Asian Pre-Teens

Asian Pre-Teens

Who am I? That's a question that even well-adjusted adults, armed with all our years of comforting routines and soothing platitudes, find ourselves wrestling with all too often.

For kids struggling to get through adolescence, the question can be a killer. It's the dark, scary mountain range looming squarely in their paths to adulthood. For Asian American kids, it's the Himalayas. In my experience, the need to build a healthy self-image, an identity, is the most urgent challenge facing Asian American kids of all ages, day to day, hour by hour.

What makes the challenge so treacherous is that it's invisible to all but the most perceptive and caring parents. Yet, all too often, the demands of trying to meet or avoid that challenge is the source of the troubles that parents find themselves forced to confront -- falling grades, obesity, drug use, teen and pre-teen sex and pregnancy, withdrawal from social contact and, in growing numbers of cases, juvenile crime and violence. These are merely the symptoms about which more than enough has been written and spoken. Strangely little attention has been devoted to what I believe to be their most important root cause, at least for Asian Americans.

To me what's remarkable isn't the number of Asian American kids who go wrong. It's how many become productive, apparently well-adjusted adults. But before we break out the champagne over the legions of bright young Asian Americans marching through top colleges and into business and professional success, let's take a look at the ones who fall by the wayside and, to be brutally frank, let's take a second look at the ones who make it on every level but the most basic -- achieving a genuine sense of self.

The issue of identity is an issue of parental guidance and education.
Why parental? Can't the kids educate themselves on it?

Yes, it's possible for a young Asian American to come to satisfactory grips with her identity after she has muddled through adolescence and young adulthood. I believe many Asian Americans have done just that. But they have often paid a high price in the form of social, educational and professional opportunities missed as a result of identity-related conflicts. The price is also paid in the statistical sense of having survived the risks of not making the adjustments well enough or in time.

From birth, Asian American boys are told they have no hope of growing up to be strong, sexy and admired. Asian American girls are told that they will be accepted only if they are dumb, desperate and sexually submissive. In short, young Asian Americans are forced to choose between being accepted according to the standards laid out by the American society as embodied in the media and perceptions and becoming the attractive, confident and successful human beings they would like to be.

Asian American kids with the strongest self-image inevitably find themselves slamming up, time and again, against the hateful expectations and, by their adolescence, come to feel a degree of alienation from American society. The fortunate ones ultimately find a way to resolve the conflict between their own self-image and stereotyped social expectations. The less fortunate either succumb to the stereotypes or reject their racial identity, society, or both. Often parents are included in this rejection if they are perceived as contributing in some way to the conflict, either by the their unwillingness to acknowledge the effects of racism or by themselves having fallen victim to its effects.

The less fortunate outcomes can be avoided if parents understand the psychological pressure points that precipitate identity conflicts for young Asian Americans and provide timely counter-programming against the insidious effects of racial stereotyping and other subtle forms of institutionalized racism. It's important to note that even TV programs or shows bearing the earmarks of being educational or otherwise well-intentioned often subtly reinforce the assault on a child's self-image. For example, the disproportionate numbers of Asian females and dirth of Asian males on kids' programs tend to reinforce the subtle and insidious message that Asians are a race of women without men.

What follows are the six pernicious psychological pressure points that have the strongest negative impact on Asian self-image, the telltale signs of their effect on your kids, and my prescription for applying counterbalancing education, "preventive medicine". It's important to begin the educational process from early childhood, typically the age of three or four because that's when kids first become conscious of the racial component of their social interactions. The education should certainly begin well before the age of seven or eight. By the age of nine or ten, I believe most kids have internalized the conflicts between their preferred self-image and the one pushed on them by racial stereotypes and social expectations. At that age they are likely to be far less receptive to efforts at education.

PRESSURE-POINT 1: Concerns about looking different; judging one's appearance by white standards
EARLY SYMPTOMS: Asking or complaining about own physical appearance, expressing desire to dye hair, get surgery to change the face or body
PREVENTIVE MEDICINE: Spend time where Asians are the predominant population; watch Asian movies, TV shows and videos

The desire to look like everyone else is generally the first symptom of the conflict caused by exposure to racial stereotyping. It is usually easy to spot as it manifests itself while kids are between the ages of 4 and 6, while they are too young to consider dissembling their motives. If not addressed early on, it also manifests itself in subtler forms throughout childhood and early adolescence.

In some ways, this is the easiest pressure-point to deal with, at least in its early stages. It can be addressed effectively just by spending a few days in an Asian nation or even places in the U.S. like Hawaii, Torrance, Monterey Park, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Irvine, L.A. Koreatown, Hacienda Heights -- wherever Asians outnumber Whites and are clearly in the dominant population. Regular exposure to large numbers of Asians every few weeks is enough to counteract the effects of the "whitewashing" of one's standards of beauty and normalcy. If it's impractical to travel to Asian places, providing access to Asian TV programs, videos or books and magazines is the next best thing. These measures won't entirely overcome concerns about looking different but will definitely take the edge off.

