Normally, in an academic setting, this would be a great thing. If your competition doesn't care about their grades, and you do, then you have an edge. (Lawd I sound like a Slytherin.) But, because our program is designed to produce empathetic counseling professionals, and we are all supposed to have high EQs, we have a lot of group projects.
"Your grades don't matter. You don't need an A. No one cares!" But I care! This is where the complacency makes me want to curl up into a little ball and rock myself slowly. Grades do matter. My high school grades determined where I went to college and my undergrad grades determined whether or not I would be in this program right now.
Grades in graduate school do matter because in graduate school if you get below a B (not a B-, a B) you can get kicked out. A B is a passing grade. Grades in graduate school matter if you want to go on to a Ph.D.
And they certainly matter if you want one of the limited graduate fellowships available for next year. Competition for those is fierce. Getting one of those fellowships determines whether or not I empty my savings account next year. (A small part of me kind of has this dream that after I graduate from graduate school, I will use the money that I saved for tuition that I did not need--due to scholarships-- to travel the world. I would love to visit Taiwan for the first time in 15 years and meet relatives I have never met, to buy a house or even get married.)
They matter because I want to be able to show my grandparents that I got highest marks. They matter because I want to know that I reached my full potential in graduate school, because I wasn't firing on all cylinders in undergraduate.
There is definitely this stereotype of the overachieving, grade grubbing Asian who insists on straight As. This was reinforced recently--thanks a lot--by the whole Tiger Mom/Asian Fail thing. For example, on Glee, the solution (liberatory narrative) to all the stress about getting straight As (oppression) is to teach the Other Asian that it is okay not to always be perfect and have straight As. (Of course, What fails to come up in these conversations is that because of systemic discrimination, on average, Asian Americans have to have more years of education just to make the same amount of money white people make with fewer years of education.) The stereotype is that all Asians care about is grades, that this puts an intolerable level of stress on those Asians, and that they should really learn to liberate themselves from this obsession with grades.
But that's not me. Aside from a couple of quarters my senior year in college, I've never had straight As in anything before, not until I came to graduate school. This isn't about living up to a stereotype of impossibly high expectations that was imposed on me, or that I am victim to. (I think?)
I can't help but feel (projecting) that when people in my program tell me (one of the few Asians) that I need to chill out about grades, that they are projecting that stereotype on me. I think this is partially due to my past experiences.
I remember when I was in high school I once went to a humanities teacher and asked if my B+ could be raised to an A-. I really felt that based on the quality of my work and my participation in class compared to the performance of other students who got A's that I should have gotten an A as well. The teacher sat me down and told me that one day I would realize that grades did not matter and that the B+ was not a reflection of my value as a person. (Which was small comfort to me because in my immediate life grades did matter--I was punished--and the B+ was a reflection of my value as a child to my family.) It kind of felt that the teacher was trying to do me a favor by teaching this Asian girl this lesson early, maybe even assuming "she will get As in a lot of other classes so it is important that she learn this lesson."
There was another teacher in high school who really had me convinced that I sucked at math. My learning style for math is basically such that it is impossible for me to pick up concepts simply from lecture. I remember I would doodle in class, especially since she wasn't a very good lecturer. Once the teacher caught me and said, "Doodling in class, well, I don't want your parents to come calling me about how I gave you a B+ instead of an A." (While I can't say with certainty that this comment was racialized, I do feel that it was based on the white teacher's stereotype of Asian parents as obsessive grade grubbers, especially since I was nowhere near an A in her class. This teacher also had a reputation among Asian American students for saying racialized things in the past.)
In any case, this teacher extended an offer that all students could come see her for "office hours" during break if we wanted extra one-on-one help. I would come in frequently for extra help but she never seemed happy to see me. She would say things like, "None of the other students need to come in for this much extra help." It did help, though because I remember my test scores started out in the 60s and once near the end of the semester I even got a 100% on a unit test. I ended up getting a C+ (79.8%, I think) in that class and I remember being pretty upset and sharing this with the teacher since I know she had rounded up for other people before, and I had gone to so many office hours during my breaks. With mathematics, tests are not as subjective as humanities classes, so yeah, I own that grade. The teacher did NOT need to round it up as a favor. But that teacher kind of struck me as perversely happy that I got that grade. I will never forget the sneering way she assumed that my parents were the kind of parents to want a B+ to be an A (because I was Asian?), or why that was a problem to her.
I'm not really sure what it means that I remember these two incidents from eight years ago. Perhaps it does mean I have internalized the stereotype--though it is NOT the stereotype as conceived in popular, mainstream, culture.
It is true that grades are an external evaluation of performance and that rather than internalizing self confidence, I am relying on grades to tell me that I am smart, and that I am competent--the same way I relied on my perfect SAT II score to tell me that the math teacher was wrong and I can be good at math. Yes, I care about that A, and yes, the stakes are higher for me than for you. And please don't dismiss my concern because you're dismissive about some Asian stereotype.
It's not because I am a perfectionist, it is because I have never had it before. Unlike all of those Tiger Cubs where high achievement comes naturally and discipline comes smoothly, I've always flailed around and really had to work for it. That is not to say that those who fit the stereotype don't work hard, just that there are certain things I've never been able to do, like perform a cartwheel, or ride a bike more than 200 meters, or run a seven minute mile, or get honest-to-god straight A's for a full academic year. Right now, I am trying to put in the discipline and hard work to achieve that metaphorical cartwheel, to learn how to ride that bike, to run that seven minute mile.
"No one cares if you can do a cartwheel," I guess. Except, I care. I've always wanted to do one.