Friday, October 18, 2002


Last week in the 8th grade, we analyzed an epitaph that Ben Franklin wrote for himself when he was 21 years old. In it, Franklin actually anticipated his future fame, accomplishments and influence on generations to come. The homework assignment I assigned for that night was for students to think about what they would like to accomplish and how they'd like to be remembered -- then, to write their own epitaph. Here are four of them; I thought they offered a poignant representation of what the next generation has to offer:

Here lies the body of
Jordan Alexander Pinion,
Who died very young but
Accomplished so much.
He was an inspired artist
Along with a passion for TV
That no one had ever seen before.
So we bury his remote control
In his hand. And a pencil in the other.
To show that he was a great man
Yet at the same time a great child.

Thomas Golding was a very nice person. He lived a
LONG nice life. He accomplished many things. He got
A perfect education. He graduated high school at the
Academy of the Pacific Rim. He got his doctorate
Degree at Harvard University. He owned a multi-trillion
Dollar computer company. With this company, he put Bill
Gates out of business. There is not one national
Business this man does not own. He has received 15
Nobel Prizes for computer science, a cure for AIDS, a cure
For cancer, and the permanent antibody for diarrhea (for
His personal use only). That is why he will be eternally

The body of
Jennifer Marie Alexandra Keating
(like a rose thrown
silently to a ballerina)
Lies here, quiet and peaceful,
But her thoughts will not be Lost;
For they will be remembered
By everyone who told her
Never to give up and persevere
Now she has excelled and
Listened to the advice
Given to her
By her friends, peers and mostly
By her family.

Steven Quinchia

Here lies a loving husband,
A devoted father.
A Renaissance Man marked by
His success in the field of

Many of his accomplishments
Will help the earth become
A healthier, less polluted

His life was not only based
On work, but enjoying the
Little bit you had of it.

He did not spend his life
Thinking of what he could have
Done but what he could do.

Sunday, August 04, 2002


My favorite hangout during my three-week stay in this capital city of Costa Rica has quite unexpectedly – and quite embarrassingly, I’ll add right off the bat -- been a place called the Hotel Del Rey. The Hotel Del Rey is a four-story, faux-Neoclassical building a few blocks north of the Avenida Central, downtown San Jose’s pedestrian Main Street. From the outside, the edifice to the Del Rey, at least at night, looks like a transplant from Miami’s South Beach with its pink exterior and gaudy, rooftop neon sign; it stands out as a bright oasis in stark contrast from the dark, grimy streets surrounding it. On the inside, you might mistake yourself for a casino virtually anywhere from Monte Carlo to the banks of the Mississippi: no windows or clocks on the walls, card tables in the center, and flashy slots on the perimeter.

Gringos like myself chancing upon the hotel/casino and entering its doors for the first time can’t help but make the immediate observation that there are two groups of people at the Hotel Del Rey. The first is extranjeros – that is, foreigners, mostly Americans and almost all male. Specifically, lots of paunchy, spouseless, somewhat sleazy white men in the 30-50 year-old cohort, many of whom are in town on fishing trips or for work-related purposes. Just imagine middle-aged frat boys dressed in Hawaiian shirts in ‘fun mode’, blowing their annual bonuses on the roulette table and screaming obnoxiously the only Spanish word they know: Rojo!

The second group – both lured by and luring the foreigners -- is latinas, and lots of them at that. They’re everywhere at the Hotel Del Rey: at the bar, in the shadows, in front of the bathrooms, at the craps tables. You walk in and they’re lining the hallways, eyeing you hawkishly. Foreign-looking males who walk by will sure as night and day receive a wink and a few blown kisses, and the lucky ones (or unlucky, depending on what they’re in the mood for) will get touched not-so-subtly in places where the sun don’t shine.

