Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Whole Maclean's "Too Asian" Thing

I'm sure by now, a lot of people, especially in Canada have read about the Maclean's "Too Asian" article.  While I agree that the article is poorly written and researched, this HAS been an issue for many years.  I'm actually surprised it took them this long to talk about it.  When I was applying for universities 13 years ago, it was very well known which schools were where the Asian kids went and which ones were not.  The top three choices for the Class of 1998 at my school were the University of Toronto, McGill and Queen's.  The girls who chose U of T were overwhelmingly East Asian (or to be more accurate, Chinese), while McGill and Queen's was mostly white. I also doubt that these girls kept their noses in books when they were undergrads.  If their university behaviour was anything like high school, then they would have partied a great deal - hey, it's Toronto, after all.  There are plenty of karaoke clubs and other places where you can chill, have fun and get drunk.  I think the whole stereotype of Asians being extremely studious probably comes from the fact that they party with their own friends from their own culture rather than "everyone else."

There was a lot of voluntary ethnic segregation at my high school.  It was a girls only private school similar to Havergal (where the two of the girls in the article attended) and some of it probably has to do with boarding vs. day students than actual culture (boarding students see each other 24/7 and are pretty much another family.  Naturally, they'd hang out with each other more than with people they only see while they're in class).  Many of the East Asian students were boarders.  I think a lot of people calling out on the article don't really understand this cultural difference.  I don't blame them.   Most people in the city went to public day schools and don't really know the independent school culture. There were also some language issues (though a typical foreign-born Asian student at my school was tons and tons better in English than newcomers at a typical public school.  I don't think the typical newcomer with very limited English could even survive a semester at my school), sure, and many were quite shy when it came to presentations.  That's probably why a lot gravitated towards the sciences or more math-oriented business courses (accounting = no presentations).  Hey, I was like one of two Asians in OAC Writer's Craft.  Advanced Placement Calculus?  Pretty much 98% Asian.  And I don't think the grad class was any more than 40% Asian (probably more like 30-35%).

Ethnic segregation occured with extra-curricular activities as well, and this probably has to do with exposure. In many modern Asian cultures, both in Asia and in western countries, kids start learning music around kindergarten.  Taking up piano or violin at the age of four or five is a sign of middle class success (think Jane Austen).  If a kid keeps it up, he or she would be very music-literate by the age of 12, when many schools start offering instrumental music (having taken piano since I was four, it was really frustrating for me to sit through music classes where the teacher explained to everyone else what middle C looked like.  Music class was boring because of that).  That was probably why there were many Asian members in instrumental music ensembles at my school.  Since admission is by audition, many of these kids who have been playing some sort of instrument for close to 10 years by the time they audition, will be much better than someone who has only been playing for two or three years.  Of course, this isn't to say that every single upper middle class Asian kid is fluently music literate.  There are many who aren't.  As for sports, the badminton teams at almost every age level was dominated by Asian students.  Badminton is a pretty popular sport over there, and again, competitive sports teams choose their athletes based on ability.  If someone has been playing for years, he/she is probably pretty good, and therefore more likely to be picked for the team. That's probably also why you don't see too many Asian kids (particularly  girls) play on the hockey team.  An Asian Canadian girl probably took skating as a kid, but it isn't likely that her parents (very likely immigrants) would have encouraged her to play hockey.  And the foreign kid probably didn't step on the ice for the first time until she arrived in the country.  How could you expect one to be able to make a school team?  You want your team to win, not lose.  As for other clubs, math was very much Asian, while, say, women's activism and debating were not.  Extra-curricular activities play an important role in friendships, so again, Asian kids are hanging out with the Asian kids and non-Asian with non-Asian (for the most part, anyway...there were definitely non-Asians in instrumental music ensembles as well as a small handful in badminton.  There were also Asians who were in debating.  No Asians played (ice) hockey, from what I recall, though.  Maybe things are different now.)

So back to the whole university situation.  A lot of people applied to the same schools their friends applied to.  Others applied to the same schools as the "cool kids" in an attempt to become more popular.  The definition of who is cool and who isn't depends on your social group. While U of T wasn't where most non-Asian students ultimately chose (McGill was - likely because people found Montreal exotic, alluring and sophisticated.  Queen's and Western, both known for school spirit, were also top choices), for many of the Asian kids, it was cool to go to U of T.  Not only is it a well-known school with an excellent reputation abroad, but there's so much more to do in Toronto, especially at night.  I mean, the clubs in Kingston, for example, are no where near as good (and sometimes, fancy) as Toronto - sorry folks, but as much as I went to places like Stages and AJ's, they really weren't that great.  They were kind of dirty, too (not that there aren't any gross/dirty clubs in Toronto or Montreal).  I also don't remember any good loungey type bars in Kingston.  And while Montreal's night scene is even better, many may be worried that the Quebecois are xenophobic and in any case, the Chinese food isn't as good (I think, anyway). On top of that, those whose families are in town can live at home, saving them (and their parents) thousands of dollars (this may actually be why U of T is seen as uncool by some people.  University is a time to learn more about yourself, and what better way to do that by going away?)  It could also mean that they can get a complete free ride courtesy of the parents.  No worries about having to pay back loans means that they can save up to buy a nice home for themselves a lot earlier or use the money to travel.  As for why Waterloo is "cool" considering that it's 90 minutes away by car:  90 minutes isn't THAT bad (compared to 2 1/2 hours for Kingston and London and 5-5 1/2 hours for Montreal).  And the programs there are, for the most part, co-op).

ETA:  They really shouldn't have spoken with girls from private schools (especially one with boarding) since their experiences would have been very different.

*** The above views are based on personal experiences and observations of the author.  She realizes that others may feel very differently, to the point that they'll disagree and find this piece insulting.  This is NOT her fault.  Again, this is based on her personal observations ***

1 comment:

  1. I also read that outrageous article. This was my view:


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