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Top of the Class

Top of the Class
So-Called Asian "Secrets"

Dr. Abboud and Jane Kim, sisters and co-authors of Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers--and How You Can Too, promise to “reveal the practices that lead Asian Americans to academic, professional, and personal success. In other words, they have chosen to exploit and perpetuate the model minority stereotype, without acknowledging what lies beneath the superficial gloss of success. Higher median incomes and educational degrees are a skewed representation of the Asian American story, especially when considering the self-selecting nature of many Asian immigrants, and the relatively privileged and highly educated backgrounds of those who can afford the trip across the world. Some, like the Kim parents, beat the odds through a combination of perseverance and a certain amount of luck, but this should in no way be considered typical.

The research consists primarily of their own memoirs, and as a by-product of the book’s empirical nature, the focus is undeniably Korean. And so I first take exception to their blanket usage of the term “Asian." I myself am Korean American, but I don't presume that this qualifies me to speak for the twenty-three Asian American subgroups recognized by the 2000 U.S. Census.

On no stronger grounds than the fact that they were raised by Asian parents, the Kim sisters have also declared themselves parenting experts. Unsurprisingly, the result is a pretentious text, written in a cloying “from us to you" style. While some of their messages are sound (they recommend treating your child's teachers as allies rather than enemies, viewing learning as a lifelong process, holding consistent and high expectations, etc.), they are so basic, ubiquitous, and patronizingly delivered that the tone of the book is one of self-complacency.

The very premise of the book is a dubious one. The implication that one culture (again, I point out the problematic usage of the term "Asian") possesses the ultimate key to success is presumptuous and narrow-minded. By all means, encourage parents to value their children’s educations and to plan for their success--but to claim such attitudes as exclusive "Asian secrets" is ludicrous.

Even some of these basic messages are undermined by the gap between what is stated and what is demonstrated. For instance, the Kim sisters accuse American parents of overusing positive reinforcement. Hypocritically, however, one of their favorite anecdotes is about being bribed to read library books with candy bars. If that is not an instance of being rewarded for something that should be intrinsically satisfying, what is?

Token efforts are made to assure us that it is better to be a fulfilled cashier than a despondent CEO, but they are unconvincing when followed by the message that children grow confident and well-adjusted by learning that failure (i.e., poor grades) disgraces their whole family. There are repeated exhortations for both parents and children to "enjoy the ride", and to love learning for its own sake, and yet their recommendation is to view everything—even music lessons—as the means to a prosperous future.

Households run to the rigid specifications of the Kim sisters' model (hours of "extra" homework assigned by parents, socializing only on weekends, phone calls limited to 15 minutes a night, etc.) will probably produce high test scores. Yet I question the justice of calling this an “Asian approach, especially when the worthwhile principles (when not contradicted) are ideals that should transcend such boundaries, and the less sound messages define education as little more than an achievement assembly line.
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