Bund to Brooklyn

Episode 8: Try Harder! and the Pressures of High School with Debbie Lum

Episode Summary

On Episode 8, director Debbie Lum joins us to talk about her new documentary Try Harder! and what she learned about the pressure of college admissions and how it impacts the mental health of the predominantly Asian American student body of Lowell High School. TRY HARDER! Is available now to rent or buy on Amazon, AppleTV (iTunes) and more! At Lowell High School, the top public high school in San Francisco, the seniors are stressed out. As they prepare for the emotionally draining college application process, students are keenly aware of the intense competition for the few open spots in their dream colleges. At Lowell—where cool kids are nerds, nearly everyone has an amazing talent, and most of the student body is Asian American—the things that usually make a person stand out can feel commonplace. With humor and heart, director Debbie Lum captures the reality of the American college application process and the intersection of class, race, and educational opportunity as young adults navigate a quintessential rite of passage.

Episode Notes

Michelle Go and Lunar New Year (0:54)

Debbie joins the conversation (5:44)

Getting into Lowell High and other prestigious schools (10:11)

The dehumanization of college admissions (12:20)

Pressure from parents (16:57)

The American mindset of "playing the game" (21:48)

Mental health and high school (24:43)


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Episode Transcription

Note: this transcript is created automatically using Descript:

Debbie Lum 

[00:00:00] Lucia Liu: Hey listeners. Welcome to season two, have been to Brooklyn. I know we took a slight break, but I hope you guys didn't miss us too much.  

[00:00:27] now we're back, Just a quick, a few updates.  

[00:00:31] so Sue Ann who's, my co-host is actually leaving the pod. 

[00:00:35] so instead you'll hear 

[00:00:36] Sean, my producer a lot more often now, Sean, you want to, you have any couple words? 

[00:00:43] Sean Niu: well, you're going to hear a little bit less about Shanghai, a little bit more bout life a little bit, but 

[00:00:49] we're going to find Chinese correspondence soon.  

[00:00:51] Lucia Liu: Cool. And like, what's top of mind is. 

[00:00:54] Sean Niu: Well, We are recording this 

[00:00:57] mid January and,  

[00:00:58] , on a more somber note as well.  

[00:01:00] recently there was the tragic murder of Michelle Alyssa go 

[00:01:04] who was pushed to her death in front of eight times, square train in New York, and you know, it's, just another. Incident in a long string of violent, murderers or attacks on Asian Americans versus since, since the pandemic 

[00:01:20] there was a vigil in times square, but know, everyone, please be careful out there. And 

[00:01:25] if you would like to 

[00:01:27] support Michelle go's family, you can 

[00:01:29] search for her on Google. 

[00:01:31] the, her last name is. 

[00:01:32] G O yes, definitely echoing Sean, everyone, please be safe out there. 

[00:01:37] we're gonna release this on February 1st, which means it will be Chinese new year.  

[00:01:41] so Lucia 

[00:01:43] what do you usually do for Chinese new year?  

[00:01:44] Lucia Liu: well, first of all, I want to say that 

[00:01:46] for those of you who aren't Chinese, that's happening lunar new year. Um, cause they understand. I understand that different cultures celebrate lunar new year differently.  

[00:01:55] but yeah, uh, it's going to be the year of the tiger, which is 

[00:01:59] sort of exciting and interesting. 

[00:02:01] but 

[00:02:02] I actually, Sean, I want to know what,  

[00:02:03]  Zodiac sign you are. 

[00:02:05] Sean Niu: Yeah. So my birthday is Jan 25th.  

[00:02:09] and I was born a couple of weeks early, which means that oh, and the year was 1989. So 

[00:02:15] I was basically the tail end of the dragon, about you? 

[00:02:20] Lucia Liu: it's great that you just revealed your entire birthday, so happy early birthday to you. 

[00:02:26] Sean Niu: Well, you. 

[00:02:26] know, thanks. I, uh, that's just coincidence I guess, but  

[00:02:32] Lucia Liu: Um, so I was also a January baby, Shawn.  

[00:02:34] I'm not going to tell everybody the date.  

[00:02:37] Sean Niu: really?  

[00:02:38] Lucia Liu: Yeah, 

[00:02:39] Sean Niu: what was your birthday or was it did. we pass it already? Happy belated birthday.  

[00:02:43] Lucia Liu: there Sunday.  

[00:02:44] Sean Niu: Oh wow. Happy belated birthday.  

[00:02:46] Lucia Liu: do the math. Thank you.  

[00:02:48] but yeah, it was a similar to you.  

[00:02:50] I caught the tail end of the rabbit and, uh, it's funny. Cause my husband's like, you don't act like a rabbit at all. You act more like a tiger. So maybe this is my year. 

[00:03:00] So do you guys have any family traditions for lunar new year? 

[00:03:04] Sean Niu: Um,not nothing that's like consistently upheld other than just like, I tried to go home whenever I can, And so I'm going to probably go home.  

