Abby just got her latest report card. Fine in everything, except class participation.
I was really reserved growing up, especially at school. I ended up doing fine socially because we never moved, so I never really had to make all new friends – even when I went to Bellarmine, my best friend came with me so we at least had each other. But when placed in an unfamiliar social environment, I shrank. To be honest, I still have that tendency.
Part of me attributed my reservedness to always being one of the few Asians in my class. This was California, not Texas, so there were a healthy number of Asians around. But back in those days, we were still a distinct minority. A short one – in every elementary class picture I have, me and Jer3my Nishih@ra are always in the front, the 2 East Asians my year, the shortest kids in the class. I think a combination of those 2 things, being a short minority Asian, reinforced to me that I couldn’t be cool, and for that reason I never asserted myself socially.
So I remember being shocked when I encountered cool Asian-Americans. For uninteresting reasons, I was briefly in with a Boy Scout Troop associated with the Buddhist Temple in Downtown San Jose, almost all Japanese kids, and I kind of got to know them but only in the context of the troop, wearing scout uniforms. Anyway, in 6th grade, we had a class day at Great America, not just our school but a ton of schools throughout San Jose, and we ran into a kid from that troop there with friends from his school. I was shocked. He was cool. It was immediately obvious, by the way he dressed, how he carried himself with his friends, how his friends looked – he was cool. And it was mind-blowing for me, because to that point, an Asian-American kid being cool was not even a possibility in my thinking.
Later, when I tried to figure out how it happened, one thing I realized is that he went to a mostly Asian school, a feeder into Lynbrook. Made me theorize a lot. Maybe when there are a ton of other Asians around, they don’t feel like cultural outsiders, don’t even feel short, so they don’t feel socially inhibited, so they can be cool.
This was reinforced when I went to Stanford and met Whitney grads and learned about that school. It’s like 90% Asian, and the Asian kids there did a host of things that, for me growing up, felt off-limits for Asians. Sports. Student Council. Homecoming Queen. General social popularity. Mind-blowing. And it made sense. If the Asians are the overwhelming majority, it’s not even possible for them to shrink socially.
When we knew Abby would be attending her current kindergarten, which is overwhelmingly Asian, I kind of assumed Abby’s social experience would be way different from mine. Unlike me, she’d me in the majority, so there wouldn’t be that cultural minority effect causing her to be shy as it did for me. Like those kids I saw from Lynbrook or Whitney, she could be cool. This assumption was reinforced in the first few weeks when I realized that most of the kindergarten kids actually had fob parents. So some of them didn’t even speak English that well. Even the ones who did, they didn’t have the advantage of parents who really understood American culture and what that means in terms of dress, food, and other things like that that frankly do make a difference in terms of elementary school popularity (as I remember). She had a natural social advantage.
But none of that, the advantage or being in the cultural majority, has really mattered. Abby is super shy in class. Just like I was. And I find that fascinating. It’s causing me to totally reconsider how much of my shyness really was the cultural effect and how much was just my personality. Maybe I’ve blamed the minority experience for being unassertive when it’s really just how I am, just as it seems to be how Abby is. Maybe I’d have been just as shy if I went to school in Korea. Who knows.
I worry for her a little bit. One thing that mitigated my reservedness was the fact that I dominated the class academically. But Abby’s in a class with a bunch of Tiger Parents so she won’t have that. I guess we’ll see what happens.