A Chinese student’s daunting school experience and what we can do about it


Newcastle, United Kingdom


It has been almost two years, but I still clearly remember a student of mine. For the sake of anonymity, I’ll call her Jing. Jing was Chinese and one of the few EAL (English as an Additional Language) students I taught during my science teaching practice. She would always enter the classroom quietly. Alone. She would try to listen during the lessons but would never interrupt or ask questions. Often, she would get distracted by her own thoughts and zone out. Those moments were when you could catch her smile. Seldom did Jing make the effort to interact with the rest of the class (99 percent of whom were white), and the others reciprocated.

Jing was medium-height, had long, dark hair and a cute smile. I knew she was curious and wanted to interact with others, but only because she would shyly approach me asking — exclusively in Chinese — about my teaching experience and the content of the lesson.

Jing’s case is not unusual in classrooms in both the United Kingdom, and on a global scale. Many public schools nowadays have a diverse student body. Theoretically, this is a great opportunity for children to interact with peers of different cultures. Realistically, this can be a daunting experience for students of color, who sometimes endure feelings of isolation and even discrimination.

Bullying and isolation against minority groups in a school can hinder their development and indirectly affect their academic performance. Take Hispanic students, for example – while the number of Hispanic students is increasing in the United States, the high school dropout rate has remained the highest of all racial groups. A 2011 study found that higher levels of discrimination towards Latino students were correlated with poorer perception of school climate at the end of 10th grade, which was used to predict students’ grade point averages and total absences.

The forms of discrimination minorities endure vary from group to group. Asians are often stereotyped as “nerdy,” while black and Latino students are often labelled “lazy” or “thugs.” Opportunities can be limited because of this discrimination. Harvard is limiting the number of Asians being accepted even though they make up a large proportion of the best candidates; meanwhile, black and Latino job applicants are respectively 36 percent and 24 percent less likely to receive callbacks than equally qualified white applicants.

“They may become very withdrawn, and very introverted, fearful, anxious about being in the school environment. Other children will respond in different ways — they may become very externalizing, they may lash out, they may be very angry,” said Mona Abo-Zena, an assistant professor from College of Education and Human Development at University of Massachusetts, Boston. In her opinion, the feeling of being excluded or attacked has negative impacts on one’s own estimation of self-worth and how they relate to their peers.

“I feel like when I look in the mirror, I don’t see a normal girl,” said Suki Wong, a graduate student at Columbia University. “I see a Chinese girl.”

Wong grew up in a rural village in the United Kingdom. As the only non-white student in her nursery school, Wong experienced isolation as early as the age of 4, when none of the other girls would include her in groups because of her yellow skin. The bullying got worse at the age of 6, when her classmates physically and verbally abused her because she was Chinese. When I asked Wong why she didn’t report the incidents to teachers, she said, “I guess I was already isolated, I already felt like I was different to every white person in the school … I didn’t form that trust or connection with teachers because of the isolation … The only place I felt like home was being at home with my family.”

Wong believes childhood bullying has long-term effects on people that could cause them trouble later in life. In her opinion, young, developing brains are highly sensitive to interactions with others. And she is absolutely right; when young children learn to communicate, they are curious and eager to learn more about their surroundings. Once over this age, it’s hard to go back and re-learn. If one experiences isolation or discrimination during this vital stage of development, it could potentially plant the seeds for all kinds of long-term mental health issues. Studies have shown that victims of bullying were four times as likely to develop an anxiety disorder at adulthood, as well as a higher possibility of depression, panic attacks and agoraphobia.

Wong admitted that she constantly felt self-conscious during high school. “I just never felt motivated to do anything that would affect anyone, because I felt like it wasn’t my place to do something valuable.”

There were a few cases which solidified Wong’s feeling of isolation. The most extreme instance took place when she confessed her feelings to a high school crush. He responded with a verbal diatribe, which included several racial slurs. Wong later realized that the major trigger of his behavior was a fear of being judged by his friends as a person who would date a Chinese girl.

Isolation and bullying can hinder children’s social, cognitive and language development. “The social development is hindered because at all stages of human development, to be isolated is a very hurtful thing. It’s especially hurtful when you are an adolescent because adolescents thrive off of social relationships that connect them to their peers,” said Stephanie Curenton, an associate professor from the School of Education at Boston University. She concluded that the feeling of being excluded is damaging to one’s self-esteem and mental health.

Cognitively, she believes that isolation impacts school work because students often spend too much time worrying that they’re not connected to their peers.

Curenton suggested that isolation can hinder one’s language development because students will have “fewer language partners, so you have fewer opportunities to engage in language interactions. That’s especially important for student who are dual language learners.”

