By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
When some new immigrant Chinese parents got their hands on a videotape of a school assembly last year, they translated the entire video into Chinese. A school official had apparently implied that the district hoped to admit more kids from marginalized backgrounds (Latino, for instance) into the district’s gifted program.
“She said that the Northshore high cap should ‘mirror’ the whole district,” said parent Kan Qiu, referring to the official. “It was caught on tape, later she recanted it.”
“The whole Chinese community was shocked,” he added. “It was totally unacceptable.”
Even as the state legislature is set to pass another law governing gifted programs, many Chinese parents see it as a betrayal.
“There is genocide and misery all over the place. America at least has a basic concept of fairness, so long as you don’t break the rules. China is like a dictatorship, if you belong to a particular group, then you’re not going to college. Now, the more you manipulate the results, the more you’re bringing me back to China,” said Qiu, who has two sons in the gifted program in the Bellevue School District.
For their part, local educators are often puzzled by the vehemence of Chinese reactions.
Unlike many Asian Americans that have lived in the United States for generations and primarily support programs like affirmative action, first generation immigrants from China are often stridently against such programs. Some school officials call them selfish and are shocked when they protest against policies that try to redress hundreds of years of injustice.
Yet Chinese like Qiu are horrified when authorities use family background of whatever kind to redistribute opportunities. In China, there was a constant movement by inconstant authorities to use family background to “correct” society. During socialist movements in the mid 20th century, millions of landlords were slaughtered. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), more were tortured and killed because of their class or politics. Many educated Chinese with kids here have a parent that was not allowed into college because of some political “stain.” With no exposure to race issues, the new Chinese immigrants now see decisions here as a repetition of the same violence.
Such fear lingers underneath everyone’s consciousness. Attempts at social engineering are seen through the lens of the past in China, particularly the Cultural Revolution.
“It’s all about your version of justice and your experience of injustice,” said Jing Xu, an anthropologist who studies Chinese attitudes toward education. “They rely on that experience to make sense of what’s happening here.”
Coming from a non-immigrant society, new Chinese immigrants may struggle to understand the fundamentals of race in the United States. According to many scholars of Chinese history, American history is about race, while Chinese history is about spreading literacy, even among ethnic minorities. In China, with a few exceptions, “even the people that are different from you look the same,” said Stevan Harrell, emeritus professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington.
Moreover, in Chinese culture, how you perform on a test is an expression of how virtuous you are as a person and your worthiness to take part in society. In traditional China, doing well on exams meant you had “internalized the message of moral philosophy embodied in the classics,” said Harrell. The same goes for the national exam in China today. Failure brings a sense of shame to one’s family because it presumes you are a bad person — not just lazy, but immoral.