February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

America’s Changing Face | Consider the Source

Photo: ©Getty Images/Photos.com

In the late ’60s, Bob Dylan wrote a song called “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” which channeled our nation’s dreams and images. And indeed, if you do some free associating with the word “immigrant,” you might conjure up some black-and-white images of “huddled masses” in steerage on the way to Ellis Island, or “coffin ships” creaking slowly across the Atlantic from famine-ravaged Ireland, or even African captives forced to endure the deadly Middle Passage. Or you might think of labor leader Cesar Chavez and the travails of migrant Mexicans workers in the late-20th century, or more recently, of the spate of laws and heated rhetoric that have been directed at undocumented Hispanic immigrants.

Whether you’re looking at the past or present, you’re probably picturing an immigrant as a person on the margin, in danger, in need of sympathy. Yet, as a new Pew Research Center study, “The Rise of Asian Americans,” points out, that image of an immigrant couldn’t be further from the truth—and thus, from the young people we meet in today’s libraries and schools. In fact, based on the latest research, you might say that Asian immigrant families should pity us poor Americans.

The survey begins this way: “Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated, and fastest-growing racial group in the United States.” In terms of status and accomplishment, it’s the Asians who are leading the way. And, as you get deeper into the report, you’ll notice that strong, often intergenerational, Asian American families have reason to pity, or at least question, their often isolated American peers who aren’t as close to their families. Do Asian American families ever have squabbles and fights? Of course. Are there non-Asian families that are tightly knit? Certainly. Are there future generations of Asians who’ll value individualism more than family bonds? Perhaps.

But think of how much of children’s and teen literature assumes that kids’ worlds are separate from their family’s—or that adolescents need to break free of their adult-run families to develop their own individual personalities. What if those stories no longer match the experience of the largest and fastest-growing segment of new Americans? Maybe we need a literature of “aunties”—those women who are close enough to be busybody relatives, but perhaps aren’t related at all, which is so characteristic of many South Asian families.

The other day we saw an Indian wedding party at a nearby park, and my Indian-looking older son—in scruffy clothes, dressed for a day of biking—caught sight of a stretch limo bringing the bride. An auntie noticed him out of the corner of her eye and sternly criticized not merely my son, but his parents. “Who dressed you?” she demanded. What terrible parent or sister would let a boy appear in rags at a wedding? Of course, it was her place to monitor a boy she’d never seen before—that’s just what aunties do.

It’s no surprise that the path to success for many Asian Americans is through education-and some young immigrants even arrive here with educational advantages: speaking English and with parents with advanced degrees. What does school mean to them and their families? What support are they likely to receive at home? How does the tone of a class and a school change as their parents’ expectations of the school rise?

The recent Pew report is a rich and subtle study that recognizes the obvious: there are many distinct Asian countries and cultures and, thus, many different Asian American experiences. For example, the median family income of Americans of Korean and Vietnamese descent is nearly $40,000 a year lower than that of Indian Americans. But there are trends that run through many Asian American communities, including a focus on education and family, and a general sense that America offers them a high degree of political freedom-there’s an optimism about their prospects and this nation. While the expanding Asian American population is more Christian than any other faith, issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion don’t typically spark controversy. And while this varies by country of origin, many Asian Americans are “marrying out”-adding to the intermarried and interracial character of our nation’s 21st-century population.

Caution: this picture of our largest immigrant sector varies from the last largest group, Hispanics, and very likely will differ from whoever comes next. The subtext of this story is that in this economic downturn, a variety of forces have worked against Hispanics (such as some now feel less inclined to come the U.S., and some of our citizens are increasingly resistant to having Hispanics here). Who knows what the next turn of the wheel of global economics and politics will bring to our shores?

Still, in order to provide today’s children and teens with the right materials, we need to have a clear picture of who they’re likely to be. And for now, that face is increasingly Asian.

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Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.

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