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Asian Americans: Education, Achievement, and Confucianism

I am writing this because I think it is important for students themselves (as well as others) who are Asian American, to potentially gain a cultural perspective on a particular philosophy that really underscores an Asian approach to education.

This is Confucianism. Feel free to google as your information may be more informative than this brief post. I am presenting a surgically sliced sliver of it. Those who are experts in the field, in particular, those who have studied the link between Confucianism and Asian/Asian American approaches to education, potentially academics in the field of education, please refute, or correct, as I readily admit I am not an expert. I am apologizing ahead of time as I am chopping up a field of study that has gone on for centuries into a blog post. This is the tyranny of modern information synthesis at play. I feel compelled to give a brief explanation because even this tiny bit of information I have conveyed in the past gave some relief to students as they better understood the dynamics within their own families and communities.

Confucianism and the Five Pillars

Confucius was a philosopher around 500–400 B.C. Confucianism is based on a system of hierarchies that were thought to be necessary in order to run a workable society

  • king to subject
  • husband to wife
  • parent to child
  • older sibling to younger sibling
  • friend to friend

(I believe that gender trumps age, so if you are an older female sibling, you might be called Older Sister, but I believe that your younger brother would still dominate in most matters as adults).

You can see (inevitably?) what the system of hierarchy yields. There are merits to any type of order deemed necessary to provide a society with rules to function, but there are structural inequalities here that present difficulties.

Koreans, Chinese, and many Asians are highly influenced by Confucianism. Sure, a Confucian society can also simultaneously embrace Christianity, but Confucianism runs deep…as deep as…rice and kimchi. In other words, it is foundationally there, deemed necessary for survival, and such a part of how the culture operates that it is seamless, ubiquitous, and accepted as a default barometer of how one should live, how society should function.


Women didn’t come into this Confucian discussion much. So bam, right at the start this is a not a female-friendly type of ideology, but not a single religion existing today was driven by women’s leadership, viewed women’s opinions as worthy of participation within the governance of the organization, or featured women in the majority of its written texts.

Ancestor Worship

This system is also one based on ancestor worship. Confucianism offered no afterlife of heaven, harps, halos, and clouds. No angel wings. It pretty much boiled down to ancestors (note nearest ones are your parents) and I don’t believe there was much about sporting flowing diaphanous clothes or plucking stringed instruments with light streaming down on one’s angelic face. Confucianism is known as a philosophy, but there was also a period when it was followed as a religious practice, in that its principles were used to govern spiritual practice.

Parents as gods

I want you to think about this deeply. If one believes in ancestor worship, what does this make one’s parents, exactly? That’s right: gods.

You worship and do as your parents say and in turn your parents/gods will provide what is needed and so it goes through the generations.

Ponder this. Worshipping your ancestors flies in the face of monotheism. No worries though — it’s viewed now as a philosophy. And I happen to have witnessed how both Christianity and Confucian ancestor worship can be combined. Bow to Virgin Mary, bow to picture of grandparents, bow to Christmas tree. Just keeping the options open! But just hold the thought as we march through this idea…

Imperial Exams or early standardized tests

A significant part of the early system of governance in China and Korea was the Imperial Examination system. Everyone got a crack at passing the exam, and then obtaining a position in government that would elevate one’s family. Here’s where we see, despite it looking otherwise, inequality rear its head.

Who could afford to have a son (no daughter) take time off from the rice fields or woodcutting business to support the family to study all day with the help of paid tutors to pass the exam? Just a hunch, but this was not an easy way to climb the ladder of social and economic success. Because Americans love to hear that rugged individual exception story, I will concede that there were probably exceptions, but for the most part, the people who took and passed the exam would have had to have been from families that could afford to have a child who spent his days studying.

The examination system very much spoke to Confucian principles. Remember, there’s no afterlife in Confucianism, no community gathering in the sky. Once you pass the exam, you have pulled up your family’s financial, academic, social standing in the public sphere, and in the metaphysical realm. You go up, your children go up, and voila, they are worshipping an ancestor (you dead) and you are just climbing higher and higher…dead, but climbing up and up to well, just up and up… Think about this: if you pass the exam — you were more enlightened, not just financially, but spiritually.

