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A high-school girl in a black shirt with thick straight black hair tied up, in a classroom, looking up from her work.

Great Expectations

Khanh Huynh spoke no English and struggled in school. A perceptive teacher saw past the myth of the “model minority” and give Khanh the help she needed.

October 28, 2015

Ting Yu

Ting Yu

It was midnight when Khanh Huynh boarded the plane that would take her to America from Ho Chi Minh City. At age 9, she would make the 20-hour flight to Boston alone, except for the large white teddy bear she clutched tightly in her arms.

Seven years earlier, her mother, Kathy, had immigrated to America with her little brother Minh, leaving Khanh in Vietnam in the care of her paternal grandparents. When Khanh turned 3, her grandparents moved from their rice paddy in the countryside to Ho Chi Minh City so she could attend school. Her grandmother rose each morning before sunrise to cook Khanh’s breakfast and iron her school uniform, then sat at her bedside every night until she fell asleep.

In those seven years, Khanh saw her mom and brother only four times, when they came to Vietnam for short visits. She had heard she had a 3-year-old sister named Kim, who was born in the States.

Now, sitting on the plane, her excitement was tempered by fear. She was leaving behind Vietnam and the grandmother who had raised her to become a stranger in her new home.

Over the next five years, Khanh would undergo nothing short of a metamorphosis. She would learn English and—bit by bit, class by class—strive to master the curriculum before her, even as she began to discern gaps in what she was being taught. She would meet a determined young teacher, Arlene Sanchez, and they would push each other to face some hard truths. And she would be shocked to discover, then grow to resent—and finally defy—the image of the model Asian American student, even as she felt forced to live up to it. (Editor’s Note: This article ran in the Fall 2015 edition.)

Upon moving to the United States, Khanh was bombarded with expectations she could never have predicted. In school, they have proven a mixed blessing. Sean Proctor

To her new siblings, Khanh’s sudden appearance in their South Boston apartment was akin to an alien parachuting into their lives. Khanh’s mother worked seven days a week as the manager of a nail salon, leaving her children to sort out their new dynamic. Minh, who had grown up in America and had few ties to his Vietnamese roots, couldn’t communicate with Khanh, who spoke only Vietnamese.

“I had completely forgotten I had another sister,” Minh says. “My mom didn’t talk about our family in Vietnam much. One day, I came home from school, and there she was, lying on my bed playing with my iPad. I just stared at her for five minutes.”

“When I came here, boom, I got a brother and a sister,” Khanh says. “I didn’t know how to treat them because I had always been by myself.”

Khanh felt just as out of place in fourth grade in nearby Dorchester, where she was the only Asian student in a class of black and Latino kids. In Vietnam, Khanh had occasionally glimpsed white people but had never actually met someone of another race. “I didn’t understand the teacher, and the teacher didn’t understand me,” she says. “Kids made fun of me because my English sounded weird.” She thought that in America, kids would see themselves as all the same regardless of their origins. “But I learned I was different.”

Khanh struggled largely on her own. With her demanding work schedule, Khanh’s mother, Kathy, could never attend parent-teacher conferences, and Kathy’s own tenuous grasp of English prevented her from helping her daughter with schoolwork.

In Ms. Sanchez’s class, Khanh has learned to view history—her own and others’—through a more inclusive lens. “I want to learn about different cultures, like China, Korea, and other parts of the world where they see things differently,” Khanh says. Sean Proctor

Fast-forward four years to now, when Khanh, at age 14, has completed eighth grade. She earned good grades this year, but her high school entrance exam scores revealed her continuing weakness in English.

Turning down a spot at a parochial school in Boston, Khanh won a scholarship to enroll at Beacon Academy, a unique private school that provides an additional year of rigorous coursework between eighth and ninth grade to ensure students are fully prepared for the demands of competitive independent high schools. She plans to spend this year becoming fluent in English and hopes that Beacon, which serves as a feeder to top area schools, can be a springboard to her dream of going to Yale and becoming a veterinarian or a surgeon.

