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Andrew Phu Quoc Nguyen Headshot

The Asian-American Dream

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AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

There used to be what was called "social affirmative action" for Vietnamese and Filipino people decades ago when without U.S. citizenship my oldest sister began college at the University of Pennsylvania. It is unclear as to whether the university itself privately adopted it though society had. My sisters' children and I are the legacy of that environment.

After returning from a protracted leave of absence from the same revered university during which I had become an EFL teacher in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I have been reveling in the remarkable advances Asian-Americans are making at Penn.

I see more than twice as many Asian-American students making the same march to their professional dreams as my sister did with passion and focus. Together we are asserting our claim on the American Dream as second-generation students and immigrants many are new to the United States and some are by no means new. The stark difference is that we share classes and bonds with wonderful foreign students from Asia with whom we identify. Some of these students may have not studied in America ten or twenty years ago. Together we explore where the Asian-American dream will take us. As I prepare to fulfill my Asian American dream I recollect reading Helen Zia, a pioneer who wrote a book I had read in writing class: Asian American Dreams. To be a pioneer, perhaps one has to not know what the destination is like. Neil Armstrong's experience on the moon leaping for mankind is the experience of a true pioneer. Maybe there are no pioneers left in Asian America. The reason is that Asian-Americans will be following some of their newfound friends back to live the American Dream in Asia to help the new brick nations form stronger economies. This new American Dream may be especially true for the recession generation that is about to enter college next year. Ironically, the only two nations in Asia that offer unqualified dual nationality are Vietnam and the Philippines. Korea has some qualifying factors on their new law, and China has strong inclinations to change their law to alleviate brain drain. Eventually, most of Asia will lure Asian Americans who have settled in the diaspora to return to their roots to stimulate growth and help Asia globalize.

However, we have not done enough in America. We are making inroads in the world of politics on the national and community fronts. We have surpassed 5 percent of the U.S. population when we used to be a mere 1 percent of the population before we had a collective identity and before Vincent Chin was murdered. In those days Asian-Americans were not "overrepresented" at elite institutions, so why are we today? How can we alleviate the issue of achieving privilege and also feeling undue discrimination?

How do we reconcile that society did not perceive us as overambitious, overzealous overachievers when we were the 1%? We were the recipients of faith and good will towards our goals, and society wanted more of us to be included at elite universities and all forms of institutions geared towards enhancing the wealth some Asian-Americans already had and what the rest of us still need.

Today, race proponents use socioeconomic diversity to level the playing field in light of the Supreme Court's pending decision on affirmative action. When we were the 1 percent all Asian-Americans were considered strong candidates regardless of socioeconomic background. Now at the apex of professional and vocational success we have been cast as overqualified and applying in hordes when we are still trying to live that dream after many strides.

I would like to see the return of social affirmative action for all Asian-Americans in light of the bamboo ceiling in the corporate workplace, in light of the lack of media and entertainment icons in Asian America, in light of the lack of Jeremy Lins, and in light of the fact young people today have to consider not checking their race when they apply to colleges that used to embrace our presence. I would like to see this for all generations no matter what stage one is in career or life.

In the Ivy League we can increase the number of seats for all students because there are 85 million new people in the last thirty years. Each elite institution should increase the number of undergraduate spots by 10 percent and add one college house to each campus. Each elite university and liberal arts college should follow Yale's lead in creating partner universities like Yale-National University Singapore to enhance the level of higher education in the East and continue welcoming international students to our country.

How can the Asian-American pioneers enjoy the legacy of their hardships when there are no spots for their children at top private and public institutions? As a matter of redress the majority of those new spots should first go to Asian-Americans. Then the many white ethnic Americans who really have been neglected by elite universities since the re-centering of the SAT in 1996 should take another majority of the remaining spots. Lastly, we can include more of every one of each other race and students from around the world with the remaining spots.

Socioeconomic diversity is a good marker of a strong institution. However, social affirmative action pertaining to Southeast Asians has only partially fulfilled its legacy. We are still pioneers as new faces at places such as Yale where my other sister's daughter, my beloved niece, has just graduated. Now there may be no more pioneers. We must not be shunted aside as we are just about to begin our paths to break that bamboo ceiling in an inclusive manner for all Asian-Americans regardless of socioeconomic background. To break that bamboo ceiling, we need that climate again though for all Asian-Americans and Asians alike.

Along with neon tops and James Bond movies from the 1980s, we can share our Asian-American goals again as an undifferentiated American Dream.