I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with math, leaning heavily towards the latter. It was always something I was good at, but didn’t enjoy. Quite frankly, it still stuns me on a regular basis that I’ve ended up working for a math company. Let me try to parse this out by saying that math has been intrinsically tied to every definitive choice I’ve made, consciously or unconsciously.
Flash backwards—I’m 4. My mom is teaching me long division, insisting that this is absolutely crucial for how I map the rest of my life. I assume this is how the rest of my peers spend their time, completely oblivious to the fact that other neighborhood children are outside, running around on playgrounds, doing cartwheels up and down their sunlit front yards. Instead, I’m grinding away. I think I remember this as fun. I think I ask my mom to give me another multiplication problem.
But here’s where the real problem starts: I’m 6 with a summer birthday, already younger than most others in first grade, and yet, my parents are trying to convince the principal of my school that I must skip this grade. I’m pretty indifferent, but, as part of my parents’ debate, I’m asked to do a multiplication problem (4 digits x 4 digits). I finish this problem, the principal double-checks on his old-school calculator, and confirms 6-year-old me is right. This is all before the days of Common Core, but he seems to be impressed. I leave my friends and join the second grade instead. Who needs social and emotional development if you can skip grades, pursue academic greatness, attend a high-profile (Ivy, preferably) college, get a high-paying job, and retire early instead?
I was taught that math, like your life path, is definitive. Verifiable fact. There is only one correct answer, and no other way to interpret it. You could even measure success and math similarly—with numbers, just add a dollar sign.
The next few years of my life were a blur of test scores, until college when I could finally opt to block math out of my life. It was only after a decade had passed from my last math course that I found that my experience wasn’t unique to me—almost every other Asian friend or colleague of mine shared this experience. This is nothing new. There’s always been the stereotype that Asians are good at math—one that has been backed up by data points, PISA scores, TIMSS achievement, college admissions demographics. In my experience, every Asian child I know has been told growing up that everything is defined by how much work you put in. There’s no such thing as a kid who’s naturally inclined to do better in math, effort is the only thing that matters. “Chiku,” my aunts and uncles used to say. Directly translated, it means “eat bitter,” or in practical translation, to suffer and struggle. A dramatic version of its loose English counterpart: “Nothing in life comes easy.” This isn’t just scoped to math of course, but math is a precursor to having “real-world,” hard black-or-white skills that translate directly to jobs.
Originally, I’d wanted to write a lofty overview of the intersection between math and Asian culture as my math story. But that’s already been dramatically covered. Instead, here’s the reason behind why I hated math (and subsequently, how I still struggle with it as it’s presented in many places). As a mere child, your entire worth as a person is boiled down to these metrics, mostly arising from standardized test scores and arbitrary grades. Did my high SAT score or 5 on AP calc really bring me happiness? Of course not. Was my entire family convinced it would? Doesn’t matter. Happiness is secondary to the pursuit of success. Can you imagine if the only thing that mattered was your test score? Yes, of course, because it still happens. There’s something so obviously, deeply isolating in this approach. Although in the West, there’s been a push to shift from drilling and rote practice, there’s still so much focus on tests. Informal or formal testing, it all comes down to externally demonstrating skill mastery. We may have grown more subtle about this approach, but it’s hard to believe that much has changed since I grew up in the 90s.
This isn’t a love letter to Desmos, but rather, the pedagogy that is inherent in so much of what we do. There’s an old blog post that I dug up when I was doing my research into the company, after I’d been offered a job. There are multitudes of gems on that post, but what really resonated was the idea of celebrating different ways of thinking and placing value on conversations. That’s exactly what I’m hoping to highlight here: conversations about (or adjacent to) math. These conversations are hard, but they’re worth having.