[00:03:12] hopefully it's hotpot,  

[00:03:13] , that's about it.  

[00:03:14] Lucia Liu: Going home. Sounds great.  

[00:03:16] Sean Niu: Um,  

[00:03:17] Lucia Liu: We celebrate in like 

[00:03:18] I guess just like depends on where we are. So if it's just like me and my husband, which is going to be this year 

[00:03:23] since we can't go home 

[00:03:24] we're probably going to do hotpot too for too.  

[00:03:27] but normally like 

[00:03:29] we'll go to Toronto and visit my in-laws. 

[00:03:32] and we'll like have a big family meal and then like St. Karaoke and it's, this is like big hoopla. Um,  

[00:03:39] Sean Niu: awesome.  

[00:03:40] Lucia Liu: Yeah, it's super fun. And I actually haven't celebrated Chinese new year in China in a really long time. So I'm sort of just remember how, like it's all about food. And then the rest of the 

[00:03:53] few days for Chinese new year, we just like sit at home and do nothing. 

[00:03:58] Sean Niu: I mean, it's kind of nice. If you can celebrate both like a Western Christmas holiday, then also celebrate Chinese new year. It's like the, the winter months are pretty nice,  

[00:04:06] Lucia Liu: Yeah. Yeah. It was a lot of food and a lot of eating, uh, well, well, not quite related to the topic of eating.  

[00:04:14] , just a quick preview of today's guest, we actually invite Debbie Lum. Who's the director of this documentary called try harder. Um, it's really awesome documentary that follows five students from Lowell high school on their journey to applying for colleges 

[00:04:29] and it really explores what Debbie has learned about how competitive 

[00:04:32] the high school experience can be at a school like LOL and 

[00:04:36] how tough the admission process is for 

[00:04:39] for young students and 

[00:04:40] especially Asian-Americans applying to top universities. 

[00:04:43] So it's definitely a really interesting 

[00:04:45] documentary. And we chat with Debbie about her experience, filming the documentary, but also 

[00:04:50] per take on education and its impact on mental health. And. Quick reminder that, you can always, email us or 

[00:04:58] leave us a comment or a note, at B to b@nineteenninetyinstitute.org, that's our email. 

[00:05:04] and then you can also follow us on Instagram or Twitter at Buntu, Brooklyn 

[00:05:08] and be sure to subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts, such as iTunes, Spotify, and or other platforms.  

[00:05:14] Sean Niu: Actually, we also were also On tick talk as well now, so you can follow us there as well. That's a new  

[00:05:21] Lucia Liu: Um, only, only if Sean, posts his dating escapades. 

[00:05:27] Sean Niu: I mean, we'll see, we'll see. maybe.  

[00:05:30] Lucia Liu: I don't know the show. Hey, Debbie, welcome to been to Brooklyn. So excited to have you as a guest today. Do you mind quickly introducing? 

[00:05:51] Debbie Lum: Yeah. excited to be here. My name is Debbie Lum and I'm the director and producer of try. 

[00:05:57] it's a documentary that follows 

[00:05:59] Debbie Lum: five students. Francisco's top ranked public high school. It's called bull high school.  

[00:06:06] as they try to get into the elite college of their dreams. So it's this kind of pressure cooker 

[00:06:14] meets the breakfast club. Not really, but it's a high school documentary 

[00:06:19] about kids trying to go for their, their big high school dreams, which is to get into Stanford. 

[00:06:25] Sean and I both watched that documentary at eight. I remember we both sort of took notes on it and it like really brought back some like memories, whether they were good or bad.  

[00:06:37] Sean Niu: I was going to say PTSD a little bit.  

[00:06:40] Lucia Liu: Maybe a little bit.  

[00:06:41] it was funny cause my 

[00:06:43] dream college to go to was also Stanford, even though I've never seen the campus, I just like, knew about it.  

[00:06:48] Debbie Lum: Yeah, it's the, I think it's so fascinating to speak to 

[00:06:52] young people who have been through this whole experience because the last, like 15 years of high school and the last 15 years high school has changed so dramatically. And like in my generation, it wasn't like that at all. But when I meet people like you guys who have gone through it, it's just, I mean, as in high school, wasn't traumatic. 

[00:07:13] Already, you know, 

[00:07:14] Sean Niu: Yeah. I could definitely identify a lot with the kids that I saw on the screen with what my experience was like, no, I went to 

[00:07:22] I went to a small private school, but 

[00:07:24] I definitely had a lot of that feeling of like competing with my peers and, knowing that when I was at least in high school, that whatever school I got into would dictate the rest of my life and we'll get the most important thing I ever, I ever did. 

[00:07:37] and we talked about this a little bit offline. I'll just mention it now. Like it was, I had so much pressure to succeed that I, I cheated on an AP exam, which I didn't need to cheat on.  

[00:07:45] Lucia Liu: on you, Sean. 

[00:07:46] Sean Niu: I know, I know, but I learned at an early age, at least as an early lesson and I got caught and I got expelled from school and that was this. 

