Magazine Feature

In Our Own Words

Asian-American students give voice to the challenges of living in two cultures.

This article was compiled from interviews with 10 Asian-American students in the Fall of 1995. It is designed to be read aloud by students and discussed in class.



Asian Americans are not a single ethnic group but include many diverse peoples. The students, too, represent a variety of backgrounds and experiences. They express varying attitudes about their identity, about how others perceive them, and about what it means to be "American."

While common themes emerge from their words, it's also important to recognize the individual behind each response. Young people, regardless of background, may find echoes of their own thoughts and feelings in what these students say. The article offered here is meant to spark classroom discussion about the conflicts, opportunities and ambiguities that confront people of mixed cultural heritage and to extend the discussion about America's diversity.



To use this article as a classroom activity, familiarize yourself with the introduction, the profiles of the 10 students, and the eight themes addressed by the students. You might consider breaking up the themes over two days, depending on the flow of the discussion.

Take 20 minutes the day before the activity to inform the class that you need volunteers for the roles of the Asian-American students (eight girls and two boys) and one volunteer to be the moderator. Give them photocopies of pages 50-59 and tell them to study the reading carefully that evening in order to be effective in representing their character. Then have them read out loud to the class the brief profiles of the Asian-American students they will play.



At the beginning of the next class, have student readers sit facing the rest of the class. Place name tents on their desks showing the names of the Asian-American students. Tell the other students who are listening that they will be hearing the words of real students interviewed by Teaching Tolerance magazine, and encourage them to jot down questions for discussion afterward. Remind the panelists to stay "in character" to help with discussion later.

Have the moderator read the introductory paragraph of the accompanying article to the class and introduce the Asian-American panelists. The moderator begins the panel discussion by reading the text in bold type, and the panelists respond by reading their parts.



After the first three sections have been presented, pause for questions, reactions and discussion. Continue reading and stop again after two or three sections for further discussion. Use the following questions for guidance.

  • What are some of the mistaken assumptions that non-Asian people make about Asians?
  • What stereotypes do these Asian-American students describe about Asians and others?
  • Have you ever made some of these assumptions or held these stereotypes in your own mind?
  • In what ways do some of these students have trouble "fitting in" among their non-Asian peers?
  • Why do some express difficulty in relating to others of their own ethnic background?
  • What experiences, if any, are common to all of these Asian-American students?
  • What are some of their regrets?
  • What are some things students can do to ease the transition for new immigrants
  • How does the importance of adapting to life in the U.S. conflict with the students' need to maintain cultural identity?

To wrap up, evaluate the activity:

  • In what ways are the panelists' feelings and experiences different from your own? In what ways are they similar?
  • Is it appropriate to draw general conclusions about all Asian Americans from the remarks of these 10 students?
  • What can we learn from these students?
  • What questions are raised but not answered by this activity?
  • What can we do to search for answers to those questions? (Students might generate ideas for further research projects.)

Facts about the 'Model Minority' Myth

These facts dispute the myth:


  • The percentage of Asian Americans below the poverty line is 12.2 percent -- exactly the same as the national rate and double that of white Americans.
  • Asian Americans who have "made it" often do not earn as much as their white counterparts, even with equal or better education and experience.
  • Twenty percent of Asian Americans -- about the same percentage as whites -- do not have a high school diploma.
  • Potential cuts or elimination of bilingual education programs threaten to make it harder for more recent Asian immigrants to succeed.
  • Many Asian American students who need academic help are not receiving it. Parents who have difficulty speaking English often are unaware of educational services that could help their children, and teachers who are accustomed to viewing Asians as high achievers may not notice those who are struggling.
  • Likewise, behaviors that lead Asian American youth into depression, drugs, gangs and violence are sometimes overlooked.

Dialogue: Exploring the Asian American Experience


(To be read by the moderator)

It is impossible to talk about Asian Americans without stumbling upon misconceptions. For instance, most Asians in America are viewed as "foreigners," but nearly four out of 10 were born in this country, and eight out of 10 speak fluent English.

Even the term "Asian American" is confusing. To call both Cambodians and Tibetans "Asian Americans" is a little like calling both Eskimos and Guatemalans "North Americans." It's not wrong, but it's not very helpful, either. The U.S. Census Bureau uses an even broader category: "Asian and Pacific Islander."

