Sheer hard work, dedication, and a refusal to be distracted: Asian-Australian teenagers have their eyes on the glittering prizes – scholarships, top exam marks, sought-after university places. Jackson Huang, for one, insists he doesn’t mind a 90-minute commute to school every day. The long trip, he says, gives him time to “relax”. Otherwise, he’s in the classroom, soaking up knowledge, or spending more than four hours a day concentrating on homework and other after-school study.
The 16-year-old, who lives on the Gold Coast, has just begun year 12 at the selective, state-run Queensland Academy of Science, Mathematics and Technology in Toowong. Like many Asian-Australian school students, Jackson has worked hard at learning and he has always done well at school.
Hard intellectual slog has its own rewards. But there hasn’t been much time to stop and smell the eucalypts. Australian school-kids who were born in Asia, or whose parents were born in Asia, have to overcome language handicaps to shine at school. Still, they do shine: every year, the school lists of top-scoring students feature a solid proportion of Asian-Australians who have put in the hard yards.
“When I was a kid the neighbors would play and I would have to stay at home and work,” Jackson says. “It wouldn’t be studying as I see it now, but it was still reading books and encyclopedias.” But reckoning it all up, Jackson still thinks the sacrifices have been worth it. “I love learning, it’s natural… I find it really interesting to be able to argue your own point of view.”
The Huangs immigrated to Australia from China before Jackson was born, and they didn’t want to be interviewed face-to-face or on the phone, saying their English isn’t yet good enough. Jackson’s father Simon Huang works in retail, and his mother, Jenny Huang, is a housewife. Via email, Jenny Huang writes that she began teaching Jackson and his sister Yvonne maths and English when they were young. “Chinese culture places great emphasis on education,” she explains. “We wanted our children to have an education which we did not have when we were younger.”
With an international award under his belt (the “International Brain Bee” held in Austria last year), Jackson intends to finish his International Baccalaureate and move on to university next year. Hoping to specialise in either materials science or neutron science at university, he blithely says the healthiest way to approach study goals is to “just go for it”.
Many Asian-born parents in Australia, like the Huangs, firmly believe that childhood is a time to study hard, learn a lot, get good marks and lay the foundations for a solid professional or entrepreneurial career.
Dr Bob Birrell, a demographer at Monash University’s Centre for Population and Urban Research, says he and his colleagues have examined the issue in the past, and there’s no doubt that Asian students, and indeed migrant children generally, all things being considered, do better at school than Australian and English-born students. “I think that purely has to do with expectations, and the parents’ willingness to discipline their kids to prepare for examinations and to push them into the higher-performing state schoolsm,” Birrell says.
It should be remembered, he adds, that the parents of these Asian school students often come from middle to upper-middle class backgrounds, and the class factor is important. “For the most part they (the parents) would have come here as skill-based migrants, so they have professional backgrounds and as a consequence there is a fairly high degree of selectivity within that group.”
In Australia, children of these immigrants put in long hours of hard intellectual grind, study that might be broken up by piano or flute practice; or even with lessons in a desirable sport, like tennis. But there’s rarely time to goof off, go to parties or just hang around in that timeworn teenager way. No time for boyfriends and girlfriends. No time to lie on the grass under a tree and gossip for hours, or hurtle through quiet suburban streets, racing bicycles or skateboards.
Cultural values propel them onwards and upwards. Jen-Hao Chen, an academic from the National Chengchi University in Taiwan, last year compared the level and type of maternal care given to native and immigrant children in Australia, using a time-diary survey of more than 5,000 children between the ages of six and nine. He found that non-English speaking immigrant mothers, typically Asian-born, spent significantly more time with their children, and more time on “educational activities” like reading, than their native-born counterparts. The children of Australian-born mothers spent more time on “free play and sedentary activities”.
In the US, a similarly broad survey conducted in recent years by the US Bureau of Labour Statistics reportedly found that Asian high school students out-studied those from other ethnic groups – putting in an average of 13 hours a week, compared with 5.5 for non-Hispanic white students, and even less for Hispanic and black students.