Spiritual Ascension

What does this mean in concrete modern terms? An A means you are ascending (way to go — you’re a spiritual elite) and an F? You are lowering yourself spiritually, messing up the ancestor line! Yes, the entire clan — they are all going down-down-down into the abyss of abject failure. All for failing an exam. Because you fell asleep in math class, you are now cursing your line for 1000 years, messing up the ancestor worship! So an F becomes much more than doing lousy on one paper or exam. The student who receives this grade is spiritually descending. Greetings Beelzebub!

You can understand the pressure, drive, ambition, misery, hope, misunderstanding, despair, dreaming, and confusion that often surrounds Asian American academic performance and the relationship between parents and children. An academic letter grade linked to an expectation of spiritual elevation? Let’s face it, does getting an F mean you won’t spiritually ascend? Many would say an or an A has nothing to do with what kind of person you are spiritually. Just get to church/temple/mosque and you will be fine! You will ascend! This is all to let folks know that this getting-a-bad-grade stuff has profoundly different implications for students depending on their backgrounds.

What is baffling to many Asian American students is that given the overlay of Christianity, the American economic system of competition and capitalism, and the lack of clear reference to Confucianism, few understand their own parents’ behavior within their cultural context. Even parents may not quite understand how Confucianism works in their drive to have their children achieve. Most administrators and teachers lump this academic pressure reality into the pile of a 1st generation immigrant narrative, and yes, that it is too — but backtracking a little and understanding Confucianism may help everyone — students, parents, and faculty navigate the highs and lows of academic expectations.


Belief and Philosophy Reading & Writing Self-help Teachers THROB

THROB The Hawai’i Review of Books: Let’s Start with Death

This is my second column for The Hawai’i Review of Books! It’s called The Doctor Is In and in this space I will answer all questions regarding writing, process, creativity, and literature. Go ahead: shoot me a question! Email me at or go to my CONNECT page on my website.

Belief and Philosophy Educators Self-help Teachers

Master Kang Rhee and Memphis

My father’s cousin was Kang Rhee, the founder of Pa Sa Ryu and the Kang Rhee studio in Memphis. Kang Rhee is known by many for having taught Elvis Presley. If you ever see a picture of Elvis with an Asian man in front of a Cadillac–that’s him! Elvis Presley gave him a Cadillac. What’s interesting about Memphis is that nearly every person has some tale about Elvis or Elvis proximity. For example, my dentist was asked to be the Graceland dentist and he told me, forget it, he didn’t want to be called to do teeth cleaning at midnight! With Kang Rhee, my family has an Elvis story too.

Yet there is a story about Kang Rhee that I think is broader than the Elvis story. This is about how culture moves across communities and the merits of small businesses and how they influence and change lives. Kang Rhee had a studio in Memphis near downtown. Legend had it when he first arrived in Memphis, around 1964 at the invitation of a US military person he had trained in Korea, he knew only two words: “Follow me.” And follow the people did. He told me coming to the US was a dream. He had to leave the mud. The mud was everywhere, he said, shaking his head. Post war Korea. He arrived in the US and drank a whole quart of milk in one go. He ate fried chicken. He rode a bicycle as he didn’t have money for a car. He began to train people in his Korean style that he established as Pa Sa Ryu.

He was on the martial arts circuit with Bruce Lee and one of the first to bring the art to the West from Korea. He performed in Madison Square Garden. Back in the early days, I heard his studio was racially integrated but mostly men. By the time I went, it was a family operation with all kinds of people — men, women, kids, of various shapes, sizes, shades and whatever. It had moved from downtown Memphis to a Collierville mall. Tourists from all over the world would come to buy pictures of Elvis and take photos of Kang Rhee.