My third night in San Jose, I walked in off the street, looking for a bar to pass time with some Red Sox v. Angels on ESPN while waiting to meet up with a fellow student at my language institute. Immediately, a girl in the foyer passed by, reached down and squeezed my left butt-cheek (or was it my right? I was too startled to remember). Another lady whispered in a voice equal parts husky and seductive, ´Chino...Chino...´ I walked up to the bar, where there was a line-up of single latinas standing around. One of them approached me, asked my name, told me she liked my lips, and I suddenly found myself trying to remember whether I’d ever been to any other bar where the women hit on men and not the other way around. A few seconds later, a tall Canadian expat sitting next to me woke me up from my reverie when she leaned over and whispered, emphasizing the last three words: "Welcome to The Hooker Bar..."

I can’t say that I’ve had much firsthand experience with prostitution but the ‘employees’ (trabajadors, they call themselves) at the Del Rey defy many of the Hollywood-driven stereotypes we Westerners have cultivated of ‘the oldest profession’. When I say the word ‘prostitute’, what’s the first image that pops to mind? Chances are you’re envisioning something along the lines of the Julia Roberts archetype in the ‘80s classic Pretty Woman: high-heeled boots, wigs, leather jackets, dark lipstick. The prostitutes at the Hotel Del Rey look little like that -- not too many wear revealing tops or mini-skirts that all but scream out ‘I’m for sale!’

In contrast, they look like what you’d find in a lot of clubs wherever there are young people (Landsdowne Street in Boston comes to mind): mostly-young women of all body types from heavy-set to bulimic; dressed to kill and wearing that extra layer of make-up that signals they’re trying too hard; a sizable portion of them you could call ‘hot’ but most definitely not ‘beautiful’. Prostitution here in Costa Rica seems to be a little more subtle than you’d expect. In the States, there’s a thick line that divides Legal Mating, which involves a few drinks and forced conversation in a bar or club, and Illegal Mating, which involves an upfront fee in a seedy strip-joint or deserted street somewhere. In places like the Del Rey, that line is blurred.

One reason for this phenomenon – how prostitutes here don’t quite conform to the American stereotype – may be that prostitution is officially legal in Costa Rica. Prostitution here is out in the open, it’s accepted by many here, and – for the most part -- it’s not forcibly snuffed underground the way it is in other places where prostitution is illegal and stigmatized. (The only other time I’d ever been solicited by a prostitute was at a hair salon in Yangshuo, a backpacker’s stop in central China two years ago). Legal prostitution has engendered norms around the industry here -- for example, in certain bars in San Jose, all the women there are working as hookers and other female visitors are frowned upon – thus prostitutes don’t need to stand out by wearing outrageous clothes and can fit it rather unobtrusively.

I found myself drawn to the exoticness of the bar scene at the Del Rey so I came back last night, looking conspicuously like a tourist (with camera bag in tow) though intending to blend in as a fly-on-the-wall. I simply wanted to observe the marketplace in action – the interactions between the staff and clientele – and make something out of the psychology and sociology of prostitution, very much the same way a nosy anthropologist might savor the opportunity to observe the daily routines and rituals of a Samoan tribe. Although prostitution is officially legal in other parts of the world (Canada, England, Israel, France), there simply aren’t too many opportunities for a curious American to see it in action in a safe and sanitary place.

I walked in at around 11pm, and the bar was hopping. It’s easy to see what makes this place so appealing for guys, even for those who have zero interest in paying for sex. As a friend of mine from Mississippi commented, “I’m not into prostitutes but I just like having hot women around when I gamble.” What brings many foreign males there is the ego-placating illusion, even if for only a fleeting few seconds, that attractive women really do find something redeeming in them. With that in the back of my mind, I sallied up to the bar and took just about the only empty seat next to a short, older looking lady, clearly ‘at work’. Maybe it was the stoic look on my face (“Porque serio?”) or just the schoolteacher aura around me, but it became clear pretty quickly that I was of a different breed from the other gringo visitors interested in some fast, easy action.

