There’s the stereotype that Asians are smart at school, always doing very well and coming in top of the class. There’s the stereotype that Asians get straight A’s on their exams and are academically gifted.
Not to brag but I was one of these students in high school and university. While doing the O’Levels in Singapore, I brought home trophies for the best student in English across my cohort and getting six distinctions in my final year of schooling there. So I well and truly fit this stereotype.
It’s no secret school is competitive in Asian countries and it’s a race to the top of the class there. In Australia, students with Asian-born parents outperform students with Caucasian-born parents and get honorable mentions in school, doing very well in subjects like Maths, Chemistry and Physics, and English too.
Sometimes we’re pressured by our parents to do well at school, so we study hard and accumulate more knowledge in our minds. Chinese-American author Amy Chua exemplifies this in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother which garnered quite a lot of backlash, documenting her strict typical Asian parenting rules that lead to her daughters doing well at school.
When I was younger, my dad said to me over and over again, “Everyone has a degree now. Everyone. You don’t want to get left behind.” I suppose what he meant was school goes some way in getting us somewhere: gets us a fairly good job to support yourself, and your parents in the later years. And so our Confucian, filial-piety ethics drive us to study hard and in a sense be clever at school. Achievement at school is like a duty that we owe to our parents for some of us.
Longer school hours in many Asian countries means more time to learn and know the textbook back to front like the palm of our hand. I blearily blinked at the whiteboard in the classroom at 7.30am during high school days in Singapore and was always wide-awake at 2pm when school finished – just in time for remedial classes. There’s not forgetting evening tuition classes but my parents decided not to spend money on that, instead presenting me with the maths revision books when I came home from school in Singapore and Australia.
Perhaps some of us are just naturally smart. Studies have shown that kids in Asian countries perform better at school and have higher IQs, though their parents might not have had much of an education back in their day. Then again, every research study is subjective.
Maybe formulaic chalk-and-talk teaching systems in many schools in Asia – we sit quietly in class listening to teachers repeat formulas and equations over and over again, and think it’s disrespectful to talk while the teacher’s talking. I remember nodding along in maths class in Singapore, memorising formulas without knowing how they came about and just scribbled them down in the exams. That actually got me the marks.
I do remember my teachers in Singapore telling my classmates and I to sit in teams and do group work (think coming up with answers to questions put to us as a group) quite a bit a t school. Though schools in Asia have tried “teach less learn more” approaches in the classroom, this method doesn’t look like it’s here to stay. For most part, it seems that it’s not that we’re smart, but more so that we know the value of being hard-working and earning our slice of the pie. Sometimes some of us come to class knowing what the teachers will teach – I did my final years of school in Melbourne and realised half of the secondary school maths syllabus had been covered by my teachers in Singapore.
There are different kinds of smart. There’s study smart, the lessons you learn in the classroom. Then there’s street smart, the lessons you learn outside of the classroom from life experiences. Whether Asian or not, we all love to travel, and these days parents gladly shell out thousands of dollars for their kids’ graduation trips abroad post-high school or university. Seems many of us agree that we learn from once-in-a-lifetime experiences traveling the world. As my dad asked me when I was halfway through university, “Do you want to travel? Experience something different? I pay.
Over the years, I’ve learnt that getting an education and distinctions at school doesn’t necessarily guarantee us a job; sometimes we can’t keep listening to others but need to listen to ourselves. Though I’ve an undergraduate and post-graduate degree (majoring in cultural studies and applied maths), finding a job that I enjoy let alone a job itself has always been hard for me. It’s probably partly because sometimes nothing can really prepare you for spontaneous interviews and everyone wants a job these days – getting job is mostly a matter of luck.
And last year I visualised my book finished and on sale…amongst the millions and millions of other books online and in store. I then realised writing and my dream of being a writer doesn’t pay the bills unless you sell millions of books each year. Maybe I really wasn’t so smart at school after all.
Finding the answers to who we are, what we want to do with our life and finding time for all that we do. They don’t come from the classroom, but from within us as we journey in this world.
Were/are you a hardworking student at school?