Tomorrow’s Test

Life in the Pressure Cooker

Immigration, jobs, and public schools made Northern Virginia a hub of STEM-focused Asian students. What about kids who don’t fit the mold?

Fairfax County is home to immigrants from Korea and Vietnam, from China and the Philippines, from India and Bangladesh and Pakistan and Thailand and Sri Lanka.


CHANTILLY, Virginia—Elaine Chun doesn’t consider herself a “model minority,” at least not by the standards of the affluent Northern Virginia community where she lives. Her Korean parents didn’t go to college, and they don’t work in technical fields; they own two dry cleaners in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. She’s a strong student but more interested in the humanities than science or engineering: She’s the co-editor of Chantilly High School’s  student newspaper and also on the board of the school’s writing center. And unlike many of her peers, Elaine’s parents have generally left her in charge of her own education.

That’s why, the summer after her sophomore year, Elaine was surprised to find her mother, Helen, distraught when she picked her up from the Hagwon, the Korean SAT cram school where many high-schoolers (and, in fact, middle-schoolers) spend their summers. It had been entirely Elaine’s decision to attend this all-day, six-week-long prep session; her parents hadn’t encouraged it but raised no objections. But on that one memorable afternoon, Helen Chun had spent the hours before pickup in a Korean café, having an eye-opening conversation with other parents.

“My mom broke down—she just sat in the car with me after we’d said goodbye to all the other Korean moms, and she told me that she hadn’t even understood what they’d all been talking about in there,” Elaine, currently a senior at Chantilly, says.

“My mom doesn’t really know much about the college process—she’d never even heard of the SAT II before that afternoon! She told me, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you had to take a second SAT?’ ” Elaine says. “She’d just been with all these people who’ve been working since elementary school to shape their children into exactly what colleges are looking for. My mom was totally in shock: ‘You need to tell me this stuff!’ she kept saying. She felt like she wasn’t doing her job as a parent.”

In places like Fairfax County, where a highly competitive magnet school is now nearly three-quarters Asian, the stereotype of the always-studying, MIT-bound minority can seem inescapable to teens like Elaine, a committed student who sometimes feels like one of the few Asian kids she knows whose parents aren’t prodding her toward a career in STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But while the statistics on Asian American achievement in public schools are stunning, that stereotype is ultimately as flimsy as any—even, or perhaps especially, in the era of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and the media’s reliable annual coverage of Asian American students who are accepted by all eight Ivy League schools.

Such narratives oversimplify the diversity of the Asian American population today, which has soared in the past half-century—it’s now the fastest-growing minority group in the country, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, outpacing even Hispanics. It’s not just that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders constitute more than 30 distinct ethnic groups and speak more than 100 different languages, or that Asian Americans have the highest “out-marriage” rate of any major ethnic group in the U.S., with nearly 3 in 10 marrying a non-Asian (Fairfax County census data shows that the percentage of Asian Americans who identify with more than one race or two Asian groups has almost doubled since 2000). Fairfax County is home to immigrants from Korea and Vietnam, from China and the Philippines, from India and Bangladesh and Pakistan and Thailand and Sri Lanka.

It is true that many Asian Americans are doing well. But even the success stories are more complicated than the best-seller list might suggest. Plenty of Asian American kids are going into STEM, but plenty aren’t. Some have pressure-cooker parents; many don’t. The vast majority of students I interviewed are, in some way or another, focused on college and academic success—which also isn’t shocking, since Asian Americans are the most educated immigrant group in the country. (Nearly twice as many Asian Americans have college degrees as the U.S. population at large, according to Pew.) But when you spend some time with teenagers like Elaine, you begin to understand the complex forces underlying the culture of achievement that, on the surface, seems to center on success in the college-admissions rat race.

Like her friend Elaine, Sherry Feng has parents who mostly leave her educational decisions up to her—a freedom both girls consider relatively rare, and welcome, in their peer group. Their parents are just too busy with other responsibilities to attend Back to School Night or obsess over which SAT subject tests their daughters elect to take: Elaine’s parents’ business keeps them at work late, and Sherry’s parents—her dad is a realtor and her mother is a systems engineer—have an older son with autism.

Sherry, whose parents are from China, found Elaine’s mom’s encounter with other parents to be indicative of the college-obsessed culture of Asian Americans. “I find it problematic that Asian families involve themselves in every part of the college admissions process,” Sherry says. “Parents do applications for their kids, write their essays, everything that should be left to a student’s own initiative—but Asian parents in particular overstep that boundary.”

