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The Success Frame and Achievement Paradox: The Costs and Consequences for Asian Americans

The Success Frame and Achievement Paradox: The Costs and Consequences for Asian Americans

Martin Lavicka05 Nov 2014Leave a comment


Written by Jaroslava Kubátová

The Success Frame and Achievement Paradox: The Costs and Consequences for Asian Americans. By Jennifer Lee, Min Zhou. Race and Social Problems, March 2014, Volume 6, Issue 1 pp 38-55. DOI 10.1007/s12552-014-9112-7

This study deals with the fact that children of Asian immigrants often achieve great academic and professional achievements even though the socioeconomic status (SES) of their families is low. The authors of the study point out that the status attainment model highlights the role of family SES in the intergenerational reproduction of educational attainment. However, the model falls short in predicting the educational outcomes of the children of Asian immigrants whose attainment exceeds what would be predicted based on family SES alone. There is also the cultural capital model which gives primacy to the role of middle-class cultural capital in reproducing advantage, but neglects contextual factors outside the family.

The authors decided to fill this theoretical and empirical niche by introducing a model of cultural frames to explain how the children of immigrants whose families exhibit low SES and lack middle-class cultural capital attain exceptional educational outcomes. Based on in-depth interviews with adult children of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants the authors show that Chinese and Vietnamese immigrant parents and their children use ethnicity as a resource to construct and support a strict “success frame” that helps the poor and working class override their disadvantages. However, some unintended consequences to adopting such a strict success frame can occur: those who do not meet its exacting tenets feel like ethnic outliers, and as a result, they distance themselves from coethnics and from their ethnic identities because they link achievement with ethnicity.

The research was motivated by an article by Amy Chua titled Why Chinese Mothers are Superior[1] and by the later release of her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother[2]. Chua argues that the Eastern parenting style compared to the Western style is more likely to produce successful children because the eastern “Tiger Mother” understands the cultural formula of success: hard work, discipline, rote repetition. The article as well as the book provoked a wide debate.

Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou decided to analyze this problem raising the research question “Why do the children of Asian immigrants exhibit high educational aspirations and mobility outcomes, even when they hail from families with low SES and low levels of middleclass cultural capital?” (p. 39). Their analysis is based on qualitative interview data of two Asian groups, Chinese and Vietnamese from metropolitan Los Angeles.

The data on which their analysis is based are drawn from a qualitative study of adult children of immigrants, who were randomly selected from the survey of Immigration and Intergenerational Mobility in Metropolitan Los Angeles. The main purpose of the qualitative study was to examine how members of today’s 1.5 and second generation define “success,” how their prospects and outcomes of “success” are affected by national origin, class, and gender, how they construct the meaning of “a good education” and “a good job,” and how they choose to identify themselves. To achieve these goals 82 face-to-face life history interviews were conducted. In the research the authors rejected the notion of culture as static and intrinsic to race or ethnicity. Instead, they developed a model of cultural frames to illustrate how culture operates through frames, and how frames are supported by tangible and intangible ethnic resources.

Their analysis shows that the 1.5- and second-generation Chinese and Vietnamese share a frame for academic success that entails getting straight A’s in high school, graduating from an elite university, and pursuing an advanced degree. This frame reflects a particular mobility strategy in which academic achievement becomes the pragmatic goal in itself. This is so because Chinese and Vietnamese immigrant parents perceive education as the only sure path to mobility – a perception that they have imparted onto their children. If the children are not able to meet the expectation of their parents, their wider family and their social circle, they feel they have failed. They are socially excluded and suffer from low self-esteem. For these as well as other reasons the authors conclude that decoupling race/ethnicity from achievement has positive implications for Asian Americans, as well as other racial/ethnic groups. However, the reader may ask how long this decoupling can take or if it is even possible at all.

Overall, this study presents many interesting findings about the ways Asian immigrants think and behave, particularly Chinese and Vietnamese in the U.S.A., which can facilitate mutual understanding within today’s globalized society.


[1] Chua, A. (2011). Why Chinese mothers are superior. Wall Street Journal, 8.  Retrieved October 31, 2014 from http://online.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704111504576059713528698754.

[2] Chua, A. (2011). Battle hymn of the tiger mother. Bloomsbury Publishing.

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