Harvard Educational Review
  1. Fall 2011 Issue »

    Youth Voices: I Have a Voice!

    MEI-HUA LI, 12th Grade, John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science,Boston, Massachusetts
    HER Fall 2011 SmIt was a hot summer day in August, and Chinatown’s streets were filled with people of all different ages. Everyone was excited to attend the August Moon Festival. There were swarms of people everywhere, and I was helping out at a booth in the middle of the crowd.

    “Go pass out some flyers,” my boss said. Suddenly, I felt motivated and excited, after not having much to do and sitting in the heat for a long time. Knowing that the crowd would give me more attention if I spoke in both English and Cantonese, I shouted in both languages, “Come check out the free movie night event! 有免費電影睇啊!” The crowd turned their attention to me; some of them smiled, and others reached for the flyers. In a short amount of time, all the flyers were gone. My boss gave me a surprised look because all along he had thought I was one of the quiet ones. He looked over and said, “Wow, Mei-Hua! I’m impressed!” I smiled back at him and thought about how I finally applied what I had learned during my time in the Asian Voices of Organized Youth for Community Empowerment (A-VOYCE).

    I initially started at A-VOYCE as an intern when I was sixteen years old, during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school. In the beginning, I did not know much about the program because I was assigned to the position by the Boston Youth Fund, which places teens in summer jobs at community organizations. At the orientation, I learned that A-VOYCE was the youth program of the Asian Community Development Corporation, and that our training and work would help us connect to our cultural backgrounds by providing workshops and training about Chinatown’s early immigrants and history. At first, I told myself that attending this program was like attending school. However, the more I learned about Asian American history and Boston Chinatown’s past, the more I understood about myself, my background, and my relationships with others in the community. I didn’t expect this kind of opportunity at all, since I was just looking for a summer job. Instead, I got an eye-opening experience.

    One of the most memorable activities from A-VOYCE was one we did two years ago, when we were asked to speak about our race and identity. Alan, the A-VOYCE coordinator, threw out the question, “How do you identify yourself?” Without thinking, I answered, “I am Asian.” Others replied that they were Asian American. I thought hard about my response afterward. I asked myself, Why am I so sure that I am Asian but not Asian American? I thought of my roles at home and school and how the fact I emigrated to the United States from China when I was eleven influenced my perception of who I was. I felt like I was in the process of blending in with American society, but to call myself Asian American would have meant total assimilation, and I didn’t want that—yet. Because of the workshop, I went home with many questions and reflected on my life and its transitions and turning points.

    In China, life seemed simpler. A typical day started with my parents going to work and me going to school. All students would go home for lunch during the middle of the day. After that, we would resume our afternoon classes. At night, my mom would always prepare a delicious dinner for the family. From time to time, we would spend an evening or a day at my relatives’ house to catch up with each other. During holidays, we would invite my grandparents, my uncles, and aunts over for a feast. On the weekends, my parents and I would go to nearby towns to do some shopping. We spent a lot of time together, and every day was a family day.

    Our lives changed, however, after we emigrated to the United States. My parents spent most of their time working, and I spent most of my time at home when I wasn’t at school. We quickly recognized that just knowing Chinese was not enough. My parents encouraged me to work hard to learn English and to become an independent person and the helper of the family. Suddenly, I realized I was no longer a naive child like I was back in the day—I was now mature enough, or had to be mature enough, to serve as a connector for my family to the English-speaking world.

    I still remember the first time my parents and I went to the Mission Park office to get an application for subsidized housing. My parents were nervous going in, since they were unsure of how to communicate what they needed. I decided to ask my parents if I could try to ask for an application on their behalf. They hesitated for a moment, and then said “yes,” but they also thought I would be too timid once the receptionist started speaking to me in English. When I saw the woman at the front desk, I greeted her and asked her for an application. When I took the application from her hand, I felt a sense of accomplishment and saw smiles on my parents’ faces. Suddenly, I realized that I wasn’t a little kid anymore; I was able to translate for my parents. This marked the beginning of my responsibility to serve my family.

    Now, years later, my parents still have challenges with the English language. Because of language barriers, my parents only have the option of finding workplaces where they do not need to speak English. These jobs are often low paying and tiring. Every day I see my parents arriving home late, dragging their fatigued bodies in as they close the door behind them. While I know they are exhausted, they still manage to smile at me. Their hard work is always something that inspires me to work harder in school. I know the only way to pay them back for their hard work is by doing well in school, going to college, and getting a well-paying job in the future, which will allow me to support the family. In that way, I not only can take care of them, but also one day I can give them the opportunity to enjoy free time without always having to think of providing for me. Whenever I ask my parents if they ever regret migrating to America, they smile and make fun of my question. Deep down, they made this decision for me, and their only concern is that I have the best possible education and future.