Both girls have, by all accounts, thrived without excessive parental interventions. They take almost all Advanced Placement classes—including multivariable calculus, the most advanced math class at Chantilly. Still, it surprised me that they and other students, particularly those who played sports, found their choices of extracurricular activities to be so mold-breaking. Journalism, Elaine says, “is a really unconventional interest for an Asian kid” in her school.

Sherry—who does ballet for 16 hours a week and is the nationally ranked captain of the Chantilly debate team—says the same of her pursuits. “There have been numerous times where I’ve been the only person in a 25-room chamber of debaters who is Asian American or even who is female.”

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With 1.1 million inhabitants, Fairfax County is the most populous in Virginia, as well as one of the wealthiest and most educated counties in the entire country. As of 2014, 18.9 percent of the county’s residents were of Asian origin, up from 8.5 percent in 1990. (The U.S. as a whole is about 5.8 percent Asian.) And, even more so than in the rest of the country, these numbers are growing at a breakneck pace: By 2020, Fairfax County will be 20 percent Asian; by 2040, 24.4 percent, according to projections made last year by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service—and those projections might be on the low side.

These numbers are particularly remarkable when you consider that, just 50 years ago, there were fewer than 1 million Asians in the whole of the United States. By 2011, that figure had grown to 18.2 million—mostly as a result of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, which abolished national quotas and shifted the priority to reuniting families and bringing in immigrants with certain education levels and professional skills. After centuries of institutional discrimination against Asians, the brain drain began in earnest.

Fairfax County attracted so many Asian immigrants thanks in part to its high concentration of information-technology jobs, both with private companies and for big-time Department of Defense contractors that provide IT support to the federal government. The D.C. area has more than twice the number of STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—jobs than the national average, and Virginia’s share grew faster than any other state’s in the first decade of the millennium. Most of the Asians who immigrated here had these professional skills before they got here—those skills were, in fact, how they got here.

“To get to the U.S.,” says Madeline Hsu, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority, “you needed to be admitted to a school or to have funding, and you were much more likely to do that in a STEM field, so there was a disproportionate concentration of Asian immigrants in STEM fields.” To stay here, you needed an employer who would sponsor you, which was also more likely to happen in a STEM job. And so Asian immigrants chose their professions strategically, to secure a pathway to permanent legal status. “A lot of times we say it’s about culture,” Hsu says, “but the reality is far more pragmatic than that.”

So it makes sense that succeeding at STEM should be de rigueur in their children’s social circles; as Sherry puts it, “there’s an inherent pressure for Asian Americans to be good at certain activities, even if they don’t want to pursue them.” The reason for this is, again, in some part practical: STEM jobs pay, on average, $8 to $18 more an hour than jobs in all other sectors. Reporting this story, I heard plenty of stories about parents who—strictly for financial reasons—didn’t want their kids to become teachers (“unless they were promoted to principal”), or in Sherry’s case, write policy papers for the government—her parents didn’t think she could “feed her family” on a mere fed salary.

Even though she considers them pretty laissez-faire by Asian standards, Sherry’s parents once proposed finance as a career; when she was in third grade, she says, “they tried to teach me how to trade stocks.” (A student at nearby Woodson High School tells me: “I realized I don’t enjoy science and tech as much as I thought, so I’m now leaning toward the humanities,” and by “humanities” she meant majoring in finance and working on Wall Street.) Over time, as Sherry racked up more and more debating honors not just in Virginia but at national tournaments, her parents overcame their initial reluctance about her hobby (especially since it did not, as they’d initially feared, seem to affect her GPA).

Elaine’s parents, likewise relatively laidback about academics, did ask her to explore STEM, “just to see if I liked it” in her first years in high school, then relented when she didn’t. “I tried—I took advanced science classes, but I quickly figured out that it wasn’t my thing,” she says. While she doesn’t know what she’ll do in life, Elaine is now confident that her focus will be in the humanities, and her parents—who gave up their dreams of becoming a dentist and an artist to open their dry cleaners—are OK with that: “My parents don’t put pressure on me to study anything specific, but they do want me to figure out what I want to do so I’m not living a life of regret.”

