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Children of Asian Immigrants: What Shapes Their Career Paths?

Children of Asian Immigrants: What Shapes Their Career Paths?

The stereotypes are vivid: New immigrants from China and Japan gravitate to technical jobs, while those from Pakistan and Bangladesh work in small businesses or drive taxis. But what about their children? Do they feel free to choose nontraditional career paths?

No definitive studies have been made of the career choices of American-born sons and daughters of Asian immigrants. But anecdotal information suggests that while tradition is important, so is the influence of Americanization.

Pressure from Parents, Peers or Popular Culture?

"Children who are born here have more options to choose a variety of career paths, including arts and liberal arts," says Tim P. Fong, PhD, director of the Asian American Studies Program at California State University, Sacramento. He adds a caveat, however: "Although American-born Asians have little experience with Asia, they see that certain fields are not open to them. There are very few Asians on television and not many in sports. If you don't see anyone who looks like you in a certain field, you know you have to be twice as good to succeed."

But there is a lingering sense that "if you have technical skills, no one can discriminate against you in the sciences," Fong adds.

Yet American society exerts a powerful influence on children of Asian immigrants. "Kids don't get career ideas from their parents," he says. "They get them from peers and the media."

But that does not mean parents have no say in the matter. "People who have done well in the sciences often want their kids to do the same," Fong says. "And many Asians who are not in the sciences still see that as a road to success."

The Power of Education and Circumstances

Alicia Campi, PhD, research coordinator at the Immigration Policy Center of the American Immigration Council in Washington, DC, also detects no general pattern but notes career choices are related to families' educational backgrounds and economic circumstances. She says it is important to distinguish between Asian immigrants raised in Confucian societies, such as China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, and those who were not, such as Malaysians, Indonesians and Pacific Islanders.

"Confucian-based societies are where you get stories of rice paddy farmers who work long hours and send their kids to Harvard," Campi says. "That's because the tradition back home is that education unlocks opportunities. So there is a lot of pressure on their kids to succeed, no matter what job the parents have."

So whether these parents are rich or poor, educated or not, their kids are likely to be highly educated and to grow up to avoid jobs involving manual labor -- often by choosing a science-oriented career.

"In non-Confucian societies, there's not the same push for success in school as a way to raise status, so jobs and education might not be as closely related," Campi says.

South Asia is not Confucian-based, but Campi says India is a special case. Its caste system still wields influence in the United States. Until the early '90s, the Indian government discouraged immigration, because it did not want India's most educated citizens from the upper castes going abroad for graduate school or jobs. Now Indian immigration is increasing, including poorer, less educated people, many of whom work at service jobs. "They're pushing for their kids to succeed economically," Campi says. "But I'm not sure how they perceive that success to come in terms of jobs."

Still Stereotypes in School

Terry Ao, senior staff attorney at the Washington, DC, Asian American Justice Center, says some school guidance counselors still believe in the model-minority myth and steer students into math and science fields. That's fine with their parents, Ao says, who often believe Asian Americans are less likely to face prejudice in fields that rely on numbers. "They're afraid their kids will face discrimination in law, politics and education.