Against the myth of Asian submissive thinking

This late afternoon, I was waiting to talk to my IR professor (one of the smarter that I’ve met). Someone else was in his office before me, who, from the sounds of apologetic self-explanations that I overheard, seemed to be in quite an awkward situation. Suddenly the door popped open, and my professor signaled me in, even though they clearly weren’t done talking:

“Hey Anh, I just want to have you with us in this conversation. Here is [can’t-remember-his-name], a student from China . . .”

– Who (not a FOB), very unfortunately, decided to use historical knowledge learned since the days of Chinese high school in his IR paper (Example of his non-cited claim: U.S’s post-World War II trade policies towards Japan was exploitative.) I was summoned in, clearly expected by my professor to echo his sympathetic concern with Asian students’ struggling transition from an education that, unlike the American one, “discourage analytical skills and perpetuate distorted facts.”

And I was like: “Hell yeah. I bet this dude thinks Spratly Island is China’s, too.”

Nah, I didn’t. That’s for another time.

The point of this entry is to dispel the almost universally accepted stereotype, by Asians and Westerners alike, that somehow Asian students are indoctrinated with what I’ll call “submissive thinking”. The reasons offered are all too well-known: rote memorization, unquestioned authority, and culture of test-taking, to name just a few.

But the more familiar I become with the American system, the more disgusted I am by this complete myth. Never ever in my academic career do I wish that “Geez, if only I had the critical thinking that those American kids have.” Granted, I was surprised to learn that Ngo Dinh Diem was a nationalist. Granted, I never knew that the 1939 pact between Soviet and Germany was not to “strategically postpone confrontation” as our history book says, but to jointly invade Poland. A lot of you probably had similarly disturbing experiences as a VN student overseas too.

But mark this: all of those are merely factual discoveries, and thus are not intellectually disruptive. We never knew Diem was a nationalist, or Stalin a dictator, only because we were never taught so – and that’s all there is to it, completely non-indicative in any ways of our capability to think. This is a crucial distinction. One can possess excellent analytical skills, and yet retain a utterly distorted picture of the world, simply because he was introduced to false facts. And yet too often people erroneously equate biased world view with non-analytical mind, and count it as evidence against Asian students. (Who lacks the critical thinking now?) Indeed, we can only convict students of submissive thinking if they are taught 1) “Diem is a coward”, 2) “Diem defied some US guidance deemed too patronizing” and was still able to comfortably swallow both facts without questioning.

Some others argue that the culture of unquestioned authority does not encourage students to think. I admit the existence of “unquestioned authority” in Asian school. But I found its effect to be the opposite. The American system is highly protective of individual opinions, which seems like a good thing, but has the unexpected effect of encouraging stupid questions, especially in high school. (Yes, there are dumb questions – my apology for shattering your kindergarten myth.) Students ask questions compulsively, even about trivialities that they could have easily answered had they allowed themselves the chance to ruminate over. Or they share carelessly, invariably prefaced with “I just feel like”, and always concluded by “You see what I’m saying?”

For the millionth time, large-quantity talk is mistakenly prized over high-quality silence.

On the other hand, the stifling atmosphere of Asian school can be perversely conducive to critical thinking. For the 16-something-me, who was high on testosterone, and low on self-restraint, precisely the expectation to not question tempted me only more, in the relentless pursuit of being the rebelliously and masculinely cool. (Hence my high school moniker and gaming alias: Quốc hổ báo.) And the fact that a frivolous question will be readily dismissed only forces you to formulate your thoughts more carefully, fortifying it with logic so strong yet so clear that even a teacher with his privileged position still has to reckon with. Add to that is the challenge to clothe your irreverence in words and inflection whose sarcasm can be clearly felt and yet whose insolence can’t be convicted. The entire ordeal, for me, proved to be extremely intellectual and artistic at the same time.

As can be seen, Asian students may have a terribly misguided worldview, but are nonetheless a critical thinker. The fact that they can very quickly catch up – or, transition, I should say – and excel academically in the American schools is the incontrovertible proof that their problem is not an issue of defect thinking style, which is much more chronic, and only a matter of factual deficiency, which can be cured rather easily. I am indeed thankful that American college provides me with a fuller world view and ample research opportunities – but critical thinking, please, I learned it elsewhere.

So if anyone dares to tell me I am less of a critical thinker than American students, I swear to God, I will beat reason the shit out of him.

Oh, and don’t feel bad for the Chinese dude. He ended up having a presentation before class to share his story, titled “How I quit being a misguided Asian student and you can too.”


At this point I had to hesitate a little. I wonder if my stated view and experience is typical, or you guys have it differently? May be I’m anomalously skeptical, even too cynical perhaps, that my conclusions are drawn from a non-representative sample. What was your transitioning experience?


Here is a relevant article by The Korean, one of the coolest Asians on the Internet :D. He lived in Seoul until the age of 16, moved to Los Angeles, and from knowing limited English, worked his way up to being a salutatorian in two years. He’s now working in a D.C. law firm. This guy anonymously started this “Ask a Korean!” blog during his years in Columbia Law School, intending to answer everything Korea-related.

Overrated/Underrated: The Asian Way:


Update Nov. 17: The entire part on the VN system was way too sugarcoated. I apologized for reconstructing reality to fit my predetermined agenda of trashing the American system and praising the Asian one. I should have deleted it as a decent nerd does, but I spent freaking 3 hours (that should have gone into paper) into this entry, so we’ll keep it here for now LoL.  Sorry. Check out the Korean’s article instead. It’s fairer, and use general examples other than personal ones.

