When his two children were in middle school, Philip Shinoda
of Dallas gave them a blunt warning: "You're not competing
against Bubba and Peggy Sue."
Their real competition, he told them, was a faceless student
in Taiwan or Hong Kong – someone who was pounding the
books at 2 a.m., loaded with brains and burning with ambition.
If that sounds like a lot of pressure, so be it, says Mr.
Shinoda, 59, a third-generation American who founded the Dallas-Fort
Worth Asian American Leadership Forum. He calls low expectations
"the American disease."
"What's wrong with the pressure of high expectations?"
he demands. "Is it better to have low expectations?"
Students of all races and ethnic groups live with the pressure
to excel. But for Asian-American students, the burden can
be especially crushing, especially when their parents are
The parents, who come from fiercely competitive cultures where
scholarship is cherished, don't want their children to lose
touch with the old values. Yet they still want their children
to blend into their new society.
Above all, they hunger for them to succeed.
"Early on, I knew you don't settle for less," says
Rehana Kundawala, 22, a senior at the University of Texas
at Dallas. Her parents emigrated from India to Dallas in 1979.
"I'm always going to strive harder, to be the best I
can be. I had a friend in high school who was so happy with
A's and B's. I thought, 'My goodness, if only my parents were
happy with that.' "
The 'model minority'
Mr. Shinoda's son and daughter have graduated from college,
and he'd like them to be happy. But this is how he defines
it: "Happiness lies in achieving things."
Nor does pressure come only from parents. Asian kids also
must deal with the "model minority" stereotype:
They never misbehave. They do what they're told. They're all
brilliant. They're naturally good at math.
As if, says Rose Huynh, a senior at UT-Dallas who is president
of that school's Vietnamese Student Association.
"I have to study and restudy to get the material. Everybody
I know – all my friends – we sit there and study
and study to do well," says Ms. Huynh, 22.
Yet it's said that every stereotype contains a seed of truth.
Look at all the Asian names on the list of area high school
valedictorians every spring or on the roll of National Merit
Or walk down a hallway at the University of Texas Southwestern
Medical Center and look at the names on the office and research
You'll find a Kozlowski and DeMartino here and there. But
they're far outnumbered by Yiu, Lin, Pan, Dong, Gao, Huang,
Wu, Zhang, Zhao, Fen, Han and Yang.
A little farther down the hall, you'll also find Helen Yin,
a professor and researcher who sheds light on why some parents
push their children so hard.
Pressure to study
"In China, the pressure is so incredible for children,"
Dr. Yin says. Families are allowed to have only one child,
she explains, so parents must focus all their hopes and dreams
on that child.
Even in the United States, the habit persists. "I think
it's very tough," she says. "I think parents who
grow up in a very different culture come here and expect their
kids to behave a certain way."
Dr. Yin, 53, says she doesn't feel that she and her husband,
a physician, pressured their two sons, 23 and 21, to be high
achievers. Yet one graduated from Harvard and the other one
Charles Ku, a Lewisville dentist, thinks the drive to study
hard and succeed isn't necessarily an Asian value. It's something
shared by immigrants of every ethnic group.
"Refugees come here with little of value, so all they
can give their kids is education," says Dr. Ku, 62, who
is active in both the ethnic Chinese community and the community
"We put a lot of pressure on them to study. ... Weekdays,
nobody goes out. The parents stay home; the kids study."
But Jack Fan, 21, a 2002 Indiana University graduate from
Dallas, also sees cultural values going back hundreds of years.
"In imperial China, scholars would take tests that lasted
for days. Their placement in civil service would depend on
how well they did. ... It's reflected in what we're expected
to do," says Mr. Fan, who is now marketing director for
a Dallas wholesale furniture importer and distributor.
One of those expectations is that they stay connected to their
Ms. Kundawala's parents immersed her in the local Indian community
as she grew up.
They brought her to Indian festivals, celebrated national
holidays such as Gandhi's birthday, subscribed to Indian cable
'Kids are like horses'
For other parents, native-language schools buttress the link
to the old culture. The Dallas-Fort Worth area has about 18
Chinese-language schools, for example. There, students study
Chinese language, history, art and culture – and they
also drill in English and math.
Two Chinese-language principals estimate that 50 percent to
80 percent of area Chinese families send their children to
such schools. Students may grouse about going, especially
during summer. But they go.
"I actually do learn some stuff," says Robert Hudson,
14, whose dad is Anglo and mom is Chinese. "It's better
than being home doing nothing."
"If they start young enough, kids will go to the Chinese
school and do what their parents ask," says Helene Lee,
a financial services officer for Comerica Bank and principal
of Sun-Ray Chinese school in Arlington. "The tough part
is when they become teenagers."
Ms. Lee, 47, doesn't deny that many Asian parents drive their
children relentlessly to excel in school. But she questions
the value of such an approach.
"I don't think that works here," she says. "Teaching
kids how to survive is more important than studying."
She believes in holding the reins loosely: "Kids are
like horses. You give them a fence, but with enough space
to run, so they don't jump out."
As they grow up, some young people, such as Ms. Huynh, gain
a clearer appreciation of why their parents push them.
"Their point of view is 'We brought you to America. We
want you to have what we didn't have.' " She thinks for
"It's hard for them to let go."
Sooner or later, though, like all parents, they must. And
Ask Mr. Shinoda's son Jeremy. Now 30, he attended St. Mark's
School of Texas and earned degrees in molecular biology and
Spanish literature from the University of California at San
"I constantly felt pressure from both my parents to do
well – musically, academically, even in sports,"
he says. "But I don't think it was unduly harsh."
After college, he became a cancer researcher – and gave
it up after four years.
He felt he wouldn't advance far without going back to school
for several years, which he didn't want to do.
Today, Jeremy Shinoda sells clothing for Banana Republic.
He hopes to move into upper management for its parent company,
"I'm really happy," he says, "and I'm making
less than a third of what I was making in biotech."
He says he's sure his parents are concerned that he left a
prestigious, high-paying career.
"But the advancement opportunities I've experienced in
retail are far greater than in biotech."
His father may have said, "Happiness lies in achieving
But Jeremy says, "I've always gotten the feeling from
my parents that if I'm happy, they're happy."