The Meaning of Success

Four AP classes, two honors. My class schedule for junior year was a bit too skimpy. I should've tried for those outside community college courses this year too. It wouldn't take so much time in addition to editing the paper, managing my company, and leading a gay rights campaign on my campus.

Every day is a stressful day. I wonder if I'm working hard enough at 2 a.m. when I'm still doing homework. I wonder if I'm really good enough when I get the only A on that test.

And sometimes, I wonder if I'm a bit delusional just like the other 2,000 kids who live in my shallow, suburban bubble.

I live in an unimposing neighborhood on the skirts of Silicon Valley backed against the Santa Cruz Mountains. Our large immigrant population surprisingly lends little diversity to a campus populated by an Asian majority.

Like the relentless rat race in Silicon Valley where I live, my neighborhood is a microcosm of a world increasingly dominated by numbers, efficiency and aggressive competition. Everyday is a battleground where students try to get the best grade, the teacher's favor, a step closer to some Ivy, a step closer to a higher-paying job, a step closer to something called prestige.

Here it wouldn't be uncommon to find someone studying for their SATs before they even start high school. Here, junior high school student fret about scoring a 92 percentile on a standardized test. Sometimes as many as 500 students jam themselves into an auditorium for a California Scholarship Federation meeting.

A little extreme? Our parents went to best schools in the country or in other countries. Entrance exams in Taiwan and Japan were and are still brutal and some parents won't let their kids get away without hearing some "When I was your age..." stories. When I was younger my mom would tell me, "I want you to have a better life than I do." Any parents would have these good intentions, right? But my dad also told me, "If you major in anything liberal, I won't pay for your education." (Too bad for both of us, I am going with liberal arts.)

"After high school, it's off to college, then to work, then to send your kids through the same process. My dad never left this place."

Our parents would like to think that our neat aisles of houses and green lawns are a safe cove, hidden from the influence of sex and drugs. Ironically, sometimes it's not sex and drugs that ruin lives. Sometimes it's this overwhelming mentality that you have to be the best, that you have to get perfect grades, that you have to go to the best school, that you have to get the best job and eventually, that you'll have to perpetuate this mentality for your poor kids.

For some, this mentality never ends. After high school, it's off to college, then to work, then to send your kids through the same process. My dad never left this place. He went to a similar high school, then later off to Berkeley and Stanford. But even mentally, he still works the long hours and pushes himself harder. He didn't come home one day this week. I think he slept at work.

My school sends just under 99 percent of all its students directly into universities or colleges. My school was ranked as the Number One non-magnet, public high school in California last year. It's an accomplishment when you consider that the dropout rate in California is nearly one-third of all students.

But when a senior from a neighboring school killed herself last year because she only got into UCLA, I questioned whether this environment is really stimulating me to achieve or condemning me to a Silicon Valley life of numbers and names.

When do you cross the line? When you sacrifice your morality to cheat on some insignificant test? When you verbally or even physically abuse your child because they didn't get the grade you expected? When a girl erases her entire future with a bottle of pills just because she wouldn't spend the next four years of her life at Harvard.

"My mother grew up during wartime in Vietnam. She lost siblings. She escaped, went to college and makes a six-figure income now."

It's stressful. It's aggravating and sometimes it pushes you to the edge. But at least I see the line. I know where it has to stop and I also know what's good about living here.

Our parents aren't monsters and our students aren't drones. Our parents dream big. They see future presidents, doctors and CEOs in their children. Despite the expectation hoisted onto our shoulders, we're still normal. I watch the Simpsons. We marvel at how little Britney Spears can wear while her popularity skyrockets. We voted 2-to-1 for Al Gore in our mock election.

And even though the stressful environment in our school sometimes coincides with the media stereotype of Asian culture, our student body is much more complex than the superficial, academically driven students that the media portrays.

Looking back, I believe that the competitive atmosphere at my school can be positive when I keep perspective on who I am and what I want to accomplish. We don't hate each other when we compete in class. There's just a strong idea of honor and expectation. The majority of our students have parents who are immigrants. When your parents have traveled thousands of miles to live here, when they spend three hours a day driving you and your siblings to your various activities, when they paid hundreds of thousands too much for a cramped house they could have bought half-price elsewhere, you feel a debt.

"Does Stress Get to You?" -- MTN

My mother grew up during wartime in Vietnam. She lost siblings. She escaped, went to college and makes a six-figure income now.

I owe that better life to her.

Maybe I'm crazy, maybe working 18 hours a day is finally getting to me, but I like living here, in what sometimes feels like a trap without air, because there are good intentions and there's a lot of hopes here. A desire not just to achieve but to exceed has been instilled in me because I've lived here. I have a strange mixture of cynicism that I will never escape parts of this little world and idealism that I maybe, one day, can change this place.

Kim Mai-Cutler, 17, is a Wiretap contributor and high school senior who lives in Cupertino, CA.

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