Exploring how cultural identity influences the academic achievement patterns of Chinese American college students : the stories of Chinese in Houston



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This dissertation is intended to understand how value changes take place among Chinese American students in forming their cultural identities and how these value changes direct these Chinese Americans into their current fields of study. Chinese American students along with other Asian American students in recent years have been regarded by the public as a minority group who achieves highly in the American schools and are especially talented in the natural science (Tong, 2000). This study tries to argue that Chinese American students’ academic orientations are quite related to the value changes occurring in forming their minority cultural identity and are not just inherited genetically. Furthermore, the different immigration statuses divides Chinese American students into the immigrant Chinese and American-born Chinese. In this study, the data indicate that their various immigration processes molds different types of Chinese American cultural identities. As a result, the immigrant Chinese group and American-born Chinese have different degrees of freedom to choose their fields of study. The main theoretical frameworks used in this study are Ogbu’s (1989) cultural ecology and diaspora theory (Clifford, 1997). The data points out that both these two theories have strengths and weakness in explaining Chinese Americans’ cultural identity formation but cannot fully cover the varieties existing between the immigrant Chinese and American-born Chinese. This is an ethnographic project conducted in the Chinese American community in Houston. I lived in the community for six months to interview, observe and participate in their daily lives. The total number of the participants is ten, including six immigrant Chinese college students and four American-born Chinese college students. Conclusively, the immigrant Chinese group is oriented culturally towards the mainstream American culture in order to survive in the new environment as quickly as possible, while the American-born Chinese have created more space for themselves to sustain their heritage culture. The pragmatic values of the immigrant Chinese direct them to enter the practical fields of study, such as computer science and engineering, regardless what personal interests they might have. In contrast, the American-born Chinese, when considering their career paths, pay more attention to factors as self-realization, personal interests and helping the poor.