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Are You Really Good at Math?

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

Dear Asian Youth,

Do you remember sitting at the dining room table and repeating multiplication? Sitting in the classroom and taking tests to determine whether or not I would enter the “gifted” math program fills my memories. From a young age, I was keenly aware of the expectation that Asians should be good at math and science. There was a stereotype that permeated my elementary school experience and made me embarrassed when I couldn’t live up to that standard. I was more interested in reading and history, often spending my time writing little poems inspired by classroom items. Third grade was the first time I heard someone ask, “Are you really good at math?” Truthfully, I’m not. I wasn’t the shining math student that my parents expected. When other kids asked me to tutor them in a math concept we were learning, I could barely keep up myself. No matter how hard I tried, I could never be that “perfect” Asian stem student, and that continued to haunt me. Throughout middle and high school, I would see my Asian peers in advanced or extremely advanced math courses when I was in a “normal” math class. I was “gifted” in English and history class but never math and science class. I felt embarrassed that I didn’t fit into the standard mold of an Asian student and berated myself for my lack of success. I wondered why every other Asian could solve analytical math and science problems with ease, and I was left behind putting together geometrical shapes. My parents never thought my English and history talents were worthy because they had both been shining STEM students. I don’t think they could comprehend that their daughter was different. I deviated from the typical Asian kid, and they struggled with that fact.

When I entered high school, I became aware that people had already set their expectations for me. They hadn’t anticipated that I could succeed as a writer and historian. They had thought I would be another brilliant mathematician and scientist. By this time, I had realized that I would be different. It’s not that I didn’t give effort to studying and improving myself in stem subjects, it’s that I could never become more than average in those subjects. I guess that it’s cliche, but I am someone who believes in natural aptitude. I don’t think you can foster a gift for a field you were never good in. The pressure from my peers and family made me feel like a loser. In the back of my mind, I wished they would accept me for my distinctness and celebrate them. Why did I feel self-conscious when I would say I wasn’t that good at math? I felt as though I was disappointing others by admitting my shortcomings. I felt like an outsider in my own community. My parents were always supportive and proud of my older brother’s accomplishment since he was extremely skilled in all of his math and science subjects at school. He was the perfect child they always wished for: smart, athletic, and innovative. Everything I wasn’t. It’s easy to hide your disappointment when, most of your life, you were never praised anyways. I learned to rely on myself and see myself as a support system. I could pat myself on the back when I earned an A in a creative writing piece I worked hard on. I always wondered why only achievements in STEM courses showed your level of intellect. Just because we learn English in school doesn’t make it an easy subject. Creating a piece that is both technically and emotionally palatable to a teacher is extremely difficult.

I’ve spent the majority of my life being ashamed of being average at traditionally Asian dominated classes, but I realized that I will be forever miserable if I continue with this negative mindset. The scariest thing about being dissimilar from your race is the fear of the unknown. My mom once asked me, “Why would you pursue humanities when there are other white people better than you?” I think what hurt me most about her statement was her disbelief in my abilities. She doubted my potential to compete in a white-dominated space. I think my parents view stem fields as a safe place for Asians, a place we are known to be accepted. They don’t want me to be ostracized and alienated in a workplace where Asian people aren’t as commonly seen. They’re afraid that by making myself visible that I won’t flourish. But, I want to dismantle the perceived “positive” stereotypes about Asians. The more that we allow people to continue reinforcing the idea of Asians as only good at STEM, the more we are hurting our community. Just because Asians interested in humanities aren’t frequently observable, doesn’t mean that we don’t exist.

Anyone who feels pushed out by expectations set for you, this is for you. I guess what if I were to give advice, I would say pursue what you want. Even if you try with all your effort to fulfill a certain role assumed for you, I don’t think you can ever fully satisfy your self-needs. There will always be a voice in the back of your head calling to you that something feels wrong. Or maybe a pit in your stomach that senses some kind of dread. That disappeared for me when I was able to admit I couldn’t achieve the path peers and my parents laid out for me. I’m not taking Calculus this year. I am taking Precalculus. I took AP Environmental Science this year, not AP Physics or AP Chemistry. Yes, I am still taking high-level sciences but that’s not what I want to pursue with my time. I love creative writing and I want to major in it when I go to college. Instead of participating in math or science clubs, I run book clubs and am an editor for literary magazines. What’s the point of studying something I don’t have passion for? Money and prestige matter little when it’s years down the line and you are miserable. I realized that appeasing others wasn’t worth it to self-sacrifice my own happiness. I think it’s uncomfortable to admit that you’re different from how others would usually perceive you, and it feels like something is wrong with you for not following a pre-laid out path of your life. Even though I don’t enjoy science and math, I know that they are both integral to becoming a more well-rounded student. You can’t pick and choose what you are good at, and sometimes I’m envious of students who can do it at all.

I don’t exactly know how to end this, and the cliché ending I had in my mind was: just do what you want. This sounds very entitled and like a blanket statement that many kids can’t relate to because of outside circumstances. So I’m not saying completely disregard what your friends and family think but consider what you want as well. I’ve met some Asian peers that fit really well into their parent’s dreams like becoming a doctor, but I’ve also known close Asian friends who want to study art. All of this is stereotypical and theoretical, but there are limitations to everything. Even if I wanted to pursue science or math, I will never be as passionate and as brilliant as the future stars of those fields. Why not let people who truly care about these disciplines educate themselves on it? If I don’t find joy in something, I don’t want to waste my life on it. I get a bit wrapped up in materialism and practical things like: where will I live, how can I pay for this and that, how can I establish a life for myself. Yes, maybe I won’t be making a seven-figure salary but I will have pride in myself. For me, literature and writing always allowed me to express my thoughts as a shy teenager. When prose became my comfort, I knew that’s when I found my niche. If you were like me and were struggling to find their “calling,” I hope this cleared some things up for you.

- Ella


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