PRESSURE-POINT 2: Being embarrassed about Asian food, customs, culture and decor
EARLY SYMPTOMS: Complaining about being given Asian lunches or meals, reluctance to invite friends over, complaining about food smells, hiding or suppressing Asian objects and decor in their rooms
PREVENTIVE MEDICINE: Show the importance of Asian culture to American life by pointing out examples of Asian influence over everyday things they take for granted

Most kids aren't receptive to long lectures on history or culture, but even the most jaded are inordinately impressed by the kinds of bite-sized "gee-whiz" trivia that can be related to their own lives. A bit of research will reveal thousands of examples of Asian influences on everyday American life.
A few examples include:

  • spaghetti noodles, mustard, ketchup and gunpowder originated from China;

  • Coreans invented the moveable type 700 hundred years before Gutenberg, the ironclad ship 370 years before the Monitor and the Merrimack and the world's first written language based on a systematization of phonetics;

  • a Japanese courtesan authored the world's first novel ( Genji-no Monogatori , The Tale of Genji) 7 centuries before the English Tristram Shandy , the first western novel;

  • until the middle of the 18th century, Chinese culture and civilization was considered the world's richest and most sophisticated;

  • Corean Koryu celadon ceramics are considered the world's most sublime in hue and design and is widely imitated by western ceramicists and designers;

You can also make small observations to place Asian food and customs in a favorable light. For example,

  • chopsticks are a more elegant, aesthetic and versatile dining implement than knifes and forks;

  • Chinese cuisine scientifically incorporates the five flavors of sweet, sour, spicy, salty and bitter so as to satisfy the human palate without the need to unhealthily gorge oneself;

  • Corean women traditionally kept their own surnames, a far more feminist custom than the western one of adopting their husband's;

You'd be amazed at the extent to which these little tidbits inspire far more cultural pride in your kids than long learned lectures. Also, you'd be surprised at how much they stimulate an interest in learning more about Asian culture which, in turn, will inspire even more pride.

PRESSURE-POINT 3: Worrying that Asian Americans aren't really American
EARLY SYMPTOMS: Blindly embracing schlock and rhetoric that seem to embody American-ness and automatically rejecting anything that seems "foreign"
PREVENTIVE MEDICINE: Point out the many ways in which Asians have been an integral part of American history and social development

One of the unfortunate impressions that American media and society tend to create in the minds of our kids is that Asians are newcomers to American life. Nothing could be further from the truth! Asians have played a key role in the development of the United States since the middle of the 19th century, decades before the arrival of the vast majority of the ancestors of our Caucasian fellow-Americans! But again, kids aren't likely to sit still for lectures on Asian American history. You have to blast them out of their ignorance with colorful tidbits of trivia that will shatter the Asian-newcomer myth. Here are just a few examples:

  • Chinese laborers built the more difficult half of the Transcontinental Railroad requiring dangerous blasting through the Sierra Nevadas and the Rockies while dangling by ropes in baskets;

  • The all-Japanese-American 442nd and the 100th Regimental Combat Team were the most decorated units of World War II, man for man;

  • The handsome Japanese-American actor Sessue Hayakawa was one of the highest paid stars of the golden age of silent films;

  • The term "go for broke", the very essence of gutsiness embodied in the most cinematic war stories, was coined by the Hawaiian-born Japanese Americans of those units who once sustained 70% casualties to rescue a Texas battlion trapped behind enemy lines in Italy;

  • the bing cherry was named after the Chinese American who developed it;

  • At least three Chinese Americans fought in the Civil War, on the Union side;

  • The inventor of the magnetic-core memory, the concept at the heart of modern computing, was a Chinese American computer engineer named An Wang;

There are countless more examples. Just a few will convince your kids that the Asian place isn't at the back of the American parade. Appreciating that the Asian contribution to the building of the United States is of long standing will instill confidence and authority in their status as Americans.

PRESSURE-POINT 4: Fear that Asians must settle for a marginal or inferior place in American life
EARLY SYMPTOMS: Staking out modest ambitions; being unwilling to consider goals or careers requiring head-to-head competition
PREVENTIVE MEDICINE: Tell them about spectacular Asian American successes in everything from sports to technology

It's only natural for minorities kids to wonder whether they will be allowed to rival or surpass members of the majority in important respects like money, professional prestige, social position, romantic relationships. Especially when they're constantly seeing Asians playing marginal, secondary or outright repulsive roles in movies and TV shows. Fortunately for Asian Americans, in the United States minorities are allowed to surpass the majority to the extent of their abilities. That isn't to say that subtle race-based handicaps can't hinder them but that any such obstacles can be overcome by ability and determination.

It's one thing to know that in the abstract and another to feel that it can be true for you. Fortunately, enough Asian Americans have enjoyed spectacular successes in virtually every imaginable field to provide examples to inspire our kids. Only a few such examples -- mostly athletes like Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan, Michael Chang, Chanho Park and Pak Seri -- are visible enough for our kids to be inspired by them. But the vast majority of Asian American success stories -- often the most inspiring and instructive ones -- never receive the kind of media attention that bring them to our kids' attention. It's especially important for Asian American parents to learn about as many Asian success stories as possible and share them with the children. There are hundreds of stories in which young Asians overcome poverty and racial prejudice to achieve spectacular success.