If the model minority myth is to be believed—that Asian Americans are culturally programmed to excel—then Khanh’s success is preordained. She won’t have beaten the odds because she is favored to win.

But Khanh is just one of millions of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) kids who don’t match the popular stereotype of robotic test-takers with pushy parents who engineer their children’s achievements. Her experience—and that of the many low-income immigrant students like her—is hidden by headline data that show Asian American kids routinely outperforming white students on standardized tests, with college graduation rates that are 20 percent higher than the general population’s.

The aggregation of data on Asian Americans effectively masks the reality that many sub-groups are faring just as poorly as low-income black and Latino students, and makes it difficult for even the fiercest advocates of educational equity to see the barriers to success for whole communities of students like Khanh. Even elite universities have come under fire in recent years for admissions policies that intentionally discriminate against Asian American applicants.

“The model minority myth perpetuates the false narrative that AAPI students are universally successful and don’t face challenges,” says Sarah Ha, who leads Teach For America’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Initiative. The real hardships of many students are obscured by the sweeping categorization of AAPI students as successful, Ha says. As a consequence, educators and policymakers sometimes don’t act on the real needs of students because they aren’t on alert to look for them.

Ha notes that 16 percent of Native Hawaiians, 30 percent of Cambodians, and 40 percent of Hmong people are living in poverty. “The myth makes invisible the real economic and academic struggles of AAPI students and provides a convenient narrative that is used to deny racial justice.”

Asian Americans are the fastest growing immigrant group in America, but who exactly are they? The designation, which the U.S. Census Bureau used for decades, lumps together close to 50 ethnic sub-groups that speak more than 300 languages—from Chinese to Indians to Laotians—most of whom do not identify with each other any more than the French and the Greek do.

Many AAPI communities face the same barriers of poverty, violence, crime, and trauma as other minority groups, but their struggles remain invisible to the general public. In fact, sub-groups of Asians have starkly different outcomes when it comes to educational attainment. According to a 2015 report by the Center for American Progress, 72 percent of Indian Americans hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, while only 14 percent of Hmong Americans do. The Hmong have double the child poverty rate of Indians in America. The White House’s Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders reports a staggering high school drop-out rate among Southeast Asian Americans: 40 percent of Hmong, 38 percent of Laotian, and 35 percent of Cambodian populations do not complete high school.

Over the summer, as part of the ongoing Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization debate, Congress considered an amendment that would disaggregate AAPI achievement data—a move supported by Teach For America and its AAPI Initiative—but that failed. It is currently up for review again.

“We have a blind spot as educators around Asian American students,” says Arlene Sanchez (Massachusetts ’13), a second-year corps member who was Khanh’s eighth grade English teacher this year. Even among educators fighting for the most disadvantaged students, she says, “The conversation is primarily about black and brown kids. Asian kids are the minority within the minority.”

“We have a blind spot as educators around Asian American students, Asians kids are the minority within the minority.”

Arlene Sanchez

In seventh grade, Khanh had moved from her school in Dorchester to UP Academy Boston, one of five schools in the Massachusetts-based charter network. (Nearly a fifth of the UP network’s faculty are Teach For America corps members and alumni.)

Like Khanh’s elementary school, UP’s student body is predominantly black and Latino with a handful of Asian students. Khanh’s English improved at UP, and her grades accordingly. She made some friends and enjoyed her classes and teachers.

Still, there were times she felt the bar was higher for her than for other kids. At UP, teachers awarded merit points to students who demonstrated character strengths like perseverance. “If other kids got a wrong answer, they got points for trying,” Khanh says. But when she answered incorrectly, she noticed she rarely got points for effort. “I felt like I had to do better because they expected more from me.” Whatever bias there was felt unfair and caused Khanh anxiety and confusion that she had to deal with on her own. But she also recognizes that the pressure to achieve at a higher level benefitted her. “It did hurt me, but it pushed me to do better.”

