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Asian-American youth hard-pressed

The Virginia Tech massacre exposes social pressures on the community, reports Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

world Updated: Apr 23, 2007 02:56 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

When the gunman who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech was identified as Korean, many Asian-Americans wondered if he had been driven by the social pressures they associate with their community.

Cho Seung-Hui's deranged video put paid to the cultural thesis, but the community is still soul-searching. Says Michael Hong, vice-president for external relations for the Korean American Association of Greater New York. "Korean society puts a lot of insistence on doing well. That contributes to a lot of pressure on younger Korean-Americans." However, he says, that was not the trigger for Cho's behaviour, which "was definitely a case of individual sickness."

However, there is evidence Asian-American children can find themselves in a pressure cooker. A study found suicide was the second leading cause of death among young Asian-Americans between 15 and 24, more than the national average. Asian-American girls between 15 and 24 have the highest rates of depressive symptoms and suicide rates among all racial groups in the US, said a 2003 study.

Edward Taehan Chang, ethnic studies professor at the University of California-Riverside, speaks of "the burden of double expectation" that Asian-Americans carry. First, there is the "myth of the model minority" which demands they be hard-working high-achievers. Second, there are the expectations of academic accomplishment from family. "Parents often don't understand how much pressure is created."

Indian-Americans are no shirkers when it comes to expecting children to do well in school and career. Madhulika Khandelwal of the Asia America Center, Queens College, says the community has its own "model minority myth". There is great income variety among Indian-Americans than is recognised. "The community likes to paper over class differences." The focus is on the investment bankers. The taxi drivers get overlooked.

Assimilation in the US poses another set of problems. Observers of the Korean community often speak of the "1.5 generation": Asian-Americans who came to the US between the ages of seven and 11. "If they succeed they do well. Speaking a second language is useful in a global society," says Chang. "But sometimes they don't speak either language well. They have serious problems becoming a member of either Korean or American society." Cho came to the US when he was eight.

Indian-Americans may have an advantage. Indians come from "a postcolonial society with a lot of British exposure," says Khandelwal. Their command of English is an advantage in the US. Khandelwal says Korean colleagues tell her Indian migrants seem to handle the transition easily.

However, it's not all milk and honey for Indian migrants. "Identity is not something that a migrant to the US gets automatically," says Khandelwal. Going to college — when youth are separated from family and exposed to a broad spectrum of people – often generates "anxiety and isolation" and makes second or third generation immigrants "wonder about their place in society." Lower-class Indians don't even have a linguistic leg-up because they are often "uncomfortable with speaking English".

Chang believes Koreans were traditionally more demanding on their children than other Asian-Americans groups. However, all groups are addicted to what he calls the "education gamble". They invest everything into one basket and have no alternative if that doesn't work. "Cho, for example, was a gambling failure. His sister, who goes to Princeton, is a success." Fortunately, he says, Asian-American parents are learning to ease off a bit. Even Koreans seem to be coming around to the view that if their children "make it to college, that's success enough. After that, it's hands off."

First Published: Apr 23, 2007 02:35 IST

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