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Let the I's Have It

Think for yourselves, a writer from Vietnam tells Asian American students

June 15, 2003|Andrew Lam | Andrew Lam is a writer and an editor for Pacific News Service.

SAN FRANCISCO — The e-mail message came with the word "HELP" in capital letters in the subject line. "Dear Mr. Lam," it read, "My name is Dao and I am having difficulties with my essay in my English class. I am reading one of your short stories for class assignment called 'Grandma's Tales.' It is a really good story but I can't seem to find the REAL theme of the story. Can you please help me?"

It was not the first time that a college student has written to ask for homework help. This being the Information Age, when almost anything can be located online, students who can't come up with answers to their assigned questions go to the source -- in this case, directly to the author.

What is particular in my case is that, overwhelmingly, they are Asian students. I suppose that because I am Asian -- and an immigrant -- the students assume I'll understand their stress. It would be hard not to. There is an almost palpable sense of desperation in their e-mails. If the subject line isn't "Help," it might be "Assistance Needed." Or my all-time favorite: "A favor for a fellow Vietnamese immigrant."

While it flatters me, somehow, to know that I have had a role in confounding college students, I'm bothered that these young people are so eager to avoid thinking. They'd rather expose their unwillingness to think critically to the writer than risk actually using their noggins.

Kishore Mahbubani, a career diplomat from Singapore, wrote a book called "Can Asians Think? Understanding the Divide Between East and West." The title is misleading since the author is an Asian who can and does think brilliantly. But he did point out that, in general, Asians tend to fall into complacency and conformity. Although more and more are winning prestigious literary and artistic awards, the vast majority are rushing toward economic success without taking a moment to reflect.

It doesn't help that self-expression is largely discouraged across Asia. Indeed, the language of criticism and analysis is often frowned upon in a region where harmony is emphasized over individualism, and where, with the exception of a handful of countries, strong democratic traditions do not exist. To do well in the sciences and to memorize the classics have been viewed as enough to make you a more-than-competent professional. Think too hard about an issue, especially an ideological one, and who knows? You might turn into a nonconformist, a radical -- even, God forbid, a dissident, and therefore a danger to the status quo.

Is this a uniquely Asian problem? Of course not. But America still values the maverick, the inventor, the loudmouth class clown, the individual with a vision. American kids grow up saying "I" -- as in "I disagree" -- without having a second thought.

Still, even in America, it is not so easy for an Asian kid in a Confucian family household to say something like that. As a frequent judge of writing contests for high school students, I find it curious that many Asian American entrants, even those with a perfect command of English, don't use the first- person narrative. The word "I" doesn't appear on the page, leaving writers to struggle with the awkward "one," even when addressing issues within their own families.

A friend who taught English in Japan once told me that in her classroom of advanced placement high school seniors, the students refused to volunteer answers to even the simplest questions. It wasn't that they didn't know the answers. They were waiting to be called on. "It's rude to show that you know more than your fellow student," she said.

I remember dull afternoons in Saigon when I had to recite poetry classics in front of a wizened literature teacher. If I always cried at poetry recital, it was for good reason. Each time I forgot a word, the teacher's ruler would land with a "thwap" on my open palm. That class typified literature education in Vietnam, but I got my revenge: I became an American writer.

It is a generalization, but Asia is by and large a continent where the ego is suppressed. The self exists in the context of families and clans. It is submerged in the service of shared values and ritualized language. Immigrants from the continent are often incapable of dealing with the expanse of expression in America, where the ego often is what gives creativity and invention a large boost.

When you take into account that two out of three Asians in America were born overseas, it's no wonder that even the most diligent Asian students feel more comfortable in science classes than in English classes, where raising your hand to offer opinions is not only encouraged but counts toward the final grade.

Which explains Dao's problem. There is something endearingly oblivious about her e-mail -- and the others I've received. What she wanted is a clear-cut answer. She wanted to know the short story's Real Theme, something she assumed that I know and that she can't possibly tease out herself. If I would only hand it over, she would get that much-coveted A.

If only that were true. I didn't have a theme in mind when I wrote that tongue-in-cheek story about a Vietnamese grandmother who died, came back to life and went to a party with her grandson. A few years ago I suggested a possible theme to another student, but his teacher didn't like it one bit. She told him he had better find a more serious theme and rewrite his paper if he expected a good grade.

So here is my answer to Dao: "I'm sorry, but I am out of the homework-abetting business. It may not occur to you that there might be more than one theme to any story, and that, more often than not, there are no wrong answers in literature, only well- argued propositions. If I were you, I'd go and sit under a tree and read the story aloud to a smart friend who can listen well. He'll probably have a better answer than I do. And when you figure out what it is, I hope you don't mind e-mailing a note to tell me."

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