At a math competition, the majority of the students are Asian. But why?

The “Asian Advantage”

A look behind a commonly held stereotype

I do live streaming for our school sports games in my spare time, and I enjoy seeing the athletes running on the fields and the excitement that sports can create. Yet, sadly, Asian faces are rarely seen on the varsity fields and courts. What could cause us to be so consistently absent from competitive sports fields? As an international student born and raised in China, I would like to share some of my assumptions.

Dustin Meltzer
Athletes sitting on the bench and cheering on their teammates

Asian students having good grades is a major stereotype; I have to admit in all honesty, we often do have the highest grades in our classes. Maybe one or two among the Asian student group have lower or even “unacceptable” grades, but most of them are above average, even exceeding expectations. One explanation, in my opinion, could be the exam-oriented education in most of the Asian countries. That education method has a strong prevalence, the driving cause being the push toward high standardized test scores. The reason for the rigorous educational expectations in Asia is the “life-determining” college entrance exams at the end of senior year in high school. It’s a little cliche, but honestly, getting into a good college or not will enormously affect your future.

Therefore, most of the public schools in China focus much more on academics rather than afternoon activities and extracurriculars. Chinese students do get a chance to blow off some steam each day: We have what it is called physical education (P.E.) for a class period. P.E. class usually consists of running laps around the track field; the class is then usually dismissed to do free sports activities including basketball, soccer, badminton and so on. Unlike American schools, most of the Chinese schools have no after-school sports teams, which means that P.E. classes are basically the only time in our school day that we get any exercise. I think that is why most of the students from China do not have a habit of playing sports unless they train outside the school.

Additionally, since students don’t switch classrooms, a group of students will stay after school every day to clean up. This is known as the cleaning crew; it rotates daily based on the group that one sits in class. Typically, each student gets a deskmate, and the deskmate usually stays with you for a long time unless the teacher orders to switch. However, in recent years, group collaboration is getting more and more popular among Chinese schools. So while I was in middle school, we sat in a group of five. Instead, to rotate group member, we rotated seats every other week. Our group was like a little family; each member has a field that he or she specialized in.

Stella Chen
A typical classroom set-up in China

Exam-oriented education has a profound influence on many aspects of our lives. Since it starts from elementary school—where most students begin to cultivate their learning habits and methods—the side effect of such a result fixated education has many ramifications. It is very common to see Asian students competitively comparing grades and holding each other to high standards:

“Hey, so how did you do on the quiz?”

“Not too good. I don’t like it.”

“Same, I got, like, an 80. What did you get?”

“A 90… It’s not an A…”

“Come on!”

Indeed, even as an Asian, I hate this kind of conversation. But what can I say? One thing that we learn from our education is also to be humble.

It is usual to see Asian students working hard; the library is a good place to run into them.

One more phenomenon unique to Asians is the superlative study program during vacations. Although no one likes to do work when on vacation, we are Asian students. If you ask around what the most lucrative company in China is, a likely answer will be an extra-schooling agency. Asian students returning home for the summer are pretty much guaranteed a trip is to those supplementary schools. For students who study in western countries, SAT, TOEFL, and IELTS are the most popular subjects you can study. And this method, though sometimes bone-crushingly rigorous, does gradually improve the average test scores of the Chinese students; they succeed not because they are born smart, but because they just study systematically way more than their domestic counterparts do.

All that time spent studying is the time that other students might spend hanging out with friends and family, sleeping — or practicing a sport. We fall behind on the soccer fields and basketball courts because there is an expectation for us to devote the majority of our free time to academics. The bonus is that we reach scholastic heights, but of course, this also contributes to the misunderstood stereotype.

Formal dinner and similar bonding experiences are not the norm for students in China

The attention that the Asian students pay to academic sometimes can exclude them from many after-school activities, whether they are in America or their home country in Asia. Living under so much academic pressure causes many Asian students to seek more leisurely ways to spend their precious free time. Video games and surfing the internet tend to be the chosen methods of relaxation, which can quickly become an addiction. Students away from their home cultures and live in an American boarding school often feel stranded: they are used to the expectations and routines of home, but they have been cut off from most of the cultural cues they know. They must navigate life in a foreign place while still keeping their homes and futures in mind. A running river is in front of these students: they are used to the life on the land that they are born and raised, yet they have to cross the stream to build whatever they had on the other side.


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