Major Identity Crisis

by alex lee

While I’m sure no one believes that every Asian American student majors in molecular and cellular biology, there are still lingering stereotypes about what motivates these students. One can’t help but visualize the tiger mother, who just definitively exists, pressuring her children to become doctors or scientists at every waking moment. That’s a problem. As obvious as it seems, as intuitive as it should be, these students have more individual and sincere stories as to how they chose their academic careers. Just ask them.

First there is Alex Tang, a sophomore studying mechanical engineering. He originally came to Cal thinking he would major in physics. However, both his parents, who both happen to have physics degrees, suggested Tang go into engineering, as they saw engineering as more practical. He followed their advice and is now extremely happy with his decision.

“Where I’m from, everyone is either pre-med or engineering, and I happen to like engineering because it’s practical and I’m good at physics,” said Tang.

Tang shows that if you’re good at something, pursue it. He would like to one day work for a design firm such as Alloy or Tesla and continue to pursue his interests.

Next there is Anni Huang, a freshman looking to major in political science. She currently plans to go to law school after her undergraduate education. When asked for reasons why she wanted to pursue a law degree, Huang said that she didn’t want to be like every other Asian Pacific American (APA) majoring in the sciences or other math based majors.

She wants to focus on a single path and not have to worry about other decisions. The freedom to not be constrained by single answers is a plus for Huang. This coupled with her own mother being a lawyer motivates Huang to continue her pursuit of a Doctorate in law and one day become a lawyer as well.

On the other end of the spectrum is Jerry Chen, who loves abstract math and fears the humanities. His interest in a field that causes misery to so many others began at an early age, when Chen’s parents started entering him into math competitions and math camps. Chen found the material to be compelling and built on those interests all the way up to college, where he is now working towards a B.A. in math.

“My parents asked why I wanted to major in abstract math and not applied math, but I overruled them. I’m here in college to learn more about what I like. And besides, Calculus is no fun,” said Chen.

Chen plans on going to graduate school so that one day he can become a professor in math and hopefully bring less misery to students than the professors of today do.

Last is Jamie Li, a double major in anthropology and Asian studies. Her story is a bit different than the other three students. Although Li originally aspired to be a bioengineer in middle school, events during high school changed her mind. She realized she didn’t like math but the social sciences and humanities instead.

After an interview with a doctor, she began thinking about anthropology which matched her interests in the cultural aspect of academia, while also being a popular choice for pre-med students. The plan seemed set and Li decided to be pre-med and anthropology. Then Li’s English teacher asked her a simple question.

“Would you be happy being pre-med?”

That was a pivotal moment for Li. After thinking about it for a while, she realized she wouldn’t be happy with math, science, or following the footsteps of other anthropology students that were pre-med. It was too clichéd, so Li decided to go all the way with anthropology.

It was in a Chinese class that Li realized she also wanted to explore that particular culture more. However, she wasn’t interested in the literature. Li wanted something more regional, something that explores not only China, but its relation to other countries, its significance in government and politics, and so on. So she decided to major in Asian studies as well.

Li recalls one moment where she had to Google translate anthropology for her father. When he read it, he was incredulous, remembering Li’s early goal of being a bioengineer. In the end though, both of Li’s parents strongly supported her choice in anthropology and Asian studies.

When asked about APAs and their majors, Li replied, “There’s always exceptions. A student doesn’t embody a major. A student identifies as much with a major just as majors need students in turn. A student is a part of the academic field like a member of a community, but people fall under several communities, identifying themselves through a unique combination of connections. People can’t be judged based on one stereotype.”

The individual stories of these students reflect those sentiments. Each one comes from a different background, which in turn leads to different motivations and ultimately different goals in life.

I don’t believe there should be a single answer to how APAs choose their majors. The desire for job security is and always will be a factor, but even then I feel that one’s specific motivation is nuanced. Students have their own reasons for picking a major and it would be unsatisfactory to let a stereotype define a group’s motivation for their collegiate pursuits, especially when there are those that diverge from the popular choices of the group.

The majors certainly reflect an extension of each student, but the reasons behind them in the first place are not something that can be discovered with sweeping generalizations. To continue pigeonholing these students as hardworking automatons motivated by the tenacity of the mythical creature that is the tiger mom robs Asian American students of their individuality. After all, these four interviewees have shown that there is no single Asian American experience.