    I have come to the conclusion that I am both an Asian and an Asian American. While first and foremost I see myself as Chinese, I also recognize that there are some values related to family and parent expectations that are similar across Asian cultures. I feel a strong sense of connection to China as my motherland, but I also consider myself Asian because I don’t want to separate myself from other cultures with related customs. Generally, my outlook toward the future and my obligations to family are rooted in my Chinese background. I practice my Chinese culture at home by being deferent to traditions. At the same time, I have joined youth programs and community projects where I learned to speak up and where I make connections with the pan-Asian community that is now in America. When I am at school, I practice being outspoken and challenge convention, skills that I gained in the United States. Through A-VOYCE I realize the importance of being multilingual and multicultural, and I’m not shy about using my language and cultural skills where they are needed.

    Before joining A-VOYCE, I thought I could only translate for my parents and did not think of using this skill to help others. It was A-VOYCE that made me realize that I can be a translator for the community too! For example, a couple of years ago I translated flyers for an Energy Efficient Light Bulb campaign run by the Asian Community Development Corporation. I put my bilingual skills to work by translating flyers that let Chinatown residents learn about the importance of using efficient light bulbs. It was the first time I saw the importance of being a translator for people outside of my family.

    Another opportunity for putting my cultural and language skills to use came through the Participatory Chinatown project. Participatory Chinatown was a video game that helped city planners and community members consider how to make better changes in the Chinatown neighborhood. In the game, players assume the identity of one of the characters (avatars), experience a 3-D model of Boston’s Chinatown, and complete a quest that reflects real challenges of living in Chinatown, such as finding housing or getting a job. Players also provide comments on the Chinatown neighborhood that are actually used by city planners for future decision-making. I helped with the creation of the game, including taking pictures around Chinatown, which were used in designing building facades in the game, and interviewing community members to create the avatar profiles. Using my Cantonese and Mandarin skills, I was able to ask Chinatown residents about their opinions of Chinatown and to make sure their voices and stories could be heard and built into the game. When Participatory Chinatown was finished and introduced publicly for community members to try out, I served as an interpreter for the players. I still remember one woman who was really interested in the game but could not understand the English directions to play. I was glad that I could offer my help to her, so she was able to enjoy playing the game and leave her opinions about Chinatown in the game. Through these experiences, I was able to use both my cultural and language skills in real life to give back to the community.

    Just a few years ago, I never would have thought that learning about my identity and using what I know from my own experiences could actually contribute to the community. But now I’m certain that knowledge of life in two countries and exposure to two cultures helps me be a leader, both for my parents and the Chinese immigrant community in Boston. This year I’m also the president of the Asian Culture Club at my school. In this role, I work with other Asian and Asian American teens to encourage having pride in our backgrounds and also to introduce non-Asian students to Asian arts, culture, and language.

    I think I have an advantage in that I’m multilingual and multicultural, and I hope to use my special background to continue to make a difference for everyone.

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    Fall 2011 Issue


    Immigration, Youth, and Education
    Editors’ Introduction
    Soojin S. Oh and North Cooc
    The Power of Context
    State-Level Policies and Politics and the Educational Performance of the Children of Immigrants in the United States
    Alexandra Filindra, David Blanding, and Cynthia Garcia Coll
    Growing Up in the Shadows
    The Developmental Implications of Unauthorized Status
    Carola Suárez-Orozco, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Robert T. Teranishi, and Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco
    “Because We Feel the Pressure and We Also Feel the Support”
    Examining the Educational Success of Undocumented Immigrant Latina/o Students
    Things I’ll Never Say
    Stories of Growing Up Undocumented in the United States
    Undocumented to Hyperdocumented
    A Jornada of Protection, Papers, and PhD Status
    Whose Deficit Is This Anyhow?
    Exploring Counter-Stories of Somali Bantu Refugees’ Experiences in “Doing School”
    Toward a Pedagogy of Acompañamiento
    Mexican Migrant Youth Writing from the Underside of Modernity
    Elementary Forms of Cosmopolitanism
    Blood, Birth, and Bodies in Immigrant New York City
    Maria Kromidas

    Book Notes

    Immigrants Raising Citizens
    Hirokazu Yoshikawa

    Balancing Acts
    Natasha K. Warikoo

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