Epoch Times: The Untold Story of Dr. Yeou-Cheng Ma, Violin Prodigy and Medical Doctor


This Is New York: The Untold Story of Dr. Yeou-Cheng Ma, Violin Prodigy and Medical Doctor

Why Whites and Asians Have Different Views on Personal Success


Why Whites and Asians Have Different Views on Personal Success

A new study explores why the latter are far more likely to opt for an elite college where they’d struggle than a so-so one where they’d excel.

There’s a saying in China that it’s better to be the head of a chicken than the tail of a phoenix. The premise of the aphorism—it’s better to be over-qualified than under-qualified relative to one’s surroundings—is so widely accepted that similar versions of it exist across cultures. In Japan, they tend to say that it’s better to be the head of a sardine than the tail of a whale. Americans and Brits often declare that it’s better to be a big frog (or fish) in a small pond than a little frog in a big pond.

Extensive research supports these axioms, particularly in the realm of education. Longitudinal studies have consistently shown that high-performing students at less-selective schools feel more competent, have higher GPAs, and have more ambitious career aspirations than low-performing students at more-selective schools.

Despite the compelling evidence and age-old maxims, however, people abide by that advice to different degrees in different situations. While one study found that on average, roughly two-thirds of people would prefer to have a high IQ and live in a less-intelligent place than the reverse, for example, that percentage varied from 18 percent to 80 percent across different situations.

new paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Social Psychological and Personality Science sought to better understand what influences those decisions—what psychological factors explain why one person might prefer to be an under-qualified student at Harvard than an overqualified one at Northeastern and why another would prefer the opposite. The University of Michigan researchers compared East Asians and European Americans on the assumption that cultural contexts play a huge role, and their analyses confirmed that speculation: The former were far more likely to prefer being a small frog in a big pond than the latter.

This conclusion may not come as a surprise given common perceptions about what distinguishes East Asian cultures from white American ones. Asians are known to be much more collectivistic, to value humility, and to tend to make decisions based on the common good rather than personal gain. Their white counterparts, on the other hand, are known to be individualistic, to self-promote by competing with peers, and to make decisions based on personal ambition. Extrapolating from that, East Asians might be more likely to assess themselves based on the larger social group to which they belong, while European Americans could be expected to evaluate themselves based more on how they compare to others within their group.

To the researchers’ surprise, though, these cultural stereotypes played little role in explaining their findings. In fact, they found that the East Asians they surveyed were greatly influenced by self-promotional tendencies—it was just a different species of self-promotion: the pursuit of prestige.

East Asian cultures aren’t just collectivistic, said Kaidi Wu, the lead researcher and a graduate student in social psychology at Michigan. They’re also what she described as “face” cultures. In such cultures, “it’s not only important for you to know that you are doing well, it’s also really important for other people—a stranger on the street, a relative, an employer who takes five minutes to glance through your resume—to evaluate you and think of you as this person who’s coming from a really good place. … Your evaluation is predicated on what other people think of you.”

Wu and her coauthors conducted three studies as part of the analysis. The first simply asked a randomly generated list of University of Michigan students whether they’d prefer to be a big frog in a small pond or vice versa. Whereas roughly 75 percent of the East Asian respondents—most of whom were born in the U.S. or had immigrated to the country at a young age—said they’d prefer being a small frog in a big pond, the same was true for just 59 percent of the European American ones.

The second study was slightly different in that the survey didn’t cite the frog-pond analogy and consulted adults in mainland China rather than East Asian students in the U.S. The researchers asked respondents whether they’d prefer attending a top-10 college where they’d be below average or a top-100 college where they’d be above average; they then asked a similar question but replaced “college” with “company” to gauge workplace preferences. The findings mirrored those from the first study: The Asian participants were more likely to prefer being a small fish. Fifty-eight percent of Chinese respondents preferred the top-10 college, and 29 percent of them preferred the global top-10 company; that was the case for just 27 percent and 14 percent of European American respondents, respectively.

The results from the third study, which sought to understand the motivation underlying these cultural distinctions, were the most counterintuitive for Wu and her colleagues. The researchers looked at the degree to which survey respondents compare themselves with others—e.g., I often compare how many Twitter followers I have with how many Twitter followers my coworker has. This measure is often used to gauge people’s frog-pond preferences: The more likely a respondent is to compare herself to others, the more likely she is to prefer being a big frog in a small pond. Interestingly, Chinese adults were more likely than white American ones to report engaging in such intragroup comparison.