There was a period of time when I lived back in Memphis, took some classes, and the only thing that kept me going was Kang Rhee’s classes. I was deeply depressed, but going to the studio once, sometimes twice a day helped me get better. Kang Rhee gave me a new narrative about how to approach life. To pass the tests we had to memorize sayings and practice with others; we had to feel purposeful in our craft and respect the art.

Significantly, this was an environment that was Asian in nature–of course! It was led by a Korean American and while he was a deeply devout Baptist, the fact is that his students understood that they were studying a Korean art form.

I know at one point, when he brought back the study of Tae Guk from Korea, 101 moves to enlightenment as taught to him by a monk practitioner, and encouraged his students to study this–to learn breathing and flexibility, many of his black belts defected! This to me, was a terrible example of what can go wrong when people fail to respect cultural art forms. Kang Rhee never asked anyone to worship in any particular fashion, ever. Those people lost out. Not sure how they are breathing and what their flexibility is like, but that is their loss. So yeah, heads up people, hate to break it to you, but Christianity is relatively new in East Asian terms–try several hundred years, and mostly in the 20th century, not a few thousand like various indigenous spiritual practices. You need to calm down and remember, that no one is asking you to worship a particular god if you practice a martial art, but such forms cannot trace their roots to Christianity! I think we need to have better history education in the schools…

To conclude, Memphis remains in so many ways,  a racially divided city, but within the context of these classes, this was not so. There are still martial arts instructors with schools, black and white, who studied with him that run businesses in Memphis.

He was one of the most important teachers I ever studied under. Do you remember any of your teachers? Why? Who were they? What do you remember? Thank you, Master Kang Rhee, my uncle, my cousin. Thank you.



Belief and Philosophy Blog Educators Reading & Writing Self-help Teachers Woman. Warrior. Writer.

Wearing Glasses

I try to wear my glasses as much as possible in photos to encourage girls to wear glasses. I’ve been wearing glasses since I was 8 years old in the 3rd grade. I distinctly remember excitedly telling my friend that I was going to get glasses; she did not share my enthusiasm. I was so happy to get glasses! My 4th grade picture is me in gold wire frame glasses with tape. Dad did this for me. Years later Mom laughed and I said how could you let me walk around with this tape on my glasses. Dad said it was perfectly fine and good that I made do with those glasses. At the time, I was pleased he fixed my glasses in this way. I had no idea I was living out the Asian nerd social misfit stereotype. Both Mom and Dad wore glasses. I think to some degree, we were a family of nerds, so no one cared and it was about fitting in with each other rather than the outside world, which is often what close family dynamics are like.

The summer of 7th grade I got soft contact lenses. It’s a miracle I didn’t develop a massive eye infection. Every now and then my mom would ask if I was sterilizing them, which for me at the time was throwing the entire case with saline it it into a big pot of boiling water. I said to her, oh yeah, I did it. Haha. You know, like I kept up with all of my grooming, like washing my hair. I will not describe in detail the day the flakes of dandruff came out from my comb, but it would be fair to say that I was not the nicely groomed 7th grade girl all the time. Yes, there were times when I went through some greasy haired grubby moments. I wore a hat on those days. Ick. But telling the truth here…

The thing that I enjoy about NOT wearing glasses is feeling free of the sweat on your nose, which is why, even if I have and wear sunglasses, I’m not always keen to do so. I’m at the point where I need glasses over my contacts, and with the prescription this or prescription that I have a lot of different kinds of glasses that I am circulating between for near and far sightedness, for sun or not in sun. I have terrible vision.

Many young women students refuse to wear glasses in my classes. They squint, they simply feel too self-conscious to wear them. I reveal to them what a friend who wears glasses told me: women who wear glasses usually fare better when asking for raises or negotiating financially. After I heard that one I wore my glasses all the time. Not sure what study there is on this, but hey, it can’t hurt. I also told the girls this. Can’t say that more of them wore glasses, but maybe in the future.

To those who teach young girls and wear glasses: Wear them! With pride! With joy!

