When Music Studies Conflict with Asian Culture

When Music Studies Conflict with Asian Culture

STUDENT: “I can’t be in orchestra anymore because it’s hurting my GPA.”

TEACHER: “But you are one of the most talented musicians in our program. Universities are looking for students like you who excel at activities like orchestra.” 

STUDENT: “My parents just don’t want me to do it anymore. They think it is a waste of time.” 

If you are an educator like me, you have been a part of this conversation more than once. If you are a first or second-generation Asian immigrant student who is involved in fine arts or any other extra-curricular activity like I was in school, chances are you have been the student in this conversation. 

And if you’re really like me, you’ve gone out of your way to present families who are having similar conversations with an abundance of facts and statistics about how involvement in fine arts provides many emotional benefits, improves GPA, and leads to higher university acceptance rates. No matter how much information you share, it still may seem to fall on deaf ears. It can feel like these families only care about their child’s GPA, regardless of the impact we know music has on our students. Why do they feel so strongly about having the highest GPA possible when we know that universities look at more than just grades? How can these parents not see the benefits of being involved in music when the facts are so blatantly presented to them? 

It wasn’t until I reflected on my own cultural upbringing that I began to understand the complex nature of these ongoing issues. The following paragraphs explain a few key values of Asian culture and education systems and how these principles can impact students’ pursuit of fine arts in schools. 

Collectivist Culture 

Asian cultures are collectivist, whereas Western culture is individualist (Salili, 1994). Collectivist cultures are centered on giving the group priority over each individual, whereas individualist cultures value independence and self-reliance as fundamental principles. 

In collectivist cultures, the group can be your family, a religious group, or any other network of close friends and relatives. This group plays a central role in all members’ lives. Social rules in collectivist cultures promote selflessness and putting the community needs ahead of individual needs (Salili, Lai, & Leung 2004). Working together and supporting each other financially and emotionally is essential to the well-being of the group. So, if you cannot afford to pay for college and your family isn’t financially stable, an aunt or an uncle will step in to help. If an unexpected expense comes up and you can’t afford it, you don’t have to worry because everyone will contribute with what they can. 

This sense of obligation to support and help one another is one of the many principles in collectivist culture systems that are designed to ensure the success of each individual in the group. This is all because in collectivist culture, the group is given priority over each individual- therefore, the success of each individual is the success of the group. 

The Cost of this Support System 

The unconditional emotional and financial support of your entire family does come at a cost: 

  • The behavior of one person reflects on the entire group (Sommervile & Robinson, 2016). 
  • Individuals are expected to sacrifice personal desires for the benefit of the group or family. 
  • Social pressure is placed on all family members to act in “culturally appropriate ways,” and to not deviate from the traditional ways of life. In fact, children are expected to be allocentric and surrender their needs for the greater good of the family. Your needs and passions are secondary to the maintenance of family honor (Sommervile & Robinson, 2016). 

Have you ever had to consider your extended family’s feelings about your first home purchase before making it? I have. Did you have to ask your parents for their opinion before you decided to marry your spouse? I did. Have you ever felt like you could not pursue the career of your dreams only because your family said you were breaking tradition and it was frowned upon? I have. 

I have to consider my family’s opinions before making any sort of decision, no matter how big or small. Many of our Asian students face similar difficulties when making any decisions about their career or coursework in school. 

Respect for Elders 

The elders are the parents, grandparents or family friends in the community. They are considered to be the wisest people in the social network simply because of their age and life experiences. What they say is to be followed without question, and they remain involved in your life throughout adulthood. In fact, there is an expectation that you will seek elders’ approval when making any major life decisions and that you will abide by their will, regardless of your opinion. 

Elders are, therefore, heavily involved in career and course selection decisions because these are major life decisions. Going against the grain by disobeying elders is extremely difficult because it is disrespectful and dishonorable. 

Family Reputation, Honor, and Prestige

This is where Asian and Western cultures are vastly different from one another. What everyone else thinks of you is extremely important in Asian culture. Preserving your family’s reputation, prestige, and honor is the top priority for all members of your group. 

According to a study on Asian culture by Kim and Hong in 2004, the worst thing you can do is bring disgrace to your family’s reputation. Additionally, the primary role of children in Asian and Asian-Indian families as described by elders, is to bring honor to their families through their achievements (Durvasula & Mylvaganam, 1994). 

What kinds of achievements, you may wonder? 

