I quit my second job for a while, but got sucked back in by an importunate boss. He did move me out of PSAT/Book Club and into straight Book Club, for 7th-8th graders, which is a nice switch, except it’s in the afternoons and kills my Saturdays. But oh, the kids. Who are, in case you’re a new reader, first or second generation Chinese, Korean, Indian, and the occasional Vietnamese.
First day, a month ago, I face four eighth grade boys (one Chinese, three Korean), and I’m going into the usual spiel:
“The thing is, this class is about becoming readers, writers, and thinkers, not about getting a good grade. What do you want from this class? Francis?”
Francis just looks at me, wide-eyed and quiet. I am supposed to get the hint and move on. I wait. And wait. And wait some more. Francis realizes, to his horror, that I’m not going to move on. It is unholy how much I enjoy doing this, time and again. An unlooked for joy of teaching.
“Um. What was the…oh. Um. I want to get better grades.”
“You don’t get straight As?”
“You just want more A pluses?”
“My mom wants me to come.”
“It’s always the mom, isn’t it? Bruce, what about you?”
Bruce is a Korean version of Ralphie from A Christmas Story, bright-eyed and chirpy.
“My mom wants me to come, too. But I would like to learn to write better. Not grammar.” He pauses, not sure how to say it. “Better. Like, with good vocabulary.”
“That’s a good objective. Arthur?”
Arthur would be a nerd, except no one around him would notice. It’s Saturday afternoon and I like to think that he took off the tie his outfit was missing the minute he was out of his mother’s view.
“I actually wanted to come. I need to develop a better writing style and take advantage of my vocabulary.”
“You want to get it drunk first? Kidding. Dino? What’s your pleasure–better grades, words you can love and leave, a chance to watch TV?”
Dino is slouched down, a shock of unruly hair pulled down over his eyes. “Not grades. I don’t care about grades.”
The other three boys literally gape at this anathema. “You don’t care about grades?” gasps Bruce.
“Look. We’re eighth-graders. None of this counts. I try to have fun. Read some books.” He looks at me. “I want to read deeper, find context and meaning. My teachers talk about analyzing literature, but when they analyze it I never agree with them. I want more ammunition.”
Huh. “I guess you didn’t get the memo?”
He’s quick. “Like ‘Rules and Regulations for Asians?'”
“Instead you read a pamphlet on the Beat movement.”
Last week, that same boss begged me to cover two SAT writing classes in addition to Book Club, and although I was sick, I am nice. The class had already met for math so were in the room when I walked in. While I was doing my standard I’m a long time teacher here but don’t usually teach SAT spiel, I suddenly did a double take.
“Good lord, who let you in? Blond guy.”
The white kid slumped unhappily in the back eyed me cautiously. I seemed to be looking at him, but what could I mean? He looks to the left, then the right, then points to himself in query.
“Yeah, you. It’s Saturday morning. White kids are still asleep. And here you are. You don’t look half Asian, but I’ve been fooled before.”
The entire class is now unsure whether to gasp in horror or laugh.
“I think it’s your fault I’m here.”
“Yeah, a friend of mine went here last summer and his mom raved about the great teacher.”
“I”m flattered, but I don’t teach SAT.”
“That’s what I said! He went to PSAT class! But my mom made me come.”
“That’s what you get for having Asian friends.”
“I’m not blond, though.”
“Ash blond. Plus, look at the room, buddy. You’re blond.”
Now they’re laughing.
“You can’t tell half Asians?” a Chinese kid asked.
“Sometimes. But then a couple summers ago, I had this kid with blond hair. Not dyed blond, punky blond, but just normal blond hair. Blonder than this guy’s. He said he was half Korean, I said wow, he didn’t look it. He smiled, used both his hands to pull his hair away from his head and I fell out of my chair. His face was totally Korean! You know, slightly round, the eyes had the full epicanthic fold. But his hair was white people blond, and my brain just insisted his face was Caucasian until he pulled his hair back.”
“Oh, I know someone like that!” said an Indian girl.
“Hair color is white people’s. We own that trait. So much ours that I looked at a Korean face and ignored reality until the hair was gone. Hey, wait.” I suddenly stopped cold.
“You. Behind blond guy. You’re not Indian.” The kid shook his head, laughing, knowing what’s coming.
“You’re BLACK. Like, African American black! Jesus, there’s like, maybe eight of you in a ten mile radius from this spot. Where do you go to school?”