Asian Americans have been a part of American life for 150 years. Chinese laborers worked plantations in Hawaii, mined gold in California and helped build the Transcontinental Railroad. Resentment and prejudice led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, virtually halting Chinese immigration until 1965. Japanese, who began coming to America in the late 1800s, were shut out after 1924. During World War II, more than 100,000 Japanese Americans were held in internment camps. Immigration restrictions eased in 1965, opening the door to new arrivals from all parts of Asia. Following the end of the Vietnam War, many Southeast Asians began making their way to America.

Today, Asian Americans are the fastest-growing minority group in the country and in our schools. They come from more than 20 countries, speak more than two dozen different languages, and practice a variety of religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity.

To learn firsthand about some of their experiences, Teaching Tolerance interviewed 10 students of diverse Asian backgrounds. Some were born in America; some are recent immigrants. Some speak only English; others also speak the language of their ancestors. Some grew up in middle-class families; others arrived on these shores as impoverished refugees.

While their backgrounds and interests vary widely, they were eager to explore common problems, opportunities and dreams they share as young people with more than one cultural heritage.

They can't recognize who I am.

MODERATOR: Being Asian in America means being noticeably different from most people, and often being mistakenly identified -- no matter how long we've been here.

Marisa:  Because of my last name, Matsudaira, sometimes people have thought I was Italian. One time I was in a restaurant with my family. The restaurant owner kept saying that we were all so beautiful and was asking what nationalities we were. He was like, "Korean, Chinese?" And when we told him Japanese, he said, "Oh, no. You must be Korean."

Villy: Laos is not really a known place. If you say you're from Laos, they'll say, "Where's that?" I'll say, "Somewhere near Thailand."

Tomoko: One thing that always scared me was that everyone was staring at me. I was just new and different to them. They say, "Are you Korean?" But I don't expect them to distinguish me from other Asians.

June: White people cannot tell Asian people apart. It's kind of funny because we can tell white people apart, but sometimes some whites think we're the same person. We say, "Why are we so hard to tell apart? We're completely different people!" But they just see the yellow skin and the black hair and the brown eyes and they think, "Oh, they just all look alike." We really think that's kind of funny.

My Lien:  Nobody recognizes I am Vietnamese because when they look at me they think I am Chinese. They cannot recognize who I am.

I'm straddling both worlds.

MODERATOR: For most people who have lived in this country for generations, it is easy to think of themselves as simply American. But if someone asks a third-generation Chinese American where she's from, and she says "Iowa," they are likely to say something like, "No, I mean, where are you really from?"

How we identify ourselves has a lot to do with how long we've been here, what language we're most comfortable with, who our friends are, and how closely we feel connected to our heritage. Even then, our perceptions of who we are can change over time. Most of us have at some time felt confused about our cultural identity.

June: I would definitely say I'm Chinese. Chinese American, I guess. I consider myself Chinese.

My Lien: I still feel I am Vietnamese because I still have trouble with English, and I still keep my traditional culture. Some people come to the United States, they say, "I'm Chinese American," or something like that. But I won't say, because I was born in my country. I'm Vietnamese.

Tomoko: First, I am Japanese. I feel that really strongly. My identity is in Japan. Some people in America have difficulty with their own identity. It's kind of hard for them to seek their originality. But it's easy for me: My ancestors are all Japanese.

Genevieve: Sometimes I move one step farther than just saying I'm Asian American and assert myself as Lao.

Khanh: Today, I would say I'm more Vietnamese. A couple of months ago I would have said I'm a cross between the two. I'm straddling both worlds.

I felt that I was missing something.

MODERATOR: Most of us never have a chance to visit the country our parents were born in. We begin to forget some of our language, and we lose connections to our cultural heritage. What seems foreign to our parents becomes familiar to us, and what was so familiar to them becomes foreign to us. We feel torn, sometimes, between our Asian selves and our American selves.

Raquel: I always hear my mom say, "Even though we're in America, I want you to be brought up like I was in the Philippines." My mom speaks English to me because I can't speak Tagalog back. [Tagalog (te-GAH-lug) is a language of the Philippines.]

