Does Culture Determine Asian American Educational Success?

By Jessica Saelee

It is no secret that there have been numerous studies conducted in order to gain some insight into the Asian American academic success story. Some have suggested that it is a biological factor, that it is embedded in the DNA and it cannot be controlled nor changed because “some groups are inherently smarter than other groups” (Ochoa 17). Others have argued that it is the Asian culture deriving its influence from Confucian principles, which emphasizes self-perseverance and hard-work. Even further, there have been arguments claiming that it is a combination of both biology and culture. However, the cultural determinism argument, based on the belief that “the culture of the family is 100 percent liable for student performance,” cannot be broadly applied because not all Asian American students experience the same level of high academic achievement (Ochoa 37).

In her research, Gilda Ochoa states that “these cultural determinist arguments homogenize groups and overlook systems of power and inequality, they also foster racial/ethnic and class hierarchies” (36). It is the same argument that has been used to explain why other ethnic minority groups, including Latinos and Blacks, have not been able to succeed in education at the rate that Asians have. This prevailing ideology tries to “argue that the poor and working classes are apathetic toward education,” and that Asian culture is not (Ochoa 36). These two different applications of cultural determinism highlights what society has constructed as “good culture” and “bad culture.” But, there is a very important counter-argument that needs to be made, because there is no factual evidence that will allow an individual to determine what is “good culture” and what is “bad culture,” and any attempt would just be merely opinion. Therefore, no single individual can simply state that culture solely explains the Asian American success. For one, there are Asian ethnic groups, including Cambodian Americans, that struggle academically and do not succeed at the same rate as other groups.

In the documentary Pass or Fail in Cambodia Town, Maria Hinojosa interviewed several members of the Cambodian community in Long Beach, which is “home to the largest Cambodian population outside of Southeast Asia.” Hinojosa spoke with Jordan High School senior Shameka Min, who is struggling with pregnancy, homelessness, and fear of not graduating. Alex Pham, another Cambodian American living in Long Beach, describes his vicious cycle of violence and incarceration. For Shameka, her lack of success in high school can be attributed to her rocky life at home. Shameka states, “I’m not living with my mom because she’s having her problems finding a home” (Pass or Fail in Cambodia Town). The instability and homelessness that Shameka is faced with forces her to choose survival over her education. With Alex, there are difficulties surrounding his ability to confront the post-traumatic stress disorder that his parents still suffer from. The confusion and taboo surrounding mental health and family issues has compelled Alex to choose a path that makes sense to him, rather than a path that emphasizes his education. He speaks about his experiences with the legal system and the realization that “we’re not the Asians that you guys think we are” (Pass or Fail in Cambodia Town).

For these young Cambodian Americans, they “are less likely to have a high school diploma than African Americans, Whites, or most other Asians,” proving that culture does not necessarily mean excellence in academics (Pass or Fail in Cambodia Town). There are community groups, including Khmer Girls in Action or KGA, whose mission statement is to ensure that the Cambodian American youth have the opportunity to learn about their history and culture. It is obvious that the educational struggles this community faces is not due to a lack of culture; there is plenty of culture. One KGA organizer, Seng So, offers some insight into the home environment for many of the Cambodian youth by discussing the effects of “growing up in a home where you are witnessing a loved one deal with depression, that is second hand trauma” (Pass or Fail in Cambodia Town). Cambodian American youth are faced with multiple challenges that other Asian American ethnic groups are fortunate enough to not have to worry about. With the majority of immigrants from this group arriving as refugees, it is common for the second generation to suffer due to a disconnect with their parents, which oftentimes leads into other aspects of life, including academics and self-identity.

Although there is plenty of culture and history, these Cambodian American youth are still not succeeding at the same rate as other Asian Americans. So, why is there an educational divide? Well, it could be the lack of support for Cambodian American students, who are automatically lumped into the “Asian” category. For these students, there are much more issues at hand. Most of them need support with resolving issues at home, including mental health, physical and drug abuse, drug addiction, poverty, etc. However, because of the notion that these students are already predetermined to be success stories if they just work hard enough, they are not given any extra services at school. But this approach is absolutely wrong, and it is why Cambodian Americans along with many newer groups of immigrants, specifically refugees from Southeast Asia, are still not performing as well as other groups. The culture argument needs to be adamantly refuted in order for these students to receive the necessary tools for success, because they will not be able to perform at the same level as all other Asian American students if society continues to just place blind faith on culture alone.


Ochoa, Gilda L. Academic Profiling: Latinos, Asian Americans, and the Achievement Gap. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota, 2013. ProQuest Ebrary. Web. 07 Mar. 2017.

Pass or Fail in Cambodia Town. Dir. Leslie Asako Gladsjo. Perf. Maria Hinojosa. America By the Numbers. PBS SoCal, Nov. 2014. Web. 07 Mar. 2017.


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