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A Talk to High School Students, Sponsored by the Asian Pacific Student Alliance

The opportunity to talk to so many high school students is a new one for me. As I began to think about what I could say to you that would be of value, I began to look back at my life. It has been over thirty years since I went to high school. For much of my life, I have been on the fast track academically.


When I was sixteen, I entered college at the University of California at Berkeley. When I was eighteen, I spent a year studying mathematics in Germany and hitchhiking all over Europe. When I was twenty, I went to Princeton University for graduate school. And when I was twenty-four, I completed my Ph.D. and started teaching here at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD). When I was twenty-six, I bought a house here in La Jolla. When I was twenty-eight I was invited to Oxford and Helsinki to give talks on my math research, and when I was thirty I was a full professor here. I have taught mathematics in Israel, Switzerland, Canada, and Berkeley, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton. About ten years ago, I taught the first Asian American Studies course here at UCSD. I was one of the faculty here who created the Ethnic Studies Department. More recently I got married to a wonderful Japanese American woman and I have two little girls, ages two and four.

How did all this happen?

What I think I will do is describe what my life has been like and some of the experiences I have had. I will try to look at the kinds of mistakes I made. Maybe you can compare and contrast your life experiences with mine and hopefully we can have a dialogue.


I'm the youngest of my family. I have a brother and sister who are eight and nine years older. My father came to this country as one of the best students in China. By examination, he won a scholarship to study here. After studying here, he went back to China to build the first modern airplane built by a Chinese in China. He married my mom, and my brother and sister were born there.

My parents left China at a time of turmoil. People were starving, the government was corrupt, and the military controlled much of their destiny. My father remembers dropping an egg in a huge pot of water to feed fifteen people in his family. He remembers women walking around naked in the street because they had no clothes. My mother remembers almost leaving my brother and sister so that she and my father could come to this country. I was told hundreds of horror stories of life in China.

When my parents, brother, and sister arrived in the U.S. they had no money and no jobs. Then I was born. They could not afford to pay the hospital bill for my birth. My parents tell me I was the 'lucky baby,' because after my birth my father somehow got a part-time job teaching at the University of Detroit. As long as I can remember, my father spoke about the value of an education. My bro-ther and I were told there was no choice but to go to college, to get our Ph.D. My sister was expected to get married and raise children.

From when I was seven until I was fifteen, I was given a science or math or Chinese book, put in a room, and told to study. Two hours a day, I studied science or math or Chinese in isolation. During the summer, it was four hours a day. There was a date written on the back of the book. On that day, I would be examined by my father on the contents of the book.

Imagine sitting at the desk in your father's study for two hours every day while your buddies were out playing and having a great time.


Let's take a couple of minutes to stand up and stretch and think about this. Imagine you're sitting at a desk, with a book you barely understand, knowing that in a month your dad is going to test you on it. Meanwhile, your friends are out having a great time. They come by and ask if you can come out to play and your mom says you have to study.

I hated it. I rebelled. I remember sitting in that room, taking a knife, and carving up my dad's new desk. I took his calendar and marked it all up. I almost burned down the house one time playing with matches. I doodled and I slept. I was angry that my parents were so strict with me while all my friends were out having a great time on the playground.

I remember my dad always said how much smarter my brother was. I remember arguing with my brother. He was eight years older and basically knew a lot more than I did. He claimed that diamonds were made out of coal. I did not believe it. I bet him a million jillion dollars that that was not true. When we went and asked my father, he said yes, diamonds are made out of coal. I was humiliated. I now owed my brother a million jillion dollars! It felt like a costly lesson, but what I learned at an early age is the price one might pay for incorrect information.

Even though I mention the many painful aspects of my experience, there were some benefits. When I was tested in school, I knew how to focus, concentrate, and learn. I knew about self discipline. I was not afraid of spending hours reading books, and I knew the rules for how I might be judged.


