Achievers and Melting Pots

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Apr 24 18:41:38 UTC 2002

New York Times, April 24, 2002

A Melting Pot Recipe for Immigrant Students



A HISTORIC role of schools has been to "Americanize" immigrants. But
sometimes the more successful immigrant students are the least
Americanized. The road to assimilation may be more convoluted than we
suspect. Here on the east side of New Orleans, adolescents in the
Vietnamese refugee community follow two divergent paths. While most would
ordinarily attend Reed High School, their neighborhood school, the
academically motivated ones apply to an advanced studies program at
Abramson High School, not far away. At Abramson, Vietnamese are one-tenth
of the students body but the immigrants shine academically and have won
every valedictorian and salutatorian honor for four years.

Reed High School has a similar demographic mix of low-income black and
Vietnamese students, but no elite academic program. Many of the school's
Vietnamese adolescents are in gangs, mixed up with drugs and in trouble
with the police. Ethnic conflicts are not a problem; the Vietnamese and
black students get along well, but many of the immigrants adopt the most
alienated youths as role models. Min Zhou and Carl L. Bankston III are
sociologists who have studied this contrast between Vietnamese achievers,
most of whom choose Abramson, and the delinquents, most of whom are in
Reed. Professor Zhou, of the University of California at Los Angeles, and
Professor Bankston, of Tulane University, conclude that achievers are
usually the ones who assimilate slowly to American culture. Delinquents
are those who are quicker to abandon their ethnic heritage.

Young people who do well, the professors say, speak Vietnamese at home and
with each other. They go to church regularly with parents some are
Buddhist, but most belong to the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church.
They celebrate ethnic holidays like Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Older
siblings supervise homework of the younger ones. The students feel
obligated to parents, grandparents and even unrelatedneighbors.

But delinquent youths are more often embarrassed by their parents' foreign
ways, and avoid speaking Vietnamese. They are more devoted to American
youth music and adopt gang-member or rock-star fashions.

These categories are not rigid children from a single family can go
different ways. Yet Anthony G. Tran, a social worker for Catholic
Charities in New Orleans, takes the distinctions seriously. Mr. Tran
spends most of his time mediating between courts, schools and families on
behalf of delinquent youth. But he spends increasing effort trying to
preserve Vietnamese culture as a way to keep students out of trouble.

Now, when judges have offenders report to Mr. Tran after school, he
teaches traditional dragon dance and Vietnamese holiday rituals as well as
supervising sports and homework. He tries to get Americanized youths to
study their home language and attend a Mass where they can worship with
their parents in Vietnamese.

Trinh Vu, this year's salutatorian at Abramson, said her parents and
grandparents encouraged her to succeed. But Trinh said many Vietnamese
students were attracted to gangs because their parents worked such long
hours that children doubted their parents' love, and sought peers'
approval instead. Joseph H. Murry, principal of Abramson, said he expected
fewer high achievers as time passed and ethnic identity waned. Dr. Murry
noted that even successful Vietnamese students now complained more often
that their parents did not understand them. With more time in this
country, these achievers become more Americanized and feel less of a
family obligation to excel; unlike before, Dr. Murry said, some now linger
with the less motivated students when the bell rings, and have to be
prodded to come promptly to class.

Adolescent identity confusion can be a crisis for immigrants who are
seduced by music, dating practices and consumer products. Middle-class
American students can limit their involvement in youth culture to pursue
scholastic goals that teachers and parents drilled into them. But when
immigrants assimilate too quickly, gaps between their families and
American peers are enormous. The immigrants can then lose community ties
that inhibit delinquency. If these transitions can be slowed, youths may
have a better chance.

In immigrant neighborhoods nationwide, it is uncertain whether schools can
reinforce the kind of cultural identity that Anthony Tran builds with
community and church institutions. But where such institutions cannot do
the job, schools may have to try to fill in.

Educators today debate whether immigrants should be taught in their
parents' language and about their own customs and history. Opponents of
these practices say that native language and bicultural instruction slows
assimilation.  Perhaps so, and perhaps slowing it is not so bad.

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