A traveling exhibition by Active Minds, an advocacy group, consists of 1,100 backpacks representing the approximate number of undergraduates who commit suicide each year. From The New York Times, 07/27/2015.
A recent article from the Washington Post has been gaining sensationalist attention. It follows the story of Jennifer Pan, a young Canadian woman who hired hit men to kill her parents. Pan's parents had placed heavy pressure on her to excel academically, and when Pan failed to meet those expectations she conceived elaborate lies to hide her failure from her parents. Pan's parents eventually discovered the fraud and placed heavy restrictions on the freedom of the now-adult Pan. Pan chafed under the restrictions and subsequently hired hit men to murder her parents. The hit men fatally shot her mother and severely wounded her father in Pan's presence. Pan's parents were refugees from Vietnam.
The Washington Post quotes a former classmate of Pan's, Karen Ho of Toronto Life magazine. "[B]ecause so many [Asian children] have gone through the experience of growing up like Jennifer, it’s not unfathomable to them that someone would just break," Ho says. Given the rarity of parricide in any culture -- and certainly, in Asian cultures -- Ho's statement seems overbroad, at best. Yes, studies have shown that Asian parents in America tend to have high expectations when it comes to academic success, but such high expectations are not limited to Asian parents. Indeed, the same day that the Washington Post published its article on Pan, the New York Times published an article titled, "Campus Suicide and the Pressure of Perfection." The Times examined the phenomena of "suicide clusters" at colleges across America and concluded that college students today grapple with intense pressure to succeed without the resiliency to bounce back from setbacks. Ethnicity was never mentioned as a predictive factor in committing suicide and, indeed, none of the anecdotes collected by the Times involved Asian students. Further, the Times cites a survey that found that more than half the clients at college counseling centers had severe psychological problems. Nearly 70% of the respondent clients identified as white.
It is important to point out that the pressure to succeed -- as well as the possibility that someone under such pressure "would just break" -- is not limited to Asian Americans. When Asian American youth have commited crimes in the past, the media has been quick to blame so-called Tiger Parents for the unbearable pressure they bear on Asian American youth. Asian American youth have also been characterized as two-faced: achieving outward marks of success while harboring criminal intent. To counter the latter point, in 2006 Dr. Yoonsun Choi (the principle investigator of ML-SAAF) conducted a study testing whether academic achievement could predict delinquent behaviors in Asian American youth, or whether Asian American youth were able to do well academically even while engaging in delinquent behavior. Dr. Choi found that, as a matter of fact, academic achievement was a significant predictor of delinquent behavior in Asian American youth. In other words, Asian American youth who are succeeding academically are not often involved in delinquent behavior. Thus, cases like Pan's -- where an Asian American student is doing well and then "breaks" -- is rare, notwithstanding the buzz that occurs whenever such a break happens.
Asian Americans have long been stereotyped as striving under a pressure of perfection, but increasing data is emerging to show that such pressure is a global one. Pan's story is tragic and horrifying, yet it is not representative or predictive of the propensities of Asian Americans in general.