Asian youths cope with studies and a myth
Arizona Daily Star

By Lourdes Medrano

Tucson, Arizona

At 17, Heayeon Lee's thoughts often wander to her impending high school graduation, trendy fashions and the latest object of her affection.

Lee also worries about her grades. The Rincon High School senior is barely passing her government class; she would rather splash paint on canvas than try to decipher U.S. foreign policy.

The teen shatters the stereotype that all Asian-American students belong to a problem-free population of high achievers. That myth has been tossed at Lee before.

"You're Asian, how could you not know that?" Lee said a teacher once blurted out when she admitted not knowing the answer to a math problem. Lee, who also uses Michelle as her first name, said she is more fond of art than of numbers. She wants to be an art teacher someday.

Members of Tucson's Asian community know that the "model minority" label doesn't apply to everyone in their diverse population, and they work to dispel misconceptions through programs aimed at young people such as Lee.

In the Tucson Unified School District, which enrolls most of the city's schoolchildren, 1,600 Asian-American students, combined, speak more than 20 languages. Among those languages are Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Filipino.

Although Asian-Americans make up just 2.7 percent of TUSD's more than 60,000 students, their needs are no less serious, said Maria Hooker, director of the Pan Asian Studies Department. "There are a lot of students who succeed, but there are a lot of students who have trouble making it."

Hooker's department acts as an advocate for students and works with community groups to tackle some of the obstacles that keep the youngsters from thriving. Most of the hurdles are related to family language and culture, Hooker noted.

Some Asian-American children including some who were born and raised here have a difficult time in school because they speak an Asian language at home and their English vocabulary is limited, she said.

And students who struggle academically can't count on parental help with homework and other school-related matters, because the school system is foreign to the adults.

"A lot of parents come here and want kids to be successful in school, and yet they don't understand the educational process," Hooker said.

Many Asian immigrants stay away from schools because they see their involvement as interfering with teachers, said Hooker, who is Korean-American. They trust that educators know what is best for their children.

Hooker often explains to parents that here they are expected to get involved in their children's education. But not all can, she said, particularly recent immigrants who must hold two jobs to survive.

As Hooker and others work to change cultural perceptions, Asian-American youths who need a little extra help get it from the Pan Asian Community Alliance of Tucson. The group operates a center on South Craycroft Road, where students of all ages get homework help after school.

Lee, who moved from South Korea to this country seven years ago, is among the students who stop in frequently. On a recent day, she was hoping to get help with homework for her English and government classes. The teen said she tries not to be bothered by the misperceptions that many have of her community. "I just laugh it off," she said.

The oldest of three children, Lee faces all the youthful angst of most people her age. And being an immigrant child who learned English as a second language has posed other challenges as well.

She sometimes has trouble with English comprehension. Usually, Lee said, she lets teachers know early on that English is her second language so they will allow her to use a dictionary in class.

"Word problems are the hardest," she said,

But she expressed confidence that she will graduate in May.

"My common sense is part Korean and part American," she said,

Dorothy Lew, the alliance's executive director, said that as the American-born child of Chinese immigrants, she can identify with the struggles of Lee and the other youths she has met over the years.

Lew recalled that as a young student, like many of the Asian youths who visit the center, she lacked a rich English vocabulary because she always spoke Chinese with her parents and grandparents. And she still remembers the parental pressure that pushed her to work hard in school.

"My family used to say, 'If you fail, you will embarrass yourself and you will embarrass your family," Lew said.

Jack Luo,23, a recent University of Arizona graduate, said he faced similar expectations from his mother while in high school in the Phoenix area, where because of schoolwork he had little freedom to socialize.

"It does push you to achieve," said Luo, who is Chinese-American and tutors youngsters at the Pan Asian center.

Hanh Nguyen, 17, who helps younger students with their homework at the center, said she gets top grades in school. But academic success hasn't come easy, she said, adding that she works "really hard." A Sahuaro High School sophomore, Nguyen moved here from Vietnam five years ago.

Brian Chen, 15, has lived in this country for just five months. He visits the Pan Asian center almost daily to get some help with language, reading and math.

"My mom always tells me to pay attention and study hard," said Chen, who is from China and a freshman at Sahuaro. "For me, it's hard, but for other Asians, study is very easy."

●Contact reporter Lourdes Medrano at 573-4347 or