Why am I telling you all this? Because as the sons and daughters of immigrants, I think youneed to realize that your parents may have this desperation to see you succeed. Because my parents suffered through torture and war and the loss of family ties, they felt very desperate that I succeed in this country. This desperation can take on strange forms. They expected me to obey them even when they were not very happy with their own lives. They demanded that I learn science instead of the humanities. They decided it was more important to isolate me and make me study than to let me make friends.

They did not know how society works here, so they did not feel that I should consider other careers that were not academic. Many other ethnic groups in this country have gotten jobs in non-academic areas, but with the limited viewpoints that my parents had, an academic career was the best choice.

My parents did the very best they could with what they knew. They saw that education was a real opportunity in this country. They seized on it, knowing that if their children would follow their lead, their children could have a better life than they had.

Even when I was seven years old, I could somehow sense there were other ways of succeeding that my parents were unfamiliar with because they were not exposed to the opportunities that I saw. On the other hand, I loved them and did not want to hurt them, and I felt guilty for not following their orders. The right to determine one's own life is a very Western concept. In Asia, it is not appropriate to go against the will of our elders.

I think each of us experiences this-being forced to do something that we might not want to do or don't understand the reason for doing. Society seems to lay this heavy trip, especially, on young adults like you. You are at an age when you are vulnerable that way.

This experience helped me to formulate my own values. I found myself telling my parents that if they wanted me to obey all their orders they should have raised me in China. (But they left China exactly because they themselves did not agree with this.)


So I left my parents to go to college at UC Berkeley. Wow, Berkeley was amazing. I suddenly went from my protected childhood, with my parents being so strict, to all this freedom. Freedom to let my hair grow out. Freedom to experiment with liquor and drugs. Freedom to stay up all night. Freedom to live in a dormitory with lots of other students. Freedom to walk the city streets at night. Freedom to try all kinds of different foods. Freedom to examine relationships with girls. Freedom to see what other people thought was important. Freedom to get lost in a crowd instead of being under the microscope of my parents. Freedom to meet other Asians who were raised differently from me. Just as long as I was doing okay academically, and did not harm myself physically, I could have all this freedom to explore other things.

One of the points I want to make is that in college there is just as much to learn outside the classroom as there is to learn in the classroom.

When you look for a college or university, you should take a look at what other kinds of activities are available to you that you have not experienced at home. If you have only been around Asians at home, then go to a place where you can learn about other cultures and people. If you grew up in an all-white neighborhood, then go to a college that has lots of Asians. There are numerous college guides that describe what it is like to go to a particular school. Also, most schools now have a Web page on the Internet, and you can go to the library and find out a lot about the school based on their Web page.

College is a pretty safe laboratory to explore life and life's issues. In the workplace, if you make one or two mistakes, you might be let go. In college, if you fail a midterm, they give you a second chance on the final. If you fail a couple of courses, you only go on probation. Only after repeatedly failing for two consecutive quarters are you forced to leave the college. So you have fair warning. My experience has been that only students who genuinely don't want to be here actually flunk out. Anyone who is willing to invest twenty hours a week studying and using the resources will get through. Graduation is more a matter of perseverance than of intelligence.

Some of you will be pressured by your parents into going to a school that costs less. For some of you, your parents might not even want you to go. You can tell them that if you don't go to college your salary will probably be in the $20,000 range. Some of you may not know what you can buy for $20,000. After taxes, you can barely buy a car, and then you won't have any left over to rent an apartment.

If you do go to college, your salary after completing college will probably be in at least the $30,000 range. The significant dollar factor occurs ten years after college, when high school graduates are still making under $30,000 and most college graduates are making almost $50,000, depending on their training.

Money isn't the only reason for going to college. There are plenty of social reasons. In talking with my Asian friends, I've learned that most Asian parents won't allow their children to marry someone who does not have a college degree. Further, social connections are also work connections. Your ability to find an interesting job that is stimulating will depend on your college education.

The largest ethnic group in college in California is Asians. Over 120,000 Asian students attend college in California. There is an established pipeline of Asian students and also of Asian faculty at most all of the universities. I can think of ten or fifteen Asian professors on campus that have had life experiences similar to yours. Just to name a few:

Professor Xuong-A Vietnamese immigrant who holds joint professorships in Biology, Physics, and Chemistry. He is famous for his 'Xuong machine' which can see proteins at a far greater resolution than any electron microscope.

