Saturday, September 4, 2010

Suicide Rates: Reflections on Education in Vietnam, Japan and the USA

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.
Winston Churchill 

Why does it seem that Asian countries have kids drinking poison after less than satisfactory examination scores are posted?  Why does Japan have one of the highest suicide rates for teens?  Why does it seem that there is a rise in suicide in Asian Pacific Americans (APAs)?  Why?

I periodically read articles from Vietnamese newspapers.  No, just because the trip has ended doesn't mean I stopped looking over stuff.  One interesting editorial I came across was in Thanh Nien News.  Its title is "A Black Hole in Our Education."   What it focuses on is this periodic phenomenon of teen suicide, which can be closely correlated to a low score on an entrance exam.  Remember, to get into higher education in Vietnam, you must test in.  There is no open access gateway.  The news article on the suicide was posted in July 2010.  "High School Student Commits Suicide."  Thanh Nien News, 7/7/2010

On the surface, a suicide in Vietnam may not mean anything to you.  However, if you take things from a more global perspective, it gets intriguing.  According to Psychiatric News, such countries like China, India, Japan, have high suicide rates connected to students who fail to score well on the exams.  Their higher education system is closed, so a low score means your life is over, essentially.  What is also disturbing is that the rate seems to be growing for the Asian Pacific American population.  Remember, these are Asian Pacific Americans in America.  They have access to some sort of higher education.  This problem was outlined in an article by Andrew Lam published in New America Media website.
"Asian Americans' Rising Suicide Rates" New America Media 8/13/2009

Additionally, there is an old 2008 article out of the Times magazine called A Family Suicide Risk in US Asians that also saw this as a growing trend.  One group that tends to show high suicide rates is the Asian student.  Part of the reason is the expectations that a family may have for a student.  Parents often compete with each other on which university their child went to.

In a store, one lady said, "My child is going to UCLA."
Her friend responded, "Oh so sorry, my daughter is going to Harvard.  They can't be roommates then."

At this point, I wondered if there is a reason for this competition.  Is there an Asian thing going on here?  The closed educational system's pressures on a student are obvious causal factors.  The editorial in Thanh Nien News declared that Vietnamese students don't know how to deal with FAILURE.  The article goes on about how there seems to be a lack of an ability to see beyond failure.  The article also mentions Japan.

Now Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the industrialized world.  Some of it I think is related to the concept of face.  You can't lose face in Japan.  Not doing well on entrance exams might mean a loss of face to the family.  There are other disturbing trends like suicide pacts (a group gets together to kill themselves), social networking pacts (use Facebook or similar media to set a day to die), among other extreme behaviors.  Aokigahara Forest is also notorious for people committing suicide.  For more specifics, look at this post.  

On the other hand, Japan is not Vietnam.  It is fully developed.  The common thread seems to be a sense of a closed existence.  In some ways, it is sort of binary.  It is either yes or no.  Maybe doesn't factor.  Japan is sort of an extreme example though.    

Elsewhere in the Thanh Nien News, there is an article that outlines some potential issues about inequality.  "Vietnam's Children Facing Rising Inequalities: UN" seems to indicate that not all children have access to good secondary education opportunities.  Given these factors, it makes you wonder about how fair the examination system really is.  It would seem that if you have access to better schools, your options are much better.  If you don't have access to good schools, how are you going to do better on those exams?  I wonder.  

It seems that for Asian students generically, there are family and societal pressures.  An article from the Washington Post entitled, "Asian Students Contend with Expectations," seems to show that there is more expected from APA students.  APAs are often considered to be the "model minority."  However, the statistics on Asian Nation might say otherwise.  My friend who used to work for the Asian Unit of the LA County Department of Children and Family Services told me a common abuse issue was about a child being hit over grades.

When you look at what is going on in Japan, Korea and Vietnam, then it isn't so surprising that there might be pressure for Asian Americans.  Many of the young Korean Americans are only 2nd generation, so their parents have very Korean attitudes towards education and excellence.  (Asian American young adults often joke that they HAD to play the violin, piano or cello before they could even walk.  This is under the expectation that they were supposed to become the next Yo Yo Ma or something.)  Pressure.  There is always pressure.

It's pressure--both self imposed and externally imposed.  Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand have entrance exams.  Those entrance exams are huge determining factors in a person's future.  How do you deal with such stress when you are 17 years old.  But this doesn't entirely explain why the US APA student community is seeing a spike too.  There are no life defining exams.  If you screw up on the SAT exam, you can still take it over again.  It could be other factors.  Bullying.  Discrimination.  Alienation.  There's something going on.  Another puzzle to be solved.  I always end up with more questions than answers.