Crushed by Parental and Societal Pressure, Asian American Students Are Resorting to Suicide

Asian American teens and college students experience greater rates of stress and more suicidal thoughts.

Four University of Pennsylvania students have committed suicide in the past year. Following Wendy Shung’s suicide last August and Alice Wiley’s in December, Madison Holleran jumped off a parking tower in January and Elvis Hatcher hanged himself in February. While the suicide of the Asian American student, Shung, passed without much reverberation across campus, the suicides of the three white students have sparked mourning and outrage.

Beyond college campuses, the average suicide rate of Asian Americans is about half that of the national average. Although this data seems to be another indicator of Asian Americans’ model minority status, a closer examination of the younger demographic reveals a more troubling picture. Asian American teenagers and college students experience greater rates of stress and harbor more suicidal thoughts than their non-Asian peers. Although Asian American high school students attempt suicide at a higher rate than white students, their suicide rate somehow remains lower. Asian American students appear to suffer more, but they also endure more.

We endure because our parents did. When Holleran told her parents over Christmas that she was unhappy at school, they “begged her not to go back.” When I told my parents over Christmas that I was unhappy at school, they scolded me for my ungratefulness. My mother lectured me on how much she had sacrificed and saved to send me to an Ivy League school. She reminded me of what a privileged “brat” I am—someone who has never tasted poverty as my parents had, and who has never witnessed war as my grandparents had.

When I entered college in a joint program in business and engineering, my parents rejoiced at my prospect of a financially secure future. At Penn’s four undergraduate schools, Asian Americans flock to the pre-professional studies, as liberal arts degrees are still perceived to be an extravagance. Asian Americans represent over 29% of the students at the Wharton School of Business and 24% of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, compared to only 15% of the School of Arts and Sciences.

On my first day of college, however, I dropped engineering to pursue the liberal arts education that Holleran and Hatcher enjoyed before their premature deaths. When I decided also to drop business, my parents—who had allowed me to learn the guitar instead of the violin and to backpack for a year before college—finally intervened.

They argued that although I might not see the bamboo ceiling in college, Asians are perpetual foreigners in America. Money, however, is colorblind. It was through a half-million-dollar investment that my family obtained permanent residency here. From the ashes of the Korean War, which left him fatherless and impoverished, my father worked tirelessly to join the ranks of Seoul’s nouveau riche. Since I started wearing ties and blazers at private schools in fifth grade, my parents expected me to snowball the million-dollar family business into a billion-dollar one.

However, try as I might, I could not land a business job. Telling management consultants I wanted to work for them sounded as sincere as the profession of faith my family’s evangelical Korean church demanded. Just as the studies on dissipating group success across generations would predict, I have been an average student at Wharton and probably in the bottom quarter among the Asian students.

Having left Korea at the age of 10, I have also been an outsider in both the Korean community and my white fraternity, perhaps also because Asian males are often uncomfortable trying to conform to the standards of black and white American masculinity. Although I found refuge in my intellectual history major, the absence of Asian and Asian American thinkers in my studies left me without voices that speak to my personal experience.

While the cage of Asian parental expectations and the obscurity of Asian American traditions sometimes felt as disempowering as foot-binding, I have never acted on suicidal impulses. Tragically, many young Asian Americans have. Most vulnerable are Asian American females aged 15-24, who may face even more pressure to conform and perform. Over the past decade, the suicide rate of young Asian American males has remained stable at about half their white counterpart’s. In contrast, the suicide rate of Asian American females in this demographic has nearly doubled from 2.7 to 5.3 suicides per 100,000 residents between 2000 and 2009, surpassing the rate of white females in the same age group.

In their research on young Asian American females with a history of self-destructive behavior, two Boston University professors concluded: “The women felt paralyzed by opposing forces, caught between a deep desire to satisfy their parents' expectations as well as societal expectations and to simultaneously rebel against the image of the perfect Asian woman." Yet raised to persevere alone, Asian American men and women over the age of 18 seek counseling and medications at about a quarter the rate of whites.

Mental health and the model minority myth were the two major issues U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed at this year’s East Coast Asian American Student Union conference in Washington D.C. Yet blinded by the elusive American Dream, our tiger parents can lose sight of the maladies overshadowing our achievements. Although we are grateful for our parents’ sacrifice and affection, we may not be able to withstand the stoic regimen that strengthened our mothers and fathers. As this year’s suicides of Asian American students at Boston, Columbia, Harvard and New York University illustrate, many elite colleges have become juggernauts that not every student feels able to endure. In this American jungle, not every tiger cub survives.

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Jun-Youb Lee graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in May 2014.