Commentary | Education

Lessons—A Melting Pot Recipe for Immigrant Students

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


A Melting Pot Recipe for Immigrant Students

By Richard Rothstein

New Orleans – A historic role of schools has been to “Americanize” immigrants. But sometimes the more successful immigrant students are the least Americanized. The road to assimilation may be more convoluted than we suspect.

Here on the east side of New Orleans, adolescents in the Vietnamese refugee community follow two divergent paths. While most would ordinarily attend Reed High School, their neighborhood school, the academically motivated ones apply instead to an advanced studies program at Abramson High School, not far away. At Abramson, Vietnamese are one-tenth of the student body but the immigrants shine academically and have won every valedictorian and salutatorian honor for the last four years.

Reed High School has a similar demographic mix of low-income black and Vietnamese students, but no elite academic program. Many of the school’s Vietnamese adolescents are in gangs, mixed up with drugs and in trouble with the police. Ethnic conflicts are not a problem; the Vietnamese and black students get along well, but many of the immigrants adopt the most alienated youths as role models.

Min Zhou and Carl L. Bankston III are sociologists who have studied this contrast between Vietnamese achievers, most of whom choose Abramson, and the delinquents, most of whom are in Reed. Professor Zhou, of the University of California at Los Angeles, and Professor Bankston, of Tulane University, conclude that achievers are usually the ones who assimilate slowly to American culture. Delinquents are those who are quicker to abandon their ethnic heritage.

Young people who do well, the professors say, speak Vietnamese at home and with each other. They go to church regularly with parents – some are Buddhist, but most belong to the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church. They celebrate ethnic holidays like Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Older siblings supervise homework of the younger ones. The students feel obligated to parents, grandparents and even unrelated neighbors. When students get academic awards, there are community celebrations.

But delinquent youths are more often embarrassed by their parents’ foreign ways, and avoid speaking Vietnamese. They are more devoted to American youth music and adopt gang-member or rock-star fashions.

These categories are not rigid – children from a single family can go different ways. Yet Anthony G. Tran, a social worker for Catholic Charities in New Orleans, takes the distinctions seriously. Mr. Tran spends most of his time mediating between courts, schools and families on behalf of delinquent youth. But he spends increasing effort trying to preserve Vietnamese culture as a way to keep students out of trouble.

Now, when judges have offenders report to Mr. Tran after school, he teaches traditional dragon dance and Vietnamese holiday rituals as well as supervising sports and homework. He tries to get Americanized youths to study their home language and attend a Mass where they can worship with their parents in Vietnamese.

Trinh Vu, this year’s salutatorian at Abramson, said her parents and grandparents encouraged her to succeed. But Trinh said many Vietnamese students were attracted to gangs because their parents worked such long hours that children doubted their parents’ love, and sought peers’ approval instead.

Joseph H. Murry, principal of Abramson, said he expected fewer high achievers as time passed and ethnic identity waned. Dr. Murry noted that even successful Vietnamese students now complained more often that their parents did not understand them. With more time in this country, these achievers become more Americanized and feel less of a family obligation to excel; unlike before, Dr. Murry said, some now linger with the less motivated students when the bell rings, and have to be prodded to come promptly to class.

Adolescent identity confusion can be a crisis for immigrants who are seduced by music, dating practices and consumer products. Middle-class American students can limit their involvement in youth culture to pursue scholastic goals that teachers and parents drilled into them. But when immigrants assimilate too quickly, gaps between their families and American peers are enormous. The immigrants can then lose community ties that inhibit delinquency. If these transitions can be slowed, youths may have a better chance.

In immigrant neighborhoods nationwide, it is uncertain whether schools can reinforce the kind of cultural identity that Anthony Tran builds with community and church institutions. But where such institutions cannot do the job, schools may have to try to fill in.

Educators today debate whether immigrants should be taught in their parents’ language and about their own customs and history. Opponents of these practices say that native language and bicultural instruction slows assimilation.

Perhaps so, and perhaps slowing it is not so bad.

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