Khanh: I'm more Western than a lot of the Asian people in my school, but I'm a lot more Eastern than American people I associate with. I don't have a lot of Asian friends. I really don't. The Vietnamese group and the ESL [English as a Second Language] kids, they're like, "You're not one of us." They would never speak to me in Vietnamese even though I could speak it. They always spoke to me in English. I would say something back to them in Vietnamese, but they would speak to me in English. It was like, "You don't really understand about the Asian culture because you're so Americanized."

Dhayal: I feel kind of separated from Indian culture since I've been going to school for 13 years in America. At first, my parents tried to help me until English became predominant at home, too. And so now I'm not exposed to Indian culture much at all. It's almost alien to me.

Clifford: Some Asian people consider me sort of whitewashed because I've been here so long they don't identify me as an Asian. Sometimes I don't identify with Koreans as well as I'd like -- sometimes I'm intimidated by Koreans because I lack so much of what real Koreans have -- the tradition, the history they know. I've forgotten a lot of history and Korean folklore, things I was taught as a little kid.

Marisa: I realized after a while that I really didn't know anything about the Asian half of me. Where I grew up, all of my friends were white, and that was what I identified with more. I felt that I was missing something.

Khanh: Growing up, I always felt a void in my life, like there's something out there and I know I need to go out and find it. I had an opportunity to visit Vietnam, and being able to walk on the land and see its people and taste its food helped me to get a greater sense of who I am. It's not necessarily that I had to go on the outside to find that, but it made me realize that it was always within me.

They will always see us as foreigners.

MODERATOR: Martial arts experts, math geniuses, sneaky businessmen, docile housewives -- these stereotypes of Asians are harmful not only because they are demeaning, but because they rob us of our individual identities. They brand us as "all alike." They set us apart from other Americans. When we are treated differently because of the way we look or where we're from or the accent we have, we feel like strangers in this country.

Dhayal: Asian Americans have been stereotyped as recent immigrants who really don't know what's going on and can't speak the language. I saw that early on with my dad because he has a heavy accent, and when he first immigrated, it seems a lot of people took advantage of him because of his accent and just because he was new to the area.

Villy: ESL kids get left out. Other people say, "They're ESL kids, they can't speak any English." And some ESL kids say, "I'm alone, I'm a foreigner, I shouldn't be doing this or I shouldn't be doing that." Sometimes I feel bad that there are some kids who feel they are much better than other kids and look down on them.

Clifford: I think expectations of me are different because I'm Asian. My friends used to say to me, "Oh, Cliff, you must have it worse," because stereotypically Asian parents are harder on their kids. A lot of teachers said I wasn't the typical Asian student. I was sort of rambunctious in class. I was never the quiet one.

Tomoko: When I speak in class, they get quiet and try to listen to me. They are trying to understand and that's really nice, but it makes me nervous when they get quiet. Why don't you treat me just like an American in class?

Khanh: The media is propagating its depiction of the beautiful people, and everybody is white and has wavy long hair and blue eyes, and that's what beauty is. So when you look at yourself and you're not that model, you say, "Oh, I'm ugly!" no matter what else you've achieved in your life.

Marisa: What bothers me a lot is ignorance -- people not realizing the difference between someone who's Japanese, someone who's Chinese, someone who's Korean, and just tending to classify them as one big word -- Asian -- when you wouldn't classify an Italian and a Polish person as the same thing.

Clifford: One of my Korean friends feels like people exclude him. But of course they do exclude him: He can't communicate as well, he dresses different, he's outcast. And so you end up with a lot of little Asian cliques that speak their same language, and their English hasn't advanced, and people identify them as FOB -- Fresh Off the Boat.

Khanh: Each one of us is different. Every single time I look in the mirror, I know that I'm Asian and I know that I'm Vietnamese. I have my own understanding that it's what you think and what you believe in that's important. But on the other hand, I know I feel deep down inside that I can never be physically as beautiful as somebody who is white. No matter how much I say, "I am my own person. I'm very strong about my ideas," and all that, I would think my life would be so different and my life would be so much better if I was white. And I thought that for so, so long, and it's hard to try to undo all those things and all those images from the past.

Genevieve: Some people will always see us as foreigners.

You have to be able to hang with them.

MODERATOR: To overcome the misunderstandings and prejudice, we sometimes find ourselves making compromises in order to "fit in."

