RKS Film: “Try Harder”: A Complex Stereotype Buster or Reinforcer or a Bit of Both?

“Try Harder” is an American documentary released in early December. It recounts the stories of a few students at Lowell High School in San Francisco, California. It is a rigorous academic school attracting a disproportionately high number of Asian American students nearly 70%.

It has such high standards some 150 American university admissions officers visit it each year.

While many of the students are suffering under the weight of parents obsessed with grades and having their children accepted by the top American universities the students have their own minds and face a struggle of balancing them with the ambitions of their parents that result in control and pressure creating even more stress for the students trying to compete for high marks and high SAT test scores. So these may be academic nerds but they are human beings trying to succeed and many are existing facing domineering “its for your own good parents”.

What is success? For most of the students who have no real idea of their passions and interest success is to be accepted into a top American university which in their mind means a secure future. Although they pursue academics the university application process is a life skill that consumes hours of work for the seniors featured in the film. Some students complete more than 30 applications. Quite frankly most of the parents in the documentary are driven by grades and having their children achieve high grades as that was what counted in Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China. One Asian American student states that Lowell is “Tiger Mom Central”.

The students are in a pressure cooker where success is dependent on what university they are accepted into. Some end up cynical about all universities that reject on a seemingly dart board selection approach perhaps tinged by the stereotype that Asian American students are mindless academic machines.

This may cause the viewer to recall their high school experience which in my case was in Montreal in the 1970’s where there may have been 3 Asians in my high school. And at least for me I graduated from CEGEP in Quebec with a 97% average to an entrance scholarship into McGill University. I applied to three universities and was accepted by all three and the one I accepted was a top Canadian university. I do not recall the frenzy and obsession in my day of the university application process that one sees at Lowell. Quite frankly it is alarming.

So what has changed in the Canadian academic system since then? A huge influx of Asians? I see a hugely disproportionately high degree of Asians in the private school system here in Toronto. Is the myth of the Tiger mom true?  I am not sure but once had an experience with one whose behaviour obliterated the confidence of her child who ended up with an eating disorder. No doubt this poor overly driven child will be a “success” but at what price. And what is success? Is it really a matter of landing a job with lots of money?

The film let’s one delve into the heart and soul of Tiger Mom’s victims. No they are not some mindless jellyfish but humans with their own goals and aspirations juggling this with the unrelenting pressure of many of their parents. What has caused this academic obsession that I never experienced? I will let you draw your own conclusion but can try and say the obsessions of the parents are visited upon their children.

A complete picture is obtained by featuring not only students but school administrators, teachers and parents. The great struggle here is amongst parents and their children. Do these parents care about the desires and aspirations of their children or their own obsessive past where marks equalled economic success?

My take in a few words is that I pity the students in this film caught in a vice of parental desires and their own goals and ambitions. At what point does a parent try to control their children through their own insecurities break down and the visions of their children take over? When does parental guidance in effect turn into a type of bullying?

It is both a sad and inspiring story. Sad if your choice for university is not obtained. Inspiring if the students realise his/her wishes in face of so many pressure points.

One is also left with the question of the Lowell admission process that has its school at about 70% Asian Americans. Does not that foster stereotypes? Is it appropriate?

“Try Harder” was produced and directed by Debbie Lum. It may be showing in a theatre near you. If not it will be available on VOD as of December 24.

You can see the trailer here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U4WZ6nDz-3w

Published by Robert K Stephen (CSW)

Robert K Stephen writes about food and drink, travel, and lifestyle issues. He is one of the few non-national writers to be certified as a wine specialist by the Society of Wine Educators, in Washington, DC. Robert was the first associate member of the Wine Writers’ Circle of Canada. He also holds a Mindfulness Certification from the University of Leiden and the University of Toronto. Be it Spanish cured meat, dried fruit, BBQ, or recycled bamboo place mats, Robert endeavours to escape the mundane, which is why he has established this publication. His motto is, "Have Story, Will Write."

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