Soon enough, I was embroiled in conversation with that older prostitute sitting next to me, an illegal immigrant from Nicaragua named Elizabeth. After I bought her a drink (a Coke with ice; water for me) and charmed her with my three weeks of broken Spanish, the two of us engaged in a back-and-forth serious discussion for over 20 minutes. When I probed into her motivations for prostituting, Elizabeth opened up and told me that she didn’t like the job but didn’t have a work permit needed for a mainstream job; that she needed to send the money back to her parents; that she worked 4 days a week and pulled in $600 on a good week; that she didn't have to pay the hotel a cut of her revenues; that most of the customers actually treated her ok. When I asked what she told her 6 year-old son she did for a living – a question that's always intrigued me -- she responded that she’s “honest” with him, though I wasn’t sure how to interpret that.

According to Elizabeth, many of the other prostitutes at the Del Rey see their job in overtly pragmatic terms: that is, what they desperately want is an American kid, which means a visa and possibly a new life in the Promised Land. In turn, the American guys, Elizabeth told me, like the women with black hair because it’s more exotic and they can find women with blond hair in the states “all the time”. The most attractive women at that scene were actually the five female bartenders behind the bar – Coyote Ugly with a latin twist – and, I was told, they all have American boyfriends. When I asked why women in Costa Rica found American guys so desirable (“Was it money?”), she replied, “No…some do have money, others don’t. Americans here are more relaxed.” My hunch is that there was more there left unstated, but I left it at that.

Indeed, during my three weeks in San Jose, I found the influence of Pax Americana pervasive in latin culture and society: from the fact that the only movies showing in cinemas were American (“Hombres de Negro 2”); to the lyrics of Enimem’s “Without Me” spewing out of my host brother’s computer every morning; to the anti-U.S. political graffiti spray-painted on walls in my barrio. If America is the Prom Queen of our global village – a winner, both admired and envied at the same time – then I found myself like the Prom Queen’s less-attractive, groupie friend unknowingly riding her coattails. At bars and clubs and at the gym where I worked out, I found that unbelievably attractive latinas would give me their numbers, mostly – perhaps only -- because of where I was from: the gleam reflecting off the Prom Queen’s crown evidently making me look a helluva lot better (or at least better than the local tico competition).

The big ethical question eating away at me was whether or not I should feel guilty about this – about my being perceived attractive and the object of desire solely because I lived in the United States. That is, I didn’t do anything to earn the attention; it was completely by chance that my parents immigrated from Hong Kong in the ‘60s and it was my good fortune to be born at St. John’s Hospital in St. Louis 25 years ago. Despite trying to rationalize it any other way, I did feel guilty, perhaps in the same way Prince William of Wales might feel pangs of guilt for the inherited good looks, impeccable bloodline and hordes of female fans that he had absolutely no control over. I’d tried all my life not to lower myself to superficiality – to become someone of some substance – and yet latinas were drawn to me only by what was on the surface.

All of this was running though my mind as I chatted with Elizabeth. After a while, the bartender came by and asked me if I wanted another water; I checked in my wallet, realized that I was out of colones, and got up to leave. Elizabeth said in Spanish, “You’re different from the others,” and not knowing how to properly acknowledge that, I returned with a warm smile. We shook hands and as I looked at her one last time, I saw her in a different light: not as the objectified hooker of half an hour earlier, but just as a friend with a wistful look on her face. At that micro-moment, I realized that we had more in common than I’d thought: a longing to be understood for who we really were, and a tinge of guilt for being seen as what we weren’t. I then walked out, never to return again.

Thursday, April 25, 2002

Spoken reflections from an Academy faculty meeting on December 3, 2001

"I LOVE the reflection journal. Part of this is a passion for writing and sharing thoughts with others; some of you know that I often write in my spare time and post reflections on the web. Part of this is the simple fact that we as teachers have a lot of write and tell about. Let’s be honest: what we do is interesting. This is evident every time I’m at a dinner party with consultants and bankers, who are ever so curious about charter schools and teaching. I mean really, who wants to talk about money? And part of this is that this journal – much like a magic wand or a conch shell – gives me an opportunity to speak my views about something a little controversial on my mind, to rock the proverbial boat if you will. So with that said, this week I’m going to talk about a few controversial topics: politics, race/culture and why students here succeed.

