Poon is an assistant professor of higher education at Loyola University Chicago (IL). Her research interests include college access and admission policies, college student activism and community-based research methods. She earned her PhD in race and ethnic studies in education with a certificate in Asian American studies from University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA).
Ajani Byrd is a second-year PhD student in the higher education program at Loyola University Chicago (IL). He is currently a graduate assistant within the Office of the Vice President for Student Development. His research interests focus on students of color and their transition from two-year to four-year institutions.