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Why the kids of Asian immigrants excel – and what it teaches us about stereotypes

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In Canada, statistics show that second-generation children of immigrants outperform their native-born peers. But that's not the full story. Some ethnic groups do very well when it comes to education attainment and professional occupations, while others struggle. Why do kids with parents from places such as China often top the achievement lists?

The simple answer: because their parents expect them to. But that's only the simple answer, according to a fascinating new paper published in the Journal of Race and Social Problems which takes a deep dive on these questions, and comes up with a much more nuanced answer than the cultural-superiority argument put forth by Yale professor and 'Tiger Mom' Amy Chua. As one of the study's authors, Jennifer Lee, noted in an interview this week, the Asian-American success narrative has its costs as well – both for students who don't make the grade, and for how society perceives the achievements of other ethnic groups.

For starters, Lee says, students whose parents come from China leap higher up the ladder than, say, students of Mexican immigrants, because they also start higher on that ladder than many other second-generation children. Their parents are more likely to arrive in the United States with post-secondary education and university graduates beget more university graduates, even if the family's financial means are limited. (Chinese families, Lee says, were also more likely to speak English and own their home – two more advantages.)

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For the paper, Lee, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine, and her co-author Min Zhou, currently at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, conducted qualitative interviews with the adult children of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants in Los Angeles. They found that second-generation Vietnamese students, who often come from families with limited education and far fewer financial means than their Chinese peers, also shine in school and occupation beyond what their social-economic status would predict.

That's where expectations comes in – or what the paper calls, quoting its interview subjects, the understanding that "A is average and B is an Asian fail." One 35-year-old quoted in the study, explains that her mother failed to understand why Americans put so much fanfare into celebrating high school graduation, seeing the diploma as expected, not remarkable. "If you get a PhD or a Master's, that the big thing; that's the icing on the cake with a cherry on top, and that's what she values."

But, as Lee points out, those expectations are also facilitated and supported within the ethnic group. New families – coming from countries where, Lee says, education has "high-stakes" implications for success but getting into university is difficult – are diligent about finding the best schools. These families can more easily find sources within their communities to relay that information, and in the case of many Chinese immigrants, the means to live there. Even when families cannot afford expensive tutoring, their children can get low-cost or free "shadow education" through ethnic organizations or churches. "This is something that other ethnic groups who come with lower education levels lack," Lee says.

The children of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants, Lee says, are also positively influenced by professional and educational role models in their community. At school, they benefit from the positive ethnic stereotype of the diligent hard-working student. In the study, Lee says, parents pushed for their children to be in advanced classes – and some students even admitted to being bumped up by teachers even if their marks didn't justify it.

Lee's work is ultimately a caution about tying an ethnic narrative so tightly to achievement. She points out that most of the people interviewed for the story, while often successful, were not doctors or lawyers, and admitted to feeling they had under-performed based on cultural standards. Some who had pursued careers in areas seen as less prestigious, such as the arts, had cut connections with their ethnic community. As well, Lee says, Asian students may have the highest academic outcomes, but studies suggest they also have the lowest self-esteem.

Lee also points out that crafting a success narrative for one ethnic group creates, by extension, a negative stereotype for others.

"We as a society tend to look at outcomes; they are the most visible markers of success – the type of job you have, the clothes you wear, the car you drive," says Lee. "So it's easy to pinpoint which groups look more successful without thinking about where they started from."

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When success is measured not by where a second-generation child ends up, but by where their immigrant parents began, the storyline shifts – the most successful immigrants in the U.S. are not Chinese, but Mexican. The children of Mexican immigrants, Lee says, had the lowest educational attainment of any ethnic group in her research. Compared to 100 per cent of Chinese-Americans, only 86 per cent graduated from high school. But that rate was more than double their parents. (When it came to college, their rates doubled that of their fathers, and tripled their mothers.) "Even accounting for the additional obstacle for children of undocumented parents," Lee wrote in a recent Time Magazine essay, "there is no question that when we measure success as progress from generation to generation, Mexican-Americans come out ahead."

And you can bet that's just what their parents expected of them.

"It's not a question of certain cultures valuing education more than others," Lee says. "It's really about are we giving groups equal access to resources so that they have a fair shot of getting up that ladder."

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