Yvonne Wong

Growing up Asian American

"China doll." "Oriental slut." "Chink."

Fortunately, I can say that as an Asian American growing up in cosmopolitan San Francisco, I've never been taunted with demeaning names and insults such as these. No blond-haired, blue-eyed boy in my kindergarten class had ever pulled his eyes at the corners, making them sharp and pointed to ridicule me. At the schools I've attended, which have all been a part of the public school system, at least 70 percent of the students were Asian American, making Asian Americans much more of a majority than a "minority." Extreme racial slurs and blatant prejudice towards the Asian community have been as foreign to me as soy sauce on gelato.

Earlier this year, as I was speaking with my high school counselor about the colleges where I plan to apply, I told her that Pomona College in Claremont was one of my top choices because of its strong English program. She looked across her desk at me, and I could see that the creases around her eyes were deepening with her skeptical expression. She gently reminded me that I had told her diversity was one of the major factors in my college choice, and that Pomona wasn't known for being a "diverse campus."

"Sure, they'll say in their brochures that they're a 'diverse' campus," she said. "But 'diverse' to them means about 25 percent 'minorities' and 75 percent non-Hispanic whites. Is that the kind of 'diverse' you want?"

Since I've been raised in San Francisco for the past 17 years of my life, I've never had the experience of living in an area where Asian Americans were a minority. My experience with prejudice has been indirect if at all.

But at the beginning of this summer I began reading "Yell-Oh Girls!," an anthology edited by Vickie Nam, of poignant raw personal writings by young Asian American girls and their experiences growing up in a white-dominated America. I read about feelings of pain, isolation, and disenchantment to which I could have never related. For instance, in "Funny Girl," 19-year-old Diya Gullapalli of Virginia writes of the ignorant jokes that her white high school friends often made, and the one comment from her boyfriend that forced her to take a closer look at their relationship: "'Let us to be going to the Kwikie Mart, little Indian girl,' my white boyfriend declared . . . using his best taxi driver accent. 'I will like to be taking you to this place of beef jerky obtainment and perhaps to be procuring a Slurpee as well.'"

In another excerpt, "Best Friends," 21-year-old Jennifer Li of Maryland writes of her best friend from high school who just didn't know when to stop when it came to using racial slurs. Li writes: "Everyone at school used to call us twins because we had short hair, glasses, and we dressed alike. One day, while we were going to class, [my best friend] blurt out, 'Maybe if I painted my skin yellow, dyed my hair black, and had slanty eyes, we could be twins.' I stared at her in shock, not believing the words had come out of her mouth. This, I thought, from a girl who supposedly understood me the best."

Although I knew that racism against Asian Americans was far from extinct in America, I never realized exactly how much it permeated our society until I perused the pages of this book. Coincidentally, after reading half of the anthology, I also skimmed an Asian American studies text I picked up at my school, "The New Faces of Asian Pacific America: Numbers, Diversity, and Change in the 21st Century," which divulged that out of about 420 million citizens in the United States, only 12.5 million are of Asian descent -- if I were to tell that to any Asian American living in San Francisco, there would be at least a 50 percent chance that he or she would be flabbergasted. That's less than 3 percent of the U.S. population! Dating all the way back to 1882 when former President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, much hostility has always surrounded Asians and their customs, creating an oppressive cultural clash between what is Asian and what is American. "Yell-Oh Girls!" unclouded my eyes, further revealing to me the harsh truth of American society: Prejudice continues, and the fight for equality is far from over. The anthology helped stir up in my memory experiences that happened to me years ago, but I still unknowingly carry with me.

The one memory that remains most vivid occurred about eight years ago. In my neighborhood, which has a fairly even mix of different ethnicities, my house is notorious for calling meter maids to ticket vehicles that park even two inches into our driveway. Not surprisingly, it was one of those days again when someone made the mistake of parking into our driveway, and my father grew livid because he couldn't back out the car. The next thing I knew, a traffic ticket was on the windshield of that car, and the blond-haired woman who owned the car came out a few hours later to see it. The doorbell rang, and my brother opened the door. Furiously waving the ticket in her hand, the woman scowled at him. "Chinaman," she uttered, walking away from our house and driving off.

After being called something as degrading as that, who would feel happy to be living as an Asian American in American society? Though I can't fully relate to Gullapalli or Li in their familiarities with feeling singled out or excluded in their schools, I'm still upset by the stereotypes that people harbor in their minds and the prejudice, though subtle, that is infused throughout San Francisco, and is even more blatant in other parts of the United States.

Though I've never lived in an environment where Asian Americans were the minority, if Pomona accepts me and I do decide to go there for college, I'll obtain a new learning experience. I'll better understand and perhaps even relate to the stories that young Asian-American women share in "Yell-Oh Girls!" While on my first day I may see at my new college campus exactly how racially mixed the school is, I'll have the opportunity to bring diversity to the campus, educating others around me, through organizations and personal conversation, of the truths of who Asian Americans are -- that slanted eyes, Kung Pao chicken (it's not authentic), and passivity don't define us.

