You,

the woman who brought me into this world,

       and carried me in your love and fear,

the one who did it all alone

       with no one by your hospital side,

the daughter of parents who left you in poverty.

 

You

bring out the Privilege in me,

the master of two tongues making you de jai lai lai in me,

the growing up with the school’s free lunch program and summer camp classes in me,

the graduated top ten with almost a full-ride to UCLA in me,

 

You

bring out the Privilege in me,

the always fed first and never left going to bed starving

      because you are no stranger to starvation but didn’t want that in me,

the tucked into bed, hair all brushed, forehead kisses and lullabies

that you never got from your mom in me,

the ingraining of “trust no strangers and let no boy into your heart until after college”

      not wishing to see child abduction or teenage pregnancy suffering in me,

 

You

bring out the Privilege in me,

the long black hair, dark brown eyes, smile wide replica

      of you clearly seen in me,

the constant chastising for wanting to grow up fast and wear makeup young in me,  

the appreciation now that you didn’t want older men sexualizing and preying on me,

 

You

bring out the Privilege in me,

the first-generation child expected to achieve the american dream

      drowning from the anxiety (with)in me,  

the high school graduate with big ambitions yet lost directions in me,

the young college adult granted the liberty of making independent decisions

      that should ultimately lead to a successful career path to sustain family in me,

 

You

bring out the privilege in me,

because I know that everything I have is a result of your sacrifices,

because my bare feet never had to worry about stepping on pointy rocks or being bitten by snakes,

because I never had to sleep at a rice farm with a gun by my side,

because I grew up in a first world country with clean water readily available,

because I lived in absence of a violent communist agenda that thrives on the blood of our ancestors,

 

I am the daughter of refugees and broken families,

I am the product of parenting done right,

     the parenting you never got,

I am the one always seen with a bright smile on my face

     because you made sure to shield my youth from being tainted by too much      reality,

I am the one you spend nights losing sleep over

      the one you worry about walking home alone at night,

I am the daughter you taught yourself to trust

     because you understand how precious a mother-daughter relationship is.

 

You

bring out the privilege in me,

maybe because

 

You,

were the one to instill it in me

 

&

 

I,

find it such a Privilege to be your daughter in me.

 

Growing up, I can’t remember a single book written by an Asian American in my school’s required readings.

The lack of Asian representation in our K-12 education system is astounding, knowing that over 20 million Asians live in the U.S and thousands of books are written by Asian Americans. I would read books like Harry Potter, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Romeo and Juliet and Jane Eyre, all by white authors. Out of these books and the many more I read in school, the only Asian character I could recall is Cho Chang from the Harry Potter series, which to me, was astounding because I had never seen an Asian character in a book before. However, Cho Chang was another minority by not only being a minor character in the story, but also being stereotypically placed into Ravenclaw, the house of intelligence.

The first work by an Asian American author that I had ever read was written by Marie Lu. I came across her when I needed to pick out a dystopian novel for my English class, but found myself uninterested with the list of authors my teacher provided. When I started searching for other dystopian novels, Lu’s book, Legend, popped up. I immediately Googled her name and read that she was Chinese American and a #1 New York Times Bestselling Author.

I couldn’t wait to read Legend for my class because someone who looked like me wrote it. The opening chapters were thrilling because Lu introduced a fifteen-year-old boy named Day, who was the main character and Asian American. I felt shocked because I never imagined an Asian person as the central figure of a story. Contemporary media conditioned me to think that Asians can only exist as sidekicks; someone that fights well, has brainiac qualities, or excels in technology. Lu’s creation of Day was a breath of fresh air because he is multi-dimensional and serves more than one purpose throughout the story.

What I loved most about Lu and her novel was that they became an example of what should be included in schools: Asian authors portraying Asian characters. When Asian authors write about Asian characters, they no longer sit in the backseat of the story. Asians become the characters that shine. When Asian characters shine, their culture and history shine through them as well, to educate those that know little about Asians and expand on the knowledge of those who do.