Samuel Yen-Professor of Medicine. One of the world's leading authorities on reproductive medicine.

There are actually lots of science professors of Asian descent, so I won't mention any more. You may not know that there are Asian professors who talk about the history, literature, and experiences of Asians in the U.S.:

Lisa Lowe-Asian professor of Literature. Lisa teaches courses in Asian American women and Asian American literature. These are courses about Asians living in the U.S., their writings, and their experiences as immigrants.

Yen Espiritu-A graduate of UCSD and now chair of the Ethnic Studies Department and also the new chair of the American Association of Asian American Studies. She is a specialist in the Vietnamese community.

Vince Raphael-A Filipino professor of Communications with many articles on Filipino life in the U.S.

What about students who have graduated from here? There are thousands of Asian graduates who have gone on to careers in engineering, science, and medicine:

Melinda Yee-Currently working in Washington, D.C. in the Clinton Administration.

Professor Tonegawa-A graduate of UCSD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, a Nobel Prize winner.

Kip Fulbeck-A graduate of the Visual Arts Department and a filmmaker. Currently teaching in the Visual Arts Department at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Now let's talk about the academics. The format of presentation is different from high school. Beginning classes are often large, maybe 150 to 200 students. When you first enter, it is difficult to gauge what the professor expects. What level of precision is expected of you in exams? How are they graded? What are the consequences of turning in something late?


You are entering a different culture, and the first quarter will be intimidating. Where can you get help? In high school, you probably asked the teacher. Here, your fellow students in the dorms or in class will be your most important resource. They will know what the professor expects. They will have a sense of how exams are graded.

You will be asked to work in groups at times. Why? Because in the workplace and in your life you will be encountering more and more experiences where problems will be solved by teams of people.

All job interviews in technical fields are now focused on your ability to work with other people. Further, studies have shown that if you just listen to a lecture, your retention level is about fifty percent. If you begin to talk about what you heard in a lecture, your retention level is seventy-five percent, and if you teach others, it rises to eighty-five percent.

A key issue for Asians like us is to overcome our self-reliance patterns. We are taught to not ask for help, to do everything on our own. This makes us unbelievably shy. We have difficulty walking into a professor's office and asking him/her how to do a problem. If we are attracted to another person, we have difficulty initiating conversation. Our parents may be telling us not to bother other people, to do everything on our own. Up until now we have succeeded by not relying on others. It has allowed us to quietly progress without rocking the boat.

But when you look around at all the people who you really admire, they all seem to use their connections to get important information.

It is much faster and more effective to get information from another person by talking to him or her. So your ability to do this is really important. I think it will determine what kind of job you get, what kind of spouse you marry, and what kind of house you can buy.

Let's talk about relationships. When I went to college, I was told by my parents that I should not date until I got my Ph.D. Can you believe this? How is that possible? By the time I got my Ph.D. I'd have become a nerd if I didn't learn how to talk to women earlier! So I found myself dating without letting my parents know. This is an important skill to learn and one that needs to be learned early. College is a place where you can explore these issues.

I see the young Asian women in the American Pacific Student Alliance gossiping about the cute guys. If a young womanwants to meet an Asian guy, she often talks to her girlfriends and gets one of them to set her up with the guy. The Asian guys work as a group and do the same. In this way, they are able to meet each other. In the library, there is more going on than just studying. People are checking each other out. There is a lot of experimentation going on here, and I think it is good, because through this experience you will learn what you are looking for. Without this experience, you have given up your power to control your own destiny. So overcoming your self-reliant patterns will help you to begin to explore relationships, too.

I would like to pause here in my talk and have each of you turn to a person you have never met and introduce yourself and talk for a couple of minutes about anything you choose. I would like you to experience the awkwardness of this. We have been taught to be embarrassed about asking for assistance, but I think with practice we can overcome this embarrassment.


