Going Gold in the Merit Olympics


by Joel Phoon and Jason Lam, United World College Maastricht
22nd June, 2020


Our starting lines are not painted in the same spots; nor are our timers started at the same time. The stadium silent, the bleachers frozen. The biggest race of my life. My breath ragged, heart already beating as if I had finished the race. I look up. In the far reaches of my view, I see my other competitors, albeit at a different starting line ahead. We are all competing in the same race, but somehow, I run a different track

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Citizens of the two countries that rank  2nd and 4th in the world for education in Maths,1 our lives were somewhat similar growing up. Even before we were that ball of cells latched onto the uterus lining, we had it all planned out for us. Become a Doctor, Lawyer, or Accountant. As time went on, views changed and with that the views of our traditional families did too – or so we thought. Stances became more “progressive” as the allowed fields of work expanded, with the addition of STEM and investment banking. And so, we were always told that we would have support no matter what we did — as long as what we did coincided with one of the approved fields. We do acknowledge that all of these came from a place of wanting the best for us. 

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This culture has been heavily ingrained in almost all East Asian cultures, and can be seen throughout swathes of the Western World most evidently within their migrant populations. According to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reports that in the United States, active physicians that identified as Asian came in second only to those who identified as white, at 17.1% compared to 56.2%2. This, among a multitude of other factors, has led to asians becoming perceived as the model minority (MM) within many western cultures. Our favourite Wikipedia defines the term model minority as “a minority demographic (whether based on ethnicity, race or religion) whose members are perceived to achieve a higher degree of socioeconomic success than the population average, thus serving as a reference group to outgroups”. This enforces the societal standards and perceptions of people who shared the colour of skin. 

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And so we have had to tread carefully every step of our journeys. Even at UWC, these expectations plagued us — do I take part in this after-school activity or should I work on this IA that can help boost my grade for university? Many a time, when we chose the latter, our actions would draw flak, and comments such as “where’s your community spirit” and “come on man, you’re such a nerd”  would inevitably be hurled at us. If, then we chose to go with these activities, and as a result, and risk our grades, we would draw flak too — from our families. 

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Why else do you think everyone’s default asian parent quote is you dishona the famiry? 

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As kids we were expected not only to be good, but the best. Not just in academics, but extracurricular fields as well. Usually these expectations manifested in the form of extra tuition classes, music lessons, and sports camps (many of which we were sent to against our will). The hardest pill to swallow was the constant knowledge that we were good but never good enough, something that would lead to an ever present inferiority complex within us. 

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Casually brought up stereotypes such as: you’re so asian; why do you study so much?; of course, he’s asian; how did he NOT get a 7? Only serve to enforce the preconceived notions in our minds that the accomplishments we had were simply what was the standard for us. That this was less a product of our efforts, but more a product of the colour of our skin. Though it can be said that those remarks were said in a joking manner, the effects of those words were always felt. These pseudo-denials of our accomplishments brought us back to times of, for some, severe trauma, where we were either beaten into maths practice or simply left out of an enjoyable activity for not achieving the expected results. Times that we thought we were free from, especially being in such an international and accepting community such as that of UWC Maastricht.

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External expectations turn into internalised incompetence. We were no longer studying out of interest or passion, but rather to keep the place that we had within the community.  Facades would often be put up when we had to accept that we didn’t get 7’s sometimes — fake laughs and self-deprecating humour. But on the inside, the feeling of ineptitude never ceased to freely flow. It was hard to accept sometimes, and even harder to talk about. Complaining about a 6 already sounded pretentious enough, and any feeble attempt at being honest about our feelings would be shut down with comments such as “why can’t you be happy with a 6” or the classic “stop being so asian”. For a place that promised acceptance and support for our deepest insecurities, we often felt like we were never given the chance to show that vulnerability.

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Rarely being able to properly find an outlet for expressing our frustrations in a truly judgement- free environment, we found ourselves in an almost perpetual state of burnout and self-loathing. All the feelings of frustration, self-disappointment and pressure to perform repeatedly bottled up within ourselves. Like mentos in coke, but with the cap still on, if you will. 

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For all of you in the back, yes, both of us took two sciences at Higher Level. But we think that makes an all the more poignant point. The very fact that neither of us have been able to fully understand and break out of the cycle and MM mould speaks volumes about the magnitude at which the problem has been perpetuated. Fortunately for us, our academic and career interests have managed to align with those of our families. Is a part of that due to the nature of our upbringing and the deeply rooted ideas of filial piety? Probably. Nonetheless, the fortunate reality that we experience is not shared by many of the talented and wonderful individuals that sit on the ranks of our racial hierarchy. We ourselves have seen many of our friends bogged down by expectations and familial ties.

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This is the very nature of our complexion, one where we always go for gold, but in an event we’re not even fit to compete in. One in which our humanity gets inadvertently eroded in the pursuit for greatness… however our families choose to define it.  

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*cue Oxbridge Tiger Mom article* https://medium.com/@jasehys/to-my-asian-tiger-mom-i-finally-get-into-cambridge-but-i-am-broke-197fa37e042c

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P.S 

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With all of these things having been said, and the sequence of current events, we both feel like it’s time to acknowledge how rampant racism is within our own communities and stand in solidarity with our fellow Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC). We acknowledge that although we have been on the receiving end of racism and some of its oppressive forces, we cannot begin to imagine the suffering and injustice that some of our other BIPOC are facing. We hope that through raising our voices to issues like these that were previously extremely taboo to talk about will encourage us to have those difficult but necessary conversations, so we can listen, then empathise, and together dismantle. 

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Love, Jason and Joel.

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Illustration by Ece Fisgin.

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1https://qz.com/1759506/pisa-2018-results-the-best-and-worst-students-in-the-world/#:~:text=In%20the%20latest%20test%2C%20China,highly%20in%20all%20three%20subjects.

2Figure 18. Percentage of all active physicians by race/ethnicity, 2018. (n.d.). Retrieved June 11, 2020, from https://www.aamc.org/data-reports/workforce/interactive-data/figure-18-percentage-all-active-physicians-race/ethnicity-2018

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