By Gabrielle Cabalza
I’m a Filipino American student that attended a high school in California whose population was split proportionally between international boarding school students and American day students. The social dynamic was an interesting one. On any given day, you could count on the indoor dining hall to be packed with international students sitting around circular tables, while outside on the lawns you would see all the day students spread out and lounging in the grass. There were only a handful of international students that would associate with the day students and vice versa.
As an Asian American day student, I found myself hanging out with both international and day students. I didn’t think much of it, and I found my identity to be fluid and accepted between these various social groups. One of the only distinct differences in experience that stood out to me though, happened when I would talk to my white, American friends about academics and grades. So often when I talked about AP classes or getting high scores on exams or papers, they would say to me, “Man, I wish I was Asian so I could get A’s, too.”
This statement, casually thrown out as perhaps a compliment or a genuine expression of their actual thought process, always caught me off guard. I never knew what to say.
Do I tell them about how many hours I spent studying this entire week trying to understand derivatives, magnetic fields, and Shakespeare? Do I explain the high academic expectations my parents have of me since I’m the first in the family to go to school in America? Do I mention that I always worry that my achievement will never equate to my parents’ sacrifice? Do I mention all the times where I didn’t perform well academically, and felt worthless? Do I say anything?
Here’s where I wish I could tell you that I opened up these dialogues to my white, male peer in the quad of our private high school and that our conversation ended with a mutual understanding of the divisiveness of racial stereotypes. But, unfortunately, that isn’t at all what happened. I mostly just half-laughed, changed the subject, internalized all the discomfort I felt between the words of his statement, and walked away.
Many Asians and Asian Americans at my school had similar experiences, being seen by their as the “smart ones”, the “nerds”, or the “geeks” who were just naturally and effortlessly that way. Not only did these stereotypes actively limit the complex identities that we held, but it also refused to affirm our individual hard work, accomplishments, and determination in our pursuit of academic success (Lee et al. 11). Many of my peers from other schools described that they received similar rhetoric from their school counselors, teachers, and staff, ultimately affecting their achievement expectations and whether they were put into AP or IB tracks. This racial profiling clearly not only has affective implications of discomfort for Asian students, but also directly impacts their educational trajectory.
Looking back now, I find my white peers’ half-hearted “desire to be Asian” strangely humorous, because they never really wanted to be a part of my culture or know what it was like to be Filipino American. They were only communicating that they wanted and valued the successful outcomes of our individual work ethic. This placement of value on culture solely in terms of ways to success is one that I believe has no future in pursuing equality, empathy, or unity in any educational institution.
Lee, Jennifer and Min Zhou. 2015. The Asian American Achievement Paradox. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.