Janet Liang.

Identity & School Experience: The Asian-American Model Minority – Non-traditional and unlikely pathway to the American Dream

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My name is Janet, and I am a fourth-year International Development Studies major and Education minor. I am the 23-year old daughter of Teresa, a mail carrier, and Guy, a custodial maintenance worker. My parents immigrated to the United States in 1985 from Guangzhou in southern China. Due to Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution at the height of the 1970s, a revolutionary class struggle campaign that sent most of China’s population to agricultural communes in the countryside, my parents were deprived the opportunity to pursue higher education in China, making me now the first in my family to attend college. 

I attended Hawaii’s public schools from kindergarten to third grade at Kauluwela Elementary, just a few blocks from the subsidized housing apartments where I spent most of my childhood. Struggling with the language barrier that limited their economic opportunities, my parents decided to settle for work as waiters in Chinese restaurants in downtown Honolulu and Waikiki Villages, holding four jobs between the two of them in order to pay the bills.

Hawaii was the quintessential melting pot of diverse heritages melded together: my childhood friends all possessed fractional portions of every ethnicity imaginable in their DNA – part Korean, part Hawaiian, part German, part Portuguese, part Japanese, and part Chinese. As a result, I grew up in communities that embraced the notion of “ohana,” which means family in the Hawaiian language, emphasizing the importance of cultural relativity where cultures certainly collided, but were negotiated at the same time with mutual respect. Compared to the United States’ historical struggle for equality among minority cultures, living in Hawaii rarely exposed me to the tensions and pressures until I saw these disparities reflected in the continental US. However, when parents found out that I would be shuffled to Central Intermediate in a moderately run-down neighborhood located in the outer skirts of downtown Honolulu, they pooled together their amassed savings to send me to the Maryknoll Schools, a co-educational private Catholic school and one of Hawaii’s premier unofficial magnet schools. They were only able to afford me and my brother’s tuition for two years, which estimated at nearly $10,000 annually for each of us. This was perhaps the most important shifting point in my educational experience, right at the age of nine, when my parents physically removed me from being directed to what they saw as a potentially dangerous urban middle school under the influence of street gangs, territorial wars, and drug problems. After spending two years at Maryknoll, Hawaii felt the ripple effects from Japan’s economic recession in the late 1990s and those macro-effects transpired to our family’s household. Since Hawaii’s state economy thrives mostly under the tourist industry, this had a huge impact on my parents’ jobs, both of whom were laid off from their employers. We packed our bags and flew to California to start a new life under those circumstances.

No longer able to afford a private education for their children, my parents settled in Castro Valley, a small town in the San Francisco East Bay, renting the basement of a couple’s two-story house they saw from newspaper ads. They resumed similar waiter jobs in Chinese restaurants, this time with more opportunities than Hawaii. My brother and I walked two miles every day to our respective new schools, and at this time I entered Canyon Middle School in the sixth grade. After a year of savings and some research into Northern California’s API (Academic Performance Index) scores, they decided to settle in Pleasanton, a major suburban town just ten miles further east, akin to the likes of Southern California’s Irvine. The median income for a household in the city was $105,956, and the median price of a detached single family home was $832,000 as of November 2007 according to the East Bay Association of Realtors. As a result, it was ranked the wealthiest mid-size city in the United States by the Census Bureau in 2005 and 2007. The racial makeup of the city, including similar reflections within the schools was 79% White, 3% African-American, 10% Asian-American, and roughly 8% Hispanic or Latino. And consequently, I attended Amador Valley High, one of Pleasanton’s comprehensive high school ranked 317th in the nation by Newsweek. These rankings and accolades reflect some of the privilege I had in attending one of the best high schools in Northern California with an abundance of resources and a well-rounded faculty with highly qualified teachers (most who have already attained their Master’s degrees).

