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9.20.2010

guest post: back-to-school and the art of choice

I'm on vacation! Taking a much-needed break. But don't worry. While I'm away, I've enlisted some great guest bloggers to keep things going around here. Here's L.S. Kim on Asian Americans and the art of choice.

Is summer really over? Students aren't the only ones wishing it could last forever. But there's something exciting about the first day of school in the fall, and as I prepare to teach Film and Television at UC Santa Cruz, I feel anticipation and optimism about who my students will be and what studying media culture can do for them.

I also wonder how many Asian faces I'll see in my department, I always hope it will be more than the year before.


Professor Sheena Iyengar, a social psychologist who teaches at the Columbia Business School, has written a new book, The Art of Choosing. She has found that a culture's views on choice affect decision-making, performance, and happiness. She also discovered striking differences between how Asian Americans make decisions in comparison to white Americans. For example, Asian American kids perform best in tasks chosen by their mothers, while white American kids perform best when they choose their own tasks.

You can hear her give a talk about her work here and here is a brief clip about her book.

Among the ideas she raises, is the fact that first generation children are strongly influenced by their immigrant parents' approach to choice. She states that for them (for us -- she is a daughter of Sikh immigrants), choice is not just a way to define and assert individuality, but a way to create community and harmony by deferring to the choices of people we trust and respect ... and that 'self' most likely is composed of a collective. Success is just as much about pleasing key figures as it is about satisfying one's own preferences.

In conducting some of my own informal research, I have learned that Asian American college students are often interested in majors they are familiar with through their families, or they pursue what they know from and did well in high school. Family influence is strong, not only in terms of cultural obedience but also in terms of economic needs or pressures. At UCSC, the breakdown of what Asian American students choose as majors looks something like this:

10% Division of the Arts (including the Film major)
25% Engineering
8.5% Humanities
22% Physical and Biological Sciences
18% Social Sciences
18% Undeclared
(According to UCOP reports, UCSC has about 23% undergraduates and 17% graduate students who are Asian American.)

The stereotype about math & science has some evidence here, but the question -- to the individuals themselves -- is why do young Asian Americans pursue these fields? When I was a graduate student in the Film School at UCLA, there were a handful of people of color, and there were even fewer undergraduates. Though, I was consistently contacted by Asian American students interested in media and culture who had questions and wanted to know more. They just didn't officially declare the major. In some ways, that doesn't matter as long as the interest, the fire, and the anger are nurtured through watching and talking or writing about film and television. (Hm, like Angry Asian Man inspires us to do.)

Here is an article about college attendance and choice of majors among Asian Americans and a link to employment statistics.

What, or who, influenced you in your choice of major, or in what job you imagined having?

My Father dreamt of being a film director. (And he has probably seen more films than I have.) In writing this piece, I realize that it was his declaration of his passion for film and my parents' openness to my studying it, that helped me decide to get a Ph.D. in Film and Television. While on one hand, I uphold the cultural value of making choices with a collective in mind, on the other hand, I think many of our parents came to the United States knowing that their children would choose a path different from theirs. The American experiment, and experience, is that of choosing choice.

So we often consider our parents' wishes, hopes, and expectations, but the contradiction is that sometimes following the wishes of others makes us angry. As the new schoolyear begins for many of us (students, teachers, parents, anyone around kids), we can think about the power, the burden, the responsibility, the privilege, the limitations, and also the opportunities of choice. I hope to see some of you in class ~ or at the movie theater, either choice would make me happy.

L.S Kim is Associate Professor and Associate Chair of Critical Studies in the Department of Film and Digital Media at UC Santa Cruz. She has a forthcoming book, Maid for Television: Race, Class, and Gender on the Small Screen, being published by NYU Press.