I know that if I grew up reading authors that were like me in school, I would have had more interest in reading and have related to the curriculum more. When Asian children read about someone that looks like them and that they can relate to, reading becomes an educational and personal learning experience.

Growing up in Belgium, my brother and I were the only two yellow-skinned, black-haired Asian kids at our overwhelmingly white Flemish primary school. During the first week, the timid and the shy among my classmates gaped at me from a distance, while the braver souls approached me with naïve curiosity, one urgent question burning in their minds – did my people really like their pet doggies better in a sizzling hotpot? “Yeah,” I said, whenever I got tired or annoyed, “they also like to dip the ears and the snouts in peanut butter sauce for extra flavor.”

As a 6-year-old, I had the emotional range of a teaspoon and couldn’t even distinguish between anger and fatigue. Racist and offended weren’t in my vocabulary (or in that of my classmates’), and due to this cultural un-awareness, I cared very little if my behavior and my appearance confirmed the stereotypes about my ethnic origin that had existed on campus long before I was born. Yes, I ate white rice, had small eyes, was a math nerd, and played the piano like a Kung Fu master. Yes, my parents liked high grades and shoved Chinese poetry down my throat every day on my way to school, then made me recite it to their impressed friends when they came over for dinner on Christmas Eve. I didn’t hide or flaunt the values that my parents had been trying to instill in me since my birth – I took them for granted as part of my multicultural identity, and so did the blond-haired, blue-eyed white kids in my class. My nonchalant confidence about what set me apart deterred them from taunting me with ineffectual racialized jokes (rice-related or eyes-related), and instead, they looked on with careful attention and suppressed excitement whenever I showed them the pinyin of an arcane character or a replica of a traditionally Chinese ink-and-wash painting.

At 16, I came to America, hoping to find a tight-knit community of Asians who bonded over their shared heritage and supported each other through similar hardships as foreign immigrants. Although I made a couple of caring and loyal Asian friends, I couldn’t help but notice that some of their siblings refused to talk to me, only ate steak and fries, and ferociously rebelled against their parents’ attempts to teach them the family language. They so desperately wanted to break free from the stereotypical image of the hardworking but unassertive overachiever without personality – an image that would shackle them to the lowest rungs of the social hierarchy forever – that they rejected all that made them Asian, including the red packets of pocket money they received for New Year and the lunch boxes stuffed with steamed buns they took to summer camp. While racism from non-Asians toward Asians often springs from ignorance, this kind of internalized racism – from Asians toward themselves – springs from a combination of alienation, confusion, and shame, and it is the worst kind that I have ever witnessed.

I was lucky. Because I was a rarity in Belgium, I could afford to fit a few Asian stereotypes without having to fit them all. For the most part, Belgians didn’t personally know what Asians believed in or acted as as a whole, and I was seen as an individual with traits that I had either inherited from my culture or developed on my own. Unlike myself, Asian-Americans were born into the Asian-American minority, large enough for its members to have earned a common reputation, but too small for them to be recognized as distinct personalities. Now, I feel part of this ethnic group, and when the differences between us and the Asian minority are ignored, we can feel lonelier than when the differences between us and the white majority are emphasized. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem too counterintuitive that I felt more accepted in white Belgium than amongst some of my fellow Asians in colorful America.

However, no matter how hard it seems to be an American minority with many independent voices, we can’t just give up and morph ourselves into the mainstream demographic. I’ve spent much of my childhood and my teens explaining unconvincingly that not every Asian is Chinese, like me, and that not all Chinese like music and rice, like me, but I’ve found it infinitely easier than pretending to like theater and potatoes – preferences that are less typically Asian and more typically European – to prove my point. If we truly like to play instruments or eat rice, then why shouldn’t we? An appreciation for the beauty of music boosts our quality of life, and a bowl of cooked rice is definitely healthier than a greasy plate of hamburger and fries. We should all encourage the Asian kids to be unapologetically different, but we should also let them know that it’s okay to be unapologetically typical at the same time. After all, only when we stop being afraid of debunking and perpetuating the myths surrounding our culture are we ready for the world to see our true unapologetic selves. 

