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Let's Slow Down and Talk About Hustle Culture

Updated: May 28, 2023

Dear Asian Youth,

5:45 A.M. It’s a typical Monday morning, the start to a new week. Rubbing my tired eyes and yawning incessantly, I stumble to the bathroom sink and attempt to wash my grogginess down the drain, in tandem with facial cleanser and ice-cold water. In my scramble to get ready for school, I’m desperately scouring my notes—poring over various formulas that need to be memorized, reciting historical dates, or reviewing the latest biological concept. While I rush to the car, the moon illuminates the tranquil street, bathing lamp posts and mailboxes in an incandescent glow. I’m naturally a morning person, but all I want is to be curled up underneath my warm covers, rising in time with the sun.

After a grueling day of classes and several hours of afternoon extracurriculars, I finally arrive home at 7 P.M. and hurriedly inhale my dinner before scurrying off to the shower. The hot droplets stream down my face, and as much as I want to relax and bathe in the steam and scented body wash, I only allow myself a maximum of ten minutes. I still have work to do. Sitting down at my desk, I unlock the screen of my iPad and sigh in annoyance. I had plugged it in as soon as I had arrived home, but it had only risen seven percent in the past forty minutes.

I have a headache. It’s one born of long-term stress, from years of pushing myself just almost beyond my mental capacity, from consistently putting my future happiness and success over my present well-being. There’s a persistent pounding behind my eyes, like the steady beat of a drum. It’s been months since I last wore contact lenses—my eyes get drier and drier every day from futile attempts to rub away the fatigue. But I must push myself. To do otherwise would be to fall behind. To do otherwise would be to admit defeat. To do otherwise would be to fail.

We need to talk about hustle culture. While an overused word, the academic elitism that is so highly prevalent in our educational system is, in many ways, toxic—it’s an aspect of a larger system that places one’s self-worth in the classes you take, the number of A’s you receive, and the extracurriculars you join. It’s an ever-ascending staircase, a teacup on the verge of spilling over, a bubble about to burst. The hustle culture characteristic to Western society is best reflected in one phrase: the grind never stops. As a whole, we often get so caught up working towards a future version of ourselves that we forget to take care of ourselves in the present. We tend to idealize, normalize, and even romanticize hustle culture—in the academic realm, there is a tendency to glorify and glamorize the all-nighter, when in fact, there is absolutely nothing glamorous about blood-shot eyes and excessive caffeination. As we start preparing for the upcoming school year, we need to let go of the belief that happiness is congruent with academic success, especially when we examine the ramifications hustle culture has upon the individual. It’s time to stop subscribing to this ideology. Just like a tablet or a phone, we need to give ourselves time to recharge.

Statistically speaking, the concept of hustle culture disproportionately harms Asian American communities. Although Asian Americans have a 2.1 percent lifetime prevalence of generalized anxiety disorder compared to white Americans with an 8.6 percent prevalence, a 2013 study showed that Asian American students have a significantly higher tendency to worry about familial expectations upon academic success relative to their Caucasian counterparts. Of the Asian youth currently studying in the United States, many have parents that are first or second-generation immigrants—immigrants with tenacity, grit, and determination. We are living proof that our parents were able to succeed in a country that prioritized their professional labor (read: the educated mind) above all else. Our parents prevailed in spite of the myriad of adversities thrown their way, and as their children, we are the embodiment of that success. And now, we must carry our respective family legacies, to build upon our mothers’ and fathers’ accomplishments and advance even further.

We aren’t just the evidence of our parents’ success—we’re what fueled them to succeed in the first place. If we fall short, we’re not just failing ourselves—we’re failing our parents and the sacrifices they made for us. Thus, we work. We go through the motions at school, push ourselves to take accelerated courses, and juggle multiple extracurriculars at once. We consistently wake up each morning, both physically and mentally drained, and valiantly attempt to prolong our metaphorical “battery life.” Although it gets harder and harder each day, we force ourselves to continue onwards—because our mental stability is a small price to pay for straight A’s, a stellar resume, and an acceptance into a certain Northeastern private university, behind the coveted Ivy gates. And if we’re struggling, we can’t show it—we are the model minority, after all.

For many of us, our subscription to academic hustle culture is primarily due to our overwhelming desire to make our families proud, but it’s exacerbated by our peers’ racially motivated expectations. In Western society, to be Asian means to be inherently intelligent. It means labelling every Asian student as prodigious in nature or innately gifted. Many people from other races, as well as a notable proportion of Asian youth, view such a stereotype as “good.” To people of other races, attributing intelligence to Asians is seen as an appreciative gesture; to many Asian students, it’s seen as a source of pride. However, such a racially-guided narrative has an abundance of harmful implications. Many Asian youth are suffering under immense pressure to live up to their parents’ expectations of who they should grow up to become. Compounded with the devastating effects of the model minority myth, Asian American students often feel the urge to hide their struggles. Due to the generational divide, Asian parents often can’t relate to the internal turmoil their children undergo. Because Asians are expected to be—and often are—high-achieving, teachers often fail to comprehend the gravity of their students’ legitimate struggles.

To my fellow Asian youth who can’t seem to keep up: your tribulations are palpable. No words can truly describe the devastating feeling of trying so hard, yet even your best isn’t good enough. But remember: you have and always will be enough, just as you are. To my fellow Asian youth ahead of the curve: whether you’re battling resentful peers who attribute your accomplishments to your heritage or combatting the invisible imposter syndrome, the challenges presented to you are real, and your mental health matters. To anyone dealing with sky-high expectations and the pressure to succeed: you’re doing just fine. While hard work is instrumental for future success, allowing oneself to take breaks is much more sustainable in the long run. You’ll still get there. Take your time—there’s no need to rush.

- Justine Torres




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