Hard work is a glue, and he worked longer hours than anybody I’d ever known, from doors opening to doors closing, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every summer day the Center was open, six and sometimes seven days a week, year after year after year. I liked him immediately. I used to call him the best boss I’d ever had. He was, for a long time. Frequently I’d close with him, and we’d sit around on top of those little kid-sized desks like two off-duty cops, exhausted and a little punchy, drinking cheap canned coffees he’d brought back from Taiwan for the staff. For reasons I wouldn’t figure out until much later, I saw in him someone I needed badly to be a good boss, a good person, someone I could be friends with, someone who could see a friend in me. I guess he saw a friend in me because I was always there, because he prized hard work over all else, because he prized my PhD-in-progress, and maybe too because he was lonely, even with his wife working beside him all those long hours. The immigrant work ethic fundamentally renders you lonely, even in the midst of fellow immigrants.
The work was private education, primarily prep classes for the Scholastic Aptitude Test, commonly known as the SAT, still the standard ticket for high school students of every race and region and class to gain access to American college education. The business was called Straight A Learning Center — owned and operated by Danny and his wife Ellen, who’d emigrated together from Taiwan in the early ‘90s. Straight A first opened its doors in 1998; I joined the Center in 2007, teaching a few classes that first summer, going full-time the next few summers, eventually going part-time bordering on full-time year-round.
Straight A came to offer a real future for me, money, security, and possibility of growth, as well as the opportunity to help young people from Asian American communities throughout Maryland’s Montgomery County and nearby northern Virginia. The Center promised a new kind of educational culture, and perhaps most importantly to me, because I’m Asian American myself, a way to support and give back to my communities.
But it all went wrong.
The most vivid thing I remember about being twelve years old is standing alone atop a fifty-foot-high water tower over a dam in rural Japan, a few hours outside of Hiroshima. My friends had already jumped off into the water far below, and by the time they climbed the long ladder back up, the sun was going down and I still wasn’t ready to jump. So they peeled my fingers off the railing and threw me over. We spent the rest of the evening in pachinko parlors we weren’t allowed into, arcades we were. We cadged beer from older kids. We read pornographic anime. We shot fireworks into open doors and windows. A close friend’s father was doing research at a university in Hiroshima, so the whole family was there for three years; I was there to visit for two delinquent weeks.
When my cousin Trang was twelve, she was in transit to the U.S. as a refugee. She’d left Vietnam by cover of night with her parents and two younger brothers. She never talked to me much about the exodus, or about the time they must have spent in refugee camps in Thailand, or Malaysia, or maybe the Philippines. Already her mother had the early seeds of a cancer that would take her life five short years later, a cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange. Already, at twelve, Trang wore the mantle of forced adulthood, standard issue for refugee children.
My partner, also Vietnamese American, named Mimi, given name Thanh Thư, was starting a very different kind of education at twelve. With her mother she took up New Age religion, picking it up so quickly she became a kind of prodigal guru, nicknamed tiểu sư phụ, or “little master.”
I proffer this cross-section of twelve year olds from my generation because twelve is the age an alarming number of Asian Americans of the current generation begin taking SAT prep classes. When I first started tutoring, in 2001, all of my tutees were juniors and seniors in high school. As I started teaching prep classes proper a few years later, a lone sophomore would show up from time to time. As I was starting up with Straight A, around 2007, I began seeing the occasional freshman, and then eighth graders, and then seventh graders, and finally, so many seventh-graders, each just twelve years old, they needed their own class. Danny called it “SAT 2400” — as in, start early and you’ll get to that perfect score of 2400 — and the first session booked up in a few days.
Danny’s grand dream was to build a college counseling service expressly for Asian Americans, one that spans the entire East coast. Danny himself would do the advising and lead college tours, I would do the college application essay coaching (which, it turned out, was what was most in demand when we actually piloted the service). The steady stream of SAT classes would be our feeder system, all of those students potential clients for college advising, a captive audience for regular sales pitches.
It all went slowly wrong. Already I was tired of teaching the SAT, for reasons that should be patently obvious to anyone who has ever taken the test. I couldn’t walk away from Straight A, though, because the money was too good for grad student side work, $55 per hour, and for the college application essay work, even better, closer to $80 or $100 per hour — I could do more to dictate price with the essay work because I was the only person Danny had on staff who could do it. I made him share profits with me with the implicit understanding I’d walk if he didn’t. Meanwhile, he quietly shaved revenue wherever he could to reduce the profit he’d have to share. This was negotiation among friends in the model minority factory.
