Young Asian-Americans are not one monolithic group. We are different in many respects, be it religion, income, ancestry, etc, etc. It is too easy for the outside to see us as one, so this is going to be the first of my attempts to detail the nuances of the Asian-American population.
Young Asian-Americans, based on my experience, can generally be segmented into two distinct groups, the “restaurant kids” and the “computer kids”. Restaurant kids are the kids whose parents labor in restaurants/groceries/laundries/nail salons or in some cases, own these establishments. Computer kids are the kids whose parents work as engineers/doctors/lawyers/accountants.
The first wave of Asian immigrants who arrived in the early 20th century were primarily laborers. Popular imagination does not deceive us in this regard. The third wave of Asian immigrants who arrived after the war were a mix of students, educated professionals, and laborers. The technology boom that occurred in the last three decades of the twentieth century provided plenty of opportunities for students and educated professionals from Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and later on, Mainland China. As a result, many students stayed in the America, built careers, and started families. And then there were those who came not to study, but to labor. For some, they were always laborers, and presumably, a life as a laborer in America is much better than a life as a laborer in the home country. There were more opportunities in America, if not for the immigrants themselves, then for their kids. Of course, there were also highly educated immigrants who became laborers, because their skill set did not have the same value in America. Is it better to be a grocery store owner in America than it is to be a doctor in South Korea (see Chang Rae Lee’s debut novel Native Speaker for a literary take)? Perhaps this was the case thirty or forty years ago, but as East Asian economies have rapidly modernized, this kind of logic has quickly disappeared.
My friends and acquaintances include both restaurant kids and computer kids. I’m a computer kid, but I’ve always been fascinated with the restaurant kids. Looking around as a young adult at the life trajectories of my friends and acquaintances, I noticed an unsettling trend. While most of us have landed somewhere in the middle in terms of worldly “success”, the people who have “failed” are mostly restaurant kids, and the people who have “excelled” are almost all computer kids. While it may be too early to say whether or not these trends will continue, after all, we are still young, it is unsettling nonetheless.
Studies have shown that Asian scores have steadily risen over the last twenty years while the scores of other groups have remained relatively flat. What is the secret to this success? The secret is simply what retailers refer to as “mix”. The composition of the Asian population has changed. “Asian” encompasses a wide range of groups, both low achieving (Southeast Asians) and high achieving (East Asians and Indians). Part of the reason for this increase can attributed to greater representation of the high achieving groups in the current Asian pie. I suspect, however, that this is only part of the story. My hypothesis, based on my experience, is that the mix of restaurant kids and computer kids in the high achieving group, plays an equal, if not larger role in the score increase. The computer kids, the sons and daughters of the second wave of immigrants, have arrived. The sons and daughters of grocers, laborers, and restaurateurs are at a distinct disadvantage academically when compared to the sons and daughters of STEM PHDs. Confucian (“Tiger Mom”) exam culture is no great equalizer, both groups share this culture. The application of “Tiger Mom” parenting to the computer kids in my opinion may generate greater returns than when applied on restaurant kids. The parental profiles typical in computer kid families are highly uncommon in mainstream American society. As a group, the achievement potential for computer kids is very high.
I know many of my friends who are now participating at the elite level of American society (HLS, Mckinsey, Google, MIT, etc) had parents who both possessed masters or doctorate degrees in quantitative fields. On the other hand, I know Asian-Americans who have given their parents a hard time, having kids way too early, driving fast cars, dropping out of school or slacking in school, and generally thumbing their noses at the prospect of a middle class lifestyle. These kids are, with few exceptions, the restaurant kids.
Here is rough sketch of what I believe to be the distribution of achievement between restaurant kids and computer kids. The blue dots represent computer kids and the red dots represent restaurant kids.
Computer kids dominate high schools such as Monte Vista in Cupertino and Thomas Jefferson in Northern Virginia, areas where there is high concentration of technology firms. It is in these areas that the phenomenon of “white flight” in regards to Asian domination of public schools has begun to rear its ugly head. I do not blame whites for wanting to flee these schools. The truth is, they are competing with the offspring of the some of the highest performing individuals from Asia, a competition, that few can survive.
I’m curious to see what the mix is of computer kids vs. restaurant kids in highly selective Asian high schools such as Stuyvesant and Bronx Science in New York City. The general perception is that these kids are relatively poor “Chinatown kids”, if you will, who study really, really hard to get into these schools. I wonder, though, how many of these kids are simply middle class computer kids from the more suburban areas of New York City.
One thing the restaurant kids have over the computer kids is food. Restaurant kids families make the most delicious food.