Dr Peter Ho, president of the Queensland Chinese Forum, says hard work and hard study are integral to the Chinese philosophy of life. “It’s the Confucius teaching, even though that’s well over 1,000 years ago,” he says. “For me it’s in our blood. You have to respect elders; perform well in society; don’t do naughty things. I believe this is inside all Chinese. Almost 100 per cent of Chinese parents would like to see their offspring do better than they did. That’s the thinking.”
He remembers going to a funeral for a good friend’s wife last year. The friend’s son was in his 30s, and he spoke about a time when he was young, and his mother threw his schoolbag with all his books out the door simply because he refused to do his homework. The son remembered her saying: ‘if you don’t do your homework, you’d better stay outside, don’t bother to come in, as you will be useless any further’. It was a turning point for him, Ho says, and he mended his ways.
Ho has three adult children, so he knows all about pressure-cooker school and university exams. None of his children refused to put in long hours of after-school study. They all came home from school, went to their rooms and studied, and kept it up all evening and on the weekends. “My wife always wanted them to do better,” he says, chuckling. “If they got 96 per cent, ‘no, you must get 100’. For me, I’m more relaxed.”
Amy Chua, a Yale law professor and a mother of two daughters, wrote a provocative memoir about pushing her daughters to excel. Titled “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, the book was published in 2011 and fuelled a tornado of debate on parenting and education. The child of immigrant Chinese parents, Chua piled the pressure on her daughters, and sometimes, as she ruefully acknowledges in the book – she went to extremes. In her latest book, published this month, “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America”, Chua and her husband apparently say they have found those cultural traits that propel certain immigrant groups up the ladder of social success.
It seems likely this will be the successor to Chua’s Tiger Mother credo – that Chinese cultural expectations and pushing children to work hard does gets results, no matter how painful it may be at the time. Rejecting a poorly-drawn handmade birthday card, threatening to burn one daughter’s stuffed animals, warning that she will get rid of a doll’s house if a piano recital hasn’t been perfected by the following day: Chua demanded diligence and an unflagging determination to excel. And, after a few hard-won battles, both her daughters did work hard and do well at school.
But the high marks, the scholarships, the selective school places: all these can come at a price. One young Australian woman with China-born parents, who doesn’t wish to be named, says she feels she was robbed of her childhood. She learned tennis; learned piano; studied hard; got top marks; went to university. But there was little time to play, or just hang around. There wasn’t much laughter.
How much study, then, is too much? Professor Mike Horsley, director of Central Queensland University’s (CQU) Learning and Teaching Education Centre and the co-author of the recently published book “Reforming Homework: Practices, Learning and Policies”, has an unorthodox opinion of the value of homework.
Homework — after-school tasks set by teachers — has no “learning achievement” value for very young children, and almost none for older primary-school-aged children, he says, adding that parents from a Chinese background were particularly difficult to convince on this point.
University of Western Sydney academics surveyed a group of parents of primary-school aged children to gauge their views on homework. “From this study, it was clear that for many Chinese students, the kids came home, they did their homework, and then the parents set them more,” Horsley says.
“That’s a typical Chinese familial pattern, in terms of homework. In fact, sometimes the parents of Chinese students will come to the school and say, ‘Look, my child is not being set enough homework. They’ve only got half an hour.’” Yet he says that while extra levels of homework might provide some consolidation of knowledge in children’s minds, it doesn’t provide any learning gain, but homework has been shown to assist in developing students’ ability to organise themselves.
Many of top-performing Asian-Australian kids have been coached to do well, sometimes spending many hours a week in colleges where after-hours tutors coach the children to rip through exams.
