In the competitive academic bubble of Palo Alto, people are asking for "a cultural revitalization" and "a broader definition of success" so that high school students can relax, have fun and follow their dreams instead of slaving away their adolescent lives.
Educational administrators have implored the community to end the "academic arms race," in which students feel they have to get ahead of one another and compete for spots at elite universities. Students are afraid of peers seeking a position in their club for the sole purpose of making their college application look better. Parents have been especially vocal about finding ways to prevent students from overloading on advanced courses. But where did this fear come from?
I feel as though the fear for the competitive "arms race" stems from the preconceived notions of the Asian-American culture.
Sure, that's a loaded statement. You may ask, "How does being Asian have anything to do with this?"
All I ever hear anymore is that students are soulless machines stuck in a world of academic competition. Because of this, I feel ashamed for being a student in Palo Alto who cares about doing well in school for my own sake not for my parents.
But it gets worse: Because I am Asian, my love for learning gets translated into the stereotypes of Asians who spend all their time studying and obsessing over Ivy League schools. In eighth grade, a friend told me I shouldn't have kids because I would become a "Tiger mom." During high school, another friend asked if I had "Tiger parents" because I stayed home doing homework one Friday night. I had to explain that I chose to study so I could spend time with my older sister on Saturday, the one day she was free.
I get the feeling that everyone who is afraid of the academic culture here is afraid of me and the many other Asian students around me who may or may not fulfill our predetermined stereotype.
I can't deny it. There is a problem with the Asian-American culture and its stereotypical definition of success. The sheer number of rigorous SAT prep courses targeted toward Asians in the South Bay (where many Asian Americans live) points to this problem. So do the Asian college counselors who focus on elite universities who have mostly (you guessed it) Asian clients.
However, that does not mean Asian-American parents aren't willing to commit to what's best for their child. It's just that most of the time, they don't know how.
The Asian culture in the Bay Area needs reformation if the "academic arms race" is to disappear. But it can't disappear if we are all subconsciously letting our prejudices shame our Asian students and families.
Take me, for example. Considering that I'm Chinese, have straight A's, and like math and science, I'm surprised that I don't see myself as an "Asian try-hard" as described earlier. I'm proud of taking difficult AP classes. I juggle three extracurricular activities every day because I love them all. I'm so lucky for the opportunity to conduct individual research in a university laboratory. But I hit a point when I was utterly ashamed of myself for doing all of these things -- when someone told me to my face, "You're too good at everything. You're the reason I'm not getting into a good college. You're the reason why everyone else here is so stressed out."
If I was not Asian, I don't think I would have ever heard that.
The Asian culture that hails high test scores, AP classes, and the "right" extracurricular activities has created the impression across the nation that my intellectual pursuits are false, my interests half-hearted, my achievements worthless, and my intentions malicious -- all because I'm "yellow." Just because some Asian parents believe in the magical formula for admission to a top school doesn't make me a college-thirsty fake.
I love learning new things and challenging myself with difficult classes to become a better scholar that way. I know my limits, yet I still work hard so I can brand my dignity into everything I care about. But because I'm Asian, my peers and their parents don't think I know my limits; they think my parents and my Asian heritage pushed me into the deep, dark oblivion. On the contrary, my parents are extremely concerned about my mental health. They have frequently consulted me about my stress levels and have supported my friends in their times of trouble.
I feel antagonized by the community because of the assumptions people have made of my background and intentions. I am afraid that people in the community believe I am the reason for the "academic arms race" and are trying to find ways to stop me from appreciating the rigorous, passionate education I have been offered by the Palo Alto Unified School District.
To prevent parents and students from getting pulled into the unhealthy "arms race," many support propositions limiting academic freedom in the district. Limiting AP courses, limiting classes offered during zero period, getting rid of the weighted GPA. But can limiting options be consistent with broadening the definition of success?
Academic limitations can only hurt me and the many other students like me who honestly care about learning and thrive in school; it will not solve the problem of the "academic arms race." The students who don't know their limits or are misguided in their motives to pursue over-the-top endeavors will only find a way around these limitations i.e., by taking additional AP courses online. They can only change if somebody personally talks to them about what is in their best interest.
Instead of making assumptions about students who don't know any better and are overworking themselves, we should focus on strengthening the academic and emotional support system for all of our students, regardless of race, through individualization and face-to-face communication. With the help of caring peers, parents and staff members, strong personal connections from various advisers can help students find their true passions, develop a healthy lifestyle, and broaden their definition of success.
This way, we can redesign our scale of success so it doesn't range from genuine to yellow.
Michelle Zhang is a senior at Gunn High School.
The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify page to capture the numerous voices, opinions and our news coverage on teen well-being. This page will continue to be updated. To view it, go to Storify.com.
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