Educational achievement is a symbol of family reputation in Asian cultures (Sommervile & Robinson 2016). Therefore, the stereotype of Asian children becoming doctors, lawyers, or engineers due to familial pressure makes perfect sense. Having a high GPA and pursuing a “prestigious” career like doctor, lawyer, or engineer is important as it brings honor to your family. If you do not have a high GPA and do not pursue a “prestigious” career, you are a source of shame and embarrassment to your family and cultural community. 

As you can imagine, this pressure to maintain a specific academic standing and to follow a certain career path leads to extreme stress and anxiety for students of all ages. The weight to deliver in terms of social status affects every decision a young student makes; including the decision to continue pursuing or to let go of their passions such as fine arts. 

When speaking with colleagues about this issue, I often find that many of them do not understand why a student’s family does not see how following one’s passion is just as important as pursuing a career that will ensure financial success. It is not as simple as “following your heart” or “doing what makes you happy.” The necessity to maintain an honorable family reputation by choosing a well-traveled career path over pursuing a non-traditional and unfamiliar career in music is rooted in generations of tradition and social pressure to do so. 

For many students in this situation, doing what makes themselves happy would also mean disrespecting and disappointing their families. These students are truly caught in the middle of an emotional tug of war; they do not want to disappoint their families by staying involved in music, yet they also do not want to disappoint their teachers or hurt themselves by letting it go. 

Asian Education Systems

In many cases, our students are the first generation in their families to attend a university in the United States. This means that they are largely on their own when it comes time to apply to school, because their parents are not fully aware of what universities in the US are looking for in prospective students and are not familiar with the application process. It is important to examine some key differences between Asian education systems and Western education systems in order to be able to fully understand the complexities that surround career and course selection for our students who are the first in their families to apply to a university in the United States.

The primary purpose of many Asian education systems is to prepare students for careers that meet the utilitarian needs of growing economies, whereas Western education systems strive to prepare students to meet the practical and scholarship needs of established economies. In Asian systems, coursework is catered exclusively towards test preparation and once you reach high school, curriculum is centered around career preparation. 

For example, the education system in India is consists of a public exam at the end of grades 10 and 12. The 10th-grade exam determines what courses you will take in the following two years, and the 12th-grade exam determines where you can attend university. Basically, career tracking beginning in 10th grade. Here is a closer look at the breakdown of scores on the 10th-grade exam, and what that means for students’ futures: 

10th-Grade Exam Score Tracking Breakdown
Highest Tier of Scores Middle Tier of Scores Lower Tier of Scores
11th-12th-Grade Fields of Study Math, physics, chemistry Economics, accounting, business Philosophy, languages, arts, music
Post 12th-Grade Career Medicine, engineering Commerce Humanities, art, music

Students who score in the lowest tier are limited to a selection of careers in humanities, art, and music. Let that sink in. Based on this breakdown of test scores, it makes perfect sense that people who grew up with this system do not value music education. It makes perfect sense why they do not see it as a respectable field of study for their children, or even a respectable hobby. 

This is not the only example of an education system where career choices and university admissions are dependent on test scores alone. In China, a student’s score on the gaokao (high test) is the sole determining factor for where and if they can attend university. The pressure to earn a high score on this exam negatively impacts students’ mental health extremely, often leading to students becoming severely ill or hurting themselves out of frustration (Ash, 2016). 

Many other Asian countries follow a similar system in which one or a few test scores are used to determine students’ futures. If someone was brought up in a country where test scores alone determined their future, it only makes sense that they would place extreme emphasis on their child’s grades and test scores in the same way.

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How Can You Help? 

Now you may understand some of the many facets of the complex cultural issues behind the decision-making process of your students who are struggling with whether or not they should keep their fine arts course on their schedule. If all of this seems overwhelming, it is. But the good news is that you can be a huge help to these students by doing a few simple things. 

Talk to Your Students

Sit them down and ask them if everything is okay. Check in with them regularly if you know that they are experiencing a lot of familial pressure. Make sure they know that you are here for them and that you want to listen to their concerns about having your course on their schedule; and then, do so without judgment. 

Provide Consistent Support and Encouragement 

Bearing the weight of generations of social pressure is a lot for anyone, especially for teenagers. The student may think something is wrong with them because they want to be involved in music, but their whole family does not support them in this decision. We need to tell them that it is okay to love music, and it is okay to want to be a part of it even if their family doesn’t understand. 

These students need to hear that it is okay if they are not perfect, and it is okay if their grades are not perfect. When you share this with your students, it may seem like they do not hear you, but trust me, they are listening. They just need to hear this idea many times before it really sinks in. 