I am here at the Academy of the Pacific Rim today because I once was a liberal. Let me explain: Like many of you, I went to a liberal college where my overwhelmingly left-wing professors convinced me that every child in America – esp. those in cities like Boston – should have an equal opportunity to succeed, and that certain 'external' factors out of their control kept them from succeeding. I suspect that’s also true for you: if you look at a roster of faculty alma maters, the list reads like an Alphabet Soup of liberal bastions in what demographers would call 'Blue America' – Amherst, Berkeley, Colby, Dartmouth. Four years ago, I subscribed to The Nation and The American Prospect, and voted Democrat across the board as a knee-jerk reaction. If I didn’t go to Yale and went to West Point instead, there is no question that I wouldn’t be here reading this.

How strange it is then that I now find myself here. If you take a step back and look at APR from the outside, what you see is a very conservative school, a school with traditionally Republican values: a heavy respect for authority and tradition (what we call routines); a strong emphasis on self-discipline; and traditional character virtues posted on the walls (William Bennett would be proud). Walk into middle school classrooms and you see desks perfectly lined up, a throw back to schools of yesteryear. Walk into a ceremony and you see students sitting on the floor in straight lines (dare I say it looks “militaristic”?). At APR, we talk about college; we talk about being “professional” and looking sharp; we talk about success the old-fashioned way. We don’t make excuses and we don’t play the race card; everyone will succeed by following rules and working hard.

Seen this way, our school is clearly more Dubya than Bill Clinton, more Organization Man than Dot Commer, more traditional than progressive – and I say this not out of shame or guilt or to apologize. If you look at other successful, innovative urban schools (e.g. the KIPP Academy in the South Bronx and Houston, Bronx Prep in the South Bronx, North Star Academy in Newark), they all follow this conservative formula: discipline and character first, then learning and a message from Day One that all ye who enter ARE college-bound. These schools trade off freedom and curiosity for structure and discipline, and they do it for one reason: it works.

On a micro-level, for the past three years I’ve been keenly interested in what high-performing students here at APR share in common: Why do students succeed? I’ve been interested, for example, in why students from very conservative backgrounds – Roman Catholic kids like the Keatings and Quinchias, or the children of Haitian immigrants like Sarabina Michel and Johvian Jean – are so incredibly successful academically and behaviorally. For reasons that you can probably guess, I’ve also been keenly interested in the relationship between Asian students here and success. Here are some numbers: Asians comprise only 5 percent of our student population but 12 percent of the honor roll students being rewarded this Friday. Fully 45 percent of the 'highest honor roll' students in the 1st trimester are Asian. 67 percent of our Asian students made one of the three Trimester 1 honor rolls. On the behavior side, only 9 out of the 1012 serious disciplinary incidents this year involved Asians (1 percent!), and all 9 were caused by 2 students. The numbers speak for themselves.

Why are Asians overwhelmingly succeeding at our school and what lessons might we draw from this for our school? I am by no means an expert and this is by no means a comprehensive scientific study, but I will hypothesize nonetheless based on my observations and personal experience.

First, Asians succeed because Asian families are notoriously conservative. In Asian households – and this traces back to Confucian values -- there is absolute respect for authority. When I was growing up, my dad demanded complete respect from me, and his word was never questioned. As a matter of fact, I was trained to never look my dad in the eye as it was a sign of disrespect (you can imagine what college interviewers thought about that!). Growing up, elders (e.g. teachers) always knew best and were always respected.

Second, Asians succeed because their parents’ expectations always exceed those of the 'outside world' (e.g. school, other families). If there’s one lesson that I’ve learned in my years here, it’s that the greatest predictor of student success is how much parents demand of their children. Parents for whom passing is good enough will have children with 70 grades. With our Asian parents here, there is never “good enough” grade, whether it is a 70%, 90% or 95%. My own father was never happy with my grades unless I brought home 100 percents (which means never). Likewise, I believe the Guen and Chan students are excelling not because Monica and Jenny like working long hours but because their parents demand 95 averages and nothing less.

