Chinese Immigrants' Kids Play Balancing Role

Students whose parents come from China often excel in school, but their educational performance can be affected by cultural tensions at home between their Chinese and American identities.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Now, tension between American children and their foreign-born parents. About 20 percent of children in America have immigrant parents and sometimes that can lead to conflict, especially when it comes to what goes on in American schools. Today and tomorrow, NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports on how Dominican and Chinese immigrants' children fair in school. Tonight, the children of Chinese immigrants.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: A steady stream of mostly middle-aged women fills the Josiah Quincy School auditorium in the heart of Boston's Chinatown. A man in a shiny, white suit and matching tie welcomes them in Cantonese.

Unidentified Man #1: (Cantonese spoken) hopes and dreams.

SANCHEZ: Hopes and dreams is the theme for this gathering of parents, teachers and students. One of them, Amy Lee(ph), 17, has been invited to speak.

Ms. AMY LEE: So, my parents emigrated from China when my older brother was what five. And I was born in America. (Cantonese spoken)

SANCHEZ: An academic star at Boston Latin, an elite public high school, Amy graduated with honors and a four-year scholarship to Syracuse University. But she skips over all that, clutches the microphone with both hands and confides that for all the success she's had in school, it's a failure to bond with a mother that truly pains her. So, says Amy, her voice quivering, her dream is simple.

Ms. LEE: I would really, really, really like to see Asian parents understand the American lifestyle because that is the only way that you will ever understand your child. Being American-born Chinese, I feel like there's a huge communication gap with my mother and I, and so we don't really get along.

SANCHEZ: A few women in the audience nod knowingly. Like many of them, Amy's mother sacrificed a lot to give her children a better life. Better, certainly, than hers in rural China than here in Boston working endless hours as a waitress for minimum wage. Amy's parents are divorced, so her mom raised her and two bothers alone, pushing them to take advantage of every opportunity America has to offer, but constantly reminding them they are Chinese.

Ms. LEE: My Chinese name is Lee Yan(ph). So my mom usually calls me Yan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SANCHEZ: After her speech, a more reflective Amy says the gulf between her and her mother was in some ways inevitable.

Ms. LEE: She's very traditional and it's - I understand it's hard for her to get out of that mindset. So I can't - I'm not mad at her. I can't hate her for it, you know, she's still my mom. But I'm scared to talk to her. Failing is completely unacceptable. You know, she thinks I'm one of those teenagers where it's, like, you know, I might do drugs or I might party, maybe doing bad things because other American kids are like this.

SANCHEZ: In her mother's eyes, Amy is too American - unlike her older brother, fluent in Cantonese, a Harvard graduate, now in medical school.

Ms. LEE: He is what my mom wants in me. She puts all this pressure on me and it's, like, I'm not my older brother. I'm not that strong academically. Me and him are really, really different people.

SANCHEZ: That difference between kids who are born here and children who arrived as immigrants, researchers say, is seldom examined.

Professor VIVIAN LOUIE (Harvard University): It is an important untold story within the Chinese-American population.

SANCHEZ: Harvard professor Vivian Louie has studied U.S.-born children of immigrants and the reason some family grow apart in the rush of assimilation.

Prof. LOUIE: It's the Faustian bargain, if you will, right? Parents come to the United States motivated by their desire to have their children get a better education, achieve upward mobility. And yet, they fear losing them to American cultural norms that are very alien to what they feel is proper.

SANCHEZ: Louie says the ensuing conflict often leads to a breakdown in parental authority, family traditions, even the ability to speak to one another.

Prof. LOUIE: Because of the loss of the language and also because of the more authoritarian parenting, there isn't as much of a close parent-child relationship in the way that we think about it in the United States.

SANCHEZ: The impact on kids?

Prof. LOUIE: High rates of suicide, depression, mental health issues.

SANCHEZ: Maybe there are lots of emotionally troubled American-born Chinese kids walking around, says Amy. But she's not one of them - and none of her friends are either.

Ms. LEE: I don't see a lot of depression in them, but I see a lot of, like, really good work ethic. You know, they go home early, you know, to study. They don't hang out as much as other, you know, kids do. Over the weekends they don't party as much. Like, they set a high standard for themselves. And if they fail, they feel like, oh, damn, I just let myself down.

SANCHEZ: That's why we do so well in school, says Amy. Although, she admits that the pressure to get into the right college and pick the right career can be just as stressful as the disconnect with parents. In Boston's Chinatown, parents who struggle with their kids and agonize over their education have turned to the Josiah Quincy School for help - the very public school that's supposed to Americanize their children.

Unidentified Child: (Cantonese spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Cantonese spoken)

SANCHEZ: On a typical morning, parents and grandparents dutifully wait in front of the school's entrance and its steel shutters. They sit on wooden benches and have breakfast with the children, unwrapping morsels of bread, fruit and honey.

Unidentified Woman: Hi, Dr. Wong.

Dr. BAK FUN WONG (Founder, Josiah Quincy Elementary School): Be careful, good morning.

Unidentified Woman: All right. Good morning.

SANCHEZ: Dr. Bak Fun Wong is one of the founders of Josiah Quincy Elementary School. Everybody seems to know him. He was headmaster here for 14 years. Now, he runs the upper school across the street where a majority of students are American born.

Dr. WONG: We're getting more, I think, we're getting close to a little bit more than half. Most of my students, they come from here - my sixth grade to the 12th grade. Most of my students are, however, born here.

SANCHEZ: Chinese parents flock to this school because teachers are demanding. The class work is rigorous and children are taught Mandarin. But Dr. Wong says this is more than a school. It's a sanctuary for Chinese immigrant families.

Dr. WONG: What we are trying to do is not to create an American or a Chinese. We have to allow them to know that they have created a new world. And this new world is the second generation of people coming. Schools is the best place, is an incubator for the students to create this new world.

SANCHEZ: Which brings us back to Amy Lee's ambivalence about who she is in this new world.

Ms. LEE: I don't think I've ever felt like I needed to be more Chinese or more American.

SANCHEZ: For all the pain and difficulties she's had trying to bond with her mother, Amy admits that when she has kids, she'll probably be a lot like her mother.

Ms. LEE: I mean, I would definitely be, you know, strict and harsh. I am really against spoiling kids. I see that in Americans, especially. You know, they can go out really late. They can - they got cell phones in, like, age 12. Like, what? So, I'm in between American way of, you know, raising a family and the Chinese way of doing it.

SANCHEZ: Maybe her kids, the next generation, will have an easier time finding a balance, says Amy.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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