Why Asian-Americans Feel Powerless in the Battle over New York’s Élite High Schools

Jiayang Fan:

Two years after my mother and I arrived in this country from China, she was newly divorced, jobless, unable to speak English, and on the verge of eviction. Her focus, however, was firmly fixed on my education. I had just turned ten, and as September rolled around, the prospect of our homelessness did not worry my mother as much as that of my schoollessness or, rather, my élite schoollessness. I had completed the third and fourth grades at a public school, in New Haven, with which she had been distinctly dissatisfied. My mother had been a doctor in China and she felt that the academics at the school were not rigorous enough—a complaint that she couldn’t express to the school administrators due to her lack of English. So she pushed me to fly through the school’s English as a Second Language workbooks so fast and so far ahead of schedule that I was sent home with a stern handwritten admonishment to “follow the assignment guidelines.” My teacher, an affable red-haired woman in her mid-thirties, told me to explain to my mother that skipping ahead of the class did no one any good. “Besides, you should not be spending all your time on these workbooks,” she counselled me gently. “Go outside. Give yourself a break.” My mother snorted with derision when I delivered that message. “If we wanted to while away our time taking breaks,” she said, “we couldn’t have come to this country.” So we searched Connecticut for a place to live in the richest Zip Codes, which in this new world, my mother had learned, were directly correlated with the best public schools. We eventually found one in Fairfield County, the wealthiest county in the state, and I entered fifth grade as one of two Asians in the class (there were no other students of color) and the only student in the school who wasn’t born in America.