The lack of cultural diversity in Pleasanton has been a hallmark notion not only from outsiders, but even amongst the city’s inhabitants, earning its beloved nickname, “Pleasantville,” with the city’s characteristics not very far removed from the Hollywood’s depiction of small towns with old-fashion conservative values, innocence, and naivete. There were very few discussions about race in high school aside from the cookie-cutter Multicultural Activities Fair featuring ethnic food from different cultures around the world. However, a memorable controversy did stir in high school when a white student had wanted to establish a White Student Union. If the school could have a Black Student Union or an Asian Student Union or a Muslim Student Union, then why was it barred from one that recognized European Americans? The city debated on this farce, and some feared that it would reignite quasi-Ku Klux Klan sentiments. It did raise the controversial issue of double standards, and if a White Student Union was not prejudicial toward any student groups but simply a celebration of their ancestry of immigrant European families, why should they be denied that right? Perhaps a more politically friendly solution would be to “break” them up into smaller ethnic groups like Italian, German, and French student unions. This rhetorical question plagued our minds in high school, but quickly dissolved as the school district attempted to close the case as if it never came up. That was how anything controversial was handled in the school district — quickly absolved, folded and tucked underneath a pile of files as if it did not exist.

 I quickly assumed the role of a “model minority” due to some of my academic successes. Watching my parents come home tired from 16-hour work days to afford the severely high standard of living in Pleasanton inspired me to work hard academically. I was perceived to be an intelligent student from my teachers, but very few realized that it came solely from pure will and determination, and not necessarily intelligence, to challenge myself. In truth, I only scored mediocrely on my SAT and graduated with a weighted 3.9 GPA, some of this under UCLA data averages, but I tapped into the school’s advantages and enrolled in over 15 Advanced Placement and honors courses throughout my high school career.

The overwhelming sense of duty to my parents and the pressure to succeed in every aspect of my education did propagate a few psychological problems in high school. My counselors and friends, at times, thought it was highly unusual that I was clinically depressed for a few months during my junior year due to the stress and anxiety of high stakes testing and the inevitable rituals of the college admissions process. It was difficult for the school to recognize my need for psychological help, most likely from the fact that I was the coveted Asian-American model minority. The stress and anxiety reached its peak in high school senior year when I was confronted by my AP Calculus BC teacher for dropping his course, because he felt that I could handle more than five AP courses in one year along with extracurricular and work commitments. I knew he was coming from the best of intentions as my teacher, but I struggled through math, receiving extensive two-hour tutoring for AP Calculus on top of a workload that only afforded me an average of three hours of sleep per night. Despite the fact that I had completed high school with Honors Pre-Calculus and AP Statistics which was more than enough math to get me through college, perhaps he was disappointed that I did not try harder. My father tried to justify my weakness in math by stating that girls’ strengths remained in the humanities and social sciences, while boys were inherently better at the math and sciences. Though my father had good intentions for his explanation, in retrospect I realize now that I conceded to “stereotype vulnerability” when the anxiety and verbal statement — that women usually do worse than men in math — interfered with my performance and consequently I indirectly confirmed a self-fulfilling prophecy by actually scoring poorly. The lack of sympathy and understanding in a high-performing school as an Asian-American student made it difficult for me to recover from low self-esteem until I reached college. As researchers Sucheng Chan and Ling-Chi Wang supported in “Racism and the Model Minority: Asian-Americans in Higher Education,” the notion of the “whiz kid” stereotype that I was quickly classified under, where “teachers and administrators neglect the difficulties faced by Asian-American students on the groups that youngsters who are doing so well academically cannot possibly need any special help.” Nothing could be further from the truth as I tried to galvanize my parents’ efforts in the land of opportunity, perhaps having to work excessively harder to get to where I am today.       

Perhaps the most important privilege was the love of two parents who made extraordinary strides and sacrifices for their children’s educational achievement. In fact, they made this their life’s purpose and in many ways I am indebted to them in shaping parts of who I ultimately am.

My identity and school experiences come full circle, culminating with a passion to become a teacher and to ascertain both the micro and macro effects of race, class and gender in today’s classrooms.

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