[00:07:55] , I had all these thoughts of all, hopefully get into an Ivy league and you know, all this stuff and all that, like was basically self sabotaged a year earlier. And 


[00:08:05] Sean Niu: you know, obviously things worked out okay for me but I I can totally empathize with that pressure. 

[00:08:09] So. 

[00:08:10] Debbie Lum: I mean, that story is 

[00:08:12] crazy. And yet I heard a lot of crazy stories like that actually in making the film Because students are under so much pressure today and that they feel like it's like, make or break like good Stanford or, or die. Right.  

[00:08:26] Stanford or bust but more like Stanford or die that they will do really crazy things. 

[00:08:31] ? I mean, there's been, and sometimes they make headlines, you know? but I've heard of kids like. They took their sat and then they disappeared and they have run away from home. Or they're like,  

[00:08:44] , they, their results have come out and they don't want to tell their parents. And they're like on the roof top after searching for them for 24 hours, they're like hiding out on there. 

[00:08:52] You know what I mean? It's like crazy stories like this. Do you have one of them? 

[00:08:56] Sean Niu: Yeah. So in sixth grade I had a bad science project result. I got like a C on it and I like buried it in my front yard. Like I just stuck a hole and like, like buried. I think I said, I tried to burn it and bury it. It was not a very deep hole, honestly,  

[00:09:13] Lucia Liu: Tiger parents shot.  

[00:09:15] Sean Niu: I was telling that'd be not really. I mean, they're very,  

[00:09:18] , they're very accepting, especially after I went to grad school, they've been a lot more hands off, which is great, but I think they like bred this, You could say insecurity of like competition with me early on. 

[00:09:31] So they could tell me to my face, oh, I'm not a tiger parent. You know, I don't push you like your friend's parents do, but then like I've already internalized that competition. So 

[00:09:40] Lucia Liu: You push yourself so much that you have to like bury your science fair project. 

[00:09:44] Debbie Lum: Do they know that story? Have they heard that before now? 

[00:09:48] Sean Niu: probably, yeah. Well now, now they know mom or dad, if you're listening, you know, we've moved, but.  

[00:09:56] Lucia Liu: Please send them this, this  

[00:09:58] Sean Niu: Yeah,  

[00:09:59] Debbie Lum: This is like,  

[00:10:00] , where Justin Lin's gets this. 

[00:10:03] Sean Niu: that, that, yeah. Yeah. Well, I mean, th that Bella tomorrow, that was definitely an influential movie for me.  

[00:10:11] Lucia Liu: well, Debbie kind of going back into, you know, your documentary and like the Athos of,  

[00:10:16] , pressure during school.  

[00:10:18] , let's talk a bit about like getting into Lowell high school.  

[00:10:21] , I think recently they announced that it's like a randomized lottery, but 

[00:10:25] previously it was very much merit based. 

[00:10:27] Like you have to test into the school. 

[00:10:29] Debbie Lum: Yeah. So 

[00:10:30] Lowell high school is the oldest. Public high school west of the Mississippi and,  

[00:10:35] , starting way back in the sixties. So it used to be 


[00:10:38] Debbie Lum: or there became a selective admissions process because there were so many people that wanted to go there and they couldn't 

[00:10:45] it exceeded capacity. 

[00:10:47] So  

[00:10:47] , entrance with, based on things like middle school grades and test scores, but actually they had this kind of modulating.  

[00:10:55] several band way of admitting people. Cause they did take diversity 

[00:10:59] into the equation. however right after our film premiered at Sundance, you know, it was during the pandemic and the school board said that the grades, you couldn't evaluate them from the year before because of the pandemic. 

[00:11:12] So there was no way. Measure, whether they're a student could get in based on their academic record. Um, and so they changed it to a lottery and then they made it a permanent, change the next year.  

[00:11:27] and then 

[00:11:28] just last winter 

[00:11:30] that change was contested in court and a lawsuit was filed, saying that that was, no due process. 

[00:11:36] , it's very much like 

[00:11:38] a lot of high schools across the country that are similar to Lowell high school that are public, that have selective admissions that have,  

[00:11:45] they often have large, numbers of AAPI students, Asian-American students.  

[00:11:51] and  

[00:11:52] Stuyvesant Thomas, Jefferson, and Virginia 

[00:11:55] Boston Latin and Boston Lowell high school. 

[00:11:58] These are all schools that are facing these questions about,  

[00:12:01] , how, should there be an entrance exam at a public school or not? And it's a really . It's a really charged, dilemma that has really, then, challenging for the San Francisco community. 

[00:12:20] Lucia Liu: I know that there was, especially in New York, there was like a period of time when 

[00:12:25] to your point Stuyvesant and like Bronx science 

[00:12:28] there was this talk of getting rid of this,entrance exam that you sort of take in order to get into these schools. 