Give Specific Praise for Musical Accomplishments

Even if they are your top student, specific praise is one of the most important things we can give to our students in this situation, because they may not be receiving praise for their musical accomplishments at home. Along with this, it is important to share this praise with their families as this will bring honor to their reputation, and also because many of these families do not understand the work it takes to excel at musical tasks in the same way that they understand the effort it takes to score a ‘100’ on a test. 

Meet with Parents & Share What You See in Their Child

Listen to their concerns about their child’s involvement in your class, and then share all of the wonderful things you know about your student. Let the parents hear that their child is a talented musician, a wonderful leader, or simply that it would be a shame to have spent so much time and effort to learn a musical skill only to throw it away. 

Reiterating all of the student’s strengths and potential in arts may help parents see what you see in their child.

Share College Admissions Information with Your Community

My parents falsely believed that grades were the most important factor when it came to university admissions because this was the environment that they experienced in their home country. Many of our students are in the same situation; their families do not truly know what undergraduate admissions are like in the United States because they have not been through this education system. 

You can help by reaching out to any local university admissions officer and gathering statements from them about what they would like to see in prospective applicants. Sharing this type of information taken directly from admissions officers has been the single most beneficial strategy that I have used in this situation. 

When Students Drop Fine Arts Courses

If, after all of this, the student still decides to drop your fine arts course, do not take it personally! Remember, the student is under a lot of pressure from their parents to take a certain combination of courses that will lead to the “right” career for their family. The student does not want to disappoint their parents. Many times, we are also like their parents and the students do not want to disappoint us either. They are truly caught in the middle of choosing between what their family expects them to do, and what they want to do. 

Instead, I challenge you to consider becoming a lifelong mentor for these students. It takes tremendous courage to stand up to your family for something you desire. Chances are that if you were the first person that they confided in about familial pressure; they will need you later in their lives for support. Social pressure to stay within the norm does not end with quitting orchestra to pursue rigorous academic coursework and a perfect GPA. This cultural pressure remains present in all aspects of life and having an adult figure who can encourage and support you through all of this is invaluable. 

You can be that person for your current and former students. 

Final Thoughts

Dropping orchestra, band, or choir in pursuit of a perfect GPA and top-tier university admissions is a much more complex issue than many of us make it out to be. Social pressure to pursue a certain course or career rooted in cultural traditions and family values can easily outweigh any passion a student has for music. But by taking time to understand these cultural principles, we can be better advocates for our students and be in their corner when they fight this battle. 


  • Ash, A (2016). Is China’s gaokao the world’s toughest school exam? Beijing: The Guardian.
  • Cheney, G, Ruzzi, B & Muralindharan, K (2006). A Profile of the Indian Education System. Washington D.C.: National Center on Education and the Economy.
  • Durvasula, R. S., & Mylvaganam G. A. (1994). Mental Health of Asian Indians: Relevant Issues and Community Implications. Washington D. C.: American Psychological Association.
  • Kim, B & Hong, S (2004). A Psychometric Revision of the Asian Values Scale Using the Rasch Model. California: UC Santa Barbara.
  • Maiter, S & George, U (2003). Understanding Context and Culture in the Parenting Approaches of Immigrant South Asian Mothers. Ontario: Sage Publications.
  • Salili, F, Lai, MK & Leung, SSK (2004). The Consequences of Pressure on Adolescent Students to Perform Well in School. Hong Kong: HK Journal of Paediatrics.
  • Sommervile K. & Robinson, O (2016). Keeping Up Appearances Within the Ethnic Community: A Disconnect between First and Second Generation South Asians’ Educational Aspirations. Canada: Canadian Ethnic Studies.
Sundas Mohi-Truong

Sundas Mohi-Truong is the director of orchestras at Patricia E. Paetow High School in Katy ISD. Prior to her current position, she served as assistant director of orchestras at Tompkins High School in Katy ISD for four years. Mrs. Mohi-Truong is a second-generation immigrant. Her parents came to the United States from Karachi, Pakistan, and she is passionate about using her experience walking the line between two very different cultures to help her students who are in similar situations discover who they are and what they want to do with their lives. Mohi-Truong received her bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Texas at San Antonio, graduating summa cum laude with highest honors and with the performer’s certificate on viola. During her time at UTSA, she taught with and led the UTSA Downtown Campus String Project, a program that allows music education students to teach string instruments to San Antonio area children. Mrs. Mohi-Truing is an active member of the Texas Music Educator Association, the Texas Orchestra Director Association, and the American String Teacher Association. She is also an active freelance violist, and currently serves as an officer for the TMEA Region 23 Orchestra division.

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