That was the question Wednesday night as some 200 parents and students — mostly, but not exclusively, Asian — gathered to reflect on "Growing Up Asian in Palo Alto." The event was sponsored by the Palo Alto Council of PTAs and moderated by School Board President Barbara Sih Klausner, who stressed that she was participating as an individual, not in an official capacity.
About one-third of Palo Alto's 11,680 public school students are now Asian American, and about one in five is ethnic Chinese, Klausner said.
Students from Paly and Gunn described what it's like to live with — and sometimes overcome — stereotypes from peers and others that they care mainly about math and science.
"Some common questions I get are, 'You're Asian, you must like math and science,'" said Paly junior Chirag Krishna.
"I say, 'Well yes, I do, but I'm also interested in a lot of other subjects — English, history.'
"People say, 'You must play the violin, piano or cello.' I say, 'No, I've actually played the guitar for the past 10 years.'"
Krishna, a tennis player and secretary in Paly's student government, said his school leadership activities have been particularly satisfying.
Running for student body president at Jordan Middle School, he realized for the first time that relying on his relatively small circle of mostly Asian friends would not be enough to win.
"I had to get myself out there, regardless of stereotypes," he said. "That's what I did and it helped me so much.
"I branched out with white kids, Hispanic kids, African-American kids — people in every single corner, just like the corner I had out on the quad.
"They were a little surprised that this Indian kid, this Asian kid, who could only do well in math, would stand up to do something not typically Asian, that we were not expected to want to do or succeed at.
"This gave me a lot of satisfaction, especially when I won for the first time, which I didn't really expect."
Many in the audience were immigrant parents, who described their challenges in trying to raise "American" children while maintaining their cultural values — and embracing new ones.
"My mom always said, 'Be a good girl, don't make mistakes, don't cause trouble,'" said Lie-Yeh Cheng, who immigrated to the Bay Area as a doctoral student at Stanford University in Materials Science and Engineering.
"I find I do that to my child too. I had a tendency to say, 'Be careful, don't climb that tree, you might fall down.'
"I gradually had to change myself," said Cheng, who has a son at Jordan and a daughter at Hoover.
Klausner said she hoped Wednesday's meeting would be the first of many to enable parents and students of all ethnicities to discuss the intersection of Asian culture with Palo Alto and its schools.
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