Asian youths cope with studies, and a model minority myth

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Mar 17 13:35:33 UTC 2006

Asian youths cope with studies, and a model minority myth
March 16, 2006, 10:49 AM EST

At 17, Heayeon Lee's thoughts often wander to her impending high school
graduation, trendy fashions and the latest object of her affection. Lee
also worries about her grades. The Rincon High School senior is barely
passing her government class; she would rather splash paint on canvas than
try to decipher U.S. foreign policy. The teen shatters the stereotype that
all Asian-American students belong to a problem-free population of high
achievers. That myth has been tossed at Lee before. "You're Asian, how
could you not know that?" Lee said a teacher once blurted out when she
admitted not knowing the answer to a math problem.  Lee, who also uses
Michelle as her first name, said she is more fond of art than of numbers.
She wants to be an art teacher someday.

Members of Tucson's Asian community know that the "model minority" label
doesn't apply to everyone in their diverse population, and they work to
dispel misconceptions through programs aimed at young people such as Lee.
In the Tucson Unified School District, which enrolls most of the city's
schoolchildren, 1,600 Asian-American students, combined, speak more than
20 languages. Among those languages are Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and
Filipino. Although Asian-Americans make up just 2.7 percent of Tucson
Unified School District's more than 60,000 students, their needs are no
less serious, said Maria Hooker, director of the Pan Asian Studies
Department. "There are a lot of students who succeed, but there are a lot
of students who have trouble making it."

Hooker's department acts as an advocate for students and works with
community groups to tackle some of the obstacles that keep the youngsters
from thriving. Most of the hurdles are related to family language and
culture, Hooker noted. Some Asian-American children, including some who
were born and raised here, have a difficult time in school because they
speak an Asian language at home and their English vocabulary is limited,
she said. And students who struggle academically can't count on parental
help with homework and other school-related matters, because the school
system is foreign to the adults.

Many Asian immigrants stay away from schools because they see their
involvement as interfering with teachers, said Hooker, who is
Korean-American. Hooker often explains to parents that here they are
expected to get involved in their children's education. But not all can,
she said, particularly recent immigrants who must hold two jobs to
survive. As Hooker and others work to change cultural perceptions,
Asian-American youths who need a little extra help get it from the Pan
Asian Community Alliance of Tucson. The group operates a center where
students of all ages get homework help after school.

Lee, who moved from South Korea to this country seven years ago, is among
the students who stop in frequently. The teen said she tries not to be
bothered by the misperceptions that many have of her community. "I just
laugh it off," she said. The oldest of three children, Lee faces all the
youthful angst of most people her age. And being an immigrant child who
learned English as a second language has posed other challenges as well.
Dorothy Lew, the alliance's executive director, said that as the
American-born child of Chinese immigrants, she can identify with the
struggles of Lee and the other youths she has met over the years.

Lew recalled that as a young student, like many of the Asian youths who
visit the center, she lacked a rich English vocabulary because she always
spoke Chinese with her parents and grandparents. And she still remembers
the parental pressure that pushed her to work hard in school. "My family
used to say, 'If you fail, you will embarrass yourself and you will
embarrass your family," Lew said. Brian Chen, 15, has lived in this
country for just five months. He visits the Pan Asian center almost daily
to get some help with language, reading and math.

"My mom always tells me to pay attention and study hard," said Chen, who
is from China and a freshman at Sahuaro. "For me, it's hard, but for other
Asians, study is very easy."

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