When I was in graduate school several years ago, I spent my summers getting paid to help Asian American kids seem less Asian. I was a freelance tutor helping high school students prepare for college admissions, living only a few miles from the heavily Chinese and Chinese American neighborhood of Flushing in Queens. For my first gig, on a sweltering summer afternoon, I made my way to a cramped apartment where my teenage client told me what she needed: for me to read over her college applications and make sure she didn’t seem too Asian.
I remember laughing over the death rattle of a geriatric air-conditioning unit; I assumed she was making a joke.
But she pressed on straight faced. Good colleges don’t want to let in Asians, she felt, because they already had too many — and if she seemed too Asian, she wouldn’t get in. She rattled off a list of Asian and Asian American friends from her church with stellar extracurriculars and sterling test scores who she said had been rejected from even their safety schools.
Nearly every college admissions tutoring job I took over the next few years would come with a version of the same behest. The Chinese and Korean kids wanted to know how to make their application materials seem less Chinese or Korean. The rich white kids wanted to know ways to seem less rich and less white. The Black kids wanted to make sure they came across as Black enough. Ditto for the Latino and Middle Eastern kids.