SOUTHBAY / COVER STORY : A Conflict of Interest : Asian students pay a price as they struggle to meet high expectations from parents and cope with peer pressure.
The story of 17-year-old Magnolia Ramos is as old as the story of immigrant America itself. She came to the South Bay from the Philippines six years ago with parents who wanted her to achieve the American Dream.
She is well on her way: Magnolia graduates in June from Carson High School at the top of her class, a likely valedictorian.
“She is the stereotype,” says her friend Bhea Banares, also an honor student.
Bhea is referring to the Asian stereotype, the model students everyone hears about, the ones who rank at the top of their class, who win the Westinghouse Science Awards, the spelling bees, the National Merit Scholarships and the academic decathlons.
Less noticed is the toll that such achievement can take on Asian children struggling to live up to high expectations.
They often are also burdened with family and social problems that few non-Asian teachers and students understand. For one thing, many Asian youths are pressured by their peers to date and socialize, while their parents expect them to conform to traditional values and devote their time to schoolwork.
It is also common for Asian students--particularly recent immigrants--to be picked on and called derogatory names such as FOB, for “fresh off the boat.”
Torn by family and peer pressure, many Asian students feel lonely, alienated and unable to discuss their problems.
“I’m supposed to be this really smart person. Everybody’s always saying I have to get A’s,” says Magnolia. “But there’s one thing I’m afraid of: ‘What if I fail? Will they still love me?’ ”
Immigrant parents perceive hard work and achievement as the key to “the finer things in life,” says Dhyan Lal, principal at Carson High School and himself an immigrant from the Fiji Islands. “Cars, a nice house, a good job. So you can have a good life. And help the people back home.”
Like many in mainstream America, says Lal, Asians are “looking for a bigger home, to show to friends that they’ve moved to a high-class neighborhood. So they go to Palos Verdes or Torrance or Cerritos.”
Throughout the South Bay, the number of Asians has increased dramatically in the last decade, according to census data. The student population at high schools in Carson, Torrance and Palos Verdes is more than 30% Asian. Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, where 34% of the students are Asians, also has the most National Merit Scholarship semi-finalists in the state. Only 11 Asian students attend predominantly black and Latino Inglewood High School, but those students are all “at the top of the class,” said Principal Kenneth Crowe.
At some schools, however, Asian students are a small minority. Mira Costa High School in Redondo Beach, for example, is 78% white, and just 6% Asian.
Jayme Yen, a senior at Mira Costa, is a first-generation American, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants who work as aerospace engineers. She says she accepts her parents’ expectation that she will attend an Ivy League school in the fall.
For months before she took the Scholastic Aptitude Test, her father encouraged her to study every night. When she scored 1,420 out of 1,600, “My dad said, ‘Good! Next time you can go for 1,500!’ ”
But Jayme resisted.
“We had so many arguments about it, but I told him: ‘No way. I’m not studying another minute for that test.’ My parents are always saying, ‘You can do better.’ ”
Her father, Kuo-Hsiung Yen, said Asian parents are no different from other parents, but they may place a higher value on education.
“It’s important to try to make her do her best,” he said. “Maybe we have higher expectations. It is our tradition.”
The pressure to succeed is so great among some Asian families at Mira Costa, says junior Nancy Choe, that she chooses not to have many Asian friends.
“Asian kids tend to worry so much about what their parents will think and what everybody else thinks of them. They’re always thinking about keeping up their grades no matter what. I can’t do that.”
Nancy was born in South Korea but moved with her family to Los Angeles when she was 2. Hers are the “cliche of Asian parents,” she says. “They came to the United States and opened a laundry.” The business is near Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, an area notorious for Asian and other gangs.
The family moved from L.A. to Cerritos to Torrance to Manhattan Beach before settling in Redondo Beach. She feels pressure to succeed in mainstream America, and bound by her parents’ ambition and traditions.
“What they want is not what I want,” she says. “They want me to date Asian guys with lots of money.”
But she says her parents also want her to have a better life than they did. “They’re always trying to keep up with the bills. That’s why they want me to study and get a good job.”
The pressure to succeed and conform can make life harder for Asian teen-agers, says Sam Joo, a counselor with the Asian American Drug Abuse Prevention program. In Asian culture, “feelings are not expressed. You have a duty and you do it without griping.”
Nancy says she rarely speaks to her parents. They typically work 13-hour days and speak Korean. Nancy speaks English and some Korean. Neither speaks the other’s language fluently, she says.
“When I get home, I go to my room, listen to the radio, do my homework. I don’t really talk to my parents. They’re always comparing me to everybody else, like my cousins. That’s what I really don’t like. ‘Well, your cousins did this or that.’ I say, ‘But I’m not them, am I?’ ”
Her parents, she says, respond: “But you’re still Korean.”
At school, the pressure is different. “Some guy was always making fun of me,” she says. “He was constantly fighting with me, calling me (names). I would just yell back at him: ‘Shut up! You’re such an ass!’ You have to blow it off. There’s always going to be people who are racist. You have to ignore it and go on.”
