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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"Too Asian?" in Canada

The article linked to below is about Asian students at elite Canadian universities. I spoke to the McLean's reporter about this while I was visiting BGI in Shenzhen, China. I had to duck out of a meeting into an unused conference room to take his call.

When I first wrote this post the McLean's article hadn't been up very long, but had started to accumulate a lot of heated comments. They pulled the article off the web overnight, probably because they didn't have anyone to filter the comments. Now it is back up.

Here is a very similar WSJ article from five years ago, discussing the high school situation in Silicon Valley.

McLean's: When Alexandra and her friend Rachel, both graduates of Toronto’s Havergal College, an all-girls private school, were deciding which university to go to, they didn’t even bother considering the University of Toronto. “The only people from our school who went to U of T were Asian,” explains Alexandra, a second-year student who looks like a girl from an Aritzia billboard. “All the white kids,” she says, “go to Queen’s, Western and McGill.”

Alexandra eventually chose the University of Western Ontario. Her younger brother, now a high school senior deciding where he’d like to go, will head “either east, west or to McGill”—unusual academic options, but in keeping with what he wants from his university experience. “East would suit him because it’s chill, out west he could be a ski bum,” says Alexandra, who explains her little brother wants to study hard, but is also looking for a good time—which rules out U of T, a school with an academic reputation that can be a bit of a killjoy.

Or, as Alexandra puts it—she asked that her real name not be used in this article, and broached the topic of race at universities hesitantly—a “reputation of being Asian.”

Discussing the role that race plays in the self-selecting communities that more and more characterize university campuses makes many people uncomfortable. Still, an “Asian” school has come to mean one that is so academically focused that some students feel they can no longer compete or have fun. Indeed, Rachel, Alexandra and her brother belong to a growing cohort of student that’s eschewing some big-name schools over perceptions that they’re “too Asian.” It’s a term being used in some U.S. academic circles to describe a phenomenon that’s become such a cause for concern to university admissions officers and high school guidance counsellors that several elite universities to the south have faced scandals in recent years over limiting Asian applicants and keeping the numbers of white students artificially high.

Although university administrators here are loath to discuss the issue, students talk about it all the time. “Too Asian” is not about racism, say students like Alexandra: many white students simply believe that competing with Asians—both Asian Canadians and international students—requires a sacrifice of time and freedom they’re not willing to make. They complain that they can’t compete for spots in the best schools and can’t party as much as they’d like (too bad for them, most will say). Asian kids, meanwhile, say they are resented for taking the spots of white kids. “At graduation a Canadian—i.e. ‘white’—mother told me that I’m the reason her son didn’t get a space in university and that all the immigrants in the country are taking up university spots,” says Frankie Mao, a 22-year-old arts student at the University of British Columbia. “I knew it was wrong, being generalized in this category,” says Mao, “but f–k, I worked hard for it.”

That Asian students work harder is a fact born out by hard data. They tend to be strivers, high achievers and single-minded in their approach to university. [Note I don't think the previous two sentences are attributable to me!] Stephen Hsu, a physics prof at the University of Oregon who has written about the often subtle forms of discrimination faced by Asian-American university applicants, describes them as doing “disproportionately well—they tend to have high SAT scores, good grades in high school, and a lot of them really want to go to top universities.” In Canada, say Canadian high school guidance counsellors, that means the top-tier post-secondary institutions with international profiles specializing in math, science and business: U of T, UBC and the University of Waterloo. White students, by contrast, are more likely to choose universities and build their school lives around social interaction, athletics and self-actualization—and, yes, alcohol. When the two styles collide, the result is separation rather than integration.

... Among Canadian universities, UBC is one of the few institutions that publishes the ethnic makeup of its student body. Toope says that the university’s Asian student population is not “widely out of whack with the community,” although the stats tell a slightly different story. According to a 2009 UBC report on direct undergraduate entrants, 43 per cent of its students self-identify as ethnically Chinese, Korean or Japanese, as compared to 38 per cent who self-identify as white. Although Vancouver is a richly diverse city, according to data from the 2006 census, just 21.5 per cent of its residents identify as a Chinese, Korean or Japanese visible minority.

... Alexandra, who chose to go to Western for the party scene, found she “hated being away from home” and moved back to Toronto. In retrospect, she didn’t like the vibe. “Some people just want to drink 23 hours a day.” Alexandra says she still has friends at Western who live in an “all-blond house” and are “stick thin.” Rachel, Alexandra’s friend, says Western suits them—“they work hard, get good grades, then slap on their clubbing clothes.” But it didn’t suit Alexandra. She now studies at U of T.

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