[00:12:35] And 

[00:12:35] it's so interesting, right? Because 

[00:12:37] there's so much like self-selection, I guess, into like, testing, right? Like I think there's this like stereotype of Asian Americans being really good at testing into things, but like not having any personalities or 

[00:12:48] being really good at getting good grades, but like,  

[00:12:51] , not so much. 

[00:12:53] Having rounded personalities. Right. And 

[00:12:56] I think what was interesting about your documentary is that you sort of showed a different side of a lot of these, students that you followed, that they were,  

[00:13:05] very normal kids, like with things that they liked.  

[00:13:08] but they also recognize that the world outside of LOL sort of saw them as these like test taking machines and like dehumanize. 

[00:13:19] Debbie Lum: The whole process is really dehumanizing,  

[00:13:21] , getting into college. I mean, that's kind of the irony about the selective admissions schools that are doing a way with merit. Well, quote unquote merit based admissions.  

[00:13:33] when everyone is trying to get into colleges that rely on that type of 

[00:13:38] evaluation to get in,  

[00:13:40] it isn't really dehumanizing process. 

[00:13:42] Like you're evaluated on like three sheets of paper and, and some test scores, although that is all changing and it's making it even more complicated, I think for kids, where 


[00:13:53] Debbie Lum: , if you don't have centralized tests, then they're relying more on the essay. I mean, how much bias. Is inherent in essays. 

[00:14:00] , how much does that exclude people who aren't,  

[00:14:03] , who are maybe English as a second language learners or not native speakers? I mean, he don't go to a fancy college prep private school,  

[00:14:12] , that they're not being taught to write personal statements. it doesn't feel like a fair process for most people, I think who apply, but the Asian Americans I think that was one of the motivations for me to make the film is that 


[00:14:25] Debbie Lum: , I know that there's this stereotype about the 

[00:14:29] model minority Asian American student, the robotic competitive. 

[00:14:33] I mean, it's like you could throw in a whole bunch of adjectives, many of which are contradictory, but they're all stereotypes about, 

[00:14:40] , robotic student 

[00:14:41] and. 

[00:14:42] you're kind of surprised by my film, although why, why should we be surprised that actually 17 year old, 18 year old Asian American teenagers are just like teenagers anywhere? 

[00:14:56] , it's this kind of, it's a, it's really, I'm always really surprised by how people can be. so us or them about this, you know, like we're just all human beings. 

[00:15:08] Lucia Liu: It's very tribal. I 

[00:15:09] think when It becomes like a situation where there's resource scarcity and it's like perceived that only a select few are able to get this like top resource such as like going to Stanford or going to an Ivy league, or, you know, one of the students in your film said like, I have to go to a top 20 college or I won't do anything significant in my life. 

[00:15:29] Right. Like that mentality, the scarcity mentality. I think creates that sort of tribalism because it's us or them it's either I get in or you get in and outside of that, , there's no other path, like there's no third, third choice. 

[00:15:45] Debbie Lum: And I also think it's this lack of having stories,  

[00:15:49] , lack of representation that is,  

[00:15:52] , we're starting to see more and more of it in mainstream media for the AAPI community, but it has just been. very, very obviously absent for most of our history here. And so it's very easy to not see Asian-Americans 

[00:16:05] as anything beyond like the statistics or the,  


[00:16:08] Debbie Lum: the really simple one dimensional, easy to remember, easy to categorize,  

[00:16:13] , because the nuances and the complexities of character, And narratives that we, we all, as human beings experienced, just don't get 

[00:16:23] represented very much. 

[00:16:25] and so I think that's a lot of it too. It's very related to like, in our film, like the kids in our, our story 

[00:16:31] we interviewed them about the personal statement.  

[00:16:34] and a lot of them talked about how,  

[00:16:35] being Asian American you're taught to do almost the opposite of.  

[00:16:40] the college admissions committees are expecting you to do, to get in. 

[00:16:44] Lucia Liu: Right. Being humble, not bragging, downplaying your achievements, right. 

[00:16:52] Debbie Lum: yeah, all of that there's these, these things that people don't really know about community. 

[00:16:57] Lucia Liu: Yeah. And you know, what I think is interesting is 

[00:16:59] also had tidbits of the students' parents in the mix as well. And, ever since 

[00:17:06] Amy traumas battle hymn of the tiger mom book came out. I think people were like, oh, like all Asian parents are like tiger moms and. Good to sort of be able to see other portrayals of Asian parents, like I'm thinking through like American media. And I don't actually remember seeing portrayals of Asian parents not being tiger parents. Right. Like even just like their most recent change he movie. Right? Like he definitely had a tiger dad. 

[00:17:36] And like 

[00:17:37] Lucia Liu: I like that in your film, like,  

[00:17:39] , you have the juxtaposition of one of the characters, moms is like much more intense and then another character's mom is like, I just wanted him to be a normal, like human being in high school and just try all these different things. 

[00:17:51] And I think that what's interesting is that like, there's this phenomenon that's like happening in China these days, where a lot of parents don't want their kids to go through the pressure of like getting into college in China.  