In summer the Center would transform into a micro-community college. Seven classrooms, all full to the brim, cycling in and out all day, hundreds of Asian American kids, all summer long. I’d do four to six week blocks of teaching, a mix of two-hour and one-and-a-half hour sessions all morning, afternoon, and evening. The material was totally inert for me by this time, and the work exhausting, having to be “on” for such long stretches. On the other hand, the Center was an inversion of the bad Asian American educational stereotype, or at least the promise of an inversion. It was a sort of dream-space, this culture of loving education, being excited not just by the need to overachieve, but by the material itself, by learning. Hundreds of kids of all ages — Taiwanese American, Chinese and Korean American, South Asian American — happy to be there every day of summer. It was amazing to see.
Ever since the early 2000s, I’ve nurtured the expiatory dream of being able to offer access to education not only to the super well-off but also the under-resourced. A prep service I worked for in San Diego from 2002 to 2005 had had a program called “City Lights,” a series subsidized by the city that provided free SAT prep classes to students who couldn’t otherwise afford them. Every single student was black or Latino, and if I wasn’t thinking about the relationship between race and class and education before, I was after “City Lights.” Here is the dirty truth of the SAT and the SAT prep industry, trumpeted more loudly in the last few years, but never, arguably, to much effect: the tutoring and classes work; those who can afford them improve their scores, usually drastically; those who can’t afford them are at a tremendous disadvantage. Money buys you aptitude. And aptitude opens up opportunity.
Years later, at Straight A, I thought I had an answer to this problem. I thought the money from the families who could afford to pay could help make possible education for those who couldn’t. I thought we could find the kinds of subsidies and grants that floated “City Lights” and build our own ongoing equivalent. That pipe dream was part of how I could stomach for so long the fact that the teaching itself was soulless — and my relationship with Danny deteriorating.
In 2010, as the college advising service was picking up, I was in the thick of my PhD work at the University of Maryland, teaching four classes a year for the University’s Asian American Studies Program, also doing a little consulting with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program. I was balancing a historical and theoretical approach to Asian America with a kind of on-the-ground, community-level (if financially circumscribed) engagement. Everywhere in the world of Asian American studies is a romanticization of the Asian immigrant worker, and a desire to bridge the class gap, in many cases because the Asian Americanist scholar is a child or grandchild of immigrants. On the other hand, you frequently hear from community organizers and activists the charge that Asian American studies long ago lost touch with the communities it purports to engage. So Danny and I, the Asian immigrant entrepreneur and the fledgling Asian Americanist academic, we had to get along. Our relationship was so fraught with symbolic significance.
Friendship: I worked with both of his daughters and got each into her graduate program of choice — one the NYU International School, the other the Columbia School of Counseling. I worked with dozens of Danny’s nephews and nieces, or “nephews” and “nieces,” family friends who’d become de facto family, another immigrant reality. I can’t count the number of times he fronted me money before I finished the work. He told me more than once that any time I needed a no-interest loan, $5,000, $10,000, even $15,000, to just ask. Every year he held a Christmas party, taking all of the teachers and staff plus significant others out to a local Taiwanese restaurant for a full seven-course banquet dinner. He held a raffle with gifts all around — everybody got something, ranging from a knock-off iPod touch from Hong Kong to a $100 Amazon gift certificate to a $10 gift card to Starbucks. Every year he rigged it so I got one of the best gifts, and the years I couldn’t make it out to the party, he just saved me one.
But friendship wasn’t going to be enough. As we were piloting the college advising service, there was definitely demand, and money, but Danny undercharged to inflate demand. I had to eat that discount without ever being asked if I was okay with it. I had to plan out the new business without any pay for hours upon hours of development, curricular and otherwise. And to keep those initial students happy, so that they’d recommend us, Danny kept the lines blurry in terms of what they got for their money — which for me meant inflated supply, no limits on time or the number of essays I’d have to review. Inevitably someone took advantage, and it was our fault for letting her, for producing the conditions to encourage her.
Helena Chiu was a hyper-overachiever applying to every Ivy League and other top-ranked school. 2390 SAT, pristine GPA, founded her own Science Club that brought innovative, high-school-student-run science workshops to kindergartens and preschools across Montgomery County. The archetypical model minority in the making. Whereas other students were applying to eight or nine schools, she applied to fifteen, and wanted essay help for all of them, and wanted extra revisions, and demanded hand-holding every step of the way. Danny wouldn’t draw the line — Just make Helena and her parents happy, he insisted. So she was calling me at nights asking for extra help. Calling me on vacation to do a mock college interview for MIT, even though that was totally outside the scope of what we were supposed to be providing. A learning experience for us for next time, Danny maintained.
