From 2012 Presentation High School yearbook
by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, contributor
Last month, eight graduating seniors surnamed Nguyen (pronounced Win) from Presentation High School in San Jose, California (my alma mater) tickled the Asian American blogosphere by combining their senior quotes in the high school yearbook. One or two words under each photo created their “Nguyen-ing” “We know what you’re thinking and no we’re not related.”
Clever, smart, proud. However, after four years at this small school, their classmates and teachers still did not know this? That is a little disheartening.
I am always surprised to learn what people actually know and do not know about each other.
Last week, 17-year-old Texan honors student Diane Tran was jailed 24 hours for truancy. She was taking several AP and dual high school college credit courses, and working two jobs as the family’s sole wage-earner after her parents divorced and moved away. She was often up until 7 am doing homework, and sometimes she had difficulty waking up and getting to school on time. Unfortunately, she crossed paths with a judge who admitted that he wanted to make an example of her. He put her in jail, and he gave her a $100 fine.
The story went viral over Memorial Day weekend. 277,050 people signed the petition at change.org encouraging the judge to drop the charges, the Louisiana Children’s Education Alliance raised $100,000 to be put into a trust in her name, and folks said all sorts of nasty things about the judge and her parents.
Eventually, the judge dismissed the contempt charges, leaving her with a clean record, and Diane Tran refused the $100,000 raised in her name, saying, “There’s some other kid out there struggling more … than me.”
Amazing girl. Happy ending. Props. Still, this story bothers me.
It bothers me because I know that this is only one case, that this sort of thing happens to people of color all the time. She was lucky that her story happened to go viral and she happened to get help, but there are so many other cases that do not happen to capture the attention of the public and the media.
Part of the appeal of the Diane Tran story is how neatly the story fit into the Asian American model minority stereotype. If she had been a different ethnic minority or a teen mother or an average student, would she have gotten a second glance? Even the criticisms of her parents often fell into hackneyed dog-eating anti-immigrant slurs. I am sure there is some terrible backstory that we do not know about why her parents moved away. I am troubled by the way both virtuous Asian American stereotypes and evil Asian stereotypes are being used against each other.
As it turns out, the judge did not know any of Diane Tran’s circumstances when he sentenced her to jail. He did not know that she was a straight-A honors student, he did not know that her parents had left, he did not know that she was working two jobs to support herself and two siblings. All he knew was that she had missed 18 days of school without being excused by a parent.
I do not understand why he did not ask. I do not understand why she not tell.
I do know that part of the danger of getting involved with the legal and social services systems is that one never knows what the person in power thinks about people of color, whether that person can see through your appearance and their stereotypes to really hear your particular story. They may not even know they have stereotypes. You may not be able to see their biases. Also, it takes a while to figure out how the system works and what options or resources are available.
I have encountered an attorney who could not comprehend the difference between Chinese New Year and Lunar New Year, a psychologist who told me that my straight-A suburban middle schooler was becoming an Asian gang leader and that manga was “Dangerous!”, and a social worker who thankfully did get the value of extended family and culture. However, one never knows who one will get.
Let us keep channeling our outrage to help the others.
Note: This article follows up the article I wrote last week, On Birthday Parties, Tiger Aunties, and jailed Texan honor student Diane Tran. And for another perspective on how movie stereotypes and the salacious gossip about movie star Zhang Ziyi affects all Asian American women, read Jeff Yang’s article in CNN’s InAmerica, Opinion: Asian-American women pay price for lurid rumors about actress Zhang Ziyi. And one more! Emil Guillermo on the tension between the model minority stereotype and affirmative action in AALDEF.org’s Affirmative action foes’ new tool: Asian Americans as the New Jews. Stereotypes can cause real world consequences for real people.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is a contributor for New America Media Ethnoblog, Chicagoistheworld.org, PacificCitizen.org, and InCultureParent.com. She team-teaches Asian Pacific American History and the Law at the University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her Web site at franceskaihwawang.com, her blogs at franceskaihwawang.blogspot.com and rememberingvincentchin.com, and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.