On the other hand, Jonathan Butcher, a senior policy analyst from the Heritage Foundation — an influential U.S. conservative think tank — thinks differently: “If a child is attending a school where all of the teachers and all of the students are of the same color or the same race, but they’re all doing very well, they are all doing extremely successful, well I don’t want to do anything to break that up, right?” He argued that the same rule should also apply to a racially diverse school. He believed that the ultimate goal of education is students’ long-term success, and there is a risk if we just solely pursue diversity.

But in my opinion, it’s essential to implement not only a diverse, but also inclusive environment in schools. This is not only a pressing issue because of the negative long-term effects due to racial discrimination, but also because different cultures are no longer separated. With the advent of social media and universality of travel, we have seen an increasing trend in communication and integration across races. The trend toward a highly-interconnected world is here. With this comes the need to educate young minds about different cultures so that they understand and respect their global peers.

As Colin Rose, the assistant superintendent of Office of Opportunity and Achievement Gaps at Boston Public Schools said, “Culture becomes almost the software to your brain,” implying that people filter the world through their deep culture — the core ways people are as beings, not their surface culture such as the way they dress. “The more that we can incorporate students’ deep culture into our practices and pedagogy, the better we are going to do with them … it can affirm them in an authentic way that they are important, and that they see their voice in schools.”

Rose’s words are resonant with Wong’s past experience. “I’ve been seeing a therapist,” she said, “just to be able to talk about stuff like this. I realize that if I had been able to talk about this stuff during high school, maybe I’d be more aware … I am learning to understand that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about being Chinese.”

Boston, United States


Ruth Batson is a Boston civil-rights activist who has devoted her whole life to the rights of African-Americans. Thanks to her and many others, there has been major reform in the Boston school system over the past four decades. “Today we have a school choice model in which students have kind of a bucket list of schools that they can choose — some within the neighborhood, some outside the neighborhood,” said Colin Rose.

Batson, in an interview with The Atlantic, recalled how black students were shortchanged in the 1950s and 1960s. “[T]hen we decided that where there were a large number of white students, that’s where the care went. That’s where the books went. That’s where the money went,” she said.

While it may appear that Batson has accomplished her mission, the proportion of minorities still differs dramatically between schools. Eighty percent of the student body in Boston public schools is either black or Latino, according to Rose. In most exam schools, however, the racial composition sways in the opposite direction — the majority of students are white or Asian.

It seems to me that the source of this problem is the racial wealth gap. An economically advantaged family can provide more to their children than a poor one, in terms of a more stable learning environment, larger funds for tutoring and a more flexible school choice. Racial inequality is significant and growing — studies have estimated that it would take 84 years for the average Latino family to reach the same level of wealth as their white counterparts. For black families, the number is as large as 228 years. In other words, we can never fully achieve desegregation in schools until we reduce this huge racial wealth divide.

Rose said that whatever the minority is in schools, when there is not a critical mass, that’s when accidents of bullying could happen. That is to say: we must create both a diverse and inclusive environment in schools.

Stephanie Curenton offered several suggestions to build a more inclusive environment of different races in schools. First, we should find more opportunities for teachers of color. According to Curenton, even though most public schools now have a diverse student body, teachers are still predominantly white women. During my teaching practice at Newcastle, I was the only teacher of color in the whole science department. It made sense that I connected with Jing since she was the only other Asian person in the whole school. Research suggests that when students have teachers of the same race, they can serve as role models, mentors, advocates or cultural translators. Black students in North Carolina were found to have decreased rates of exclusionary discipline when they were exposed to same-race teachers.

Second, Curenton recommended that during teaching practices, teachers should be better prepared to teach in culturally diverse classrooms. During my interview with Mona Abo-Zena, she commented on the licensure exams for teachers: “They don’t necessarily focus on how to work with particular children who might have, you know, diverse language backgrounds, or other diverse experiences.” This is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed. When I was a trainee teacher in the United Kingdom, schools prepared me with approaches that met the basic language needs of students like Jing, but nothing was done from a cultural perspective. Something as small as teaching about the contributions from other races in science could provide the necessary inspiration to motivate students of color.

Third, Curenton said that there is a need of post-service training – school districts need to bring in trainers and scholars to talk about the importance of diversity and inclusion to school teachers and leadership teams.

Last, Curenton indicated the need to educate students more about diversity, inclusion and cultural understanding so they are equipped to interact with their peers in a more loving, caring and nurturing manner. Intercultural events or activities are needed in schools as a way of communicating across racial lines.

“They should give it a platform for people to be able to communicate across racial lines [in schools],” said Suki Wong, who endured years of isolation in schools as the only Chinese student.

It took a long time for Wong to understand that. Fortunately, she is not alone. People like Curenton, Abo-Zena and Rose work tirelessly to promote the importance of a racially inclusive environment in schools. We must expand this team in this increasingly interconnected world, so that less and less students will have to experience the same isolation as Jing and Wong.

“What they should do in high schools is to talk about diversity, even if they are not trying to solve anything,” Wong said. “People shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it.”