But there was a deeper problem too that I began to notice: in Helena, that furious striving, and in me, a compulsion to fan it in troubling ways. To not only convince her she could get accepted to top schools, and show her how to get accepted, but to set a dollar value on that acceptance. We were coding high-end acceptance as fulfillment, coding fulfillment as an investment. Which was also, not coincidentally, at the heart of our essay coaching — value. Application writing at all levels works this way. Why should you select me, hire me, give me that scholarship, that fellowship, that grant, that money. It’s the ultimate in capitalist logic: the most fundamentally important skill is being able to articulate your own value. I was not simply teaching this skill to individual students, I was pitching the idea to their parents, threading its logic into the fabric of our communities, creating a market for our business out of thin air. This was not teaching, not learning, not education; it was sales. It was recoding everything as commodity and transaction. It meant asking our prospective clients, the parents, to re-understand themselves and everyone around them, most especially their children, in terms of success narrowly understood in terms of education narrowly understood in terms of value. I was on the floor of the model minority factory, imagining the assembly line into being.
In high school I was and was not a Helena. I was always an aptitude-test ace, but I had none of her drive, none of that Ivy League aspiration. Hence crappy grades. Disaffected, distant, troubled, all of these words were used to describe me — not at all a model minority. So working with Helena was a flashback to high school, and a new light shining onto why I hated the experience so much — and onto why I was growing more and more unhappy working for Danny. He was using me just as he was inescapably being used himself just as we were using Asian American communities together. He was trying to juke the system even as we were building and powering that very system. He was too good to be true, and it was never going to work, this grand plan of his, and I was going to be part of its downfall.
Here’s why I was always perfect for Danny: I was white-looking but still Asian enough. My mother is Vietnamese, my father white, and I look white, a reality that has alternately meant nothing and everything, depending on who’s looking. What I look like to students, and their parents, falls into the everything category. Danny had plenty of white teachers. They were readily available from Montgomery County’s deep pool of middle and high schools that didn’t pay quite enough to keep teachers happy. And he knew our Asian American clientele, the parents, not the kids, inherently privileged white teachers — but at the same time wanted an owner who spoke Taiwanese, who looked Asian, who could talk to them (earnestly and with a silver tongue at once) about the unique challenges facing immigrant parents. I was a perfect fit for this model. Parents revered me as this great “white” teacher, but Danny could trust me more because I was “secretly” Asian American, because I was familiar and comfortable with Asian American students and their parents.
It’s more than a little strange to be good at something you don’t enjoy. No, great at something you loathe. I’m being immodest here, but modesty would be silly at this point. By some curious twist of fate I am an outrageously good SAT teacher, so much so that even after the college application essay advising took off, Danny still badly needed me to keep doing SAT teaching and tutoring work because parents and students specifically requested me. A lot. Students who worked with me always had huge score increases. When I’d substitute for other teachers, the students would clamor to switch to my classes. I’ve had more students I can count take three plus years of classes with me, with extra tutoring to boot. I know the test inside and out: I can tell you every variation of every problem type in my sleep; I can tell you the answers to questions without even seeing the answer choices; hell, for the reading sections, I can predict the answers from the passages alone, without even seeing the actual questions. (This last one is the truest index I’ve spent way too much time teaching the test. It actually scares me a little I can do this.)
By the time I settled in at the Center, I was so bored with the SAT I started building artificial challenges for myself. I started coming to class without lesson plans, then without any notes, then without preparing at all, eventually without even a book. I started reviewing tests I’d never seen before without answer keys handy, pushing myself to be able to figure out and explain new questions on the fly. For years now I’ve been able to walk in the door and teach SAT without thinking about it a second beforehand. I could step over to a chalkboard right now, without any materials at all, and hold forth for one hour, two hours, four hours, six hours — whatever time span you give me, I’ll fill it up without batting an eye. This is a perverse form of bragging: in the grand scheme of things it’s such an absurdly unimportant skill, a parlor trick, and the fact that it has value in our culture is a testament to how fucked up our culture is.
It was also arrogant and more than a little self-destructive on my part, but it never went wrong, and the challenges I’d set proved good training ground for teaching under fire. I’m also realizing how my classes became a surrogate space for working out some of my own underlying baggage. I could “vicariously” work out things I wasn’t allowed to, or wouldn’t allow myself to, address directly. Punish myself, push myself, show off: there are some murky links here to my vexed high school and college careers, my despair over the American educational enterprise, the model minority factory I was inside, by choice, my various frustrations over race and class and culture and gender and on and on in America.
Next we branch out to China and Taiwan, announced Danny one day. The next phase of his grand plan. He had contacts in both countries and traveled to both regularly. There is a ton of demand from students who can’t get into top universities in mainland China and Taiwan and Hong Kong who want to go to U.S. schools by default. And of course U.S. universities want these students because they’ll pay top dollar — no foreign FAFSA, or student aid, necessary. Danny already had tentative arrangements to offer prep classes and college advising in China for exorbitant sums of money, and they’d pay to fly us over. He’d also already begun setting up contracts for virtual advising, college application essay help for students in China and Taiwan over Skype. This is our new business venture together, he said. We can make a ton of money together, he didn’t have to say. A new wrinkle of Asian immigration and acculturation to (Asian) America, I thought.
