I was relaxing in my Shanghai hotel room when I read an article by Anemona Hartocollis in the New York Times. The article explained that in its application process, Harvard consistently rates Asian-Americans lower than other applicants on positive personality traits such as kindness, likeability and courage.
Although Asian-Americans outperformed all other racial and ethnic groups on academic and extracurricular achievements, the article reported, these lower personality rankings “significantly dragged down their chances of being admitted.”
The language surrounding Asians and affirmative action often begins with this assumption: Asians are disproportionately smart, but are also disproportionately monotonous in their personalities and interests.
My whole life, I’ve been told implicitly and explicitly that in order to be considered successful in college admissions and in American society, I need to be as un-Asian as possible. I need to break from the pack. I need to be better: not simply against others, but against other Asians. As a result, I’ve had a persistent fear of becoming “another”— another Asian mathlete, another Asian pianist, another Asian you-name-it.
But I’m guilty of perpetuating the monotony myth myself — I used to be one of the worst offenders of Asian stereotyping. During high school, I was heavily involved in a team reforming the GPA system to reduce incentives for AP classes and lessen student stress. We experienced harsh criticism from the Asian-American community, who accused us of targeting Asian-American students and attacking their academic achievements. I was so frustrated.
“All these Asians are robots who only care about grades and rank,” I fumed to myself.
My sentiments at the time were based on an unfair assumption — echoed now in the discussion surrounding the Harvard lawsuit — that Asian-Americans, as a whole, tend to be grade-obsessed robots with lower positive personality traits. From there the question becomes: Should we sacrifice racial diversity at elite colleges in order to admit more hyper-intelligent, therefore “deserving” robots?
Even though the resounding answer is “no,” in regards to the Asian dilemma, the question itself misses the point.
I think of my time in Shanghai alone: I stood there at a crosswalk, watching a Chinese street worker picking trash off the sidewalk as smartly dressed Chinese women, a group of laughing Chinese men and Chinese schoolchildren in uniforms waited to cross the street. A Chinese person rang up my hamburger and a Chinese airport official checked my passport. One young couple obsessed over their past selfies on the subway, and one elderly couple fed me watermelon and grapes on a sleeper train.
This is diversity.
It took me staying in China to realize how complicated and behemoth the place my family came from is. Imagine South Korea, India, Vietnam, Japan, Laos, Malaysia — each country a different world within a world, flavoring its community in America with its stories, struggles and ethos, but each immigrant retaining the trillions of experiences, ideas and emotions that make him or her human.
In America, we run off expectations — the expectations of ourselves, parents, community and the country. Assuming Asian intelligence is as harmful as assuming our lower positive personality traits because it skews expectations. This is the heart of discrimination: skewed expectations.
For example, there’s no denying that in broad strokes, Chinese immigrants in America tend to value education. But there are so many concrete factors that contributed to trends like those reported in the Times. For example, in my parents’ generation of immigrants, only college graduates were permitted to enter America to pursue graduate studies. Perceived Chinese intelligence is a product of immigration policy and patterns, not intrinsic qualities of the ethnicity.
As a Chinese-American in my first year at Yale, I want to feel pride. In being admitted to this University, I’ve succeeded in passing the more difficult standards set for Asian-Americans on whole.
But I feel so much injustice. As I start to go through Yale and enter society, I can’t help but wonder what skewed expectations and unfair standards I’ll be held to purely by being Chinese.
In general, the best way to address skewed expectations is to nuance public awareness. Asian-Americans make up 5.6 percent of America’s population, so there aren’t many stories by and about us in America. There aren’t enough stories about all kinds of Asians in America — in literature, in movies, in the news. In order to promote more fair conversation about how America treats Asian-Americans, college admissions — Yale’s, Harvard’s and others’ — need to be reformed. Students should be able to pursue their interests vivaciously and without fear of being viewed through narrow lenses as just another.
Isabella Zou is a first year in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .