Many Americans know Amy Chua from her popular and controversial parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In the book she describes a strict, aggressive kind of parenting aimed at creating Ivy League bound superstars. At least with her two daughters, Chua’s efforts paid off – both were accepted to Yale. The book touched off a firestorm of debate, particularly because of a Wall Street Journal editorial promoting Chua’s methods titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Reactions ranged from effusive praise for Chua’s methods to disgust that any parents could treat their children so harshly in pursuit of grades and college acceptances
Much has been written about Asian-American presence in higher education. Even if activists protest the model minority stereotype, Asian-Americans reliably pick up college degrees and top test scores far out of proportion to their share of the population. The trend is not limited to the United States. In the 2009 PISA test, Chinese students outperformed the entire world, with students from Shanghai scoring higher than any in the United States. Contrasted against the lackluster showing by American students, the results caused President Obama to declare it this generation’s “Sputnik moment”, calling for more focus on education, particularly in science and technology. Indeed, from Shanghai to New Haven, the world is awed by Chinese test taking prowess.
In the American context, the highest achieving Asian ethnicities are Chinese, Koreans, and Indians. Those groups have long been a fixture of elite universities, and increasingly, government departments and corporate boardrooms. Filipino-Americans, despite being the 2nd largest Asian-American ethnic group, are not as strongly represented in elite universities. Elite schools, particularly Ivy League universities, are the pipeline for America’s future government officials, CEO’s, and media personalities. While reformers might lament the form and character of American higher education, a degree from an elite university remains a somewhat reliable ticket to middle class prosperity and career success.
At the same time, in the already ferociously competitive college admissions process, Filipino-Americans tend not to prepare as intensely as other Asian groups. There is no such thing as Philippine cram school. Meanwhile, Koreans attend hagwons and Chinese go to buxiban. In the Confucian influenced cultures of North Asia, diligent study and academic success are fundamental. While Filipinos, whether at home or abroad, also value education, they tend not to emphasize it to the same degree as their Asian neighbors. For Fil-Ams, the stakes are getting higher. College has never been more expensive. At the same time, political battles over affirmative action continue to roil courts and universities. A group called Project for Fair Representation brought a suit against Harvard late last year, alleging that the university discriminates against qualified Asian-American applicants. Many have suspected that the Ivies have an “Asian quota”, making entry into the most selective universities in the country even more competitive. Filipinos are grouped as Asians by the US Census, making universities judge them by the already high standard set by Chinese, Koreans, and Indians.
It might appear that what Filipino-Americans need is an industrial strength dose of tiger mothering. After all, if academic success, entry into selective schools, and career success follow one after the other, it would be negligent for parents not to drive their children hard. While all students, Filipino or otherwise, should aspire to excellence, a single-minded focus on perfect SAT scores and brand name colleges is not a foolproof cure. Race based preferences in college admissions has been a political hot potato for decades and no policy has ever come close to resolving it. Regardless of their public statements, elite universities have shown through their actions that having a racially balanced student body trumps solely merit based admissions. This is not entirely indefensible, but no universities have been so brave as to state these intentions directly. At the same time, because of how broadly the US Census labels Asians, “Asian” on an elite university campus means a handful of high performing ethnicities. Other Asian nationalities, particularly Southeast Asians, are often completely shut out. Filipinos, Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodians, and Indonesians receive no preferences, even if they are poor or disadvantaged. These groups can exist in a starkly different world from the stereotypical model minority. For example, according to the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, just 27% of Vietnamese-Americans graduate from college.
Despite these factors, Filipino-Americans are among the most successful ancestry groups in the United States. In a 2004 survey, Fil-Ams had the second highest household income of all ethnic groups in the United States. Particularly in healthcare, entertainment, the military, and the global shipping industry, Filipinos have succeeded on their own terms. Just last year, Captain Ronald Ravelo became the first Filipino-American to command an aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln. This isn’t to suggest that generals, sailors, boxers, singers, and ship captains are better than Ivy League graduates. Rather, paths to success for Filipinos, particularly blue collar workers, are not always through academics. It so happens that for certain other Asian nationalities, academic success is strongly emphasized as the primary mode of advancement. They should be lauded for their achievements, but not mindlessly imitated. After all, no amount of nagging and hectoring will turn a carabao into a tiger cub. Filipinos have never been a nation of test takers. Fil-Am kids are rarely driven to create the perfect college app or take every Advanced Placement class possible. But as the process becomes so competitive that even perfect candidates sometimes don’t make the cut, there should be little reason to feel left out. If elite universities decide that Filipinos don’t add to the diversity of their campuses, it is their loss, not ours. We have more to offer the world than flawless applications and high test scores, and we should be glad for that.
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About the author
Cristobal Zarco was born in the Philippines and grew up in New York, specifically Long Island. He graduated with a degree in political science from Adelphi University. He enjoys tracking down books about Philippine history and exploring lesser known parts of New York City.