Daniel Inouye, who lost his right arm in a heroic battle on an Italian hill during World War II, couldn't even get a haircut after the war because of racial prejudice. Yet he sent himself through law school and went on to become one of the nation's most powerful senators. Bill Mow's family was so poor that his only allowance growing up were a dozen eggrolls a week which he sold to classmates for a quarter apiece. Yet he went on to found and run the Bugle Boy sportswear empire with its 10,000 employees worldwide. A few of these success stories will flesh out the concept of equal opportunity and help your kids see that their minority status need not relegate them to a marginal role in any sphere.

PRESSURE-POINT 5: Refusal to acknowledge racism for fear of appearing paranoid
EARLY SYMPTOMS: Refusal to acknowledge even the slightest degree of race consciousness or discrimination; compulsion to deny fellow feeling with other Asians
PREVENTIVE MEDICINE: Discuss your own experiences with race and explain the subtle, insidious ways in which the media and society can put Asians at a disadvantage in social and professional situations

Many parents avoid discussing racism with their kids for fear that it may encourage them to dwell too much on the negative. That's the biggest mistake an Asian American parent can make, in my opinion. Clamming up about racism hurts kids in several important ways. For one, it makes kids wonder if they are abnormal for being conscious of their racial differences and for sensing racial feelings in others. That isolates them in their doubts and insecurities at the most sensitive stages of their emotional development. The sense of alienation is thereby increased, not lessened. Refusing to discuss racism also does your kids the terrible disservice of making them believe that it's something that's too terrible to talk about. That merely increases their fear and dread of it, making them far less at ease than they would be otherwise.

Intelligent parents bring up the topic of racism in a casual and straight forward manner to make it clear that it is not a unique experience or one that's too terrible to talk about. By bringing it up, parents can draw out their kids' experiences and questions, helping them feel less isolated and threatened. What's more, they can help put racism in perspective as a force that isn't all-pervasive but confined to specific situations and segments of society. The truth is that racism is found mostly among people who feel insecure, vulnerable and threatened about their own places in society. By cutting it down to its proper shape and proportions, you can help your kids consider intelligent approaches for dealing with it rather than blowing it out of proportion.

PRESSURE-POINT 6: Being embarrassed to take pride in one's sexuality

EARLY SYMPTOMS: Sneering at the notion of sexual attractiveness; discussing sex and sexuality as vulgar and beneath their dignity; dressing or acting to obliterate their own sexuality

PREVENTIVE MEDICINE: Expose them to Asian celebrities and acquaintances of both sexes admired for their charisma and sex appeal; acknowledge the importance of sex and sexuality in the lives of all healthy people, including yours

Sex and sexuality is the area parents feel least comfortable discussing but the area most urgently in need of clarification for most young Asian Americans. The topic is difficult for all young people, but exceptionally so for Asian Americans because of the peculiar media images and social expectations to which they are subjected. On the one hand, Asian males are portrayed as unattractive and sexless, the fantasy of the pushover rival. On the other, Asian females are portrayed as extremely sexually active and available to white males, the fantasy of the exotic female. For most of the twentieth century, Asians have been for the white male imagination the fantasy race of nonentity males and available females.

That fantasy has been elaborated on ad nauseum in movies and TV shows. Needless to say, those images are as unappealing to Asian males and females as they are ubiquitous in the American imagination. White kids can find sexual role models virtually everywhere they look. The airwaves drip sexuality around the clock. But Asians are effectively excluded from American media offerings because of the peculiarly offensive role to which we have been relegated. As a consequences, many Asian American kids turn away from the entire American sexual value system rather than accept its offensive premises.

Unfortunately, the suppression of one's sexuality isn't a satisfactory solution. It merely leads to confusion with every aspect of one's identity. Ultimately, many Asians end up rejecting their Asian-ness rather than their sexuality. The result, of course, is even more pain and confusion. That's why it's exceptionally important for Asian American kids to have Asian role models who embody healthy, attractive sexuality. For this purpose the ideal figures are actors and other celebrities who are attractive to members of the opposite sex regardless of race. Actors like Jason Scott Lee, Russell Wong, Keanu Reeves, Chow Yun-Fat, among men, and Joan Chen, Tia Carrere, Mingna Wen and Lindsey Price, among women, are some examples. They are obviously Asian but embody sexual attractiveness acceptable to all Americans, thereby validating the sexual self-image of young Asian Americans.

Parents can play an important role in helping their kids form positive identifications with such figures by expressing approval of their attractiveness. Those well-intentioned parents who cut down Asian American celebrities for one reason or another make it that much harder for their kids to form a positive sexual self-image and add to their ultimate confusion when they reach adolescence.


Reprinted from


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