Behind the 'quiet and shy' Asian student stereotype

Undergraduate students at Duke Kunshan University in China are contributing written and multimedia content to The Chronicle, published every other Friday.

“Don’t get me wrong: The classes are pretty fun, and she explains concepts well. But the exams are the priority, y’know?,” a close high-school friend of mine said. 

I wasn’t the best at chemistry in high school. Cryptic organic chemistry reaction chains would haunt me to no end. Thankfully for me, I had a great teacher to get me through it in the earlier parts of high school, and as far as I knew, most of my peers felt the same way. Which was why it was so startling when I heard that the majority wanted her replaced. Eventually, after they complained to their parents and put pressure on the school, a new O-chem teacher greeted us the following year.

I despised the new teacher’s class format; it was the same old hour-long lecture with occasional interrupts to answer doubts between subtopics, grueling monthly tests and triannual exams. Just like all my other classes.

Ultimately, however, I came to believe the replacement of my first teacher was probably the right decision.

Controlled by the Indian government, The Central Board Of Secondary Education, or CBSE, prescribes the curriculum that the majority of Indian schools follow. In this system, all high school graduates take nationally regulated Board exams in their sophomore and senior years of high school. The latter is one of the biggest factors in college admissions, to the extent that other school grades are rarely even considered. Most Indian students — and parents — would agree that these Board exams practically determine students’ futures.

The end result of such a system where only the final exams matter is that often, the best schools end up being the ones that can best prepare you for the exams — and that doesn’t necessarily align with getting the best education or the best understanding of the subjects themselves.

This discrepancy was perhaps most obvious in the humanities classes I took in my sophomore year: the history syllabus had recently been revised to include post-World War Two history but was promised not to be included in the exams for an introductory period of a few years. Naturally, our classes never even covered the new topics. Why bother if it’s not going to be on the exam?

But perhaps the most profound impact this system has is in the nature of the typical class itself. Owing to a cultural focus on academics and over-competitive college admissions, the CBSE syllabus is vast. The STEM subjects, in particular, go well into topics usually covered in the second year of college. As such, since schools are only incentivized to optimize their students’ ability to do well in the Board exams, they need to cover everything in the curriculum as well as prepare students for the exams specifically, resulting in classes consisting of one-sided lectures that seldom leave room for discussion or engagement. Most schools even complete teaching everything two to four months prior to the exam, and reserve that final period for continuous, rigorous testing and preparation, complete with data-driven educated guesses of what questions will be on the final exams. Naturally, there simply isn’t enough time for discussion.

In fact, students who try to spur prolonged debates or ask too many off-topic questions are considered disrespectful troublemakers. They are, after all, wasting the teachers’ precious time as the Board exams only loom scarily closer. Naturally, what also arises from this system is an immense cultural respect for the teacher, as they are the trusted, true mentors of students’ futures — and conversely, a teacher that students think cannot finish teaching everything by the time the Board exams come around is considered ineffective at best and gambling with students’ futures at worst.

And so, as long as such a system is in place, as much as I missed my former chemistry class discussions, I can understand and sympathize with why that teacher was replaced.

International students, particularly Asian students, are often labeled as quiet and shy, but often it’s simply that having classes focused on discussion (or god forbid — ones with participation grades!) is a change that’s hard to get used to, compared to the mundane, note-taking, focused lectures that we have had for so long.

In my time at DKU, I have noticed similar labels often being placed on Chinese students, and while I of course cannot speak to the wide range of Chinese-specific experiences, I am sure that the classroom experience produced by a system focused on a single exam, the Gaokao, is not far removed from what I have gone through.

And so, the negative stigma of shyness is more often than not a false one: It’s simply that the new classroom dynamic so many of us face for the first time in university is one that’s hard to get used to after years of being accustomed to little class participation. Even personally, despite being extroverted enough to get used to more active participation relatively easily, it has sometimes been unnerving to raise my hand and start a dialogue in a class.

The sooner the origin of our supposed shyness can be truly understood by our college peers and faculty, the sooner we can realize the truth behind the stereotypes — and such an understanding can also help colleges and our fellow college peers better ease the transition to the new classroom dynamic for incoming students.

Aryan Poonacha is a sophomore in the second-ever graduating class of the Duke Kunshan campus’s undergraduate program, located outside Shanghai, China.


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