I'm Chinese but I'm not good at math

To the Editor:

I walked back to my dorm one late afternoon last week. Everything seemed to be covered with a thin layer of grey; no doubt December is one of the most depressing months of the year and most stressful indeed. Wave after wave of applications, college essays, grades, SATs, TOEFLs crashed upon me on the pursuit of my future. SAT score had just come out, and there had been a little bit of relief on my end because the score I had gotten was slightly above the requirement.

I opened the door and entered the common room and saw a friend sitting on the couch, watching TV. He saw me and asked: "Hey! What's your SAT score?" I told him my score and kept walking back to my room. "Are you kidding me? How did you get a lower score than I did? Aren't all Chinese supposed to get perfect math score on the SAT?!"

I didn't know what to say.

I had heard people say this sort of thing time and again: "Chinese students are so smart!"; "You guys are so good at math!"; or "I can't get a good score on math because I'm not a Chinese!" When I first heard such things, I tried to tell people that those kinds of assumptions were wrong, but I had given up that fight after realizing that 99.999% of the population seemed to believe that all Chinese were math geniuses. For every comment I challenged, there were 10 more who held the same belief. That rainy day was like any other; I walked back to my room without even trying to explain.

What I didn't tell my friend was that most of the Chinese students studied high school math before they came to America. Our middle school curricula covered algebra, geometry, and trig. So math classes here at the Academy were familiar for students like me. But people have never seen our academic background and often assume we are just "natural born" geniuses. That might explain why my friend was surprised when he found out he got a higher score in math.

Doesn't this sort of situation happen all the time? Are these assumptions caused by cultural differences or simply hard wired thinking? Sometimes, people may automatically assume Islam is different, even "wrong", without knowing the fact that both Christianity and Islam originated through Abraham. Some people from other states address Vermonters as "rednecks," but as a foreigner living in Vermont for four years, I now see things different from what I was told. However, many people do not have the opportunity to see the world and people outside of their communities; they get information simply from other people tell them, and when everyone else is saying the same thing, it can become the "truth"

To be honest, I would view things completely differently if I hadn't come to the U.S. Cultural tolerance and understanding will only be achieved if one places himself in another's culture. At the end of the day, prejudice between people, groups, even cultures might be easily eliminated if people actually recognized their own bias and then reached out to others. Sometimes bias can cover up our eyes and lead us to make blind assumptions; maybe we just need to have somebody put the foot in the door of our "hard-wired" thinking process and remind us not to let our own bias add color to a simple image. When we sit back a little bit and see the whole picture, we can easily discover how narrow minded and unconscious we can be.

The good news is that we don't have to be that way.

Mingchen Wang

Senior St. Johnsbury Academy

St. Johnsbury, Vt.


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