[Fireside Chat – 3] Asian American Youth – Identity & Experience

Date/Time       May 14th 8-10pm

Host       Lisa Wu (CAPA-NoVA), Michelle Ma (Young Professional)

Youth Panels:

  • Middle school and high school students
  • College students and young professionals

Key Discussion Topics:

  • What identity struggles do young Asian Americans face?
  • How does Asian ethnicity impact their work and social life?
  • Are Asian Americans more likely subject to bullying and/or microaggression?
  • How can they boost their confidence and fit in the society?
  • What can parents, educators and communities help young Asian Americans feel safer and more included in the society?

Dr. Paul Li from Calvin J Li Memorial Foundation wrote a letter to this event to share his son’s identity and experience.

My Son Calvin

Paul Li

It’s been almost six years now since the passing of my son Calvin. You can imagine how devastating this has been to my family. The fact that we can still get up each morning and carry on with our lives is because of the faith and hope in God, and the love and support from friends around us.

It has been a long journey toward healing. In the past few years, I have been reflecting on the short 18 years of my son’s life and my troubled relationship with him, particularly in his high school years.

Calvin had a strong personality, smart and ambitious. What impressed me the most was his optimism. Nothing could get him down. He was always hopeful about his future under all circumstances.

He had an outgoing and caring personality. He was loyal to his friends and his friends adored him. This is what one of his friends wrote about him in the school newspaper: “Calvin was the person who would reach out to you if you were having a bad day. When I first moved here, he was one of my first friends because he just reached out to me.”

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Calvin was a fun kid to be around with. He liked to tell jokes and act funny to make people laugh. I recall years ago we were planning a winter vacation with a few families of friends. When kids reach a certain age, they really don’t like to vacation with us old people. I got a call from a friend’s son. He asked me: “is Calvin going? If he is going, I’m going. If he is not, I’m not.” I asked why. He said: “It would be boring if he is not there.”

Calvin was naturally athletic and talented at sports, and loved playing all kinds of sports, basketball, lacrosse, skiing, and above all, American football.

A common misperception about Asian kids in the society is that they are all nerds, good at math and science, but terrible at sports. Calvin refused to conform to that stereotype. Because of that, football took a whole new meaning to him. He worked so hard to improve his skill, not only because he loved the game, for sure he did love the game, but also because he wanted to define his own identity and prove that he was just another average American kid. He played for his school varsity team as a slot receiver, and his friends told me that he worked harder than any other kids on the team.

On the other hand, Calvin wasn’t very strong in academics. Asian kids like Calvin often have a very difficult time in school and at home. Their interest and talent in sports are not appreciated or recognized by their peers and teachers in the school. At home, they face tremendous pressure to excel in academics, in addition to being good at sports, which I call the “Jeremy Lin Expectation”. If the child cannot meet the “Jeremy Lin Expectation”, academic will take the default priority.

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That was my attitude to my son’s interest in football. I never fully supported him. In the freshman year in high school, he wanted to sign up for junior varsity football team. He said so enthusiastically to me:

“Dad, I want to be an NFL player”.

I replied coldly: “son, go back to study. You will never be that.”

“Why not?” he shot back.

I responded, casually: “because you are a Chinese.”

My son broke down in tears. He did not speak to me for the rest of that day.

I know that I hurt my son deeply. But because of pride, I did not apologize to him afterwards. I was thinking to do that on the day when I send him off to college. But God did not give me that chance, and I am now living with the regret for the rest of my life.

I know there are many Chinese parents just like me, and many Chinese kids just like Calvin.

Asian kids growing up in first-generation immigrant families are particularly vulnerable, straddling two cultures and trying hard to meet expectations from both. They struggle with their identity, and have doubts about who they are and where they belong. They are born and growing up in this country. Yet they are often perceived as foreigners, even by their own parents. They yearn to be accepted, and thirst for understanding.

They are pressured to perform and conform. Their parents don’t understand their daily struggles because they grew up in a different country and do not understand the growing pain of American kids. And the society doesn’t understand them either, and has erected very high hurdles for them because they tend to perform better than their other American peers.

What we the parents can do to be more supportive our children and restore our relationship with them?

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First, we should try to understand their struggles and the pressure and difficulties they face when trying to fit in in the school. Their experience is vastly different from ours when we grew up in China. We need to educate ourselves about American culture, and be empathetic to their feelings. We need to pay attention to their emotional needs, not just their physical and intellectual needs.

Second, communicate with them. Communication is bi-directional, not unidirectional. That means it is not just us parents preaching constantly to our kids. We also need to listen, and slow to come to a conclusion or make a judgment. Give our kids the benefit of doubt, and support their reasonable pursuits even when they don’t necessarily align with our expectations. Learn to negotiate with them, rather than dictate to them.

And finally, accept failures and average performance. Our kids don’t have to be excellent in everything they do, just like we are not excellent in everything we do. The best way to extinguish motivation and risk-taking in our kids is to punish or scold them for every failure or mistake of theirs. Instead, we should encourage them to take risk and try new things. Support and reward their efforts, rather than punish the disappointing outcomes.

Chinese/East Asian American kids face unique challenges growing up in the American society. The stereotypes and prejudice they face from very early age are tremendous and often cause them to doubt their own identity and self-worth. Family is supposed to be the safe harbor in which they can find comfort and be recharged. We have to do all we can to provide that safe harbor for them so they can go out confidently and courageously to face the daily challenges in the schools and the society.

Special Thanks to Calvin J Li Memorial Foundation

By Xi Su

CAPA-NoVA Volunteer

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