There are limitations to the research, of course. The analysis relied on small sample sizes of between roughly 200 and 300 participants for each of the studies, though that’s typical of psychological studies in recent years. Furthermore, it’s all but impossible to suss out the extent to which a person’s cultural background influences her decision-making, especially as a growing number of students identify with multiple cultures. And myriad factors influence an individual’s decision about where to go to college and work.

Still, Wu emphasized that the study is the first to explore how culture shapes frog-pond education decisions, and its findings challenge conceptions about why people make the decisions they do. In cultural research, “it’s very easy to come up with these reductionistic approaches”—i.e., that Americans are individualistic, East Asians are collectivistic—and to make assumptions based on those simplifications, Wu said.

“There’s this seeming contradiction between the collectivistic Asian and the Tiger Mom-ish, uber-competitive Asian student,” she said. East Asians’ tendency toward big-name institutions at the expense of being outshined by others “isn’t because they are more collectivistic, that they want to preserve harmony and fit into the groove and be part of the larger pond.” Wu’s study suggests it’s more likely because they’re seeking prestige—and defining their success based on where they go to school rather than on how their academic performance compares to that of others.

Wu  argued that there are merits to being a small fish in a big pond, particularly when it comes to academia. Indeed, some research shows that top-10 universities produce almost three times the number of tenure-track professors as do the top 20, in large part because having a social network with elite academic scholars is so crucial to getting hired in heavily hierarchical settings. Wu, who grew up in Shanghai and moved to the U.S. when she was 16, noted that she has “reaped the benefits of a big pond” in that her peers and professors at the University of Michigan have served as a great source of motivation. Some research also suggests that the big pond might be a more advantageous choice for low-income students of color because of the resources and connections they gain from selective schools.

But being in a big pond can be a double-edged sword. Wu’s mission is to better understand the cultural distinctions that help explain these decision-making patterns—insight that is particularly relevant in the age of globalization and might help the growing numbers of Asian students in the U.S. better navigate the country’s higher-education system. In the last decade, the international-student population in the U.S. has grown by 85 percent, with the majority hailing from Asia. In vying for big ponds, many become strained by the pressure to succeed, overexerting themselves to the point that they get swallowed by mental illness or resort to cheating. Meanwhile, the percent of senior Fortune 100 executives with Ivy League degrees has declined since 1980, while the percent with public-university degrees has increased. And a Gallup poll from 2014 of nearly 30,000 college graduates found that attending a prestigious college has no bearing on an individual’s happiness in life and work.

“At the end of the day,” Wu asked, “is it worth choosing the big pond in a cultural context where big frogs in small ponds can also succeed?”

After dividing California Democrats in 2014, affirmative action resurfaces in the race for governor


After dividing California Democrats in 2014, affirmative action resurfaces in the race for governor

A debate about affirmative action has emerged in the campaign for governor, threatening to inject a potentially volatile racial element into the 2018 contest after the issue divided California Democrats along ethnic lines three years ago.

The question of whether race should be considered in admissions to California’s colleges and universities was raised in recent weeks when the state’s Latino and black legislative caucuses sent a letter to the top six gubernatorial candidates.

Legislators polled the politicians about their views on affirmative action and track records on diversity efforts, and asked them to detail proposals to diversify colleges and state government that they would pursue if elected governor. The candidates were also asked about efforts they would undertake to help diversify leadership in the private sector, where they have no official control.

For California political observers, the questionnaire recalls a 2014 move by Latino and black lawmakers to repeal Proposition 209, which voters approved in 1996 to ban affirmative action in university admissions.

The effort met unexpected resistance. After the measure to lift the ban quietly won Senate approval, it caught the attention of Asian American activists who said their children would be harmed if affirmative action was reinstated. On social media networks, some argued that their children had to perform better than students of other races to be admitted at elite universities, a situation that would be aggravated if the ban was rescinded.

In response to the concerns, Asian American state senators who supported the measure expressed new reservations, and others in the state Assembly vowed to oppose it, leading then-Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez to shelve it.