Black kid is enjoying this, names a very wealthy public school.
“Oh, well. You’re used to being one of three? Two? Just you? I know Blond Guy has to suffer through being the one no one wants on group projects–white guys never do homework–but you, you’re such a novelty they probably fight over you.”
The kids were now howling.
“My god. A white kid AND a black kid in this establishment deep in the heart of Little Asia. Cats and dogs sleeping together.”
And I started the class which I like to think lived up to the icebreaker.
So my last essay got a lot of attention, and I’m happy about that. I’m even happier that most readers took it as I intended.
But some didn’t, and by “some”, I don’t mean the various ethno-nationalists groups, nor do I mean the Stormfront and other vaguely or overtly anti-Semitic sites who liked the piece. They understood what I was saying, even if I disagree with where they took it next. I allow almost all comments, and allowance should not be construed as agreement.
No, I mean the people who said I “claimed” that all Asians were cheating, or that I didn’t “prove” that Asians weren’t living up to their resumes, or that white people cheat, too.
I am exactly the opposite of a scientist. I like facts fine. But proof is boring. It’s always so small. I like probabilities. And not calculating them, that’s boring, too. I like seeing things, reading about things, and thinking about what they mean. Then I start to anticipate. If A, which I’m reading about, is happening, then isn’t B happening, too? Let’s see what Google says. Damn, Google agrees with me! And I google, search, and keep reading, find ten other things that tie in, or are just interesting tidbits for later.
A good chunk of this blog is dedicated to describing and explaining the reality I see as an older but new teacher, as a math teacher, as a test prep instructor, as a white teacher who lives in a heavily Asian community and teaches many recent Asian immigrants. I paint a picture, and in many cases, people who work in the same reality say yeah, that’s an accurate picture. Others who aren’t familiar with the reality often find it an interesting and credible picture; still others say wow, you just took a kaleidoscope I was trying to figure out and made it clearer. All good. It’s rare that people say hey, that’s just not how reality looks and when they do, they are math teachers, and that’s religion.
But proof? It’s just a picture. Accept it, don’t accept it. Challenge it. Give data that directly contradicts it. I’m happy to realize that I’m missing a piece of the picture, or even misreading it entirely. Just quit whining that I haven’t proved it. Enough people clearly agree with the picture that I haven’t invented it out of whole cloth, and I’m not asserting anything beyond the picture. I give data to show it’s not one-off. Take it or leave it.
Over the past decade the open discrimination against Asians in college admissions has risen to the level of public notice. Many people hear the news and think, “We need to catch up! We need to make our kids more like Asian kids!” This, more than anything, is what I hope to—if not correct, then at least compensate for. Because no, we do not want to make our American kids—white, black, Hispanic, or Asian—like the kids who are, through “hard work, dedication, and cultural expectations” churning out 4.5 GPAs and taking 10-12 AP courses. Those kids are achieving those intellectual goals using methods we don’t value (and I mean more than just cheating), and they are not, in far too many cases, attaining the intellectual base that we in America assume comes along with that resume.
I can’t prove this. What I can do is show readers what problems arise from educating this population (again, recent Asian immigrants or their kids), and let them think about how that plays out in college admissions.
Our educational system needs improvement, and one of the areas that most dramatically needs improvement is our education and development of bright kids. I suspect, but can’t prove, that our failure in this respect is what allows the Asian “swot” method to dominate without actually learning all that much. What we need to do is track, is ensure that our top kids are getting a challenging education that doesn’t just allow them to regurgitate, but think creatively, intuitively, and engage their intellects. We used to do that, but our determination to pretend cognitive ability doesn’t exist has seriously damaged this area of education—both in high school and college.
Until we decide to fix this, however, the answer lies not in making American kids more Asian, but in making Asian immigrants—indeed, all immigrants—more American.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I love all my students. I teach this second job, and let my boss talk me back into it even though I’d like the time off, because I particularly love these kids, these recent Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Indian immigrants who don’t all look alike and don’t all think alike, but who far too often dutifully obey their parents and live under extraordinary pressure to succeed. I want them to be more than the hardworking stereotype, to learn to ask why, to ask questions beyond “will this be on the test” and form the occasional opinion. And towards that end, I’ll be doing my best to convince my Asian students to win more concessions for their time in Saturday school, defy their parents on a daily basis, watch more TV, watch way more movies, tell their moms to get a job if they have nothing better to do than nag them, and skip their homework entirely a couple days a week.