When Arlene Sanchez first met Khanh in the eighth grade English class she taught, the two didn’t immediately click. “Because of who I am, it’s easier to connect with certain people,” says Sanchez, who is Dominican and identifies strongly with the Latino students who make up more than a third of her classes. “It took a while for me to connect with Khanh.”

Teacher Arlene Sanchez (right), is leading a push at her school for more training around culturally responsive practice. The goal is for more educators to realize that it's not a nice to-have, but a prerequisite for effective teaching. Sean Proctor

Then Khanh began staying after school to ask Sanchez for writing help. Some days they revised draft upon draft, staying late into the evening. “I was in her office so often, it was like she adopted me,” Khanh jokes. As their bond grew, so did Khanh’s confidence. Arlene says she began raising her hand during discussions and sharing astute opinions and questions that brought fresh perspectives to the class.

Like her students, Sanchez had also grown up attending Boston public schools. She recalls the rude awakening she got during her undergraduate years at Smith College, where she felt far less academically prepared than her wealthier peers.

From that experience, Sanchez became a fierce advocate for building critical consciousness in her students. She encouraged her classes to discuss race and privilege in the context of books they read, as well as events such as Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. “I don’t think you can have a rigorous curriculum if it’s not social-justice oriented,” she says.

Sanchez’s class gave Khanh a new lens through which to view the world. She began to question what now seemed like glaring omissions in her history textbooks. “I read a few paragraphs about the Chinese building the railroad to the West, but what happened after the railroad? What about the Civil Rights Movement?” she asks. “Where were the Asians? What were their lives like during segregation? Did their skin color impact who they could be? I have a lot of questions.”

“I read a few paragraphs about the Chinese building the railroad to the West, but what happened after the railroad? What about the Civil Rights Movement? Where were the Asians? What were their lives like during segregation? Did their skin color impact who they could be? I have a lot of questions.”

Khanh Huynh

Sanchez says having Khanh in class exposed the narrowness of her curriculum. She realized how much the texts and resources she used focused primarily on the experience of African Americans to the exclusion of other minority groups. “For other kids, we try to find intersections and say, ‘This can be applicable to you.’ But it wasn’t a black and white world. There were Asians in America. There were Muslims. I’m realizing that I teach a single side of history because that’s what I know.”

This year, Sanchez took what she calls a first step by adding Asian American authors and poets to her classroom library. Last summer, she proposed to UP administrators that the school offer professional development to help teachers shift toward more culturally responsive practice. Though school leaders did add two sessions this year, Sanchez is disappointed with the slow pace of change. “Culturally responsive teaching is a very abstract idea. For many teachers it’s like, ‘How do I do it tomorrow? How do I get it done?’ And not realizing that it’s actually a process.

“It’s also uncomfortable to think, ‘Oh my God, maybe I haven’t been teaching our students right.’ But we have students like Khanh who don’t see themselves [in our curriculum] or feel validated by the way we speak to them. We need to talk about those things.”

For her part, Khanh is no longer waiting for school to educate her about Asian cultures. She scours the Internet and YouTube to learn more about Vietnam and other countries. “I didn’t know how beautiful and significant my culture was,” she says. “It opened my mind and helped me see, ‘Who am I?’”

When she has children of her own, she plans to bring them back to Vietnam so they can connect with their history and heritage, something she was unable to share with her siblings. “My kids will understand who they are and where they came from,” she says.

Not long ago Arlene Sanchez took a group of students on a college visit to her alma mater, Smith. Khanh listened with interest to a panel of Latina students talk about life as a minority on an elite, mostly white campus. Still, she was disappointed not to hear from any Asian students who had immigrated to the United States like she had. She wondered how their parents could afford to pay such high tuition. And, she says, “I just wanted to talk to them and ask, ‘How did you go through this experience and not feel like you were different?' ”

As Khanh prepares to attend Beacon Academy in the fall, she knows people’s stereotypical assumptions about Asian Americans may precede her. But this time, she feels more ready to face them down. “People still look at me a certain way, but it’s not about what they think,” she says. “It’s about me.”

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