Chantilly senior Justin Loh, whose mother is Vietnamese and father is Chinese, summarizes his parents’ views on his future life choices as: “ ‘Do what you want to do as long as you can put food on the table.’ ” Justin is a track star whose sprint medley relay team just set a new national record, and despite his IT skills—he’s a tech aid who helps troubleshoot various hardware and software problems at Chantilly—he says that his real passion is taking care of people, and he wants to become a nurse.

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It’s no great aberration that Fairfax County, which attracted so many of these STEM specialists, should be home to the school with the highest SAT score in the country, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. The school’s incoming freshman class is nearly 70 percent Asian American—and that number creeps higher every year.

TJ, as it’s called, is a magnet school that accepts kids from five surrounding counties. Throughout the area, there are cram schools of the type Elaine attended for SAT prep targeted at the TJ admissions test, which start tutoring kids as early as sixth grade for the tests TJ aspirants take in eighth grade (those with the highest scores then submit teacher recommendations and complete short essays at testing sites). Many Asian parents in the area see TJ as a do-or-die destination (for years, the South Korean Embassy posted the school’s admissions guidelines on its website), a necessary stepping stone to the ultimate prize that is admission to a prestigious college.

No one at TJ would deny the importance its culture places on getting into a good college. “Name colleges are definitely important,” one TJ student tells me; says another, “the pressure to get into a good college is always kind of looming from ninth grade on.” At TJ, this focus is not, of course, an exclusively Asian phenomenon; it’s integral to the culture of a school where an astonishing 99 percent of the graduating class goes on to attend a four-year school. And the colleges students choose are impressive, to say the least. In the graduating class of 2014, 10 TJ students were accepted to Stanford (the school with the lowest acceptance rate in the country), 12 to Brown, 11 to Princeton, 46 to Cornell, 16 to MIT, and 19 to Duke. The extremely competitive University of Virginia accepted 168 of the graduating class of 424. And last year, an Indian American TJ student got accepted into all eight Ivy League schools. (She chose Harvard.)

This higher-education obsession exerts a powerful influence not just at TJ but at a “base school” like Chantilly as well, particularly in the Asian community. “If you’re not going to an Ivy League, a lot of Asian just parents don’t care—they almost look down on you if your children don’t achieve at that level,” Sherry says.

This translates into a constant pressure to do well in school. “In our group of friends,” Sherry says, “people are always asking: How many AP classes are you taking? Are you challenging yourself?” Elaine says that she knows the “actual number” of her Asian American friends’ SAT scores, “but this conversation doesn’t come up with friends of other demographics.” Asian American parents, they say, likewise fixate on these numbers, largely through culturally specific and mostly anonymous messaging apps—WeChat for the Chinese parents, and Kakao Talk for Koreans.

While both Elaine and Sherry were in gifted programs in middle school (Fairfax County has a lot of these), neither of them got into TJ, so they both ended up in Chantilly, which is about 12 miles outside the Capital Beltway. Chantilly is huge—and of its 2,370 students, only 12 percent qualify for free and reduced lunches (nationwide, 51 percent of students qualified in 2013).

Chantilly High School’s population, like that of the town, is about a third Asian—a mixture of Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Indian students. Similar to TJ, Chantilly has an impressive graduation rate of 97 percent, which shouldn’t be too surprising in the exceedingly educated corner of the country that is Fairfax County, where 60.3 percent of the population has at least a college degree.

Both girls now say they are grateful that they ended up at a far more typical school like Chantilly, where they found that they could explore wider-ranging interests. TJ is a science- and tech-focused school, where seniors are required to participate in high-level research labs in subjects including astronomy and astrophysics, neuroscience, and quantum physics and optics. (One humanities-oriented TJ student says that she felt she’d “wasted four years of her life taking mandatory senior labs on neurobiology” when she was more interested in history.)

The girls are also thankful their parents have granted them the freedom to make decisions for themselves—even the big ones, like college. Elaine was accepted to all six schools she applied to; since she’d already decided to stay in Virginia for financial reasons, she is going with the University of Virginia. Sherry, who was offered a full scholarship to Vanderbilt University, is headed to Duke University—not the Ivy League, but pretty close.

Tomorrow’s Test is a weeklong series looking at the challenges, tensions, and opportunities as the United States shifts to a majority-minority student population in its public schools—a milestone the country as a whole will reach within the next generation. It is a collaboration with the Teacher Project at Columbia Journalism School, a nonprofit education reporting fellowship.

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