In working-class neighborhoods, Asian students often feel even more pressure to succeed than their counterparts in the beach cities, “so they can pull their family out,” says Joo, the Asian American Drug Abuse Prevention counselor. Joo sees an increase in “the large numbers who are not doing so well,” who rebel and join street gangs.
“The problem with Asians is their inability to assimilate into mainstream culture,” says Carson High Principal Lal, an author of a book on gangs. “If they don’t excel in school, they join gangs.”
Those kids are “caught between two cultures,” he says. “They’re pressured by peers to act like the mainstream and pressured by parents who expect them to obey the rigid rules and regulations of the old country.”
Lal says one Asian girl at Carson High went out without her father’s permission and came home after midnight. Her father told her she had shamed him and the family “and he gave her the belt,” Lal says. The beating was severe enough for the school to report the father for child abuse.
At Carson High, minorities are a majority. Thirty-two percent of the students come from the Philippines and other Pacific islands.
But the mix of minorities can cause tensions, and a police substation is part of the fenced-in, fortress-like campus.
Two years ago, after fighting between immigrant Filipino and Filipino American gangs erupted, Lal instituted multicultural awareness programs celebrating the African, Asian and Latino cultures of the student body. “Everything really got better after that,” says senior and recent Filipino immigrant Charisma Cordero.
Even in schools with a large Asian population, Asian students can feel a lot of pressure.
Charisma takes honors classes, gets top grades, sings in the school choir and works after school in her father’s board-and-care home for drug addicts. She too feels hemmed in by her parents’ expectations.
She wants to major in music in college but her parents won’t hear of it. “They don’t think I can get a good job with it, so I have to pick another major like law or engineering or medicine. A major that will support me. That will be good for us as a family.”
Charisma and her friends, all recent immigrants, all fluent in English and Tagalog, are eating lunch together in the classroom of a teacher who also is a Filipino immigrant. The room is filled with Filipinos, boys on one side, girls on the other.
The girls discuss dating, their parents, the rules they live by: No visiting friends’ houses. Obey elders. Do chores around the house after school, then study. Get good grades. No socializing. Marry rich. Succeed.
“My parents don’t care who I date as long as he has a good job, comes from a good family and has a lot of money,” says Charisma. “But I can’t date until after college.”
“My mom said she’d send me back to the Philippines if she found out I had a boyfriend,” says friend Magnolia Ramos.
“My mom made me quit color guard because she thought the skirts were too short,” says Lodel Yerro, who arrived four years ago from the Philippines. “And you can’t talk back to your parents. Their point of view is always right.”
Lodel’s father died, and her mother works long hours in a nursing home. Lodel rarely sleeps more than a few hours every night. She gets up at 6:30 a.m., gets her little brothers ready for school, does chores, goes to school, then takes the bus to her job as an orderly’s assistant at a nearby hospital where she earns money to help support the family. She gets home at 8 p.m., puts her brothers to bed, washes dishes, clothes, vacuums and starts her homework around 10 or 11 p.m.
On the weekends, she takes classes to become a nurse’s assistant, goes to choir practice and attends Baptist church all day Sunday. Her grade-point average is 3.7. “For Americans, having a job after high school is OK for them. For us, we have to have a profession, a career. We just follow what our parents say. We obey them. We want to please our parents.”
Like other recent immigrants, Lodel had to endure taunts about her ordinary clothes and frequent name-calling.
Bhea Banares, one of Lodel’s friends, arrived from the Philippines six years ago and entered a Torrance elementary school, she says, knowing little English and almost nothing about American culture.
The kids laughed at her when she tried to talk. The one other Filipino boy in the class “wouldn’t even talk to me,” she says. “My parents weren’t too sympathetic. They thought it was a kid’s problem.”
She hid her anger, accepted her fate and ate lunch alone. One rainy day, the teacher had the class play “Heads Up 7-Up.” The other children knew that all but seven students hide their eyes and extend their thumbs. The seven students then touch some of the thumbs. Whoever gets touched has to guess who touched them.
“I didn’t know how to play. So I put my head down when everybody else did and somebody came and touched my thumb. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what it meant. Then everybody started laughing. I felt like crying. But I just sat there.”
Magnolia can sympathize. In fifth grade, her teacher constantly held up her achievement as an example to the rest of the class. “The teacher would say, ‘Look at her! She just got here and she’s getting good grades!’ ” The other kids jeered her, calling her teacher’s pet and worse.
“One time, this Filipino boy was really teasing me, calling me teacher’s pet. I started crying. Everybody kept asking me, ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’ And I couldn’t speak. I didn’t know enough English to explain it. So I just kept crying.”
Magnolia says she doesn’t know if anybody understands all the pressure she feels, but she can’t talk to her parents about it. “Sometimes I just want to get away from my parents because whenever I see them, I feel pressure. I can’t talk about it with them. I can’t talk mushy stuff with my parents and friends. I can’t talk about feelings. My parents always told me: This is family business. It’s our affair and nobody should know about it,” Magnolia says softly.
“I guess it’s a cultural thing.”
Times staff writer Diane Seo contributed to this story.