Harvard Educational Review
  1. Compelled to Excel

    Immigration, Education, and Opportunity among Chinese Americans

    By Vivian S. Louie

    Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004. 227 pp. $21.95.

    In Compelled to Excel, Vivian Louie questions whether “the story of Asian Americans and education really call to mind an American society where race and class are no longer relevant, as is frequently claimed” (p. xv). She explores the immigration and education patterns of 1.5- and second-generation Chinese American students at Columbia University and Hunter College of the City University of New York. In a thorough analysis of Chinese immigrant parents and their children, Louie examines the effects of socioeconomic status, gender, and geography on educational aspirations. As a second-generation Chinese American scholar, Louie asks us “to consider how culture, which we know to be fluid, is transformed by migration, race relations, and the opportunity structure in the United States, and how this interaction informs children’s understanding of aspirations passed by their immigrant parents” (p. xxx).

    In the introduction, Louie establishes the context with a discussion of the immigration changes and the positioning of Asian Americans as the model minority in the 1960s. During this time, to mitigate the racial tensions of the civil rights era and the cries for social justice made by other minorities, in particular Blacks and Latinos, Asian Americans were described as a successful minority group that seem to excel in the United States. The author refutes two theoretical frameworks for why Asian Americans were successful. First, Louie critiques the cultural arguments made by researchers who cite the inherent Asian cultural values and their focus on education; she notes the lack of attention to variations among both the students and the institutions they attend. Second, she challenges the argument that suggests economic opportunity structures contribute to educational aspirations; she examines unanswered questions such as why there are low-achieving ethnic children. As a result, Louie calls for new research utilizing a framework for analyzing culture and class in examining the Chinese American aspirations in school.

    In part 1, “Family Journeys to America,” Louie describes the bifurcated immigration patterns of post-1965 Chinese immigrants into the mainstream suburbia and urban ethnic enclaves. She provides examples of Taiwanese immigrants, such as the Leongs, Wang and Fong, who took advantage of the Immigration Act of 1965, which gave preference to highly educated professionals who were easily assimilable to mainstream America. For example, Mr. Leong was an engineer with both masters and bachelors degrees from New York University. Louie also highlights their fears of living among Whites — that is, a fear of their children losing the Chinese language and cultural heritage.

    The author contrasts the suburban Chinese immigrants to families like the Chens, Chiang and Woo, who represent the New York Chinatown labor markets as waiters and seamstresses. These Chinese immigrants, originating from mainland China, entered the United States “with low levels of education and must work long hard hours at low wages to make ends meet” (p. 23). A majority of them cannot speak English or have poor English skills. Very few of these Chinese immigrants have a high school education or more. Chinatown is their central location of residency, employment, and community. Their children, however, grew up with a sense of being Chinese. One student stated, “Yes, definitely. Because I was in Chinatown. I lived in Chinatown. Everybody was Chinese” (p. 31).

    Louie also suggests that “Chinese immigrant parents from all types of socioeconomic backgrounds and educational levels understood they were entering a racialized social hierarchy that privileged Whites as the ‘real Americans’” (p. 165). She highlights different examples of marginalization and discrimination experienced by the parents. For instance, the parents expressed the “hope that education would blunt the edge of discrimination for the next generation” (p. 57).

    In part 2, “How Children Make Sense of Education,” the author further discusses the theme of the Asian family as the reason why Asian students did well academically. The students felt that their parents had high expectations of them. Louie contends that the parents understood the value of having access to education. One student, Jannelle Chao, remembered, “My parents say they came here to give us a better education. ’Cause you know in Taiwan, its so hard to get to college, you have all these tests” (p. 52). In addition, the Chinese parents became aware of the payoff of higher education from their particular vantage point in the labor market, particularly if they were limited by their own job choices. With few English skills and little schooling, Chinese immigrant parents’ found themselves confined to the labor-intensive ethnic economy (i.e., manual labor jobs saturated with other Chinese immigrant workers). These experiences with class and structural opportunities influenced their aspirations for their children.

    Interestingly, Louie did not find gender differences among the Chinese parents’ expectations for their children’s education. Both urban and suburban parents held high expectations for their daughters and sons. However, some students did speak of “parent’s favoritism towards sons” (p. 75). Some parents also retained cultural expectations of their daughters’ behavior and the division of labor expected of their daughters. Lan Jong quips, “Like sometimes, I have to, you know, help out, you know, do the cleaning and stuff like that, and the woman’s role, chores, and stuff like that. And my brothers don’t have to do anything” (p. 77).

    In part 3, “The Second-Generation Experience,” Louie enumerates the Chinese American students’ struggle with their own identity, second-generation status, and their sense of obligation related to their parents’ sacrifices. The Hunter College Chinese students, much like Columbia’s Chinese students, shared the pressure to get into an Ivy League college. Their parents were constantly comparing their children to other Chinese students who achieved this feat, thus making the Hunter College students feel insecure. The model-minority stereotype also affected how other racial and ethnic groups viewed and interacted with them in school. Julia Lau explains, “Americans sort of have this stereotype of, ‘Oh you’re Chinese. You’re supposed to be smart. . . . And it’s really another standard that you have to uphold. And another expectation you have to live by” (p. 87).

    In addition to the lack of emotional support for their educational endeavors, Hunter College Chinese students related that limited family resources helped them gain admission to an Ivy League college. Parents often did not have time to take them on college tours or have the English skills to help them with the essay or financial aid process, yet they expected their children to go on to college (p. 100). In contrast, Louie found that the Chinese students at Columbia felt comfortable in their academic progress to that school. Their parents’ involvement and support, both emotional and financial, reinforced their right to be there.

    Louie concludes with a thoughtful discussion of the role race will play in subsequent generations of Chinese American students and how they view the United States. While there were several ethnic, linguistic, and socioeconomic differences among the Chinese American students, the majority of them had stories of racial discrimination and struggle with their racial identity. These students still perceived education as a race-neutral institution, but they understood that the workplace was not. While this study focused on Chinese Americans, Louie’s findings speak to the greater dialogue about immigrant students’ experience in U.S. schools, where race, culture, and class do still matter.
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    Book Notes

    Teaching Social Studies That Matters
    By Steven J. Thornton

    Becoming Adult Learners
    By Eleanor Drago-Severson

    NCLB Meets School Realities
    By Gail Sunderman, James S. Kim, and Gary Orfield

    Compelled to Excel
    By Vivian S. Louie

    Inequality in America
    By Benjamin M. Friedman