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The Asian American Achievement Paradox

The Asian American Achievement Paradox

Jennifer Lee
Min Zhou
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    The Asian American Achievement Paradox
    Book Description:

    Asian Americans are often stereotyped as the "model minority." Their sizeable presence at elite universities and high household incomes have helped construct the narrative of Asian American "exceptionalism." While many scholars and activists characterize this as a myth, pundits claim that Asian Americans' educational attainment is the result of unique cultural values. InThe Asian American Achievement Paradox, sociologists Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou offer a compelling account of the academic achievement of the children of Asian immigrants. Drawing on in-depth interviews with the adult children of Chinese immigrants and Vietnamese refugees and survey data, Lee and Zhou bridge sociology and social psychology to explain how immigration laws, institutions, and culture interact to foster high achievement among certain Asian American groups.

    For the Chinese and Vietnamese in Los Angeles, Lee and Zhou find that the educational attainment of the second generation is strikingly similar, despite the vastly different socioeconomic profiles of their immigrant parents. Because immigration policies after 1965 favor individuals with higher levels of education and professional skills, many Asian immigrants are highly educated when they arrive in the United States. They bring a specific "success frame," which is strictly defined as earning a degree from an elite university and working in a high-status field. This success frame is reinforced in many local Asian communities, which make resources such as college preparation courses and tutoring available to group members, including their low-income members.

    While the success frame accounts for part of Asian Americans' high rates of achievement, Lee and Zhou also find that institutions, such as public schools, are crucial in supporting the cycle of Asian American achievement. Teachers and guidance counselors, for example, who presume that Asian American students are smart, disciplined, and studious, provide them with extra help and steer them toward competitive academic programs. These institutional advantages, in turn, lead to better academic performance and outcomes among Asian American students. Yet the expectations of high achievement come with a cost: the notion of Asian American success creates an "achievement paradox" in which Asian Americans who do not fit the success frame feel like failures or racial outliers. While pundits ascribe Asian American success to the assumed superior traits intrinsic to Asian culture, Lee and Zhou show how historical, cultural, and institutional elements work together to confer advantages to specific populations. An insightful counter to notions of culture based on stereotypes,The Asian American Achievement Paradoxoffers a deft and nuanced understanding how and why certain immigrant groups succeed.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-850-5
    Subjects: Sociology, Education

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures and Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. About the Authors
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xx)
    Jennifer Lee
  6. Chapter 1 What Is Cultural About Asian American Achievement?
    (pp. 1-20)

    In 2012 the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C., released a report entitled “The Rise of Asian Americans,” based on a national survey of the largest Asian ethnic groups in the United States.¹ In part, the title refers to changing demographic trends: the number of Asian immigrants has surpassed the number of Latino immigrants, and Asian Americans are now the fastest-growing group in the country. The “rise” also refers to socioeconomic trends: Asian Americans have the highest median household income and highest level of education of all groups, including native-born whites. For example, half of...

  7. Chapter 2 Immigration, Hyper-Selectivity, and Second-Generation Convergence
    (pp. 21-50)

    The Chinese and Vietnamese are the largest and fourth-largest Asian-origin groups in the United States, respectively.¹ Although they may both be racialized as “Asian” in the U.S. context, the two national-origin groups differ in migration histories, conditions of emigration, socioeconomic backgrounds, and resettlement patterns. In this chapter, we provide a brief historical account of Chinese and Vietnamese migration to the United States and show how these two groups vary with respect to hyper-selectivity and host-society reception—both of which affect their patterns of incorporation. Most remarkable, however, is that despite the enormous interethnic differences between the first generation, the second...

  8. Chapter 3 The Success Frame and the Asian F
    (pp. 51-68)

    As early as 1967, the sociologists Peter Blau and Otis Dudley Duncan noted that the strongest predictor of a son’s occupational attainment is his father’s occupation—a key finding that they published in their pioneering studyThe American Occupational Structure.¹ Blau and Duncan’s study shows that life chances are unequal out of the starting gate because advantages and disadvantages are transmitted intergenerationally. If a son is fortunate to be born with a father who is highly educated and holds a high-status job, he is likely to reproduce those advantages in adulthood.