Queensland doesn’t release lists of students who get the best marks in final year exams, nor lists of those individual students who win places in the state’s only selective high schools – Brisbane State High School and the three Queensland Academies – the Queensland Academy of Creative Industries, in Kelvin Grove, the Queensland Academy of Health Sciences, in Southport, and the Queensland Academy of Science, Mathematics and Technology, in Toowong. But one coaching company, North Shore Development and Coaching Centre, last year posted a banner on its website congratulating all those students who had been tutored at North Shore and who had won a place at Brisbane State High School, and could start this year.
These twenty North Shore students, from Yiming Xu to Sandal Malik, nearly all with what appeared to be Asian names, made up a healthy proportion of the 110 students who were offered merit-based places at the partially-selective school.
Amy Tan, the principal of North Shore, (with 12 branches in Queensland, from Upper Mount Gravatt to Southport) has been running the tuition organisation for well over a decade. Hordes of Queensland children have been tutored in these centres over the years and Tan estimates 85 per cent have had an Asian background.
Asian children, she adds, stick with the after-school work at North Shore year after year, whereas a native English-speaking child may come for one or two terms, after a poor school report.
North Shore tuition can range up to six hours of extra work a week, with extra homework on top of that. Naturally, some children resist shouldering the burden of this extra study. “Native English-speaking parents probably won’t insist on after-school classes like Asian parents would,” Tan says, explaining that these non-Asian parents often have a “very different mentality” towards tuition. “But in the end,” Tan says, “the child (who does the extra work) will see the benefits.”
Non-Asian parents generally offer their children choices, she adds, whereas in Asian families, the thinking is quite different: “Children have no freedom to choose until they come to a certain age; maybe after secondary school”.
Swaha Bose’s parents were born in India, rather than China, but their philosophy regarding the importance of education has a familiar ring. “Doing well in academics is something that we expect of ourselves and the community expects of us,” says the 18-year-old’s father Sumit Kumar Bose. “That is the mindset I have brought Swaha up with. By focusing on academics, it is one of the few ways we can become something.” Neither he nor his wife wanted to reveal how they earn a living now, but both have Indian tertiary qualifications.
Now working towards a medical degree at Griffith University, Swaha thinks her hard work studying has been worth it, but she sounds a little mournful as she remembers her social life at school. “One of the first parties I was ever invited to was in year 11,” she says. “I didn’t have many friends up until that point. People would wonder why I tried so hard, and I wouldn’t be included because of that. I personally felt stigmatised because I was trying so hard academically and that was a major thing that compromised my ability to make friendships.”
An only child, Swaha began learning maths and English from her mother when she was just three. Her parents, Sumit Bose and Sujata Bose, immigrated to Australia from India in the early 90s, and they have a deep respect for the benefits of education. Swaha lives with her parents in Forest Lake in Brisbane’s south-west, where she maintain the study habits that consumed her childhood.
A family friend began tutoring Swaha in grade 10. An average school day entailed coming home from school, resting for an hour, and then studying late into the night. In 2012, she graduated from St John’s Anglican College (also in Forest Lake) with an OP 1, ATAR score of 99.75.
“I felt especially pressured in grade 11 and 12, and it wasn’t just my parents, it was the rest of my society,” says the teenager. Dressed in harem pants, with her long black hair in a pony-tail, she shrugs. “They knew I did well at school so they expected me to get an OP 1. I felt that pressure; everyone was expecting me to do well.”
Dr Lance Emerson, CEO of the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY), says there is some evidence that that a “harsh” approach doesn’t work for all kids, and in fact can be quite harmful for some. He believes those children who do well academically usually have a genetic advantage, and the often Asian-oriented drive for long hours of study can exact a toll.
“There is some evidence to show that a constant focus on educational achievement does lead to mental illness for certain children,” he says, citing US research that found different cultures had different ways of motivating their children. “American students said pressure was really negative, whereas kids from Asian-American backgrounds weren’t seeing that pressure for academic performance as negative, so it could be seen as helpful for their development,” he says. “I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are different cultural influences with regards to parental engagement, particularly in education”.