Third, Asians succeed because theirs is a 'culture of educational achievement'. In large Asian family gatherings, the topic of conversation is always school. Students that excel academically and end up in prestigious schools are looked up to as role models; SAT scores are compared; indeed, entire families are judged based on how well their children do in school. It isn’t that Asians value school more than everything else; to Asians, school is everything else. I first heard about the SATs when I was in 6th grade; I first heard about the college application process when I was in 7th grade.

So, what does this mean for us as a school? I don’t think we have much influence over home lives but our culture is one area that we do have tremendous control over. I passionately believe that we are a unique place -- families choose to send their children here – and that we should leverage that fact for all its worth. I occasionally tell my students that coming to APR is a privilege, and if they don’t want to be here, there are 4 other Boston students that want their spot. Our school is different because we have created a special culture here, one where expectations for behavior and academics are high.

Yet, I think we can and should be doing more. Many of our students are going to be the first in their families to aspire to, apply to and attend college, and are woefully uninformed about what that process looks like. They do not understand that 80 percents – while honor roll-worthy here – make a 3.0 G.P.A. and that isn’t good enough to get into any fairly selective schools; they have not heard of the PSATs or SATs; they do not know what colleges are looking for.

What this means is that all of us – and not just the college counselors -- must methodically create that college-bound culture beginning in the middle school: a culture where you hear words like 'Harvard' and 'Williams' in the hallway more than you hear 'Celtics' or 'Patriots,' one where students are quizzing each other about SAT-words during lunch time, a culture where the status symbols are not lettermen jackets but Intel Talent Search prizes, AP scores and National Merit Scholarships. It’s a Herculean task but I think we’re up for it."

Friday, July 13, 2001


At the Academy of the Pacific Rim, one of the traditions that we've cultivated is the telling of a middle or high school story at the end of our faculty meetings. Better than statistics on a newspaper or text on a web-site, the stories shared -- often humorous, some times heartrending -- capture the essence of what it's like to work in a school, where the unexpected is to be expected. Here's a small taste.

I. November 17, 1999
For the past two days, my 6th grade history classes have been studying the Code of Hammurabi, a set of 282 written laws developed by a rather draconian ruler of Babylon in 3000 B.C. Two nights ago, I asked students to come up with their own set of laws (for example, the Code of Tschang). Here are a few of their responses word for word:

Thomas J. --
Law 1: If you fall in love you shal be put to death.
4: If you run from Jail you shal run in the desert for 20 years nonstop.

Andrew M. (a.k.a. the quietest student in the school) -
5: If you pick your nose, you nose will be sewn shut.
12: If you don’t do your homework, you shall be thrown into a river.
16: If you play hookie from school, you shall wash the bathroom with a toothbrush.
17: If you cheat on a test, you will be forced to eat it.
19: If you fight with your sibling(s) you shall be handcuffed to them for a month.

Lamar D. --
2: If a man knee’s a woman in the stamic he will go to court and pay a fine of $81.67.
3: If a person sells you a bed and the bed broke, that person will be hit with a teddy bear 8 times.
6: If you are over weight you will need to pay $4.00.

Isnard D. --
If you wear your pants backward you will be called crazy.
Ketchup is used with musturd nor mayo, or you shall be burned.
If you don’t wear a belt you shall be punished by death.

Nathan G. --
1: If you get reduced lunch and your not soposed to, the government will blow up your house.
2: If you make disturbing noises in class, thou shall have a break taken from thee.

II. March 21, 2001
I asked my 10th graders to write an 250-word honest self-critique at the beginning of the 2nd trimester and here's one student's response:

"I do not have a problem understanding the material. The way you words things (like on tests and quizzes) makes it hard for me to understand. The most complicated question can have the simplest answer. I HATE THAT!!! Also when I ask questions, your explanation is harder to understand from when you explained it the first time. Just make things simple, easy and fun. Don't make things hard because I aways end up with a bad score or homework grade.

