Why do Asians Study ‘Asian Subjects’? (1- Career)

‘What subject do you study?’


This is about the commonest question at the start of terms at universities throughout the country. However, when I reply ‘Politics’ I often get a slightly surprised look…

… because my degree has nothing to do with economics. Or finance. Or accounting. Or law. Or medicine.

‘Asian Subjects’, admittedly one of my favourite source of self-depreciation jokes, is also one of the most prominent stereotypes from people of Asian heritage, especially at my age. It’s always controversial to discuss stereotypes, but to simply ignore or dismiss them is unhelpful: they remain issues that we have to contend with on a daily basis.

Because in many ways it’s true. We traditionally had a lot of boarders from the East Asia joining my school after GCSEs. However, I never see them in lessons. Because I dropped all the sciences, and my maths weren’t worthy for my ethnicity either :S

Jokes aside, sure there are reasons to explain this phenomenon: Why do Asian students tend to study subjects associated with finance and banking, or one that leads to professional careers? My family is from Hong Kong, thus my partial experience with the matter are principally on East Asia; although I believe much of these reasons hold true across borders:

1. Career Training


‘ I study this for a career in (insert subcategories in finance)’

Why does anybody go into accounting or finance anyway? For the money, of course. Despite the current economic climate, a job at the likes of J.P. Morgan and Ernest and Young is *still* a golden ticket to a ‘sorted’ life, provided that you are still well enough (read: alive) at the end to enjoy the benefits attached to such a career.

In the Far East, this has been, and is still seen as, the template to success and the formula to a blissful life. In the past half-century, East Asia (especially the “Asian Tigers”: Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan) has undergone exponential growth in unprecedented speed and scale, rapidly becoming some of the most developed countries in the world.

In a society where everybody achieved a much higher living standard within a generation through free-market enterprise, capitalism is naturally worshipped as the way to success. Indeed, money becomes the most important barometre in one’s life, attaining almost divine status. You will be repeatedly judged by how much you earn.

Why? Because to compound matters, the vitalness of owning your home has been engrained into our societies and often becomes a prerequisite to getting married and starting a family. However, when compared with average wages, the ridiculousness of house prices dwarfs even London. (According to this map, buying a flat in Hong Kong or Beijing will take cost upwards of 30 years of your disposable income; the London figure stands at 16 years) Those who can afford the front payment will be locked in a mortgage for most of their lives. In order to simply have a ‘normal’ life, you really will need every dollar you can earn.

Okay, so you live in a society where earning a lot of money is not only reputable but assumed to be necessary and almost ‘righteous’. The pressure is intense and working hours long, almost regardless of what you do. In this case, one might as well punt for a ‘tried and tested’ route to financial riches by working in finance in professional services. The money is so important in so many ways other than spending power that interest in the job doesn’t even come into it. If finance earns, then finance it is.

When you grow up in such an environment, people have been trained to think of everything in their daily lives in terms of financial investment: anything that doesn’t guarantee you a material return is frowned upon as bad investments. (In some extreme cases it even affects your choice of friends.) Why would you even contemplate a degree that does not provide a clear path to a ‘worthwhile’ career’, where retraining will also diminish the number of years you can have a substantial income? THAT is clearly worthless investment of time and money.

To keep up with this ‘Money is God’ worldview, universities across the region are inevitably turned into career training centres. If you want to work in an investment bank, you would study finance, it is as simple as that. There’s a reason why Hong Kong’s most prestigious degree programme is BA in Business Administration and Law. Both sides covered, worthwhile investment using as little time as possible.

However, this preference for professional careers does not explain why one has to study these subjects (except for medicine for obvious reasons). Many students across the world would want to enter these companies in order to earn bucketloads of cash too. However, these said student might not necessarily be studying economics or management: quite often they will be reading a variety of subjects, some of which are not even remotely related to finance.

In the UK, if you graduated with flying colours at a respectable university, the large names in the corporate world will be interested regardless of your discipline, sometimes variety might have helped in the recruitment process or even seen as beneficial for the respective professional career. In the East, this does not happen in similar frequency, especially when you take the same transnational out of the equation. Devote extra resources to train a new graduate if there are already trained people available? Bad investment. Take the law as an example: my experience with the Law industry is that firms in the West are far more interested in students from other academic disciplines. Indeed on a visit to a top firm I was reassured that half the lawyers at their London headquarters did not study law at undergraduate level. This is the complete opposite to my experience in Hong Kong.

In summary, most students see professional jobs as THE way to a respectable and ‘sorted’ (read: well-paid) life, while companies within these fields rarely (although this is slowly changing) hire people outside of it.

It often leaves ‘doing time’ to prepare for a career the only realistic option.

Of course, this is merely one side of the story. For the emphasis on collectivism meant that it is impossible to discuss any supposedly Asian phenomena without referring to family authority. Therefore, we will get to the other major reason for studying ‘Asian subject’ tomorrow: the dreaded Asian Parents. Stay tuned!