Asian Students Face Competing Pressures From Family, Peers : Minorities: Children pay a price as they struggle to meet high expectations from parents, and try to fit in.


The story of 17-year-old Magnolia Ramos is as old as the story of immigrant America itself. She came to the South Bay from the Philippines six years ago with parents who wanted her to achieve the American Dream.

She is well on her way: Magnolia graduates in June from Carson High School at the top of her class, a likely valedictorian.

“She is the stereotype,” says her friend Bhea Banares, also an honor student.


Bhea is referring to the Asian stereotype, the model students everyone hears about, the ones who rank at the top of their class, who win the Westinghouse Science Awards, the spelling bees, the National Merit Scholarships and the academic decathlons.

Less noticed is the toll that such achievement can take on Asian children struggling to live up to high expectations.

They often are also burdened with family and social problems that few non-Asian teachers and students understand. For one thing, many Asian youths are pressured by their peers to date and socialize, while their parents expect them to conform to traditional values and devote their time to schoolwork.

It is also common for Asian students--particularly recent immigrants--to be picked on and called derogatory names such as FOB, for “fresh off the boat.”

Torn by family and peer pressure, many Asian students feel lonely, alienated and unable to discuss their problems.

“I’m supposed to be this really smart person. Everybody’s always saying I have to get A’s,” says Magnolia. “But there’s one thing I’m afraid of: ‘What if I fail? Will they still love me?’ ”

Immigrant parents perceive hard work and achievement as the key to “the finer things in life,” says Dhyan Lal, principal at Carson High School and himself an immigrant from the Fiji Islands. “Cars, a nice house, a good job. So you can have a good life. And help the people back home.”

Like many in mainstream America, says Lal, Asians are “looking for a bigger home, to show to friends that they’ve moved to a high-class neighborhood. So they go to Palos Verdes or Torrance or Cerritos.”

Throughout the South Bay, the number of Asians has increased dramatically in the last decade, according to census data. The student population at high schools in Carson, Torrance and Palos Verdes is more than 30% Asian.

Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, where 34% of the students are Asians, also has the most National Merit Scholarship semi-finalists in the state. Only 11 Asian students attend predominantly black and Latino Inglewood High School, but those students are all “at the top of the class,” said Principal Kenneth Crowe.

At some schools, however, Asian students are a small minority. Mira Costa High School in Redondo Beach, for example, is 78% white, and just 6% Asian.

Jayme Yen, a senior at Mira Costa, is a first-generation American, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants who work as aerospace engineers. She says she accepts her parents’ expectation that she will attend an Ivy League school in the fall.

For months before she took the Scholastic Aptitude Test, her father encouraged her to study every night. When she scored 1,420 out of 1,600, “My dad said, ‘Good! Next time you can go for 1,500!’ ”

But Jayme resisted.

“We had so many arguments about it, but I told him: ‘No way. I’m not studying another minute for that test.’ My parents are always saying, ‘You can do better.’ ”

Her father, Kuo-Hsiung Yen, said Asian parents are no different from other parents, but they may place a higher value on education.

“It’s important to try to make her do her best,” he said. “Maybe we have higher expectations. It is our tradition.”

The pressure to succeed is so great among some Asian families at Mira Costa, says junior Nancy Choe, that she chooses not to have many Asian friends.

“Asian kids tend to worry so much about what their parents will think and what everybody else thinks of them. They’re always thinking about keeping up their grades no matter what. I can’t do that.”

Nancy was born in South Korea but moved with her family to Los Angeles when she was 2. Hers are the “cliche of Asian parents,” she says. “They came to the United States and opened a laundry.” The business is near Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, an area notorious for Asian and other gangs.

The family moved from L.A. to Cerritos to Torrance to Manhattan Beach before settling in Redondo Beach. She feels pressure to succeed in mainstream America, and bound by her parents’ ambition and traditions.

“What they want is not what I want,” she says. “They want me to date Asian guys with lots of money.”

But she says her parents also want her to have a better life than they did. “They’re always trying to keep up with the bills. That’s why they want me to study and get a good job.”

The pressure to succeed and conform can make life harder for Asian teen-agers, says Sam Joo, a counselor with the Asian American Drug Abuse Prevention program. In Asian culture, “feelings are not expressed. You have a duty and you do it without griping.”

Nancy says she rarely speaks to her parents. They typically work 13-hour days and speak Korean. Nancy speaks English and some Korean. Neither speaks the other’s language fluently, she says.

At school, the pressure is different. “Some guy was always making fun of me,” she says. “He was constantly fighting with me, calling me (names). I would just yell back at him: ‘Shut up! You’re such an ass!’ You have to blow it off. There’s always going to be people who are racist. You have to ignore it and go on.”

Times staff writer Diane Seo contributed to this story.