[00:18:04] there's a process called , which is like,  

[00:18:07] , the test of your lifetime, essentially. 

[00:18:09] It's like, if you bomb that test, like you can't go to college that year. So 

[00:18:13] everything is based off of grades and it's like,  

[00:18:15] , depending on your grades and how you rank across the country 

[00:18:18] you have cutoffs, so it's like completely merit based. There's like, no, sort of how round well-rounded you are. 

[00:18:25] There's no personal statement. There's no essay. They don't care about your story. It's like how well you test gets you into the college. And 

[00:18:34] a lot of Asian parents are recognizing that. It's so stressful. So they actually end up sending their kids to America in order to like go to school in America so that they don't have to go through the stress of, of getting into college in China. 

[00:18:48] Debbie Lum: Which,  

[00:18:49] by the way that the gal cow, the entrance exam that determines your whole face, that's actually,  

[00:18:54] , a European system,  

[00:18:55] , like that's how it's like a traditional model that isn't, . exclusively an Asian thing. Um, but when, but then, you know, also in 

[00:19:03] like an immigrant yeah. 

[00:19:04] family like Alvin's family 

[00:19:06] in our film ends up coming here and then sending their kids to the whole system.  

[00:19:11] , Alvin's mom would, was 

[00:19:12] quoted in our film saying how much more complicated it is. so, you know, maybe there's not that same kind of.  

[00:19:20] intensity of competition. 

[00:19:21] I'm not quite sure what, how you would describe it, but 

[00:19:24] you know, because obviously it's very competitive here too, but that the process here is actually almost 

[00:19:30] Lucia Liu: more opaque. Yeah. I think it depends on like for, I think definitely for Lowell 

[00:19:35] high school students, the competition is fierce. It's like, there's no doubt about it that like, they're just constantly under this like academic pressure 

[00:19:43] versus like, you know, if you go to. Maybe a normal high school, like a normal public high school. 

[00:19:48] the competition isn't as like blatant, right? Like, I think it's more about like, oh, I'm fitting in and like,  

[00:19:56] , doing different extracurriculars.  

[00:19:58] but I think in China it's like pretty well known that, all you do is study. Like that's all you do. 

[00:20:03] You do nothing else. But study. 

[00:20:05] I thought it was curious because Alvin's mom, she's from Taiwan, I think. And  

[00:20:10] Sean Niu: there's a similar kind of testing structure there. she kind of like applies that framework to Alvin, that whole box mentality. And I felt like if perhaps obviously this is a hypothetical that if she maybe was a little bit more hands off, then he had all these different interests that would have made him a better candidate that 

[00:20:28] some things that he felt pressured to not even talk. 

[00:20:31] , he loved to hit up the dance. He loved, I think it was like beatbox and he like hip hop he just was like a character. And 

[00:20:37] I, I just wonder,  

[00:20:39] we'll even see what happens to Alvin, you know, in a few years, you know, how, what kind of paths you'll take as well. 

[00:20:43] And, and it was interesting that Ian's mom who had gone through Lowell high school.  

[00:20:47] and I guess Lola was probably a competitive when she was there too. She was.  

[00:20:52] , much more hands-off right. She was definitely like you, do you find your own path? So I thought that was pretty interesting to see that 

[00:20:57] juxtaposition.  

[00:20:58] Debbie Lum: Yeah. And there's also Rachel's mom. Who's African-American who was probably the fiercest tiger mom in our entire. 

[00:21:06] Sean Niu: True. Yeah.  

[00:21:09] Lucia Liu: I loved her mentality though. She's like, stay strong. don't doubt yourself. Don't have imposter syndrome and she's like, just go for the best cause you deserve it. Um, and then she was like, also, I don't want you to be too close to me when you graduate because I want freedom.  

[00:21:26] Sean Niu: I felt like I was kind of like a coach. Like she was like very like motivational, although she set high standards, that's kind of how I, the vibe I got from  

[00:21:33] Lucia Liu: Yeah, I agree. Versus kind of like, sort of forcing your kid or like 

[00:21:37] although she did put pressure on Rachel, I think, and I think Rachel inherently felt the pressure.  

[00:21:42] but yeah, it's definitely an interesting, juxtaposition and like a different vibe across  

[00:21:48] Debbie Lum: Yeah. when I was 

[00:21:50] in college, What I noticed because my parents were not immigrants. My parents grew up in the United States.  

[00:21:57] but my friend's parents were immigrants. And,  

[00:22:00] , the whole, like pushing for a private Ivy league college was not something that was as prevalent in the Asian American community when I was a kid. 

[00:22:09] And in fact, I felt like immigrant agents tended to. Not even, I don't know if you call it push for, but aim for 

[00:22:18] public education when it came to universities, public universities, the state schools, theses 

[00:22:23] that sort of belief in like the state system and like value education, you know, like why would you pay all that money for a degree when you, can you learn just as much 

[00:22:33] Uh, at this bargain price in a UC or a state school, that was sort of where we were at, , decades ago. 