I would also like to add that your class, math and science stress me out. I can not take all this work anymore. Now that it is third trimester everyone is focusing on MCAS. Now with the gray hair I have (mostly from you and Mr. Wood) 8 strands. Now it is pretty sad that the majority of my class can not live without sugar. We have adopted bad habits that we should not have until we are... well, around your age. We would not have these habits if we were anywhere else unless the work somewhere else is extremely hard. Some thing needs to change because by the time I graduate I will be dying my hair on a weekly basis.

On Saturdays (as you already know) I am at school for 3 hours of the Biff Paradigm program. On the 10th of March, we learned the definition of Paradigm. Mrs. Bracey told us that every teacher has a paradigm for each of their students. I would like to know your paradigm on me. Please be honest and truth. Don't worry about being nice. Be mean if you have to. I want to know the truth.”

III. April 4, 2001
This week is Health and Sexuality Week, where outside nonprofit representatives come in and talk about health-related issues. I was supervising a sex-talk from a Planned Parenthood rep to a 6th grade classroom – one of the most awkward situations you could ever find yourself in – and here are some snippets from that.

1. “Is sex fun?” –one 6th grader’s question

2. “Is it illegal to have sex outside?” –one 6th grader’s question
“No…in porn movies, people always have sex outside?” –another 6th grader’s response

3. “Why do people masturbate?” –one 6th grader’s question
“Maybe because they love themselves…” –another 6th grader’s response

IV. July 6, 2000
At the end of last year, one of my 6th grade students was walking on a sidewalk in the middle of the day, when a car came up, broadsided him and ran off. He was in serious condition in the hospital for over a month, and received an outpouring of support. Here’s an example, typed up by a special needs student:

Dear Simon,

I wish that you feel much better because I wish the car never hit you. I hope you are in good care because god is looking over you. I told my mother what happen and she said that she hope you feel much better even she does not know you she said that she likes everybody it does not matter what color you are and what culture you are.

Do you remember all those good time we had that time when we where on the basketball court and you pick me and swing me around and that time we did that play together and that time we was going to interview to gather but we didn’t had time to finish it I was asking that when you come back I would love to do the interview together.


V. May 4, 2001
One of the key parts of our program at APR is an all-school ceremony at the beginning or end of each day. These ceremonies are a time to give presentations, make school-wide announcements or recognize student achievement. This year, we’ve struggled with seriousness and appropriate behavior at our ceremonies. I was talking to my 7th grade homeroom this afternoon about the importance of clapping appropriately, not talking and -- my personal favorite -- sitting up straight during the assemblies. My opening lecture led to the following dialogue:

Yesenia M.: I heard from my mom that if you sit too long -- I think she said on a cold floor -- that you might get something...I think it's called hemorrhoids. That's when your anus gets infected.

Mr. Tschang: If it's that big of a problem, why don't you just wear two underwears.

YM: gets too hot that way.

Mr. Tschang: OK, I'll go to the store and buy you diapers.

YM: [Silence--conversation ends]

Tell me your stories:

Saturday, March 24, 2001


I. Chasing Greatness

Last weekend, I read a provocative Atlantic Monthly cover piece by David Brooks, senior editor of the Weekly Standard, best-selling author of leisure-class how-to-guide Bobos in Paradise, and modern-day Thorstein Veblen. In today’s zeitgeist, profiling has taken on a bad name, conjuring up images of New Jersey cops throwing darts at dark faces on the Turnpike. Nevertheless, for better or worse, profiles do exist -- and in “The Organization Kid,” Brooks paints as compelling and accurate a profile of my Ivy-trained, ‘next American elite’ cohort as I have ever seen.

