An Asian Field of Dreams?

Phillip Kim
Mar 7th, 2014

FROM SEOUL TO SHANGHAI AND SINGAPORE, these are nervous days for many an Asian household with student-aged children. For months, adolescents and their parents have endured rigorous academic coaching and tutoring, exhausting week-long road trips in the US to visit campuses, writing essays with brain-cramp topics such as “Which song best describes you?” and “Formulate your perfect school curriculum”; and the much-loathed taking of standardized tests. Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom (translated into Chinese and Korean) has been read and committed to memory. Application forms have been filled out and costly application fees paid, with no guarantees of success (unless ba ba happened to have donated enough to the school’s endowment to build a new library wing or science centre). Admissions decisions are now pending. Joss sticks are being burned at temples. Fingernails are being chewed.

The reader of this piece would be forgiven for thinking that the foregoing depicts the lives of Ivy-league university-aspiring Asian families. No, that process is still four years off. This one is for the leading US boarding schools. The schools may not be as widely venerated as Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford. However, to thousands of Asian families, names such as Exeter, Andover, Deerfield, Choate, Lawrenceville, Taft, Hotchkiss or Groton are spoken with equally reverential and exalted tones. Entrance to these schools is seen as a more assured route into a prestigious US university than fighting to differentiate oneself in the rote-toting rigors of secondary schools in Asia. The boarding school campuses are lovely – red brick buildings fronted with neo-classical columns, broad expanses of perfect grass, ponds adorned with lily pads and modern-art fountains – and suffused with traditions espoused through Latin mottoes. And in return for shelling out budget-busting fees, Mom and Dad get to show up at Sunday yum cha (or similar social gatherings) dressed in polo shirts and pullovers emblazoned with names decidedly cooler than Uniqlo or Li Ning.

As it is for their college counterparts, the admissions process for top boarding schools has become dramatically more competitive over the past several years. This year, fewer than one in ten applicants is likely to receive happy news. The odds for Asian applicants is even lower, for several reasons. First of all, the schools have a compulsion for favouring “legacy” applicants from alumni families, most of whom are American. Secondly, the schools try to build diversity – socio-economic and cultural – and not just academic excellence into the student population. And lastly, the allocation of Asian slots is dwarfed by the skyrocketing volume of applicants from the region in recent years. For example, last year Groton School is rumoured to have received thirty applications from Hong Kong alone (for a total Freshman class size of less than one hundred students). They admitted only one student. A commonly accepted truism is that talented students from inner-city Detroit or from Guatemala have a better chance of being admitted than a student named Kim, Lee or Tan.

And yet, for some of the “lucky” few Asians who are admitted, even bigger challenges lay ahead once the school terms begin and the kids face the realities of living far removed from the familiarities of home. Diets get turned upside down. After the initial binging on the bewildering array of neon-coloured American candies and snacks, the inevitable cravings for Asian food is met with sparse choices – starchy Chinese lo mein, pasty futomaki rolls, MSG-laden cup noodles. Socially, there is a seismic lurch towards sports, which consumes a far bigger chunk of the day than in Asia. Many of the choices (e.g. American football, basketball, rowing) are not well-suited to the Asian physique when played amidst Westerners. Perhaps most frighteningly, sudden immersion into American teenage jargon is not for the faint of heart, despite the global availability of YouTube videos and social media sites. Never mind the copious swearing. More importantly, it seems to help to know who Honey-Boo-Boo is (don’t ask) and what YOLO stands for (“you only live once”). Familiarity with K-pop beyond Psy doesn’t quite cut it.

It’s no wonder that Asian parents are often counselled by Headmasters at school orientation gatherings to discourage their children from simply hanging around other Asians. ‘Let your kids learn about America from Americans,’ the parents are advised. What the Headmasters really seem to want to say is, ‘We chose your child because she’s a Super Geek, one who stood out as exceptionally gifted, even in the massive stampede of talented Super Geeks from your country. We need her for the strings section of our orchestra and to fill out the Math Olympiad team. But we also hope to mould her into a free-thinking product of this great and glorious institution. After all, YOLO, right?’

Come what may, and in whatever form success or the other eventually appears, prayers and good wishes go out to all applicant families.


Phillip Kim
Last blog date: Oct 3rd, 2014


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