[00:22:42] and in a way like Alvin's family is a little bit like that too, where like the prestige of the elite institution is. Necessarily the highest priority,  

[00:22:55] , really it's family. I mean, really it's like their bond as a unit is, is going to supersede, whatever hoops they're going to jump through, to get into a top college,  

[00:23:07] , an elite college. 

[00:23:08] So I thought that was kind of interesting. I, I kind of 

[00:23:11] would always joke around that, like Alvin represented this sort of like, classic immigrant mentality where you believe that if you work hard, if you try hard, it's gonna show, it's gonna show up and you're, you'll be rewarded. But 

[00:23:25] the truth is like, it's not until you're like, You learn how to like work the system work hard, but also, you know, mark and yourself, uh, 

[00:23:35] play the game and then you're in like a real American, \ , 

[00:23:38] Lucia Liu: It's true. It's true. It's so true. . I feel like the whole, like, being, what, what does it mean to be American? And it's like, part of it is like the ingenuity of it. All right. Like being that like cowboy mentality and the, um, entrepreneur and not afraid to like break some rules, but also like understanding how to play the game. 

[00:23:57] I mean, speaking of the pressures of. School 

[00:24:01] and like high school and getting into college. Like, I know one of the things that you sort of 

[00:24:05] touched upon in the 

[00:24:07] documentary . Is around like the students' mental health and like,  

[00:24:10] the impact to their mental health. And, you know, I think we, we sort of 

[00:24:14] know that 

[00:24:14] Asian Americans 

[00:24:15] tend to have, you know, are more susceptible to like,  

[00:24:18] , distress. 

[00:24:19] I think they're three times more likely to. not seek help, right? If they do have like a mental concern, I think there's a lot of like cultural reasons behind it. Right.  

[00:24:28] but there's also obviously a lot of environmental reasons behind it. 

[00:24:31] And so 

[00:24:31] we'd love to sort of hear from you, Debbie, on like,  

[00:24:34] thoughts around mental health and like how you feel like this,  

[00:24:37] , film or education sort of impacts Asian Americans in their mental health. 

[00:24:43] Debbie Lum: Yeah, that's a really important topic. It's the undercurrent to our film, you know, the kids in our story, who most of them actually didn't get into the, school of their choice, their dream school, which is going to be the case where like most high school kids today, if they're trying to get into college, they odds are they're going to get rejected. 

[00:25:01] but so many of them are. View that rejection as a, what kind of mark of their identity.  

[00:25:07] and it's this whole idea that you're not good enough,  

[00:25:09] ?  

[00:25:09] Debbie Lum: and that the college, when the college projection that's going to mean that you're not, deserving.  

[00:25:14] I think it's because a lot of the process of college application, it feels like you're auditioning. 

[00:25:20] You're. You know, you're auditioning who you are and if they don't take you, that, that somehow, is like a black mark on you as a person.  

[00:25:29] and th and then,  

[00:25:31] , the really scary statistic is that, many high, high achieving 

[00:25:35] students, 

[00:25:36] , like the little students, the kids that are. 

[00:25:39] Are, experiencing three times the amount of anxiety, depression 

[00:25:44] mental health issues, like substance abuse and other things that 

[00:25:48] than the average teenage. And it's actually, this was before the pandemic. So you can imagine that in the pandemic, it's only gotten worse, which it has. I mean, if you speak to teachers today and the mental health of students is like serious, serious issue 

[00:26:03] when there's no connection when you're going to school online or, And there's all these things,  

[00:26:07] , for Asian Americans, it's like you said, the taboo around getting, seeking mental health, but there's also this, the stereotype of the model minority myth that,  

[00:26:16] , Asian Americans don't need the help. So there actually aren't resources,  

[00:26:20] , there's these really staggering statistics about,  


[00:26:23] Debbie Lum: how little money is going towards, funding for, organizations that support mental health in general and particularly for Asian-Americans 

[00:26:33] and all this sort of like invisibility around mental health around, support for Asian Americans also shows itself in things like bullying in high school 

[00:26:43] or in school, especially during the pandemic. 

[00:26:47] I mean, it's. that is a terrifying statistic, but Asian-Americans experience more bullying in the school situation than other ethnic groups. And they under-report it, I can't remember the exact statistic, but if you go to a place, I think it's called 

[00:27:03]  to change. you can find out more information about that. 

[00:27:06] Lucia Liu: I mean, that kind of is reminiscent of 


[00:27:09] Lucia Liu: , the most recent, like anti-Asian hate, That's like happened due to COVID. Right? Like you hear about a lot of like these hate crimes that are committed against Asian Americans.  

[00:27:18] but the reporting of those particular hate crimes is very low. Right? So like, I think it's similar in a sense that like,  

[00:27:26] , Asian Americans just tend to not want to report like don't they don't want to like, cause a fuss or they don't want to like air out dirty laundry. 