Here it is, in a nutshell: We in this elite group were born to achieve, running the rat race as soon as we left the operating table. From grade school on, when our forward-looking parents signed us up for piano lessons and soccer drills, our self-worth becomes forever tied to how packed our schedules are. Raised under uncharted peace and prosperity – Ms. Dove meets Mr. Bull Market, one might say – we are assured future success as long as we ‘play the game’ and stay on the right track (Pick your door: law, medicine or finance).

In “The Organization Kid,” Brooks contrasts our achieve-achieve-achieve ethos with that of another group: the so-called “Lost Generation” that came of age during World War I. According to Brooks, that generation – exemplified by Princetonian Hobey Baker -- didn’t give a damn about intellectual achievement, schedule-packing or material gain. Rather, these were men of character, men who truly valued ideals and followed chivalry, glory and honor all the way to the trenches of Marne and Amiens.

An overly romanticized notion of history? Perhaps. But here’s his point: what these young men desired, simply, was to be great. In comparison, our lives – and I’m referring specifically to my Generation Y whiz kid, workaholic peers – seem hollow and without any larger purpose. For us, life is career is life. Yes, friendships, familial relationships and religion add meaning to otherwise one-dimensional lives, but isn't there – really, shouldn’t there be -- something greater than that?

Call me a romantic – call me Don Quixote if you’d like, amigo -- but deep down, I want to be great. What I mean is I want to believe in a cause or an idea bigger than my individual financial or career progress. Deep down, that’s why I’ve spent the past three years working at inner-city schools -- in arguably The Great Frontier of social change in America today. And deep down, that’s why – despite seeing my friends going back to school -- I still can’t get myself to look seriously at law or business school applications. (Tell me, is there really anything – anything at all -- ‘great’ about working for a firm or a corporation?)

And so, here I am chasing greatness, and yet something’s not quite right.

II. The ‘Lotto Winner’

Two weekends ago, I was in Atlanta with my parents when -- on the last night of my stay -- there was this moment of awkward, unforgettable irony. We were at the Ritz Carlton in a corner room with a $1 million view – a de facto pinnacle of success in America if there ever was one -- and my parents were regaling me with stories of how poor they once were. Not too long ago, my father would spend summers in college hitchhiking from Illinois to upstate New York, where he would find odd jobs at Chinese restaurants desperate for cheap labor. Other summers, he found menial on-campus jobs for 95 pennies an hour. And that was after immigrating to America from the Far East.

Last summer, I trekked through China for four weeks, seeing more of the country than most native Chinese would ever see in their lifetimes. Almost without exception, everywhere I went – rice paddies in Yangti, dumpling shops in Hong Kong, rolling hills in Yangshuo -- I saw children busy at work. Ever the naïve foreigner, I asked a few of these child laborers, “What about school?” Sometimes they responded with a laugh and other times with nothing at all, but the message was unequivocally clear: in many parts of China today, education is a luxury, not a natural right.

I returned home from my trek with one indelible realization: that I am really only one decision away from being one of those malnourished Chinese kids working in the fields. What if, for example, my father hadn’t decided to come over or if the Hong Kong immigration officer denied his visa in 1965? The writer Andrew Pham puts it best: I -- like the other sons and daughters of recent Asian immigrants – am a “lottery winner”. The ticket, however, in this particular lottery is a nonrefundable, one-way flight from a Third World country, where people don’t know where their next meal is coming from, to the Only Damn Superpower, where people spend money keeping their weight down.

And so the unresolved question now tearing at my mind and soul is this: How do I use this winning lotto ticket?

Am I obliged to secure the riches, prestige and job security that my ancestors never dreamt of? Do I owe that much to my family and heritage and the 1.3 billion other Chinese people out there?

Or do I follow Hobey’s legacy and keep chasing the great American cause?

Please weigh in with your opinion:

Tuesday, February 06, 2001


A while back, I had a sixth grade teacher, a hulking 300-pound former Fresno State football-player named Mr. Cohagan.