    Since Blau and Duncan’s pioneering study, sociologists have followed...

  9. Chapter 4 Reinforcing the Success Frame
    (pp. 69-92)

    In the previous chapter, we explained how Chinese and Vietnamese immigrant parents construct a strict success frame for their children, expecting them to get straight A’s in high school, attend a prestigious university, earn an advanced degree, and secure a high-status, well-paying job in one of the four coveted professions: doctor, lawyer, scientist, or engineer. However, simply adopting a success frame does not ensure the desired outcome. For a frame to be effective, it needs to be supported by reinforcement mechanisms, in the absence of which the frame can change and diversify.

    Chinese and Vietnamese immigrant parents recognize that in...

  10. Chapter 5 Comparing Success Frames
    (pp. 93-114)

    Chinese and Vietnamese immigrant parents and their children construct a strict success frame that includes a specific educational pathway to one of four elite professions, and they employ familial, institutional, and ethnic resources and strategies they employ to reinforce this frame. In this chapter, we compare the success frame of 1.5- and second-generation Chinese and Vietnamese to the success frames of other groups, including 1.5- and second-generation Mexicans and third-plus-generation whites and blacks in Los Angeles. We address the central question: how unique is the success frame of the 1.5- and second-generation Chinese and Vietnamese? To compare success frames, we...

  11. Chapter 6 Symbolic Capital and Stereotype Promise
    (pp. 115-138)

    Jeremy Lin catapulted into the American spotlight in February 2012 when he led the New York Knicks to an improbable and fantastic seven-game winning streak, generating the global phenomenon “Linsanity.”¹ As one of only a few Asian American athletes in the history of the National Basketball Association (NBA), the first American-born player of Chinese descent, and the first Harvard graduate to play in the league for almost sixty years, Lin has tackled many firsts and, in the process, broken many barriers.Timemagazine put Lin at number one on its list of “100 Most Influential People in the World” in...

  12. Chapter 7 Mind-Sets and the Achievement Paradox
    (pp. 139-160)

    People adopt different mind-sets about talents and abilities. The social psychologist Carol Dweck has identified two main types, a fixed mind-set and a growth mind-set, and found that an individual’s mind-set affects performance.¹ Those with a fixed mind-set believe that intelligence, talents, and abilities are innate and fixed traits and therefore that the extent to which an individual’s performance can improve is limited. By contrast, individuals with a growth mind-set believe that these traits can be developed through effort, perseverance, and mentoring, which will lead to improved performance. Based on decades of experimental research with adolescent students on how mind-sets...

  13. Chapter 8 Success at All Costs
    (pp. 161-178)

    The success frame comes at a cost and has far-reaching, sociologically significant consequences. While Chinese and Vietnamese immigrant parents believe that increased effort improves outcomes, their children’s performance does not always match expectations, despite their increased effort. As we showed in the previous chapter, an exclusive emphasis on performance outcomes can undermine students’ willingness to tackle challenging tasks, detract from learning, and lower students’ confidence when their outcomes fall short of expectations.¹ The children of Asian immigrants are susceptible to these consequences, especially those who aim for but fall short of the success frame. When Asian American students are unable...

  14. Chapter 9 The Asian American Achievement Paradox: Culture, Success, and Assimilation
    (pp. 179-200)

    How do we explain the Asian American achievement paradox? That is the central question that we address in this book. More specifically, how have the children of Chinese immigrants and Vietnamese refugees attained such exceptional levels of education in spite of the diverse origins of their parents and in spite of the working-class backgrounds from which some of them hail? Understanding the pattern of second-generation convergence is vexing, given the variation among immigrant parents with respect to their immigration histories, educational selectivity, and resettlement patterns. Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles, on average, are a highly selected and highly educated group—...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 201-214)
  16. References
    (pp. 215-236)
  17. Index
    (pp. 237-246)