[00:27:35] And I think that's a very like, Ingrown sort of mentality amongst the community. 

[00:27:41] Debbie Lum: Yeah. I mean, I think there's a lot of people in our community that are here in America because they have come from, war torn countries or, Other kinds of trauma. and that 


[00:27:51] Debbie Lum: , there are survivors and that's part of the overall immigrant experience that you come here because you have to survive. 

[00:27:58] and then the next generation,  

[00:28:00] there's a lot of like intergenerational misunderstanding 

[00:28:04] in terms of 

[00:28:04] how you survives succeed, thrive,  

[00:28:07] , all of those things. , you can't take them for granted. I think people feel different things and it has a long-term impact, on, on families in general. 

[00:28:17] But that's why actually we started, an impact campaign to center students in the college admissions process through 

[00:28:22] promoting mental health, as well as a DEI and particularly raising the visibility of Asian-American stories. Because there is a direct, I mean, obviously am a filmmaker, so I'm a little biased in this that I'm sure that there is a direct connection between, all of the violence against Asian Americans. 

[00:28:41] That happens consistently, not just during the pandemic, but we go through these waves of cycles of it, where, you know, it has to do with people not, knowing our stories,  

[00:28:52] , the stories, our survival, the way that's how your community survives without it. You really can't survive,  

[00:28:58] Sean Niu: you tell us a little bit more about the impact campaign and 

[00:29:01] if like, if our listeners want to maybe participate or how, how they can help with this?  

[00:29:07] Debbie Lum: Yeah, thank you for asking every time we 


[00:29:10] Debbie Lum: , we get so many requests to show our film with communities and particularly schools.  

[00:29:16] and we always try to support a deep discussion of these issues that are in our film,  

[00:29:22] , highlighting things.  

[00:29:24] the pressures that kids are under, why that there's these problems 

[00:29:28] the misunderstandings bridging a gap between parents and their kids,  

[00:29:32] , so students in there and families around, what all the pressures are doing 

[00:29:38] for mental health. 

[00:29:39] but One of the things that we are asking people to consider when you apply to college is like, how important is ranking really 

[00:29:47] towards your long-term wellbeing?  

[00:29:50] You know, do people really look at colleges like, oh, this is a college that suits me as an individual. I think everyone tries to shoe horn themselves nowadays and to the brand new. 

[00:30:01] No, this is a very American thing to do now, too. It's just like, it's like brand name or bus.  

[00:30:07] but a lot of it is myth-busting. So I think 


[00:30:10] Debbie Lum: , if you think about all the kids that are applying to college, that's like your, your kids are competing against, for example, or you are competing against to get into a top school that you don't get into. 

[00:30:20] Those kids are getting. At another school. and just the quality of education, the quality of the student body at all of these schools,  

[00:30:30] , not just the top 10, is pretty phenomenal. And I think that has 

[00:30:35] I think that people need to be reminded about.  

[00:30:39] so we're doing things like that. I mean, one of the really exciting things that we're doing is 

[00:30:42] we're trying to work on 

[00:30:44] getting our film in front of legislators 

[00:30:46] because there are 

[00:30:47] bills that support counseling, providing services for mental health 

[00:30:52] and counseling to high school students that need to get passed and they're on the floor waiting to get passed. 

[00:30:57] and there's also things like the, APA history bill that grace Nang has introduced.  

[00:31:03] andwe're hoping that 

[00:31:04] people can use our film to, to really support that. 

[00:31:08] Sean Niu: Yeah. And we'll definitely put some links 

[00:31:10]  in the show notes for that.  

[00:31:12] yeah, I totally agree with your point about, like, I think it's a curious that a lot of parents or is that. They haven't. So they put there's some meticulous about their application, but then they kind of take a, I would say a little bit of a lazy approach. 

[00:31:24] And you just wanted the highest rank when it's a broad rank. When, if you're specifically interested in. A major, or if you look internally and you think maybe I'm really want to pursue music or,  

[00:31:38] , design or, or some kind of specific school Like, I don't think like Julliard or Berkeley were mentioned or , which are like great schools for a specific type of pursuit. 

[00:31:49] And I also believe that today, there are so many ways for people who are passionate about what they do and are very good at it to make a sustainable living.  

[00:32:02] Sean Niu: there's a lot more opportunities with different ways that. 

[00:32:05] individuals can fundraise for themselves. 

[00:32:07] And, um, I just like, having kids understand. Where they're really passionate about helps probably save a lot of money in the long run. And honestly, it would be pretty good for your mental health 

[00:32:17] in the long run as well.  

[00:32:19] Lucia Liu: Yeah. I mean, to your point, shine, like in the, in the documentary, this girl they're like sitting for Harvard interviews and  

[00:32:27] she's like, oh, I hate it. When they asked this question, like, why do you want to come here? I don't know what. Okay. Like, that's like a very quintessential sort of question to ask, like, why are you choosing this school over another school? 

