I’ve never been good at math or science and seeing numbers of any sort make me cringe. This surprises people: I grew up as a classically trained pianist and attended a good private school, and of course, I’m also Asian. In high school, people would ask me if I was in BC Calc or AP Physics, even though I’ve only taken regular, college-preparatory classes for STEM subjects. I would ask them why they thought I was in these advanced math classes, and my peers would respond with, “You just seem like a smart person and take all these other advanced classes, so I just assumed you’d be the type of person to be good at math too.” I am not “the type” of person who is good at math. And while I’m great at other things, I’ve noticed that people automatically assume I’m good with numbers all the time –– and it might not seem like a bad thing for people to assume this, but looking at the bigger picture, the model minority myth hurts rather than helps Asian students.
The model minority myth is the stereotype that Asians are seen as hardworking, smart, well-rounded people who excel at academics (getting straight A’s, top scores on the SAT and ACT… sound familiar?) and while it’s not a bad thing to care about your grades or be passionate about school work, it puts us into a box where we’re only seen as nerdy kids who study all day and are automatically good at math, which I am not. I am more than that: I love philosophy, history, politics, feminism, ‘80s music and going out on Friday nights –– just like any other American teenager. When all Asian students are put into a box, it can hurt how we perceive ourselves in the college admissions process –– this was definitely an issue I struggled with a year ago as a senior in high school. I was a good student in high school and cared very much about the classes I was interested in, was involved in a ton of extracurricular activities, and was (and still am) passionate about writing. But my standardized test scores were horrible, and the math section of my SAT’s was a total embarrassment. I knew that I was smart enough and deserved to get into a good college, but it frustrated me knowing that I had to get above a certain score to get into more selective schools and furthermore because of my race and people’s predisposed assumptions about what “kind” of student I was supposed to be.
My parents told me that I had to be twice as good as everyone else (namely my white peers) to get into these selective universities, because the competition among Asian students, who are all very qualified, is so cutthroat that there’s no way they could take all of us. And while this may be attributed to a number of reasons, I have a theory that the model minority myth reinforces a vicious circle in which Asian students feel pressured by the existing stereotype that they have to have perfect grades and standardized test scores to stand a chance against everyone else of getting into elite universities, and this leads to a reinforcement of that same stereotype that we really all are that smart and hard working, which raises the bar even higher for those who don’t fit into that mold. We are more than just “smart” and “hardworking.” Like everyone else, we’re complicated and passionate and multifaceted and our grade point averages and test scores aren’t the only things that measure our intelligence or how much we deserve to get into Harvard or UC Berkeley. As college decisions come out this season, I want to remind everyone going through the application process: There isn’t one singular thing that quantifies how smart or awesome you are. You should be able to tell your own story in your own words and show them that talent and resilience comes in many forms and being Asian doesn’t mean you have to be the prototypical textbook STEM nerd with perfect stats –– and even if that’s easier said than done, I was in the same boat a year ago. There’s a reason why the model minority myth is just what it is: a myth.