Asian-American and European-American college students - Papers & Essays



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Asian-American and European-American college students

In a seminar teaching moral development, I introduced a Japanese children's book, which was translated into English, titled "Little Daruma and Little Tengu (Daruma-chan to Tengu-chan)." The purpose of reading this book was to encourage American undergraduate students to think about values and messages conveyed in children's books in various cultures. This book, which is widely read by Japanese children and preschools, has a plot as below.


Little Daruma and little Tengu are good friends. Little Daruma wants to have everything little Tengu has such as a fan (uchiwa) and wooden sandals (geta). Daruma's father tries to help him find these things at their house, but they can't find them. Little Daruma comes up with a creative idea and makes things which look similar to what Tengu has. Daruma makes a fan using a big leaf and a pair of wooden sandals from wooden cutting boards. One day, little Daruma sees a dragonfly land on little Tengu's long nose. Little Daruma now wants a long nose like Tengu's. His father helps him make a long attachable nose molded from sticky rice (mochi). A butterfly then lands on little Daruma's nose, and he catches it. Little Tengu praises little Daruma's nose, which makes little Daruma very happy.

My students really enjoyed listening to this story, and it led to very animated discussions. From the viewpoint of American students, this cute beloved children's story does not seem to convey a moral message that is consistent with American values. First of all, little Daruma wants to have everything little Tengu has. He is not encouraged to be unique or find his own identity. What was more surprising to my students was that little Daruma's family was supportive of his desire to copy little Tengu. Many students concluded that there was no moral value conveyed in this book. Then one Asian-American student in the class spoke and said that she found moral messages in the book. According to her, Daruma and Tengu care about each other, and are interconnected by possessing similar things. Families are attentive and supportive of desires such as Daruma's. She explained that the story talks about the meanings of happiness related to human connections, cares, and the importance of friendships and family support.

Our research project

This is just one scenario which illuminates cultural differences between European-American and Asian-American college students' beliefs. I work at an American university as a researcher and a lecturer, and have had opportunities to teach courses and supervise students who work for the research project I am engaged in. I have been involved in a longitudinal research examining Chinese immigrant and European-American families' socialization processes and their young children's development. Because of the large scale of this research, we have a large number of students who work for our project. Half of these research assistants are Chinese-American and half are European-American students. Among 20-25 Chinese American students, the majority of them were born and raised in the U.S. but have parents who immigrated from China or Taiwan. There are also some other Asian students whose parents originally came from Vietnam or India. Through my experiences of working with them for one and a half years, I have noticed some cultural differences between the Asian-American students, mainly Chinese-American, and the Caucasian students who work for our project.
Of course, my observations may be biased by the fact that most students I work with are motivated to do research. I also work at a private university, where most students, especially European-American students, come from privileged family backgrounds. And of course, there are variations even within each cultural group. Yet, I have seen some distinctive cultural differences among this small sample and, although I can not prove it based on my limited evidence, I suspect that these differences might be applicable to these two groups throughout the American college undergraduate population to some extent.

High family expectations

Most of the Chinese-American students who work for our research project were born and raised in the U.S. Yet, most of their parents came to the U.S. as adults and raised their children based on cultural models from their country of origin. Some of them live in communities where many Chinese reside. So the children internalized Chinese cultural values while being acculturated to American cultural norms. Sometimes they talk about painful experiences such as peer harassment or discrimination, or experiences of being apart from their parents due to immigration issues. Many Asian-American students, especially those who grew up in a suburban neighborhood where few Asian-American lived, are usually aware of different socialization processes between Asian and Caucasian families.

Just as one Asian student talked about family support and care in the "Little Daruma and Little Tengu" story, many Asian-American students told me their stories of growing up related to strong family support and high family expectations. High parents' expectations of their children's academic achievement often appear in their stories about their parents. For example, three students told me that their parents always expected them to receive perfect scores. When they received a score of 98 out of 100, the parents were not happy. Even when their score was perfect, their parents rarely praised them. One student told me that her parents just told her to continue getting 100s. Asian-American parents are found to have the highest educational expectations among all ethnic groups in the U.S., regardless of their children's academic performance (Okagaki & Frensch, 1998). Such high parental expectations is found to be one of the elements which explains overall high academic achievement among Asian-American students in the U.S. Such stories are contrasted with Caucasian students' stories in which their parents told them that they were "proud of" their child when they brought good scores even if not perfect. But is holding high expectations good for students? One student said, "Of course it was not good. When I took tests, I felt pressure and anxiety. And I am still afraid of making mistakes and get nervous when I speak up in class." Another student said, "My parents came to the U.S. by sacrificing everything such as their family and job to give a better life and education for their children. I don't know if I could have done that for the sake of my child, but I really appreciate what they did for us, and understand their high expectations of us."

