The Pressure to Succeed


Not all Asian-American students share the same cultural upbringing

Meghan Morris / For The Post

At 6 years old, Che Hung Wang left Taiwan and emigrated to the U.S. with his mom, leaving his dad and older siblings behind.

Wang, a sophomore studying finance and management information systems, encountered many financial and language barriers during his first few years living in the U.S. But he still found a way to succeed in academics.

He was the valedictorian of his high school class and will have completed four internships by the end of this summer.

“I went into everything, and I did it to the best of my ability,” he said.

During his senior year of high school, Wang kept busy with online college classes, an accounting internship and sports. He could have graduated early during his junior year, but he decided to stay another year.

Some Ivy League universities accepted Wang but wouldn’t give him enough financial aid, so he came to Ohio University instead. Making a fresh start at college, he didn’t feel like he belonged during his first semester in Athens.

“You just had to find your own way to make yourself stand out,” he said.

A survey done by Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education indicated Asian-American students lack a sense of belonging compared to non-Asian-American students. Some Asian-American students at OU have shared that feeling while starting their higher education because they don’t see many faces of the same ethnicity or have felt left out.

Does anyone really belong?

Eyunji Kim, a junior studying health service administration, came to OU because her second-oldest brother was already in Ohio studying welding engineering. Coming to Athens gave her a “culture shock” because Saipan, the U.S. territory she lived in, had more racial diversity. She had a hard time making friends during her freshman year and felt alone because she couldn’t find many Asian students around campus.

“You just had to find your own way to make yourself stand out."Che Hung Wang, a sophomore studying finance and management information systems

Ami Scherson, a junior studying music, said she felt excluded at OU because not many members of the Asian-American community on campus wanted to intermingle. She said some of them feel uncomfortable discussing culture, while others might look down on Asian peers depending on immigration status. But she has close friends of the same ethnicity now.

“I feel the most sense of belonging when I’m with a group of very strong and supportive Asian-American people,” she said. “I also have allies who are white or black or Hispanic who really understand and make me as comfortable as possible, but I think I’ve very much grown as a person since increasing my Asian-American friends in my life.”

All of Scherson’s classmates in her instrumental studio class are Asian, and they’re taught by an Asian professor. The entire class feels comfortable discussing racial topics and occasionally bonds over dinner. One student has even brought the instructor Chinese medicine when she was sick, and it reminded the instructor of her childhood.

People have given two contrasting reactions to her decision to pursue music, Scherson said. They’ll either be surprised because it’s not a career with high social standing, or they’ll think it makes sense because it’s stereotypical of Asians to play musical instruments.

Japanese people have different priorities when viewing colleges than Americans because a college’s ranking matters more than selection of majors. Her parents urged her to pick a well-paying career and attend a highly-ranked university.

Scherson points to a missed opportunity her dad had when he was younger as possibly influencing her career choice.

“My dad really wanted to pursue music but due to the coup d’etat, the military takeover, he had to pursue something else so he could leave the country,” she said. “Now, I’m able to follow the dream that he had.”

Striving above stereotypes

Wang said his major was a “safe route” given his background with finances. By 7, he knew how to open a bank account, write checks and apply for loans. He started investing in the stock market when he was 18.

Until third grade, Wang was unaware of how poor he was compared to classmates. But that changed when someone made a snide remark about his pants because they were short at the ankles.

“Some girl here, in my school, asked me if I was preparing for a flood,” Wang said. “I started crying.”

Later that year, Wang found a way to make some money by flipping shoes. He started with a pair from a friend and then obtained brand-name shoes from the basketball team. He sold overstock for a local store online, everything from football cleats to Nicotine gum to makeup, while still in school.

With a business partner by his side last year, Wang raised the stakes and created an official business called Simple Needs LLC. The company has brought in more than $100,000 in sales so far.

Kim said neither of her parents attended college, so they wanted better for their children.

Twenty-nine percent of Asians living in the U.S. have only completed a high school education or less, according to the Pew Research Center.

During high school, Kim planned on enrolling at a community college to save money, but her mom urged her to go to a university.

“If she didn’t really push me, I would be at a community college right now or I might not even have gone to school,” she said.

Speaking out

For some Asian-American students, not having a common language with classmates was a barrier before they came to college.

Wang spoke only Chinese and Thai when he first came to the U.S. But his curiosity about cars at a local church one Sunday led him to meeting a retired pastor. They quickly developed a bond, and the pastor taught him English.

About 41 percent of people in the U.S. speak English less than “very well,” according to a detailed languages report in 2015 from the Census Bureau.

Yoon-Joo Moh, a senior studying music, said her family moved to the U.S. when she was a baby because her dad was pursuing a doctoral degree. Growing up, she spoke Korean and English with her parents, so she still doesn’t know which was her first language.

Regardless of her proficiency in English, she was placed in a class that was meant to teach the language to foreign students during first grade. The class had two other Asian students who already knew English as well. After her parents complained to the school, she was able to withdraw.

“We were the only minorities in our class,” she said. “I think our principal at this time assumed we were not familiar with English based on our race.”

Kim doesn’t consider herself as fluent in Korean as someone who grew up in the country, even though she has the ability to speak, read and write it.

She has a Korean roommate, but the two never speak the language to each other.

When she visits other family in South Korea, she isn’t confident about her language abilities because the way she speaks Korean might sound broken to them.

Moh said her parents kept a traditional Korean household by speaking the language and often cooking Korean meals. Some kids would tease her about Korean aspects of her identity such as the food in her lunch or her name.

“The fact that I looked different and had a unique name already made me stand out, which was difficult for me to handle,” she said.

She made efforts to blend in with peers at school by having friends who looked different from her, especially because she never saw herself represented in popular media.

Being away from her parents, who moved back to South Korea, made her want to appreciate her Korean heritage more. Moh enjoys cooking traditional dishes for her friends and occasionally listening to Korean music. She’s also fortunate enough to visit overseas family during breaks and become completely enveloped in the culture.

Scherson has always been proud of her Japanese heritage because she’s close with her Japanese mother. She has only seen her Chilean father more recently and has just started identifying with that side of her family by learning Spanish and connecting with his relatives.

“Even though I’m biracial, a lot of people don’t see otherwise,” she said. “Since I was little, having that pressure on me, I just decided I want to identify with one race. But when I tell people my background (now), I will always tell them both races.”

Scherson said her drive to succeed in school comes from the motivation and inspiration of her parents.

“My parents are immigrants, and I was taught that you need to work your butt off,” Scherson said. “They worked really hard to come to this country and make sure I had this good life.”

Development by: Taylor Johnston / Digital Production Editor

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