  1. milkievu said:

    Your argument starts out very nicely. I agree that American education system overrates the ability to question immediately on the spot in classroom. I now even avoid registering for courses that are fully discussion-based – hearing opinions from peers can be refreshing from times to times, but even at a school like Duke, more often than not those opinions can be very irrelevant and just get churned out because people feel the need to impress the instructor/ score high on participation grade. What’s the point of being able to reciprocate bullshits quickly enough anyway? I’m with you on thoughtful questions – I’d rather ponder the possible answers in my mind thoroughly before I approach the prof with any question.

    This, however, weakens towards the end, starting from the counterpart on the benefits of Asian schooling. I am not, and probably will never, be able to accept any rationalizing that that kind of education can blossom any critical thinker of any sort. Your Asian schooling example is in some sense too idealistic, and, forgive me, self-idealizing. What’s the chance that you are going to find a Vietnamese high school teacher who is patient enough to let you go through your, uhm, powerful and logically strong argument, in the first place? Let alone not punishing you for being disrespectful and taking time away from his/her lecture? Remember Tuấn Linh who transferred from your class to mine? At the time I thought dude was a complete moron (sorry). He argued with the teachers almost every single lecture of every single subject. Looking back, I do have to give him a standing ovation. He did have his ground, and he did fight for his belief, yes, vigorously and strongly. He probably had his logic too, though admittedly I never paid attention to a word he said. The point is, he never was lucky enough to be able to find anyone who took him seriously, teachers or students alike. I doubt if he found the experience intellectual or artistic at all.

    Maybe you were luckier than him. Maybe (again, forgive me, but the whole thing just gives off too much of this vibe I can’t keep myself from pointing out) you also like to entertain yourself with the satisfaction from being able to conquest the approval of a Vietnamese high school teacher. Therefore you are here, loudly condemning anyone not being able to learn to think critically out of that totalitarian system. You were also clever enough to insert a little blurb about how you might not be the representative example. Dear, we all know that you are way above average in terms of intelligence and articulation – no need for that assertion. (Though I still don’t know how such a shrewd person could have such an idealistic view of Vietnamese schooling).

    Recently I’ve been getting an uneasy feeling from reading your entries – it seems like your way is always the right way. It’s hard to pinpoint, but it’s also hard to shake this thought off my head.

    Last point, we all agree that the majority of Asian students excel academically in the United States, but, ahem, what subjects are you talking about? Maths, engineer, natural Sciences, economics, I’m with you. Other social sciences and humanities, not so much.

    • anhqle said:

      Nah, you are right. That entire part is wishful thinking plus revisionist history at their prime. I reconstructed my memory so that it fitted my predetermined agenda to tout the Asian system. That’s the downside of being too imaginative: you just don’t know what’s real anymore. I really should have deleted the entire thing, but I was hesitant to throw away 3 hours (that should have been devoted to papers) down the drain. So I half-hoped that no one would notice (LOL). We already know how that came about.

      Anyway, the truth is my high school experience was indeed never that rosy (as is the case with anything narrated by me.) I rarely challenged teachers – much more than average of course, but by no means frequently. And when I did, the confrontation wasn’t heroic either. Most of them ended up in anti-climatic dismissal from the other side.

      There was one time though, when I suppose my teenage male hormone was abnormally high, I decided to go all-out with a teacher on the topic of Kieu and Kim Trong, if I recall correctly. It was fairly heated, with raised voice and frown eyebrows and clenched fists and stuff. But then another dude raised his hands, gave the textbook answer, and, ingratiated with submission, the teacher immediately gave the dude a 10 for a freaking mediocre answer. I was like “the FUCK?” I was fucking mad as hell at both of them, both the sycophant and the bigoted.

      But the point is, even though I’ve gone through all that, as I’m sure many of you have too, the skeptic in me was never muted. Yes, he adapted to act less conspicuously, but never more inactively. Certainly many remain critical of what is being taught in class too. That’s why I don’t think the stifling environment somehow translates neatly into an elimination of skepticism. If anything, living amidst so much falsehood and prejudices, we’re trained to be more alert, more skeptical, more aware that an internally coherent body of knowledge (that is VN’s textbooks) can still be egregiously misleading. Making it hard to voice those criticism does not manage to kill it, but only to drive it underground, turning it into a scholarly past-time.

      Now, when I caution that I may not be a representative case, I meant that maybe I’m skeptical/cynical by nature, and thus the skeptic in me survived and thrived despite of the VN system, and not because of it. That’s why I want to know whether you have a similar experience.

      And I know that statistics is against me, but Asian students, maybe, just maybe, do not venture in humanities and social sciences as much because they don’t have the required (or desired, I should say) articulateness. But that’s just a matter of language, not of thinking – I know plenty of science students who can excellently reason through social issues. It’s only a rational decision on their part to capitalize on their comparative advantage of quantitative skills, rather than investing in something from scratch, even if they are 100% capable to.

      P/S: Does the blatant flaw of mine in this entry makes you feel better then? 🙂 If so, at least it’s a mistake worth making.

  2. milkievu said:

    It makes me chuckle sometimes about how alike we are in certain aspects. (Though, I do have an uncontrollable habit of writing and then deleting what I wrote…) In a nut shell, I think had you circulated this around the sole issues of American education system, you would have been able to write a fabulously eloquent piece. 😉
    P/S: Why would your flaw make me feel better? I did sound sorta aggressive, but by no mean was I trying to trash you.

    • anhqle said:

      I was like:

      Does that make you feel better now? 🙂


      Does that make you feel better now? :-w

      Lol. There’s the one downside of written communication.

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