Listening or expressing opinions

As one student noted, I observed that Asian-American students tend to be quieter than European-American students in meetings. When we ask questions, European-American students tend to volunteer to give their opinions. Asian-American students tend to speak out when they are called on. Of course, there are always one or two students who are shy or speak out regardless of their ethnicity. But overall, I observe that European-American students are not hesitant to speak out in public settings and express their opinions more freely than Chinese-American students. Three Chinese students told me that they were not quiet when they were with their peers, but tended to be quieter in public settings or with authorities. They explained that as they were raised not to speak out in public. When their parents were talking, they were told not to interrupt and to listen to adults. Listening and not speaking out was considered to be respectful and a sign of not being arrogant. Value on listening may also be related to Asian cultural models which emphasize learning as a process of self-perfection (Li, 2003). Perseverance, concentration, and endurance of hardship are valued in the process of learning in Asia. Children's actions and diligence are considered to be more important to learning than expressing their opinions. Adults are people who teach and guide, and listening to them is believed to promote learning. One Chinese student said, "Our job was always to learn how to listen to adults, parents and teachers, and we never really received training about how to speak in public." This learning model can be contrasted with the experience of American middle-class children described in Annette Lareau's book (2003) titled, "Unequal Childhood: Class, Race, and Family Life." In her ethnographic observation, she illustrates that middle-class American parents encourage their children to speak to authorities equally and express their desire and opinions. Middle-class American children, even at a young age, learn how to "question adults and address them as relative equals" (p. 2).

Cultural value on listening may be an important skill needed for learning, especially in Asia. There, children learn in a larger class, and would not have many opportunities to freely exchange their ideas. Thus, it is critical for them to pay attention to and listen to teachers.
Yet, if expressing self and desires and negotiating with authorities is a skill and "cultural capital" valued in American society, as Lareau argues, Asian-American students may be disadvantaged at school and work. In our recent research findings, Chinese immigrant preschoolers, even those from middle-class backgrounds, showed significantly lower scores for oral expressions
than middle-class Caucasian preschoolers even though their math and reading scores were high (Li, Yamamoto, et al., 2009). We will continue to explore these issues.

Family support

Even though they live in the U.S., children of Asian immigrant parents are exposed
to cultural models that their parents brought from their country of origin. Such socialization processes can be complex and tend to bring stress and difficulties to children's development. Sometimes parent-child relationships can be challenging due both to children's already deep acculturation into American cultural norms as well as to limited parent-child communications due to parents' lack of English proficiency. At the same time, many of these children are aware of family support and care they have received while growing up (except for those who were separated from their parents due to immigration issues). For example, one student told me the story about how she brought fried rice that her mother had made for school lunch and was teased by peers. As she became older, she gradually recognized her parents' love in the Chinese lunch and developed a strong preference for Chinese foods. Students realize that their parents tried to provide the best they could, sometimes with limited resources. Many of the children of Asian immigrant families, especially Chinese-American students, also believe
that the major purpose of their parents' immigration was to provide better lives for their children. I enjoy listening to their past and current socialization stories. Just like the Asian student who spoke up about moral values and meanings related to the story of "Little Daruma and Little Tengu," many of these college students are aware of cultural values that their parents tried to convey to them.


Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal childhood: Class, race and family life. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Li, J. (2003). U.S. and Chinese cultural beliefs about learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(2), 258-267.

Li, J., Yamamoto, Y., et al. (2009). Why go to school? Learning beliefs among Chinese immigrant and European American preschoolers.
Paper presented at the panel (Panel Chair: Yamamoto, Y. & Li, J), "Are there socioeconomic differences in cultural learning beliefs?" at the biennial meeting for Society for Research in Child Development, Denver, CO.

Okagaki, L., & Frensch, P. A. (1998). Parenting and children's school achievement: A multiethnic perspective. American Educational Research Journal, 35, 123-144.