Yvonne Wong is a 17-year old editor and reporter for The Lowell at Lowell High School and a WireTap intern.

Abstinence-only Sex Ed Programs Leave American Teens in the Dark

sex graphIf you feel that using the word "contraception" or "condom" is necessary to comprehensive sex education, don't move to Charlotte, North Carolina. The city's public school guidelines prohibit students, teachers and administrators from uttering these words within the walls of a classroom. The tendency to evade discussion and education about sexuality may be why the United States claims the top spot in birth, abortion and sexually transmitted disease rates among teens in the industrialized world, significantly exceeding rates in European countries. This startling discrepancy prompted the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Advocates for Youth, a non-profit organization that aims to help young people make informed decisions about their sexual health, to sponsor annual summer study tours to France, Germany and the Netherlands to explore why adolescents in Europe handle sexuality more responsibly than adolescents in the United States. Study tour participants -- policy makers, researchers, youth-serving professionals and youth -- spend two-and-a-half weeks in the three countries examining the European approach to teen sexuality by visiting schools and talking with youth, families, sex educators, ministers and government officials.

The United States has 13 times the teen birth rate of the Netherlands, 25 times the gonorrhea rate of Germany and three times the teen abortion rate of France, according to the 2001 National Vital Statistics Reports. American teenagers begin having sex at around age 15, an average of two years earlier than their European counterparts. Why are rates in the United States drastically higher than in European countries? "In general, young people in Europe are respected and seen as important to society -- people who contribute and add to the culture," says Barbara Huberman, director of education and outreach at Advocates for Youth. In the United States, "teens are viewed as delinquent, disorganized and deficient." Huberman also pointed out that since Europeans respect teens, they support the rights of teens to contraceptive services and access to sex information. As a result, sex discussion can take place without censoring essential information or pushing for abstinence until marriage. "The French minister even stated that the state has no right to tell teens that they can't have sex, and that teens do have a right to accurate information, services and access to resources."

President George W. Bush has responded to the nation's high STD and birth rates among teens by cracking down on sex education, proposing a 2003 budget that sets aside $135 million for "abstinence-until-marriage" education programs, according to the California Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League Web site. The sum is a $33 million increase over the funding for 2002. No federal funding is currently allocated for comprehensive sex education.

Yet San Francisco Stop AIDS Project communications director Shana Krochmal believes that comprehensive sex education is a crucial means for preventing STDs. "It's important for us to be realistic about what teens will do," Krochmal says. "Although abstinence is the only 100 percent effective protection against AIDS, there will still be teens who choose to have sex. Because of this, we need to arm them with the tools that they need to be safe." According to Krochmal, a rise in AIDS rates among young gay men makes abstinence-only programs particularly problematic. "Teens will be taught that abstinence until marriage is the best choice, but what about the case of a 17-year-old gay boy?" Krochmal says. "He will never be allowed to marry another man, and it leaves him with even fewer skills of how he could have safer sex."

Junior Jack Jia, who visited France on a home-stay last summer, feels that Bush's attempt to control teen sexual activity with abstinence-only programs is flawed and dangerous. "To push a program like this is unreal," Jia says. "It's putting a law on human nature. The [teen sex] rates won't go down; they'll go up out of ignorance."

In 1988, only two percent of public schools taught abstinence as the only way to prevent pregnancy and STDs according to an Alan Guttmacher Institute study. In 1999 that number rose to 23 percent, and today the number stands at 33 percent. Most of these programs forgo any discussion of contraception outside of failure rates. Teen Aid, a pro-abstinence organization based in Spokane, Washington, that publishes some of the most widely distributed abstinence-only textbooks, cites the Holy Bible as a "medical reference" and defines abortion as "an intent to kill the unborn," according to Alan Singer's review of the textbook Sexuality, Commitment, and Family on the Rethinking Schools Web site. San Francisco Bible Church pastor Henry Tam says he believes that God made man and woman to come together in marriage, and that abstaining from sex until marriage would please God. "God designated sex to be enjoyed by married couples as one of the many joys that are part of a marriage," he says. Although Tam advocates abstinence until marriage, he does not believe that an increase in pro-abstinence education programs will decrease teen STD and birth rates.

California, the only state to reject the current federal funds, piloted pro-abstinence education programs a few years ago, according to Huberman. "The sex rates didn't change," she says. The state's Education Code does, however, currently require course material and instruction to "stress that pupils should abstain from sexual intercourse until they are ready for marriage" and to "teach honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage. According to Huberman, "European educators do not stress abstinence until marriage and instead are tolerant of teenagers' choices. "In Europe, we asked the instructors if there was anything that they couldn't talk about during class relating to sex," she says. "They looked at us like we were from Mars. Europeans are much more open."

Nicholas Moy, a French American International High School junior who visited France on a home-stay two years ago, noticed that Europeans do not consider sex a taboo the way Americans do. "Sex isn't viewed as a sin in Europe the way it is here," Moy says. "For them, (teens having sex) is universal and pretty much expected after a certain amount of time dating."

Yvonne Wong is a 16-year-old reporter for The Lowell, the student newspaper at Lowell High School in San Francisco.
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