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Home » Asian Doesn’t Start with A+: Olivia Lai at TEDxPhillipsAcademyAndover (Transcript)

Asian Doesn’t Start with A+: Olivia Lai at TEDxPhillipsAcademyAndover (Transcript)

Olivia Lai

Here is the full transcript of Olivia Lai’s TEDx Talk on Asian Doesn’t Start with A+ at TEDxPhillipsAcademyAndover conference.


Look at me. I’m Asian – Chinese to be precise. And in middle school, I had perfect grades. I’m good at drawing. I’ve played piano since I was seven.

My childhood dream? Becoming a doctor. This is no surprise to any of you, of course.

After all, Asian-Americans are stereotyped as the model minority, which means we’re thought to achieve a higher degree of success than the average population. We’re good at math, we play instruments, we treat a B+ as an F. It’s expected of us. These stereotypes seem like a good thing After all, shouldn’t it be a compliment to be stereotyped as hardworking and successful?

I started thinking about these questions a couple of years ago, and I found that the model minority stereotype permeates the lives of Asian-American students far beyond the surface level.

I remember vividly this one time I had to play at a piano recital. I made a mistake – several actually – and I remember just feeling absolutely terrible. It was only just enough to be noticed, but it seemed like the end of the world. The problem was that my standards were too high. I’ve been conditioned to accept for myself nothing less than perfection.

This is a common experience shared by so many of my Asian-American peers. I’ve seen friends crumble under the pressures of not doing well on a test, at a math competition, in a class. Our standards for ourselves are set so incredibly high, merely as a result of the model minority stereotype. Living up to the highest standards that come with being Asian, it is often overwhelmingly stressful. And students suffer psychological, emotional and even academic costs.

We learn to correlate our self-worth with quantitative measurements. Beating ourselves up over anything less than the A range. We normalize self-sacrifice such as studying harder and longer and forgoing our social lives. This stems from the ingrained belief that the worse you do, the less valid you are. Since education occurs during the developmental years, these attitudes leave a deep psychological imprint.

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One of my good friends recently competed in a state level math competition, and was expected to qualify for nationals. He told me about how pressured he felt to do well, just because he was expected to. He said that on the harder problems, he panicked and forgot how to solve them. And he questioned his every pencil stroke. He ended up missing the qualifications for nationals by just one point.

Afterwards, he spent hours and hours sitting on his bed, mulling over how it could have gone differently. Our emotional well being really does suffer under this burden of expectation. However, the model minority stereotype creates a false illusion that Asian-Americans are perfect kids at school, and the needs of these students are often neglected or ignored. This creates an environment of emotional isolation and hopelessness. As a result, according to the National Center for Health statistics, Asian-American girls between ages 15 and 24 have the second highest rate of suicide.

And according to the American Psychological Association, Asian-American students are significantly more likely than their white counterparts to have suicidal thoughts. In addition, the model minority stereotype fails to let schools and teachers recognize the needs of Asian-American students.

When I was in third grade, during every math class, my teacher would give all the Asians in the class a packet of advanced math, and told us to sit outside in the hallway to do it. I was completely confused. She failed to recognize that although I understood the material being taught in class, I was a third grader, not some magic learning machine that could automatically understand math concepts.

Failing to meet the standards of academic achievement can lead to feelings of shame and inadequacy. When Asian-American students don’t achieve stellar grades, people are often surprised, and may even take glory in being better than you. I have even heard people say to me that I’m a bad Asian. Simply because I’m not the best at math. And when Asian-American students need help, they can be reluctant to seek assistance.

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For the longest time, I never asked teachers for help, even if I really needed it, because to me it seemed like admitting failure. I thought that I wasn’t supposed to need help. This is an incredibly toxic mindset, but it doesn’t have to be this way. In order to help alleviate these pressures on Asian-American students, we must first raise awareness. Just like the problems of any other racial group, we must speak up about the dangers of the model minority stereotype.

Our voices must no longer be silenced by complacency. Next, we must turn to the media and demand more representation of Asian-Americans in film, TV and literature that isn’t just of nerds or sidekicks. We must create support networks for each other, so we can talk or just have a shoulder to lean on. And finally, we must redefine success. You are not your grades, or your scores, or your awards.

I know we’ve all heard it before, but it’s time we truly believe it. Reversing the stereotype takes time. It’s certainly not going to happen overnight. It may even take generations. But if we start now, one day our grandchildren, or even our children can be free to be who they want to be.

Thank you.