Dhayal: My name is supposed to be pronounced Dah-YAHL, but it wasn't easy to pronounce for most people. I remember around 2nd grade, some people started making fun and I started crying. It made me feel kind of inferior to the others. So when I came to high school I just told everybody to pronounce my name Dial. It's a lot easier to say, so that's what most people call me now.

My Lien: When you speak English and it's wrong, some Americans don't understand you, and they laugh at you. It makes some Vietnamese students feel so sad they don't want to speak any more. My parents teach me just come to school and study and listen to the teacher and come back home. They say, "If anyone bothers you or says anything about you, we don't care." I don't care anything about what people are saying.

Khanh: I realized I was different and that I didn't have a lot of the things other kids had. Not only was it a question of being Asian, but a lot of it had to with economics, with not knowing the language, with my mom not being able to get a good job, and the place that we lived. I started noticing those differences and looking at other people. I wanted really badly when I was young, in 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th grades, I wanted to be more white, I wanted to be American and lose my Asian-ness and my yellowness.

Genevieve: One teacher I had distrusted Asians -- she said that Asians would all study together and cheat. My sister -- who was in the same class with this teacher -- and I talked about it, and we really emphasized our Americanness or our "whiteness" so that this teacher wouldn't associate us with the stereotype that she had.

Clifford:  My parents said to me, "Living in the white man's world, to compete with them, you have to be able to hang with them in society -- you have to be able to speak like they do, know their culture. You don't want to be an outcast. Yet you want to be above their standards of intelligence, because if it comes down to the worst, a white person is going to hire a white."

My parents, they force me to study.

MODERATOR: The myth of the "model minority," based on the academic and economic success of many Asian Americans, has evoked both admiration and resentment from other groups. Like many myths, it combines truth and fiction.

Marisa: Most people think of Asians as being introverted and very oriented towards their studies. I think a lot of it comes from what people know about schools in the East, where they stress school very much, and they think that gets transferred -- and in some instances it probably does.

Khanh: One of the frustrating things about being Asian is that there's a myth that you're intelligent, and if you're not, if you're just average, you can be condemned. People always look at you like you're some kind of rocket scientist, and I knew that I wasn't. I was capable of doing work, but I was no Einstein.

June: Most Asian parents are very strict about doing really well in school. My mom isn't like that personally. But I see a lot of Asian parents who believe you've got to get perfect scores on your SATs, get straight A's, go to the best colleges.

Raquel: In Spanish class, there's an Asian student who really can't pronounce all of the words. I know what he's going through. He doesn't speak English. But he's also trying to speak Spanish.

My Lien: I have some American friends. I think they're not lazy; they just want to watch TV. They ask me how many hours I study. Sometimes I start at 8 o'clock and study until 1 o'clock, and they say, "Oh, wow! That's too much. I don't study." Their parents didn't force them to study. But my parents, they forced me to study.

It would be really nice if I could teach them something.

MODERATOR: The standard American school curriculum doesn't give us much insight into our Asian cultures. We try to maintain our cultural connections by joining special interest clubs or even weekend schools. And we appreciate it when others show interest in our Asian cultures.

Dhayal: There's an Indian and Pakistani culture group at our school that has some cultural awareness activities. They have bake sales, and they perform at our international festival each year. They always do some dancing and bring in some food. There's also a Korean Alliance and a Japanese club.

June:  Chinese school is like a weekend school. They are all around the country. They teach Chinese language, and they also have cultural activities like dance and painting and origami and calligraphy and martial arts. They do a lot of social events. There are basketball tournaments and volleyball tournaments. When I was younger, I played on a Chinese school dodgeball team.

Tomoko: Some people ask me, "Do you like sushi?" I don't think they know a lot about Japan. It would be really nice if I could teach them something about Japan. I'd like to teach them about Japanese poetry, like haiku and tanka.

June: What we're required to learn in school is set around U.S. history and government. The only chance in the curriculum to learn about Asian history is one world history class in our sophomore year. That does not do a good job. They have to cover 6,000 years of history in one year, and it is mainly Western culture. I don't think that is enough.

Marisa: When we started learning about immigrants, we learned about the different groups that came over. We didn't really learn about the Asian groups as individual groups; they just weren't studied as much as, say, the Irish who came after the potato famine.

