The year before I entered as a freshman in the mid-1970s, there were race riots that put Morristown High School on the front page of the New York Times. It was an outsider, an older teen who didn’t even belong in the school, who set off some long-simmering tensions between certain student groups by trespassing and starting a fight. Back then, the racial equation, quite literally, was framed in black and white. As an Asian student, one of very few in that northern New Jersey community back then, the racial divide didn’t affect me very much personally — I had friends on both sides of the color line.
So imagine the irony I am feeling now, almost 30 years later, when I find myself in the middle of a new racial dynamic, one that this time, does involve me and my race. I’m talking about the changing demographics of our community. When we lived in San Francisco, we used to marvel at the fact that the city was about 35 percent Asian, mostly Chinese. Look around West Windsor and Plainsboro today, and that number is not so very far off. These historical farming towns have been evolving ethnically at warp speed over the last few years, due to the southern migration of residents of all backgrounds, but especially Asian and South Asian, from New York and down the Route 1 corridor from New Brunswick and Edison as well as from all over the world.
The influx has had positive results, especially on the value of our real estate and the academic bar that has been set in our schools. But recently, I’ve heard grumbling of a down side. Can you set the bar so high that it’s too high? Is there a hyper-charged, super-pressurized level of competition that creates an unhealthy level of anxiety? Are we nurturing a love of learning or a love of academic perfection and winning at all costs? As parents, we all want our children to achieve to the very best of their potential, and this is true no matter what our background or culture may be.
But the Asian emphasis on education, much of it rooted in Confucian values, combined with the immigrant work ethic of many of our most recent citizens, produces a drive that in some ways can be single-minded. With my own immigrant parents, if it wasn’t the Ivy League or M.I.T., the failure was not only ours but theirs as well. Let’s put it this way: one of my brothers is a freelance photographer in Hawaii. He is quite content with his life. My parents are not.
There has been a backlash to this academic ferocity resulting in what some perceive as limits on Asian admissions to the most competitive schools, as illustrated by this quote from educational consultant Robert Shaw in a Washington Post article: “As admissions strategists, our experience is that Asian Americans must meet higher objective standards, such as SAT scores and GPAs, and higher subjective standards than the rest of the applicant pool.”
The issues are especially relevant to us now that Katie is applying to college. Which box should she check for ethnic background? Logically, she should check both the box marked Caucasian and the box marked Asian/Pacific Islander. She could also check “multiracial,” which many schools have started offering, and leave them guessing. However, she is choosing not to check any box, instead, remaining as culturally neutral as possible, because she wants to be judged as an individual, and not because of her race. Molly, a freshman at High School North, is seeing the race dynamic played out in a whole new way.
The New Racial Equation: The Suburban Teen View
by Molly Kwon Brossman
Walking home from school the other day, I stopped to talk with a new kid at my school, an Indian boy in my neighborhood. He didn’t recognize me and didn’t remember seeing me at school, so he asked me who I was friends with at the high school. As I started to list the names of my friends, he stopped me and said, “Oh, you’re friends with white people aren’t you?” I was caught a bit off guard by his question, but I replied, “Yes, I have a lot of friends who are white, so what? White people can be friends with Asian people!” What shocked me most about this weird and eye-opening conversation was what he said in return, “Not in this town, they’re not.”
What was so strange to me was that here was a boy of my own age defining who you could be friends with based on their race, when I think that American citizens are extremely lucky that their race alone does not define who they are. It is mostly what they do, how they think, and how they act that defines them or should.
But here in the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district, that may no longer be true for some people. Although racial conflicts are definitely not a big problem here, many people have begun to notice the new race dynamic. I don’t know the exact numbers, but in my freshman class at High School North, there are many Asians of all backgrounds, some Korean, like my mother, many more of Chinese and Indian descent. This makeup is especially noticeable in my Honors Biology class where out of 25 students, the vast majority are Asian. Do I have a problem with this? Most certainly not. Being of mixed Asian and Caucasian blood though, in a way, I feel conflicted. There is a definite stereotype of the Asians in this district: they are impeccably smart.
Most of my Asian classmates complain about how hard their parents pressure them to do well academically. Although my parents constantly encourage me to do my best, they have never been real sticklers about straight As and they always support me when I do poorly on a test, instead of punishing me. The reason I do well in school is because I love to learn. I don’t need my parents to put academic pressure on me and they don’t, because I put it on myself.
As for overt racism, I can’t say I’ve seen any involving any ethnic group. I see the racial lines mainly in the separatism I see in the cafeteria. I’ve noticed that most of the Asians sit together in a group at lunch and that’s fine, because they’re friends and they should sit together. Kids of other backgrounds, including African-Americans and Latinos, sit together too.
I read a book that said that teens are searching for their self-identity and one way to find it is to find friends who are like them. Kids who sit together by race in the cafeteria aren’t necessarily leaving anyone out. But recently I’ve learned of a group in my grade that is a little bit like a secret society. It’s called the “82 Club”. It is a group of 82 Asians and a few white kids who are truly, “Asian at heart”, who have parties and get-togethers. When I was informed of this club, my first reaction was: count me in! Heck, I’m Asian, and these parties sound like loads of fun. Apparently though, half-Asians aren’t always welcome. Seeing the evident problem yet?
Many of the Asians at High School North are known as, or call themselves, the Asian Invasion. It’s especially weird because when we were younger, everyone, white or Asian or anything else, mingled and were friends. Now in high school it’s like whole different groups. But I feel that where your parents are from should not determine who you are friends with or where you sit at lunch. I would rather be friends with people whose personalities I like and I have things in common with.
Like my sister, I also find it difficult when it comes to choosing what ethnic and racial box to color in when applying to schools or filling out surveys. The Asians in my grade seem to have absolutely perfect academic records and are usually presidents of the science club or academic decathlon. When I apply to colleges, I hope they don’t expect me to be a genius or brainiac. That’s why I feel so conflicted being only half Korean. Part of me feels the pressure to have a 5.0 grade point average and part of me just wants to chill out, compete in sports, and be just a regular teenager. Another part of me hopes I can do all of that and why not?
But these are the kinds of stereotypes that exist in the West-Windsor Plainsboro school district and I see it at High School North. I don’t know what it’s like at High School South, but I can only imagine that the situation is very similar. It will take time, but I hope that future generations can break free of any stereotypes and just be themselves.