Dear Asian American Parents

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Image Credit: maveric2003 via Flickr


Dear Asian American Parents,

Just like you, I have school-age kids, who will be applying for college sooner than I’d like to think. So I understand your fears about anything that might unfairly take those opportunities away from our children. I know you’ve worked so hard so your kids can have a better life– or at least not grow up to be worse off than their parents. In a world where the rich seem to be getting richer and the middle class seems to be disappearing, it seems more urgent than ever that the next generation be prepared.

I know you are terrified that a bill to bring back Affirmative Action to the Golden State will take coveted spaces at UC schools away from Asian kids. College admissions are frighteningly competitive, especially for a chance to attend a world-class institution for a fraction of the tuition of an Ivy League school.

But I’m also a daughter of Asian immigrants and a graduate of U.C. Berkeley, the crown jewel of the University of California, also known as the Asian Harvard… or perhaps, California’s Tai Da. Like Taiwan’s premier university, Berkeley is designed to accept the very top academic students of the state, and I hope my children might have a chance to be Cal Bears someday. On the other hand, Berkeley — or UCLA, or Davis, or UCSB — might not be the right college for them. Not because they aren’t smart enough or tough enough, or because they have the wrong skin color.

Perhaps you’ve heard that SCA5, the bill which was proposed in Sacramento by State Sen. Ed Hernandez would take spaces at state universities away from Asian American students. Some groups have even gone as far as to call the bill the “Skin Color Act 5” and one ethnic news outlet even decried it as the “Most Racist Bill in the History of California”. (Most racist? Ever heard of the anti-Chinese immigration laws? Or bans on interracial marriage? Or the internment of Japanese Americans?)

There is not a one-size fits all education that leads to a better life. I wish it were that having a good life were as simple as an algorithm involving GPA, SAT scores and carefully chosen extracurriculars. As much as I love Berkeley, I don’t know that it was the best place for me to go to college. And not because I wasn’t smart enough (I was a Regent’s Scholar). In the 1960s, students in the Free Speech Movement protested the University of California’s treatment of students as just another number, and even by the late 1980s and 1990s, the campus administration still had a take-a-number ethos. At a smaller college, an actual human guidance counselor might have asked why a freshman who gave an impassioned scholarship interview about politics and sociology would turn around and major in pre-med, saving me a year and a-half of trying to convince myself and my parents that I really wanted a career in the sciences.

Which is not to say that I didn’t benefit tremendously from Cal. Not by graduating with a degree in EECS or by getting into a good medical school, as many Asian parents hope a UC education will lead to. Asian American studies professors like Ron Takaki opened my eyes to the history and conscious identity of Asians in the United States. Taking an oral argumentation class in which my classmates included the children of Black Panthers and having a suitemate whose family came from South America also gave me valuable perspective on the world.

I know what you’re going to say. Creative and intellectual fields are fine for hobbies, but unstable for paying the bills and rife with personal biases and prejudice — even racism. I won’t disagree, but even tech fields aren’t free from the bamboo ceiling. Did you know that Affirmative Action laws also apply to employment? Did you know that when Californians voted for Prop. 209 and ended race as a factor in college admissions, it resulted in less than .5% increase in the percentage of Asian students?

While I don’t agree with the protests against SCA 5, I do appreciate the fact that so many Asian parents are getting involved politically, signing petitions and voicing their opinions to their elected officials. Your pressure on Asian American State Senators caused them to withdraw their support of the bill, effectively preventing SCA 5 from going to the ballot this November. Perhaps your taste of participatory democracy will help you see that Asian America doesn’t just need engineers and doctors, but also elected leaders, journalists, and organizers. Take some time to learn about the history of Asian America and the leaders who have paved the way for us. Do your research, especially when it comes to matters of law and government. And most importantly, accept your children’s God-given talents and encourage them to flourish in their areas of interest.

We can do better,



P.S. You might also be interested in reading these articles:

The Chinese-American Community Grapples With Affirmative Action — And Itself, Colorlines

We need more Asian American kids growing up to be artists, not doctors, The Guardian

Affirmative Action at California colleges: a debate based on fear , LA Times

The effect of Prop 209 on UC admissions and campus diversity, Reappropriate

Why Asian Americans Should Support Affirmative Action, Nancy Leong



  1. Karen Zhou says

    Hi Grace,

    I just want to say I really enjoy reading your posts because I think you are very different from mainstream Asian-Americans. I feel the same way as you do about Asian parents’ opposition to SCA5. I am not from California but I am aware of what’s going on as I have seen a lot of Facebook postings with regard to this topic. The racial tensions tend to run high in the United States not just between blacks and whites (ie. what’s happening in Ferguson), but also Asian-Americans vis-a-vis mainstream society. Why is it that every issue must be divided along racial lines?

    Asians are not a monolithic ethnic community. I don’t know how many times I have been asked to sign a petition supporting a racially charged cause because I happen to be Asian. Like you, I appreciate the fact that Asians are taking on a more politically active role. We need more elected leaders, artists, writers and journalists than doctors and engineers. But even as politically active participants in mainstream society, we do not speak as one voice. On the other hand, I think as our political community grows, there will naturally be more nuanced perspectives on many political issues where we have a stake. It’s important to realize that the issues facing the sons and daughters of first generation immigrants are probably very different from say gaining admissions to prestigious colleges and playing at Carnegie Hall. If these are the only aspirations in the Asian community, is there any wonder that we are often portrayed as nerds, rejects and type A personalities in mainstream movies and TV shows? The 21st century is not driven by people who know the best way to toe the line, but by people who can think outside the box like Zuckerberg, Jobs and Gates.

    Karen ( Toronto, Canada)

    • says

      I appreciate your comments and support, Karen! We need more Asian Americans and Asian Canadians who think outside the box. Hope to chat with you again soon.


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