Currently, the Broadway performance of “Miss Saigon” — a musical about yet another Asian woman abandoned by her white male lover — is going on tour across the United States. As if to set back the damage, East West Players’ “Vietgone,” a story about a pair of lovers who are “refugees fleeing the Vietnam War”, premiered early November.

Whether it is Miss Saigon, Madame Butterfly, or its countless variants and knock offs, these stories dramatize a doomed interracial relationship between two lovers and is set in consideration of a social, historical background of intersection identities — all of which supposedly make them an intellectual narrative, but instead, they eventually fall flat as stories that entertain no one but the entertainers themselves.

To exacerbate the problem, characters in these stories do not go through substantial character development (or at least any positive ones), so they end up as cliche characters that end up portraying negative gender and racial stereotypes.

In “Miss Saigon,” the star crossed lovers this time are Kim, the Vietnamese dancer/bargirl, and Chris, the American soldier. They meet at the backdrop of the Vietnam War, of which the audience does not get any meaningful knowledge of other than it was a senseless war. When the Vietnam War ended with South Vietnam and American defeat, Chris and Kim are separated — he returned to America while she kept working as a bargirl. After a time skip, Chris, who is now married, discovers that he has a son with Kim named Tam and decides to support the mother and son abroad. However, Kim, wanting the best for her child, makes the “ultimate sacrifice” and shoots herself so that Chris can take Tam to America.

As Diep Tran wrote in an article on American Theater, this story sends the message “that Vietnamese women are victims, Vietnamese men are villains, and Americans are well-meaning buffoons.”

Moreover, Kim’s helplessness and dependency on Chris for happiness reinforces not only a gender hierarchy, but also reflects a racial one. Kim thought that it would be better for her to die than to stay with Tam in Thailand, suggesting that America is a far better place, and Tam, who is biracial, can thus, by default, integrate into this great nation.

Regardless of the stereotypes that Miss Saigon perpetuates, the reality is that mainstream shows likes these are the ones that create opportunities for Asian American actors and actresses on bigger stages. It is a controversy as to whether Asian Americans should take part in these productions, as a proper job that pays. But without a doubt, these shows and productions serves to disconnect people from who or what the war was actually about while romanticizing it into an American fiction about an American war.

Don’t Trust the Mind of a Laotian girl

especially if she’s a gemini like me,

 

for the na presented

is entirely different

from the na you don’t see.

 

so don’t be surprised

when she responds in cold texts

because she’ll expect you to know

she’s not interested.

 

she wears a red sint to the temple on market st.,

kneeling with a huge smile before the orange robed pah.

she secretly wants to question her devote mother:

“why find faith and kneel to the patriarchy?”

 

all of us have dreams

we won’t give that up—

deeply loving our families

but not those we lust.

 

we won’t shut our big mouths

too busy weighed down

by the need to succeed,

and to be the lucky one to leave

this colorless town

with never changing leaves—

jai lao bau yak yu ne.  

 

so approach only if not a roadblock.

for you will meet her brain first—

and you better pray you grow on her heart,

or she’ll just push you away and curse.

 

and don’t expect her to compete

for your love and affection,

she’s too busy putting in work

to unravel this male breadwinner obsession.

so do her a favor,

just walk away.

 

loneliness is not a stranger.

 

 

This poem was written for the Asian American Studies M191F poetry class, after “Don’t Trust a Samoan Girl” by Courtney Sina Meredith.

When you type “Chinese students” and “classroom” in Google, the first article that jumps out is titled “Why Are My Chinese Students so Quiet?”. If you search the same words in Quora, you will find all kinds of discussions relating to the same topic. There seems to be a preconception that Chinese students sit silently in U.S. classrooms because they have a “shy” or “quiet” personality; however, is this really the case? I think Chinese students’ relatively low level of participation in class is not due to their personalities, but rather a result of the repressive nature of the Chinese educational system which is hostile to questioning and mistakes.

