If you have seen any TV shows portraying Asian teenagers, you would know that many of these characters share a mutual quality, a stereotype–that they are all math-science types. It is one of the most stereotypical portrayals in Hollywood; Asian teenagers wear nerd glasses and bury their noses in books, all with the ability to do multivariable calculus in mere seconds. So here comes the important question: are all Asians like this? Are we all born with in-depth mathematics knowledge downloaded in our brains, or at least some advantage to absorb mathematical concepts faster than others?
The short answer is no. I am a living, breathing exception to this stereotype–I am an Asian (Chinese to be specific) student who uses a calculator to check over basic arithmetic and struggled to wrap my head around basic algebra when I was first introduced to the discipline back in the seventh grade. This thoroughly confused many of my peers and teachers that I have encountered in Canada. To their knowledge, Asian students outperform students from other parts of the world in almost every math-related standardized test and/or competition. My struggles and lack of ‘natural talent’ in math contradict the statistics they have seen.
I gave this phenomenon some thought. I came up with some conclusions regarding why Chinese students may outperform students who are from non-Asian countries, however, I cannot speak for other Asian countries, since the only Asian country I have ever lived in is China, and therefore I have no basis to analyze what may have led to the statistics in other Asian countries.
The most commonly used language in China is Mandarin Chinese–an extremely concise language in which characters forming integers less than ten have only one syllable each. For this reason, verses and acronyms are easily formed to remember commonly used arithmetic, such as the multiplication table. Many Chinese students grew up listening to nursery rhymes on the multiplication table so often that they have memorized it all by the time they get to the age of learning arithmetic.
The result of this unique characteristic of Mandarin is that many Chinese students excel in arithmetic, which may help with test-taking, as less time needs to be spent on double-checking on calculations. However, this so-called ‘advantage’ does not get students very far, as being good at arithmetic does not necessarily equate to being good at math. Arithmetic is a specific branch of mathematics; there are many other branches such as geometry and algebra that require a lot more than being able to memorize things. Many mathematical concepts, like functions and calculus, are abstract theories dissimilar to arithmetic and cannot be made into catchy, easily remembered rhymes.
So how have Chinese students excelled in examinations and/or contests that require the understanding of these concepts, which they have no advantage over?
My personal view is that culture has played a huge part in this. Chinese culture places a large emphasis on hard work. Reflecting upon the seven years of Chinese education I received, my Chinese teachers instilled the idea that hard work contributes to success far more than natural talent deeply in me. Fables and poems related to how hard work and persistence have made miracles happen, similar to Miley Cyrus’s lyrics “there is always going to be another mountain, I am always going to want to make it move”, filled our textbooks. I was always encouraged to work hard in all areas, even if I had no particular interest in the subject. This belief differs greatly from the teaching style I have experienced in the United States and Canada. In my experience, students are often encouraged to put in effort into what they like doing in western countries; if a student does not like math, for instance, he/she is less likely to be pushed to study it and excel in it in western countries than in China.
This comes to another interesting topic I would like to address–the common belief that Chinese students are often forced to study things they dislike by their tiger parents, and that their personal interest is completely disregarded. I obviously cannot speak for all Chinese parents, however, my parents did not push me to study hard in math simply because they could not stand the fact that their daughter was not a math genius. When I complained to my parents about my struggles with math as a young girl and made angry declarations such as “I do not want to study math ever again in my life”, my parents told me to not give up on the subject this easily. “There are many concepts in math that you have not seen yet.” My mother had told me, “You might find them interesting when you learn them in later years. However, you will not be able to appreciate them if you do not understand the basics that you struggle with now.”
My mother had taught me that bitterness often comes before one can recognize beauty. Just like how one would be unable to work out the ingeniousness of the lines in the TV show Suits or devour in the satisfaction of gossiping about Kylie Jenner’s latest Instagram feed without grasping the basics of the English language and learning the dry and boring ABC’s, it would be impossible to appreciate the simplicity of Euler’s identity without learning trigonometry and the McLaurin series. Often, fun and interesting aspects of a subject cannot be found in the boring fundamentals; one needs to overcome many obstacles in order to get to the level where intriguing curiosities occur. No one is born at that level; no one will reach it by simply remembering the words to nursery rhymes, but consistent effort will get you infinitely closer.