By summer and fall, in the early morning and late at night, when our time zones synced, I was Skyping regularly with Chinese and Taiwanese students, walking them through their essays, with Danny listening in to translate when necessary. And again Danny was undercharging, and skimming from the profits. Then things got even worse. The students started cheating. Plagiarism is an epidemic among international Asian students applying to American schools, and it’s not hard to see why. These are often very rich, very entitled kids who can easily pay for essays, either from paper-mills or from classmates or, in our cases, putatively from me, encouraged by the fact that there’s no easy way to regulate the cheating on the U.S. end of things. Many of my students didn’t want advice, or help thinking through their topics, or suggestions for development and revision: they wanted me to write their essays. Or they’d turn in essays they clearly hadn’t written that had nothing to do with the essay prompts they needed to answer. Danny turned a blind eye. Always in the past he’d been very strict about ethical standards. But I guess there was too much money on the line here — these students and parents were pipelines to more students, to a whole new market, to a whole new business concept. I’d tell him I wasn’t okay with what the students wanted and he’d gently push me to do more than I was comfortable with. I wouldn’t budge. He’d keep pushing.
And then one night he called me and said, “This student needs his essays by midnight tonight. There’s no time for you to make suggestions and for him to revise. He and his parents are fine with you just quickly rewriting portions for him. Just this once.”
I said no, and never did another minute of work for him.
I’d known since working with Helena that I wanted out. Known for some time that my heart wasn’t in the work, to say the least — I’d come to find it anathema, a species of class warfare, a species of cultural betrayal, of cannibalism, of self-destruction. Here was my easy excuse to get out. But at the same time, what Danny asked me to do, and what that asking did to him, and to our friendship, broke my heart.
This is a good man. An Asian immigrant entrepreneur par excellence, big-dreaming, hard-striving, in shirt and tie around the clock, always smiling, aging by the second, in a coffin of solitude the moment he stepped onto American shores, always smiling anyway. He loves children and loves his communities, and he built his business not simply on by-the-bootstraps grit and ambition but also on that love, on the belief he could make the lives of those in his community better. I honestly liked and respected him, even as I felt a compulsion to like and respect him. If the souring of the dream was inevitable, part of me forgave him instantly, and a bigger part still hasn’t figured out how to forgive him because that process means opening up a wide, wide net of imprecation: so many of us in Asian American communities are complicit in the forces that build and sour the American educational enterprise.
I think of the “SAT 2400” classes, classes which, by the end of my tenure at Straight A, were suddenly being offered with a terrible regularity. Seventh graders prepping for a test they wouldn’t take for five years. It felt wrong, but then again I knew these kids would score better on the SAT than the ones we got at an older age, absurdly better than students who’d never take classes. The factory works. I think of myself at twelve. In Japan, out on that water tower, or at the arcades, drinking some syrupy alcoholic soft drink, buying anime porno comics.
I think of that twelve-year-old me next to Trang and Mimi at twelve. Refugee Trang, her entire existence irrevocably transforming. Mimi on the cusp of a cross-religious journey. And then me, this silly kid reading dirty comic books, about to become a very confused and alienated teenager. I was so different from the students who come through Straight A, in appearance, in sensibility, in temperament. French theorist Guy Debord once said there is no alienation, in the sense of no outside, and that sounds about right for me. I wasn’t really an outsider, I don’t think, as a pre-teen or teen. Like many mixed race kids I felt that I didn’t belong anywhere, but I wasn’t really an outsider: I was full of the invisible tensions of inside, hyper-aware of the contradictions and tensions my friends and peers ignored or never saw in the first place. I couldn’t put a name to any of it then, it was just this intuitive sense of the anger and hatred that pulse through modern life, how America in all of its contradictions hates itself and how that hatred is everywhere and nowhere to see, layered over with sanctioned forms of like and dislike, but never love, that spiritual love Mimi was drawing always closer to — never love because love is too close to hate for America to allow it into daylight.
Everywhere in the SAT, in the Asian American embrace of that educational ticket, that industry, all of that time and money and yearning, in Danny himself, in me, in our friendship, in the allegory of our friendship, is that anger and hatred imposed and absorbed and transmuted into work ethic and model minority-hood that our communities fight off and wear proudly at once. I never accepted this dynamic uncritically, but I cultivated it and profited off of it. I am not ashamed now so much as sad. All of us are magistrates at the far outposts of empire at some point, whether we like it or not, right? There’s no getting outside the machine. But we can refuse to teach, I guess; we can step off the floor of the factory. We can learn to love instead of like.