As I and many other scholars have written, Asian Americans are frequently portrayed as the “model minority” — a group of Americans who have worked to overcome difficulties in our way in order to achieve socioeconomic success, who have quietly persevered to get ahead in American society rather than resorting to political confrontation, and therefore, stand as examples for other racial minority groups to follow and emulate. As I’ve also summarized in my linked article above, there are numerous problems with this characterization, such as the blanket assumption that all Asian Americans are successful and no longer experience any form of racial discrimination.

But what about the assertion within this model minority image that Asian Americans have worked extremely hard to achieve success? Isn’t that true?

The short answer is, of course. Throughout this site and blog, I’ve described the various ways in which Asian Americans (individually and collectively) have indeed used hard work, patience, and determination to overcome various barriers in our way in order to achieve our goals in various pursuits of life and professional fields, such as political power, education and academics, professional sports, high-tech entrepreneurship, the entertainment industry, and corporate leadership, to name just a few examples. With this in mind, Asian Americans should absolutely be recognized and congratulated for our hard work.

In fact, a recent op-ed column in the New York Times from Nicholas Kristoff highlights this idea of Asian American success based on hard work and determination, rather than inherent cultural traits such as intelligence:

One large study followed a group of Chinese-Americans who initially did slightly worse on the verbal portion of I.Q. tests than other Americans and the same on math portions. But beginning in grade school, the Chinese outperformed their peers, apparently because they worked harder. The Chinese-Americans were only half as likely as other children to repeat a grade in school, and by high school they were doing much better than European-Americans with the same I.Q. . . .

A common thread among these three groups may be an emphasis on diligence or education, perhaps linked in part to an immigrant drive. Jews and Chinese have a particularly strong tradition of respect for scholarship . . . the larger lesson is a very empowering one: success depends less on intellectual endowment than on perseverance and drive.

Having said that, we also need to recognize that the dynamics of political, economic, and cultural success are more complicated than just hard work. First, Asian Americans benefit in many ways from our“honorary White” status. This refers to how Asian Americans are situated below Whites in the U.S.’s racial hierarchy and that based on our levels of socioeconomic success — and to put it bluntly, our relatively light-colored skin — are slightly more socially accepted from the White majority than other (darker skinned) racial minorities such as Blacks and many Latinos. This idea is similar to the “middleman minority” theory that Asian Americans serve as a buffer zone that insulates the White majority from Blacks and Latinos.

Second, the drive to work hard ultimately has its limits. Along with the stories with happy endings that I mentioned earlier, the drive for success unfortunately can become obsessive, counterproductive, and even tragic. Some examples of the pressures of working hard gone wrong include high rates of mental illness, cheating scandals, eating disorders, intentionally breaking up families, domestic violence and even murder, and suicides.

The take-home message is that, by all means we should celebrate and encourage the hard work within the Asian American community that has resulted in many forms of success and accomplishment. We as Asian Americans should rightfully feel proud and inspired by all the historical and contemporary examples in which we’ve used our individual and collective resources and determination to overcome the barriers in our way on the road to achieving our goals.

At the same time, we also need to understand that not all racial/ethnic groups have the same circumstances and that these historical and contemporary characteristics lead to different challenges that each group faces. Secondly, the push for hard work can and has gone too far at times and when it does, can lead to disastrous consequences.

In the end, I hope that just as many of our cultural traditions teach us, Asian Americans should strive to achieve balance with these different elements of determination and reflexivity in our lives.

As we prepare to start another academic year, it’s important to remember that for many Asian American students at all levels, the flip side of being thought of as the “model minority” or “super-students” is the pressure of living up to those lofty expectations. If and when those unrealistic expectations are not met, many encounter various forms of depression, mental illness, thoughts of suicide, and — in the case of Seung Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech gunman — psychopathic violence.

Slowly, school officials are waking up to this reality and unfortunately, have begun addressing this phenomenon head-on. As Diverse Issues in Education reports, many colleges with large numbers of Asian American students have implemented programs that proactively seeks out and helps Asian American students who may be at risk:

College can be a tough time for any student, regardless of ethnicity. But many Asians face particular stresses as they are caught between two cultures, according to Dr. Nolan Zane, director of the UC-Davis center. Asians are expected by mainstream society to do well. And if they’re from an immigrant family, the expectations are even higher. Students may feel pressured into “safe” career paths like medicine or law.

When problems such as social anxiety and depression arise, cultural barriers prevent many from seeking help. Talking about problems to outsiders is considered taboo and shameful. Getting help from family often isn’t an option either. Many Asians attach a strong stigma to mental health problems or simply deny their existence.

Zane recalls that the parents of a Chinese American student couldn’t understand why he recommended that their son get counseling. The parents thought their distraught son, whose grades were slipping, just needed to study harder. . . .

White students may wrestle with the same problems, but tend to get help or be helped sooner, says Dr. Wai-Kwong Wong, a counselor at Cornell’s Gannett Health Services. . . . Cornell officials were jolted into action after a university-sponsored report in 2004 detailed the sense of isolation and dissatisfaction among Asian American and international Asian students. . . .

At Cornell, the efforts that started four years ago are starting to yield results. From the time he was a freshman until he graduated in May, Timothy Chow witnessed a dramatic change in awareness about mental health issues among his fellow Asian classmates.

In response to the university report on Asian students, Chow and several friends organized a group to advocate for changes. At the initial meetings, fewer than 10 students expressed interest. Chow says that many students likely shied away because they didn’t want to be associated with mental health issues.

But this past school year, two events on stress relief sponsored by the Asian/Asian-American Forum attracted more than 100 people each. The fairs featured massage therapists, yoga sessions and presentations from a nutritionist and counselors.

The article goes on to mention that one potential drawback of such intensified efforts to address mental health issues among Asian American students is that it may lead to the perception that being an Asian American students means that you are automatically at risk for mental health issues.

That’s a fair and very insightful observation and one that I had not thought of. Nonetheless, I think that is still less of a danger than the other way around — ignoring Asian American students who may be suffering in silence and isolation.

The statistics from studies such as that from Cornell tell a very compelling picture — Asian American students face unique pressures and challenges that other students do not. Yes, there is a danger of using data like this to “essentialize” Asian American students in the same way of thinking that we’re all good at math.

But in today’s globalized and multicultural racial/ethnic landscape, I think most Americans are sophisticated enough to know that the Asian American community is more complex than that. Besides, I’d rather take that risk than one that sets the stage for another Seung-Hui Cho to emerge.