[00:32:43] And I feel like that kind of answer will really help you determine whether or not you're like a good fit for that school or not.  

[00:32:51] and then to sort of tag on to what you said earlier, Sean, like, I think to your point, like there's so much. Resources out there like Coursera Khan academy, YouTube, like there are so many different avenues for learning that like, if you truly want to learn something 

[00:33:09] I don't know if universities. 

[00:33:11] The place anymore, right? Like they're so expensive. I don't know, I am kind of like,  

[00:33:16] , looking forward to the next generation of school and like,  

[00:33:20] , could it be 


[00:33:21] Lucia Liu: , a school like sponsored by Google or like school sponsored by enterprise where like you truly learn skills for the real world. 

[00:33:29] in addition to like learning.  

[00:33:31] the ability to think and like how to like actually learn or think, you know, that that's really quintessential at like going to a, to a university.  

[00:33:39] anyway, so for Debbie, it was great having you on the show.  

[00:33:43] where can somebody watch try harder? 

[00:33:46] Debbie Lum: Well right now, we're on a lot of digital platforms. We're on iTunes. We're on 

[00:33:51] Amazon, Google play.  

[00:33:54] so you can find it and rent it, that way, We, you know, we just finished 

[00:33:58] our theatrical run. So after it was almost a year ago that we first premiered at Sundance and we,  

[00:34:06] , traveled throughout the country in the world and festivals. 

[00:34:09] And 

[00:34:10] and then we weren't in movie theaters last December, which is really exciting. And, um,  

[00:34:16] the best way to do it is to go to iTunes or Amazon. so, hope people will do that. It was really exciting. Cause  

[00:34:23] , when we had our theatrical, It was like a limited release in major cities like San Francisco, LA New York 

[00:34:32] and a few other cities. 

[00:34:33] And when we did that, our community really came out to support us. It was, it was really moving for me.  

[00:34:41] , we worked with amazing partners, like stand with Asian Americans, Cape the 1990 in the situ.  

[00:34:48] and. It was just like, I, it felt so 

[00:34:53] rewarding to be with our community. You know, it's like, 

[00:34:59] I was really blown away by the community support.  

[00:35:02] Sean Niu: I think Asian Americans, we're learning organized better. And I think 

[00:35:06] we're learning the value of that a lot more. But I think 

[00:35:09] I don't, I'm, I'm pretty hard. 

[00:35:10] And to see that, that understanding of the value of the organization 

[00:35:13] Going away. and 

[00:35:14] so you're showing this, film, I think you said a certain high schools. Right. And, in, um, what's called in Congress as well. So 

[00:35:21] where can we follow along to like, learn more about that, process?  

[00:35:25] Debbie Lum: Yes, please go to our website, try harder film.com. If you click on impact, you can see more about our impact campaign. You can find out everywhere about where we're playing.  

[00:35:35] follow us on, um, you know, we're on all the socials try harder film 

[00:35:40]  and we even have a Tik TOK campaign.  

[00:35:43] Our team took doc, I'm sorry. 

[00:35:46] Sean Niu: you have  

[00:35:46] Lucia Liu: it is, is Alvin the spokesperson. Um, Ray will include 

[00:35:54] all of fillings that you just mentioned, Debbie, in our show notes. this was wonderful.  

[00:35:59] Debbie, we always like to wrap the episode by asking our guests what their favorite restaurant is. NSF. 

[00:36:06] Debbie Lum: And SF,  

[00:36:07] , that is the hardest question in the world to answer when you live in San Francisco, there's so many amazing restaurants.  

[00:36:13] and then I have the added thing of like, during the pandemic, some of my favorite restaurants shut down, which just makes me really sad. Like house restaurant was one of my favorites on grant avenue. 

[00:36:23] and, but, I knew you were going to ask me this. So 

[00:36:27] I'll just throw, this was like one of my favorites.  

[00:36:30] there's a place called NABI for hotpot on ninth avenue in 

[00:36:36] the inner sunset.  

[00:36:37] Sean Niu: Oh, wow. Okay. I I've lived in San 

[00:36:40] Lucia Liu: I love NABI.  

[00:36:41] Sean Niu: now. This is great. Yeah.  

[00:36:43] Lucia Liu: I love the food Dhabi. Just, I don't know the restaurant, but I love the food now. 

[00:36:49] Sean Niu: Yeah.  

[00:36:50] Debbie Lum: yeah, if you like hot pot, you have to go and , my kids would vouch for that too. 

[00:36:57] Lucia Liu: That sounds amazing. Well, Debbie, it was great having you on the episode. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences like a filmmaker and 


[00:37:04] Lucia Liu: , just your passion for mental health And shedding light and telling the story of all these 

[00:37:10] high schoolers who 

[00:37:12] are experiencing a lot of the things that other normal high schoolers are experiencing too. 

[00:37:18] Debbie Lum: Well, thank you so much for having me. This has been a really wonderful conversation.  

[00:37:23] Sean Niu: Thank you, Debbie.