When I was growing up, I didn’t realize that my educational ideals and routines were so strongly shaped by an Asian American mindset. My parents enrolled me in almost every single extracurricular to see what would stick; they never forced me to do something I didn’t want to, but strongly encouraged me to try everything at least once. By kindergarten, I was already busy with piano, tennis, art, and ballet. While my best friend took naps after school, I was being rushed to my piano lesson and then shortly after to ballet class.
Besides these typical extracurriculars that many other friends took part in as well, I also took Chinese lessons and Kumon – two important aspects of the Asian American experience, in my opinion. While many of my friends stopped taking Chinese lessons at a young age, my parents always made it clear that Chinese class was the only extracurricular that my brother and I had to participate in. Chinese school was not easy – my brother and I had to attend weekly lessons and also turn in weekly writing, reading, and speaking assignments. Our teacher, a long-time family friend of ours, was notorious was being a typical, strict Chinese teacher who would humiliate you and talk to your parents if you ever fell behind. My parents, who had grown up in China, believed that it was this style of teaching that was ultimately the most effective.
Kumon and other similar types of tutoring were also common throughout my brother and my childhood. Whenever there was an opportunity to enter a gifted program, advance to a higher level class, or take a standardized test my parents always enrolled us in these after-school tutoring programs for a “head start”. Whenever I complained about having to learn new material that was years above my grade level at school, my mom would scold me for not understanding the value of learning ahead. Ever since I first started going to school, I was always at least a year ahead of my classmates. That was my “normal” from kindergarten to my senior year of high school. It’s unsurprising that I developed a sense of worth based almost entirely on my academic achievements. It’s also unsurprising that I oftentimes felt inadequate – I believed that I was only thriving academically due to extra tutoring rather than my natural intelligence.
Looking back though, I understand why my parents were so adamant about enrolling us in every single gifted program or class. My dad, who grew up in a rural town called Heifei in Central China, was largely able to go to university in Beijing, immigrate to the U.S., and obtain a stable job in the U.S. because of his stellar grades. My mom always used to describe my dad as a “学霸,” which google translate says is “Straight A student,” but more accurately contains an Einstein/bookworm/nerd type of meaning. This term not only describes someone who is really really good at learning, but also someone who genuinely enjoys it and finds it easy.
As I grow older and have more meaningful conversations with my dad though, I’ve realized that I have underestimated his true passion for learning. While I have always known that he is insanely smart, I now realize that his intelligence is 80% derived from his passion for learning and only 20% derived from his innate ability. This realization has gradually helped me overcome my own “gifted kid burnout” and my own fixed mindset. Coming to Duke and realizing that everyone is smart and hard-working has shown me that “natural intelligence” really pales in comparison to genuine passion. Because when everyone seems to be equally academically successful, you have to rely on your genuine passion to keep going rather than any external motivation/validation.
Teaching these kids at Zhuhai has pushed me to think about my own educational background and mindset, especially from the perspective of an Asian American. Although they likely experience a completely different level of academic pressure, I hope that our lessons and interactions have at least partially encouraged them to think about the passion and fun of learning rather than its competitive and superficial nature.