Sincerely Asian American: The US school curriculum doesn’t teach you how to be Asian

Traveling to Hong Kong and Beijing was necessary for Leo to explore his culture and identity. (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan)

“It says your student body is 7% Asian,” my dad said when reading a feature story in my high school newspaper. “Do you know every Asian?”

While my father was attempting to make a joke sifting through the paper, the fact that Asians comprised such a small fraction of my school’s student population stuck with me for the rest of the day. Contrasted against an ethnic majority of 76% white students at my school, the data looked daunting. I never really realized, until that day, that the place I grew up in was actually inhibiting my ability to find my Asian identity.

I was a sophomore in high school at the time, but I had started to notice since elementary school that my ethnicity was something of a rarity where I grew up. Just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, my small community of 12,000 people is predominantly white. 

Asian culture and values are observed to some degree but with little influence. While Asian cuisine and martial arts are both  prevalent in my community, it’s obvious that a large Eurocentric presence has taken residence in Marin County, where I’m from.

My youth played into my naivete, and I had not yet realized my school’s curriculum had failed to represent Asians in any substantial way. 

It was only until that year, when my mom took the initiative to present on Chinese New Year to my class, that I broke out of layers of whitewashing. Glancing around the room and noticing that my classmates seemed to think the topic was intriguing yet unfamiliar, I learned that I was marginalized and different.

This sense of ostracization only worsened in high school, as I was presented with two history class options my junior year: AP European History and United States History. While I understood the importance of learning the history of the country one resides in — and I ended up taking the latter as my mandatory history class — I was rather upset about the significant role European history plays in our education system. 

Ultimately, the system was defending an agenda, dictating that the European narrative was the most important and that all others, including my Asian heritage, were insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

While these history classes emitted a bleak message, it wasn’t the only department to do this. When I initially toured my high school in 2014, I was excited to hear that Mandarin was one of three languages offered to students. 

Almost unsurprisingly, my school canceled further teaching of the language before my freshman year began, preemptively blocking me from even joining the course. It was unnerving to watch the possibility of learning more about my roots dwindle away. And as my school pushed French and Spanish to the spotlight in it its language department, it was made clear that the European perspective was at the forefront of the curriculum’s priorities.

I suppose that this, along with other factors like not learning Cantonese or Mandarin growing up, is why it was easy for me to default on “banana” culture, yellow on the outside, white on the inside. 

Being a “banana” felt like a sense of conformity, assimilating into the masses and assuming the characteristics of those around me. Acting white became normal, especially when I was the only person of a minority race in a class, which has occurred in a few of my classes throughout my education. 

Last summer, I was able to break out of the norm and experience my cultural roots firsthand. While I could have found an opportunity to study abroad at USC, I felt that it would have been too long a wait. I traveled to Beijing and Hong Kong, where my family came from and the place where my father was born. 

The experience was eye-opening in many respects, from hearing Mandarin and Cantonese used fully for the first time to understanding the local customs and ways of life. Even though it was insightful to experience these places, the larger message was that marginalized cultures must take the initiative to explore their roots themselves.

Having white influence is not a bad thing. However, white cultural dominance must not be allowed to deter ethnic groups from learning more about their identity. The problem lies deep within the U.S. education system, and it can only be alleviated with a greater understanding of other cultures and including their teachings and messages within their communities and curriculums. 

Asian perspectives should be cherished and allowed to flourish, starting within the basic building block of the classroom.

Vincent Leo is a sophomore writing about Asian American identity. His column, “Sincerely Asian American,” runs every other Thursday.