Another reason for going to college is that you can explore your Asianness. Where do all the young Asians hang out?

In high school, very little is taught about the history or life experiences of Asians in the U.S. We have a history of amazing accomplishments and contributions to the welfare of this country. The fishing industry in San Diego was originally developed by Asians in the 1800's. The California aqueduct was built with Asian labor, and the fruit orchards of the San Joaquin Valley were planted by Asians. Now in Silicon Valley and in Orange County, Asian companies are boosting the U.S. economy by billions of dollars. The governor of the state of Washington is an Asian.

And yet, the public perception of Asians in the U.S. is that we are involved with making illegal campaign contributions to presidential campaigns and are buying political influence this way. Look at the newspapers. The riots in Los Angeles not too long ago underscore the kinds of misinformation people have about Asians. The three wars that the U.S. fought against Asian countries have left many U.S. war veterans with distorted views of Asians as inhuman, without feelings, and not valuing human life. Only forty-five years ago, the entire Japanese American population of California was put in internment camps because other U.S. citizens feared the Japanese Americans were spies for Japan.

Whether or not you realize it, you and your family and the kinds of opportunities you will have in this country have been and will be influenced by the way we as Asians are perceived by other USers. For this reason, ten years ago, I decided it was important that a course be taught here about Asians in the U.S., our accomplishments, our struggles, and the ways the laws of this country have been used to prevent us from coming to this country. You may be surprised to know that there are lots of books and research articles written about Asians in the U.S. My teaching this course eventually led to the establishment of an Ethnic Studies Department. This year, the department started a Ph.D. program, the second of its kind in the country.

If you go to college, you have access to such courses. Students who have completed this class often tell me they did not know they had a history in the U.S. They did not know they could claim a legacy of accomplishments of Asians who came before them. So this is another reason to go to college.


Not too long ago, I became a father to two beautiful young girls. I am of Chinese descent, and my wife, Julie, is of Japanese descent, so our children will share three cultures-Chinese, Japanese, and U.S. As I look at my daughters, I am reminded of the days of my youth when I dreamed of changing the world and making it a better place for us to live in. I still have those dreams-fantasies of myself as Michael Chang making that perfect backhand, or as Tiger Woods revolutionizing an entire sport, or solving a math problem that will change the way people think. One of my daughters is named Kristi, after Kristi Yamaguchi. I think all of us have dreams and visions about our future.

I have great hopes for all of you in the audience. You are sitting on the threshhold of greatness. Some of you will become great scientists, politicians, athletes, writers, actors, social scientists, professors, and parents. Some of you will be in careers that do not even exist today. Most all of you will have more than one career, since nowadays people change jobs about every five years. We will be constantly learning and reinventing ourselves.

There is no guarantee that every one of you will find some life-centering career or work that you love. But in my over twenty years of teaching, I've found that having the freedom to seek a decent place for oneself in the world is central to finding happiness in life.

I have seen this happen with hundreds of my students, and I am confident it will happen with you. Even though many of you cannot see it in yourselves right now, I know you are headed in the right direction.

Many of you have been fed the wrong information about yourselves. You have been told that you are not good enough, and some of you have begun to believe this.

Most of you have not been listened to enough. Your parents and teachers are unaware of the struggles you are going through. Rarely are you given enough space to be allowed to think for yourselves.

You need the correct information. Your parents and teachers need to realize that even when you do something wrong, they need to let you know they still care about and deeply respect you. You need to respect yourself. You, of all people, must be on your own side.

As young adults, you have many strengths that your elders do not have. You will change the world in ways such as having pillow fights, partying, throwing water balloons, roller blading, skateboarding, and surfing. You are by far the most active group in world change internationally. Every major change in the world started with a young adult like you. You have lots of passion and higher goals and ambitions than many of us adults who have been beaten down by the system, and you don't have as many commitments, either financial or emotional.

So as the son of an immigrant, a professor, a parent, and an Asian, I offer this opportunity to you-to follow your dreams, to come to college, and to seize the world as if you own it. Thank you.

Jim Lin,
La Jolla, California,

Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00