On privilege

Comfort Food

My teachers would offer extra credit to students whose parents attended school events. Two or three weeks in advance, students would plaster the school with posters exclaiming, “Share your accomplishments with your parents at Open House!” or “Showcase your talents to your parents at the annual talent show!” My teachers validated their school pride by generously offering 10 to 20 extra credit points to students whose parents attended these low-budget productions patched together by nerds who desperately wanted to secure their border-line A’s.

As a once naive and grade-obsessed student, I jumped at these opportunities. When my teachers announced these optional assignments, I would wait patiently for my father so that I could tell him. He would come back from work around 8 or 9 in the evening. By this time, my initial excitement had faded, and I would provide him with only the time and place.

My father would always respond with, “I can’t make it. I have work. I’m sorry, Lauren. Why don’t you ask mom?”

I tensed every time he offered my mother as a replacement. Whenever I was with my mother, I was never a child. Instead, I became a translator, personal guide, human dictionary and set of instructions. The time my mother had visited my school, my white friends gawked at her perm and mocked her thick accent. For weeks after their encounter, they would joke to one another about how “Asian” she was. For an adolescent growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, this was humiliating. So, I opted out of these events.

As a child, I interpreted my parents’ lack of attendance at school events as neglect. I criticized them for being bad parents, shouting insults along the lines of: “You don’t care about anything except for work!” followed by “I wish I had Olivia’s dad or Chloe’s mom as parents.” I would hurl hurtful words, not realizing the emotional damage they inflicted. My parents never knew how to react or refute my insults except by apologizing. As a stubborn, spoiled child, I would tell them, “Sorry doesn’t change anything.”

I overlooked the subtle ways my parents showed their love and concern. They couldn’t skip out on work to get me those 10 extra points or interact with my teachers as easily as my peers’ English-speaking parents. Instead, they worked their asses off to make sure I had a roof over my head, food on the table and clothes to wear. They never spent money on extravagant vacations or luxurious products for themselves. Instead, they spent every dollar they earned on enriching my life buying me newly bound textbooks for classes, expensive piano lessons and after-school programs where, at the ripe age of 11, I learned amphibian anatomy through dissection. Even when they were struggling to pay the mortgage, my parents would still let me buy the sugary snacks I wanted or attend the overpriced orchestra performances that I enjoyed at the local theaters.

I never appreciated my parents as much as I should have growing up because I pitied myself for  lacking charismatic, English-speaking parents to bring to school events. These extra credit opportunities made me feel different as a 10-year-old, a feeling I never wanted repeated because I was already different thanks to my Korean accent and yellow skin tone.

I didn’t realize these extra credit opportunities were unfair until I became aware of the discrimination non-native citizens face in the public education system. The triviality of the entire process — points being affixed to parents showing up, interacting with teachers and signing their names on an attendance sheet was a fallacy. The reality was that, despite how seemingly easy it was to sign a name for their kid to earn extra credit, it wasn’t all that simple.

Administrators and teachers sometimes assume that students’ parents all speak or write English. When in reality, students return home to translate English permission slips or forms into their parents’ native tongues to get a signature or two if time permits — if not, they simply forge their parents’ signatures and leave their parents ignorant to their school lives. Schools also host events — typically on weekday afternoons — presuming that all parents work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. This dismisses and devalues the graveyard shifts and 60-hour work weeks many immigrants work to compensate for lower wages. As a result, the lack of consideration to accommodate these differences between students alienates immigrants. These students become “different” when they realize their parents are outliers for working extra hours or never taking vacations. This can lead immigrant children to misinterpret their parents’ intentions and detach themselves from their parents who ironically work extra hard to sustain the family.

Even I’m guilty of this and am at fault for antagonizing my parents. Our capitalist society teaches that time is money, and money and time were two things my parents couldn’t jeopardize. Instead, they sacrificed my childhood — a decision I’m sure hurt them more than me. At the time, I felt unwanted, but if they hadn’t made these choices, I wouldn’t be where I am today, which happens to be at the best public university in the world. (Go Bears!)

Lauren Ahn writes the Friday blog on inedible nourishment. Contact her at [email protected].

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