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Asian Americans juggle generational expectations

By Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter

Dallas, TX – Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: Shortly before school let out for the summer, dozens of Asian American students at North Dallas High School celebrated with a rousing performance of traditional Asian dance and music. Events like these are especially important to Asian immigrant parents, many of whom worry that their culture is being forgotten by their children. Mye Hoang knows this story well.

Mye Hoang, Founder, Asian Film Festival of Dallas: My parents came from Saigon in 1975 to Dallas with seven kids, and I'm the eighth child. I was born a year later in Dallas, and I was brought up here.

Sprague: Growing up in Dallas was difficult for Hoang. Although she enjoyed many more personal liberties than her older sisters and brothers, her parents were still very strict and protective. They focused her life around school and told her she couldn't sleep over at a friend's house or be a Girl Scout.

Hoang: I think for my parents, they had a distrust of Americans, and it wasn't done where they grew up. And I think they desperately wanted to hold on to who they were and they didn't want their children becoming like Americans.

Sprague: Movies became an outlet for Hoang and eventually a career. She's a manager at the Magnolia Theater and the founder of the Asian Film Festival of Dallas. She especially related to the films of director Ang Lee, who's often portrayed Asian Americans leading dual lives: one to please their parents and one to please themselves. Now for Hoang, who is engaged to a non-Asian, life is imitating art.

Hoang: I'm planning to get married in less than four months and I haven't told my parents yet, and I'm not sure how it's going to play out. I know they're not going to be happy about it, and I'll probably be disowned for at least a little while because they're really desperate to hang onto their heritage.

Sprague: Many parents are also anxious for their children to excel in this country. Bhanu Ivatury, a clinical social worker from India, says it's the immigration factor. Parents who give up their home countries come to the United States with a mountain of pressure to succeed.

Bhanu Ivatury, Clinical Social Worker: Not only are you doing it for yourself, you're doing it for your children. So not only you are having this expectation that you have to succeed. But, you are having this expectation that your children must succeed. The children must do much, much better than what they could have done in India.

Sprague: A lot of that means pressure to do well in school. Akshar Patel just graduated from Berkner High School in Richardson. He remembers his mother, an Indian immigrant, making him study a lot.

Akshar Patel, Student: All my friends would be playing basketball outdoors and they'd come knock on my door. "Can Akshar come play?" And my mom would say, "No. He's doing his homework." And I'd always be mad at that. I wanted to go outside and play.

Sprague: Patel isn't mad anymore. Now that he's been accepted to the University of North Carolina, he says all the work has paid off. And many children of immigrants grow up to feel the same way, according to Min Zhou, who chairs the Asian American studies department at the University of California at Los Angeles. Zhou's research says exceptional grades and school achievements are so highly valued among Asian Americans because they're an objective evaluation that helps counter racism and discrimination.

Min Zhou, Chair, Asian American Studies, University of California at Los Angeles: If you are the school valedictorian, if the school valedictorian is measured by grade point average, they feel that's something you cannot overlook, because the record is there and it's a lot better, so you have to give it to me. We never can predict what other people think of us subjectively but we can achieve whatever standard the American society sets.

Sprague: Zhou says she's also witnessed a backlash from mainstream parents who feel Asian students are taking all the top school honors away from their children. In Dallas, Philip Shinoda says he's seen the same trend.

Philip Shinoda: A lot of people say Asian parents put too much pressure on their children, you know. I think maybe there's some leveling going on. Like, why don't you Asian Americans ease off a little so the rest of us will look better?

Sprague: Shinoda asks, why shouldn't Asian parents have high expectations for their children?

Shinoda: I think it's a good thing. And I think in a competitive world like we have now, children have to experience that pressure, that high expectation, because that's what the world is going to expect.

Sprague: But Jennifer Nguyen, who raised her four children here after fleeing Saigon in 1975, believes she may have been too tough on her kids.

Jennifer Nguyen, Volunteer, Vietnamese Community Center: We always talk to our children, look down on our children. We feel like it's our duty. "Why can't you make a 100? Why can't you try to get your doctorate degree, master's degrees?" We always ask for more and we fail. I'm speaking of my generation, most of us fail to say, "You did good. I'm very proud of you."

Sprague: Nguyen says when she started volunteering with young, troubled Asian students, she realized she had taken her own children's success for granted. Nguyen is still eager to see the younger Asian generation succeed, but on their own terms. Social worker Bhanu Ivatury sends a similar message to families she works with. While she encourages young Indians to incorporate some of their parents' culture into their own lives, she also tells parents to be flexible with their children.

Ivatury: I think the parents are slowly coming to accept what it ultimately required. "Do I want my child's happiness or do I want to lose my child?" So, I constantly focus on that, you do not want to lose your child.

Sprague: Mye Hoang hopes her parents will feel that way, too, as she prepares for her wedding.

Hoang: It makes me anxious because I really don't know how it will all turn out. They're also older, and that sort of makes me sad because I think eventually we will all come together and we will all reconcile, but I don't know when it will be or if it will be before they die.

Sprague: Mye Hoang's story is not unique to the Asian community or to families worldwide. Many Asians here are working out such growing pains within their own families: are they Americans or Asian Americans? And in the broader culture, they're trying to figure out how to keep from being marginalized. Their grassroots groups are addressing many of these issues, as are individuals in their own lives. So even though their numbers in North Texas are small, Asian Americans insist theirs will be a rising and influential voice in greater Dallas. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.

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