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Jennifer Pan’s story is terrible, but is it that difficult to believe?

Jennifer Pan, now 28 years old, didn’t go to college as planned. Just a young high school student at the time, she decided to pretend she graduated high school and was accepted to college rather than tell her supposedly very strict Vietnamese immigrant parents the truth. And she spent several years living an elaborate lie, with her parents none the wiser.

When Pan’s story finally began to unravel, she decided to have her parents killed rather than live with their crushing disappointment and her failure. Her plan almost worked — her mother was shot and killed, but while her father was severely injured right in front of her, he eventually recovered, and investigators discovered that she was actually behind the “burglary gone awry” during which the death and injuries occurred.

As a college student myself — with the most pressure I’ve ever experienced currently resting on my shoulders — I get it. This is undoubtedly an extreme case, and I don’t get how shame can manifest to the point of wanting your family dead, but I do understand what crazy effects the stress of achievement can have on a millennial, and a female one at that.

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I’ve experienced firsthand how much harder we have to work to prove ourselves academically, and Pan’s intended field of pharmacology, including the rigorous curriculum that comes with it, is notoriously stressful. The stress of finding a job and making a career without any formal education, along with the embarrassment and disgrace she was feeling, was surely overwhelming.

This combination of stressors was probably even more intense under the strict order of her immigrant parents. Research shows that children of Asian immigrants overachieve academically due to “unique cultural values” that focus heavily on beating the competition, success that comes from extremely strict discipline. Sometimes referred to as “tiger parents,” these parents push their children to succeed by whatever means possible, sometimes forcibly making academics the center of their children’s lives. Given the detailed account a schoolmate provided of Pan’s family life, her behaviour might have been a consequence of this phenomenon.

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Pan openly hated this discipline, as it kept her from doing anything she enjoyed. She was not allowed to see her boyfriend, to go out at night or even to text or call her boyfriend on the phone, despite the fact that she was in her mid 20s. Perhaps the only reason people my age are able to handle all the pressure of school or the job hunt is because we know how to let loose and balance the stress with some enjoyment. Pan, however, didn’t have that luxury, which probably only increased her desperation to escape what she referred to as “living under house arrest.”

When I think of all the kids I know with a similar family life who say they hate their parents too, I don’t think they would resort to murder, but we do now know that shame and defeat inflicted on some can result in a desperate hopelessness. Pan likely felt she had no hope and could never reconcile her situation with her parents and live a normal life.

No, what Jennifer Pan did cannot be justified by too harsh of an upbringing. But when I try to imagine living the life she did — with no freedoms or healthy outlets — I sympathize with a young woman who needed help and most likely some love.

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