When I was in the elementary school in China, there was a special form of lecture, a so-called “demonstration lecture,’’ where teachers give a lecture in front of teachers from other classes or schools, as a way of sharing teaching skills. People believe that this “demonstration lecture” not only measures the teacher’s ability, but also the school’s.

The thing that’s unique about a Chinese “demonstration lecture” is that it’s more of a show than an actual lecture. One week before the lecture, the teachers will tell the students what is going to be taught, what questions will be asked, and then give the correct answers to these questions to make everyone memorize the answers verbatimly. By doing this, the teachers can show that they teach so well that every student in the class understands the material and can thus give out correct answers.

 When headmasters or officials from the Department of Education come to observe the lecture, the teachers will borrow the “best students” from the whole grade level, even those who are not their students, and train them for the lecture. In order for the school to look better, the other students, who are actually in the class, will be dismissed during the “demonstration lecture”.   

In fourth grade, my math teacher needed to give a “demonstration lecture” for the newly recruited teachers so we weren’t required to memorize or rehearse for anything. The only thing that she reminded us was, “if you don’t know the correct answer, don’t raise your hand.” During the class, when my math teacher gave out a question, I raised my hand thinking that my answer must be right. I was in the advanced math team, so I was confident that I would definitely know how to answer the questions. However, I was wrong. I was a little bit disappointed, but I believed that I would sure get the next question right. I raised my hand, and of course, I was wrong again.

After the class was over, I was walking out of the classroom with my friends when my math teacher approached me and said in a teasing tone: “Look at you! You raised your hand so many times yet your answers were all wrong! Why do you even do that!” Having said that, she quickly walked passed me, and my classmates who overheard this teased me. At that moment, I felt stupid and guilty. I thought that it’s shameful to make mistakes, and that it’s safer to just sit quietly in class. Since then, there was always an inner voice that kept telling me, “never raise your hand if you don’t know the answer.” I began to lose confidence in math. I stopped participating in class, because I didn’t want to make mistakes. I learned to become a “silent student”, and this continued until I came to the U.S. for high school. I stayed quiet not because I have a shy personality, but rather because that I learned, or, I have been conditioned, to be silent in classes.

Sherry Shi, a Chinese international student at UCLA who came to the U.S. only a year ago, said that she too does not raise her hand in class even when she has comments or questions about the material. She shared: “I just don’t want to ask ‘stupid questions’.” I then asked her, “but sometimes American students ask very simple questions. Why do you think they don’t care if they’re asking ‘stupid questions’?” She hesitated for a while, and said, “I don’t know… I guess I just don’t want to be the focus.” Sherry’s response implied that at some point in her life, she also has been told that there are “stupid questions” and “non-stupid questions”. Moreover, asking stupid questions will make her become “the focus” in a negative way.

Currently studying at Pepperdine University, Joy Liu is a Chinese student who has been in the U.S. for 5 years. She stated that she “never” raised her hands in Chinese schools, because “it is the teacher who asks questions most of the times,” not the students. Also, she said that she was not an A-student, so she would rather “not raise her hands even when [she] knew the answer”. On the other hand, when she started attending high school in the U.S., she started to participate in class. During our conversation, she told me that she always talks to her professor both in and out of class at Pepperdine.

Why do Sherry and Joy show different levels of participation in U.S. universities? They are both Chinese international students. The only difference is that Joy had entered the American educational environment five years go, where students are highly encouraged to speak up and ask questions. Meanwhile, Sherry just left the Chinese educational environment one year ago, where students are repeatedly reinforced not to make attempts if they do not know the correct answer.

If one or two Chinese students do not seem to participate in class, it may be caused by their personalities; however, if many Chinese students fail to actively participate in American high schools and universities, people should take a look into the repressive nature of the Chinese educational system.

 

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