Belief and Philosophy Educators Reading & Writing Teachers

Adventures in Teaching and Girlhood

In the spirit of uploading content on a daily basis my recognition that this will take more than I had planned out, I will be excerpting my manuscript Passing in the Middle Kingdom, explicating the story behind the poem in hopes that people might be encouraged to scribble their own. I’m a believer in creating text and how this can change your life. I began writing this collection of poetry/prose, a type of hybrid work, honestly, in 2008. That’s right. It’s not 2021. It’s been rejected by many people. It also has had nearly all of the content published and the manuscript itself was a finalist for the Wilder Poetry Prize.

I’ve taken one poetry workshop, but my most acute memory of studying poetry was in high school. The most intense moment from that class was writing about my racial identity, a poem called Barbie Wish, and me praying like anything as the teacher read the poem out loud that people would think it was the other Korean American girl. Not me! LOL. I have a lot of fondness for that teenage girl who wrote that and know what it takes to write that stuff. When teenagers write their truth to power, faculty should stop shutting them down. I can’t even tell you how many people shut young students down.

Adventures in Substitute Teaching

I had the opportunity many years ago to substitute teach at an orthodox Jewish girls school. The girls were pretty out of line–I’m not sure where you get the ideas of behavior drawing down ethnic lines because these white wealthy Jewish girls were standing on chairs, shouting, being totally out there! I had them write something creative and this is when it got interesting.

They were sharing and reading it out loud when the headmistress came in for a visit. One girl was reading her story which involved working as a spy, parachuting from an airplane. She apparently spent the summer living a life straight out of a Bond movie. It was fantastic. All the girls listened: glued. Headmistress walked in to listen. After it was over we’re clapping and headmistress yelled at the girl for LYING! She said, you must tell the truth! The truth is that you went to heritage camp and met other Jewish kids and sang around a campfire. Or something like that. The class went silent (myself included, I was smiling and enjoying it the entire time, until Bummer Boss Headmistress walked in).

I was very sad for that girl. After school I did a brief one-on-one meeting with the headmistress who complained that the girls were so out of line she couldn’t get anyone to take the full-time job because they kept quitting. She was so frustrated and said that thank god, that after they all got their periods they calmed down. Or is it that the community further squashed their lives to the ground? Hard to say. I could see the big thumb smashing that girl’s imagination out of her brains right then and there! You think headmistress might see the connection between silencing the girls and the girls jumping on chairs. They were running around in their ankle length skirts and yelling outside having fun. But it was clear that once they got their period, the big headmistress rules would reign. People make excuses in the name of culture, but they need to cut it out. All cultural expectations and rules are rooted in patriarchy which is tied to silencing women. Don’t dream! Don’t make up stuff! Don’t imagine a new world! What a great imagination that young girl had. I’d be surprised if she was able to rebel, but part of me hopes that one day she will think about that huge tale she spun that day in class, the headmistress yelling and just maybe, think about what she used to dream about–jumping out of planes, working as a spy, living a life that everyone around her wanted her to deny.

I hope that parents register their daughters for girls’ creative writing classes this summer with Reema Rajbanshi grades 11/12 and

Ishle Yi Park grades 9/10!

My desire to see girls respected and their imaginations encouraged was partially a result of what I used to see in classes. These are fantastic women authors and writing instructors who will encourage your daughter to write imaginatively and beautifully.

Register at

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Learning How Korean Americans Shaped History

Last month, I presented a two-part lectures series for the Council of Korean Americans on the events and personalities crucial to shaping Korean American culture and history over the last 100+ years. I made it accessible to those who don’t know any Korean American history. I also believe the big step we must take is to understand that WE CREATE HISTORY! Record your experiences. They’re historical!

Dr. Han explores the various narratives of “Korean America”, examines how this immigrant community has evolved as it is intersected with mainstream America, and shares how Korean Americans are contributing to the United States and the world. Part I of this session covers 1882 Diplomatic relations between Korea and the US, the early days of immigration, and the Korean War.