But tensions lingered. Several Latino and black lawmakers withdrew their endorsements of then-state Sen. Ted Lieu to succeed retiring Rep. Henry Waxman when the Torrance Democrat backed off his support for the measure after initially voting for it.

“We really got caught off guard in the debate,” state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) said of the bill’s failure and its aftermath. Lara, who is a member of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, said the issue is personal to him as a beneficiary of affirmative action. “We weren’t prepared for that.”

The discussion about affirmative action in the California governor’s race comes at a time when the issue is also reemerging at the federal, state and local levels. President Trump’s Justice Department just launched an investigation into “race-based discrimination” in college admissions. And some Asian American activists, concerned about the disclosure of ethnicity in the college admissions process, are protesting the collection of race-based data at statehouses and school districts across the nation, including in Irvine and Cerritos.

“We think California has become post-racial. This election will test that,” Karthick Ramakrishnan, an associate dean at the UC Riverside School of Public Policy, said of the governor’s race. “Political ambition has a way of bringing out some of these dynamics … in ways that could end up causing racial tension in the state.”

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Three years after the effort to repeal Proposition 209, Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), chairman of the California Legislative Black Caucus, said legislators asked the gubernatorial candidates about affirmative action not to create a “gotcha” moment, but to find out their views on an issue that will be revisited in the future.

The Democrats in the race — former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former state schools chief Delaine Eastin and state Treasurer John Chiang — all expressed strong support for affirmative action, while the top two Republicans in the race, Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach and businessman John Cox, did not respond to the letter.

“At some point, one of them will be the next governor. There will more than likely be a bill that will end up on their desk, and we want to have a sense of what they’ll do with that bill,” Holden said.

But he acknowledged that restarting the discussion was not without risks.

“Sometimes it’s very uncomfortable and not always convenient to have a conversation about race,” he said.

Not all ethnic groups were represented when affirmative action was raised last month to the 2018 candidates. The letter was signed by the chairs of the black and Latino caucuses. The California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, organizers acknowledged, was not asked to join.

Bill Wong, a Democratic strategist, said that for Asian American politicians, the affirmative action debate is like dealing with “an awkward family member.”

“When you talk to the individual [Democratic Asian Pacific Islander] caucus members, they all support affirmative action,” said Wong, who supports Chiang for governor. “They also understand there are parts of their communities and constituencies that don’t understand the entire history of affirmative action.”

Lara said legislators learned lessons from their failed effort in 2014. Their views, he said, have since been shaped by polling that found many Californians didn’t know what constitutes affirmative action.

Legislators including Lara as well as outside interest groups are trying to shift the debate over affirmative action in hopes of making it less politically toxic. Rather than discussions of quotas or competition over a limited number of admission slots, they argue the debate should be centered on access to higher education, such as tuition costs and K-12 preparedness.

“We wanted to shift the paradigm,” said Betty Hung, policy director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, a civil rights group. “Rather than looking at this as a zero-sum issue, we want to expand the pie of higher educational opportunity for everyone.”

Republicans have tried in the past to use the issue of affirmative action to cudgel Democrats in districts with high numbers of Asian Americans, the fastest growing voting bloc in the state. In 2014, the party’s efforts contributed to victories for Republican legislative candidates Janet Nguyen of Garden Grove, Ling-Ling Chang of Diamond Bar and Young Kim of Fullerton.

The issue could be a hurdle in the governor’s race. Newsom, who is the front-runner in polling and fundraising, has staked out the most liberal positions among the Democratic candidates. But if Villaraigosa or Chiang make it to the general election and there is no GOP candidate standing, their paths to victory run through more conservative regions such as the Inland Empire and the Central Valley, where voters might be less likely to support affirmative action.

Chiang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, may find himself in a predicament when it comes to discussing his stance on affirmative action. He has considerable support from Asian American donors and voters. And while he called for the repeal of the affirmative-action ban in response to the recent letter, he has not always been so vocal.

When Chiang was state controller, he was asked in 2014 about the effort to overturn the ban. He demurred, saying he only speaks out about financial issues.

“I comment on other issues selectively,” he told a National Public Radio affiliate in Southern California.

But it’s inevitable that the ongoing conversation about affirmative action will take on new relevance in the governor’s race, noted state Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego).

“This is the first time in California history we have a legitimate shot of having a person of color as governor,” she said.


Twitter: @LATSeema@melmason