Genevieve: I have a map of Southeast Asia on my wall so that all my friends can see where Laos is because people don't know. And I have all these cultural things on my wall and people are surprised because they don't know what kind of civilization these things came from. They say, "What's Laos food like?" And I say, "Um, Chinese food -- but more salad, less spicy."

A separate heritage.

MODERATOR: We take pride in the accomplishments of our cultures. It's important to us that the values of our ancestors be preserved.

Dhayal: I was reading an article about some physics theory, and it gave the name of an Indian scientist. It made me kind of proud that he was someone that was from the same place I was from and not just some European person who you usually see with that kind of discovery.

Villy: When I hear something about Laos, I say, "Wow, they said something about Laos. I'm pretty proud of that. Actually, it's getting to be known in the outside world. We're getting somewhere."

Genevieve: I think consensus-building, my concepts of community, what I want out of America, come a lot from the values of my culture.

Dhayal: Honesty and ethics are worth a lot to me, and being friendly has done a lot for me. The honesty and ethics were taught to me at an earlier age in India.

Clifford: I feel comfortable around people who are like me -- minorities in general, people who other people identify as being not American or white -- because we both have a culture, a separate heritage that we can identify with.

Khanh: Everybody in America said, "Oh, well, we can all be the same, it doesn't matter who you are or where your background is; just come here and assimilate." Part of that is good, but part of it is telling you you must leave behind all your culture and become one of us. I realized when I visited Vietnam that I wouldn't have to do that. I can still live in America and be an American and be appreciative of my roots.

Who We Are

Khanh Pham (Con Fahm), 20, is a junior at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. She came to the U.S. at age 3, fleeing Vietnam on a boat with her mother, an older brother and a younger sister. While in high school, she was active in student government and in numerous community service programs. Khanh is planning a career in public affairs.


Tomoko Tanikawa (To-MO-ko Tah-nee-KAH-wah), 18, graduated from Westtown School in Westtown, Pa., in June 1996. She was born in Yokohama, Japan, and attended private school before coming to the U.S. in 1994. Success in English classes in Japan prompted her interest in attending boarding school here. She plans to attend college in the U.S.


Marisa Matsudaira (Mah-RIS-ah Mat-soo-DARE-ah), 18, was born in the U.S. Her father is from Japan and her mother is an American of Dutch heritage. A graduate of Northwest Guilford High School in Greensboro, N.C., Marisa was a member of the Writer's Guild and the Debate Club.


Genevieve Siri (JEN-e-veev See-ree), 24, is a recent graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Her family moved from Laos to the United States when she was 4 years old. She is especially interested in pursuing work in public policy as it relates to immigrants.


Clifford Song, 18, is a graduate of South Lakes High School in Reston, Va. His parents came to the U.S. from South Korea. Clifford was born in the U.S., but he lived in South Korea for seven years while his father worked for the U.S. government in Seoul. Clifford was a class officer, president of the Environmental Club and active in sports.


Villy Phoummitone (Villy POOM-i-TONE) is 16 years old and a junior at South Lakes High School in Reston, Va. Her family left Laos and came to Virginia when Villy was 3. She is the youngest of 10 children. Villy has been active in student government and in cheerleading. She would like to pursue a career in medicine.


June Liang (June Lee-AHNG), 18, was born in the U.S. Her parents immigrated from Taiwan. A graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., June was active in choir, dance, Student Council, Asian Awareness Club and Martial Arts Club. She intends to study international relations and Chinese.


My Lien Nguyen (My LEEN Win), 21, is a graduate of South Lakes High School in Reston, Va. She left Vietnam in 1991 with her family of 10. They spent seven months in a refugee camp before moving to California. They came to Virginia in 1992. Before leaving Vietnam, My Lien spoke no English. She hopes to get a degree in pharmacology.


Dhayal Jayaseelan (Dah-YAHL Jay-yay-SEE-lan), 17, was born in Madras, capital of Tamil Nadu, in India. He moved to the U.S. when he was 3. He understands Tamil but no longer speaks it well. Dhayal was the student government president at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. He plays drums in his own rock band.


Raquel Andres (Rah-KEL AN-dres), 16, is a junior at South Lakes High School in Reston, Va. She was born in the U.S. to Filipino parents. She speaks English at home with her mother. Raquel participates in the school's Leadership program and in athletics.