The new Horatio Algers: why Asian-Americans star at school

Paayfen Chang came to this country when she was five. Her parents, native Taiwanese, first settled in North Dakota - hardly an easy transition from their subtropical island. Her father studied mineralogy there. Then Paayfen's family moved to California. They prospered. Both parents became entrepreneurs - her father in electronic components, her mother in industrial gloves. Paayfen starred in high school. She was elected president of her class. One of her teachers suggested she apply to the currently most popular Ivy League university. She was accepted, and once again excelled. A month ago she listened to another Chinese-American girl give a graduation address at the prestigious Ivy campus - a hardly needed success model as Paayfen prepared to complete her college career.

In the graduation season just past, Paayfen's tale was not an isolated one. From San Diego to Tampa, from Des Moines to Manhattan, Asian-American students are perched atop deans' lists, delivering valedictorian addresses, acquiring the double asterisks that mean summa cum laude on graduate lists, and moving into top jobs in engineering, research, banking, and investment.

The remarkable thing about this phenomenon is that Asians who succeed are not just from old, settled Chinese-American and Japanese-American families. Many are recent arrivals from Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

Asians accounted for only about 1.5 percent of the American population in the last census. But Asians constitute nearly 4 1/2 times as large a portion of the total number of American scientists who hold doctoral degrees. And they are more than 10 times as numerous on the rolls of engineers, and 6.2 times as numerous among computer scientists. At the University of California, Berkeley, Asians constitute about one-fifth of the undergraduate student body - nearly four times their proportion in the California population.

Academic prowess does not, however, always translate to economic and political power. Successful Asian-Americans rank high in family-income lists. But much of the ethnic group still works long hours at low pay. Ironically, women from other minority groups, while underpaid compared with men, earn more than Asian women. A survey by the Women's Economic Agenda Project showed American women as a whole earned 61 cents for every dollar paid to men in similar jobs. But black women were paid 58 cents, Hispanic women 53 cents, and Asian-Pacific women only 44 cents.

Joseph Alsop, longtime columnist and China Hand, began to study the Asian-student phenomenon in the 1960s. He attributes the breakout from the walled horizons of Chinatowns in large part to the role model created by young Nobel Prize winners Chen Ning Yang and Tsung Dao Lee, physics laureates in 1957. Both were born in China. More recent inspiration comes from such computer whizzes as An Wang, superstar architect Ieoh Ming Pei, and a growing list of economists and investment headliners.

But, aside from role models, is there a more basic cause of this Asian scholastic upsurge?

A thorough, but unscientific, survey of academics and Asia-philes who have investigated the matter discloses a strong common opinion about the underlying cause. The Asian students who rise to top class ranking invariably come from tight-knit families who value education, hard work to get it, and an unsentimental view of its key to career doors.

At the beginning of the decade, a national survey conducted by James Coleman, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, showed substantially higher test scores in math for Asian-Americans than for whites. Some 58 percent of the Asian students surveyed were foreign-born. The study found Asians doing more homework, taking tougher courses, and being expected by parents to go on to advanced-degree work.

Harvard's retiring dean (and currently acting president) Henry Rosovsky told me he worries because other ethnic groups on campus - particularly blacks - feel they have been leapfrogged by yet another group of later arrivals when it comes to scholarships, class rank, and jobs.

Such feelings create unnecessary friction - and myths. Thirties'-style cliches about tinny Japanese toys and impassive Chinese waiters have been replaced by an almost superstitious belief in superior products, superior management skills, and entrepreneurial genius. And the mystique of the Asian student may become similarly exaggerated, paired ironically with anti-Asian racism in some cases.

So far, Asian-American student achievements, while remarkable, are predominantly in the so-called ''hard subjects'' - the sciences, math, computers , and practical economics. Fewer of the high achievers are majoring in literature, history, or other ''soft'' subjects.

This, argues one Manhattan teacher, indicates success in ''subjects that demand high concentration on rote learning. After building a base with such hard work and memorization, the Asian students often prove imaginative in doing creative math or scientific work. But it is their willingness to work long hours at memorization in the beginning that often distinguishes them from their fellow students.''

Another myth implies that the Asian-American student is a new genus (and genius) unknown anywhere else. But Overseas Chinese are succeeding in other countries as well. (Many of the superior Vietnamese students in American schools are, incidentally, ethnic Chinese.) And Parsees (ethnic Persians) have long since shown unusual talent in India; Indians have done so in parts of East Africa; Jewish immigrants have done so in Europe, America, and Latin America; and Palestinians are beginning to do so in the Mideast and Latin America.

In all cases the common denominator seems to be the same. Close-knit families (and sometimes clans) who unabashedly value education and the work ethic for what they return in the market place as well as in intellectual satisfaction.

Several years ago a study was made of another group of successful students: America's National Merit Scholarship winners. Here, there was no possible argument that genetic or ethnic superiority of some kind was the common denominator. Merit scholars come in all sizes, colors, genders, and national backgrounds. After exploration of all conceivable causative threads, surveyors found there was only one factor the winners had in common:

Their families all sat down to dinner together every night.

Although the survey didn't explore further, it must be assumed that many of the families discussed ideas, homework, family progress, civic activities, careers, and the meaning of items in the news.

That old advertising slogan, ''You don't have to be Jewish to eat rye bread, '' might well be revised as an aid to American education:

''You don't have to be Asian to have an educational family dinner each evening.''

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