Maximus Lee’s parents tried to ensure he would do well at school by hiring coaches to boost his grades in every subject. The child of a Thai mother and a Chinese father, Maximus spent his early years in Malaysia and the onerous school and coaching workload meant he was constantly trying to stay on top of his homework. When he was ten, his family moved to Brisbane; his parents believing an Australian education was better for their children.
The Lees sent Maximus to John Paul College in Daisy Hill, south of Brisbane. “I had to put my studies first, and if I wanted to go out, I’d only be rewarded if I got a certain grade,” the 18-year-old explains. He sometimes spent all night studying. “I can put my head in the books for a long period of time when it’s needed.”
Lee is now living on his own in a small apartment in Eight Mile Plains and studying multi-media design at the University of Queensland. He looks after himself – cooking, cleaning and taking care of the laundry. His property developer parents and his older sister have returned to Malaysia.
With a semi-Mohawk haircut and a gold chain around his neck, Lee says his university course only began after a year of pre-university “foundation studies” – a specially-designed course for international students. So Lee missed out on the social life of year 12 – and all that goes with it, including formals and graduation celebrations. But he wasn’t in Brisbane to have fun.
“There’s a lot of pressure on doing well because of the money (the expense of paying for an Australian education), but also because of the opportunities,” he says. “We came all this way from a different country and our first priority, and whole purpose, is to study and to succeed, and to gain the best possible education.”
Lee remembers occasionally wondering about the lives of other young people. “There have been plenty of times where I felt like I was missing out because I was studying,” he says. “More than anything I missed out on the social side, and the fun side of things…”
Sherrin Gugenberger, the co-founder of Fruition Tuition coaching colleges, an organisation with more than 20 franchisees in Queensland, says she has seen the drive for scholastic excellence from both Asian and non-Asian families. Between 25 and 35 per cent of the students enrolled at Fruition colleges, she adds, have an Asian background.
“Asian people are frequently highly intelligent and they’re very disciplined. So they actually comply … I don’t know if they like it, but they expect it, they don’t rebel against the rigid routines, the discipline,” she says. “They have a very focused approach. And because they invest a lot of time in study, they have the advantage.
“Anyone who takes a disciplined approach with natural ability, is going to go further than someone with natural ability who doesn’t apply themselves. Asian culture does embrace that.”
That embrace has prompted an “explosion” of tutoring and coaching colleges across Australia in recent years. Mohan Dhall, chief executive officer of the Australian Tutoring Association (of which not all Australian coaching groups are members), argues that coaching kids to excel educationally is no bad thing.
“We all admire kids and adults with talent in a particular area. They’ve spent years and years training. How is that different to achievement in any other field? Why do we have this thing that an investment in education is different? That their childhoods are stolen? To achieve does take sacrifice and commitment. Is there an undue level of stress in some families? Yes, of course there is.”
Immigrants around the world, he points out, look to education as a long-term strategy for improving their lot in life. “It happens in Europe, where there are high levels of tutoring.”
Ning Zhu can point to some of the benefits of tutoring. Coached at a Kumon tuition centre, he rocketed ahead of his classmates, and wound up “three to four years ahead of my grade in math”. Graduating from Brisbane Grammar School in 2012 with an OP1, the 18-year-old from Taringa, south-west of Brisbane’s CBD, is now studying at Griffith University with a view to eventually becoming a doctor.
The Zhus moved to Australia from rural China in 1987. Like most of their compatriots, Ning’s parents value education. “Chinese culture has always promoted hard work as the path to success,” says Ning’s father, former University of Queensland researcher Dr Xiaoyi Zhu. “My life experiences have no doubt proven this and this is something that I hope my children will aspire to.” When he and his wife were young in China, education was the only way out of poverty and only three in every 1,000 applicants won places at university.
Now, at university, and knowing the sacrifices his parents made to pay his substantial school fees, Ning expects to maintain his momentum. “They worked so hard to get me the life they have now,” he says. “I might as well try and give it my best shot and not slack off.