I only remember a few things from that year. I remember that we studied Shakespeare and whales. I also remember once when his Godzilla-sized hands squeezed the back of my puny neck (a not-so-subtle way of saying “If you like breathing, watch it”), and a Pavlovian instinct caused me to lose control of my urinary tract and soil my Bugle Boys. And I remember him saying once “When you mess up, you’ve gotta pay the fiddler.” I didn’t know why a fiddler should be paid if he wasn’t very good or what that had to do with me at all, but I did know never to mess up again. After all, I was petrified of Mr. C and, needless to say, I never had the guts to ask him much about himself (I still wonder, was he even married?).

That is why I am so amused by the fact that 14 long years later, I have transformed into that object of mysterious unintelligibility: a sixth grade teacher. And here I am, ready to spill the beans, the secrets of the trade. Ever wonder what your teacher was thinking about all those years ago? Here’s your chance.

First topic: homework. You know how much you hated – no, too nice of a word…truly despised – those black-lined masters and other late night/early morning homework assignments all those years? I have a truth that will knock your socks off. You ready? Teachers hate giving homework more than students hate doing homework. That’s right: Teachers hate giving homework. And wonder why? We hate giving homework because we hate grading homework.

In every profession, there is what I’m going to call the ‘Scrub Task,’ the unimpeachable part of a job that no one can bear. Waitresses have to serve patrons who choose not to tip. Airline stewardesses have to recite that god-awful pre-flight safety monologue/sedative. Cops, at least the ones that draw the short straw, have New Year’s Eve breathalizer duty. These are Scrub Tasks, the bane of your on-the-job existence, the part of work that fires up your hidden urge to run off and join a nomadic tribe in sub-Saharan Africa.

Teachers have a Scrub Task too – it’s called grading. What makes grading so abysmally unbearable is that it’s a remnant of a bygone Industrial Age, when schools were designed as factories for productive, ‘civilized’ workers. Even in an Age of Efficiency and E-everything, grading sets of papers effectively is as repetitive, tedious and time-consuming as working at the Ford River Rouge assembly line was 90 years ago. (Last Saturday, for example, I spent nine hours at school grading four measly sets of 60 papers).

Second topic: teacher's pets . Embarrassing disclosure: Last year, in my first tumultuous month of teaching, I had a mother call me up and scream at me for 10 minutes nonstop. She claimed that I was not being objective and unbiased with JB, her son. What happened was JB had ended up with a watch from another student, and I had naively alleged “there was reason to believe that the watch was stolen.” This, in turn, led to her harangue about how African-American males are dealt a bad hand in this society and how calling one a thief becomes a indelible stigma. Alright, I made a foolish beginner’s mistake, but her comment that teachers were supposed to be unbiased stuck with me.

The reality though is that every single teacher – whether intentionally or not – favors certain students, and any teacher that tells you otherwise is probably lying. I’ll be the first to admit it: there are certain students that I connect with better, who I’ll spend extra time after school or on Saturdays working with (or taking to a New Year’s Festival in Chinatown, which I did a week ago). Let's put it this way -- teaching is about cultivating relationships and not all relationships are (or should be) cultivated equally.

That’s not to say that I dole out A’s to a select few, predestined students or only call on 'teacher's pets' in class discussions. If anything, I’m much, much harder on the students I’m closer to. And – after hearing about unequal gender participation patterns in the classroom -- I now intentionally alternate between boys and girls when I call on students. But here’s the point: in our hyper-litigious society, many schools these days are unduly preoccupied with avoiding the mere appearance of favoritism for fear for being sued by parents. The real losers in all this are -- without exception -- all the students, none of whom get to develop any close mentoring relationships with their teachers. And I refuse to accept that.

Third topic: life outside of school. Every once in a blue moon, I get a question from a student that stumps me, one that my grade A, teacher-refined BSing skills can not weasel my way through. Usually, these questions involve obscure topics like who Asoka’s eleventh wife was or about the logistics of how Stalin killed 42 million people.

Last spring, however, I got a different kind of stumper from one of my 6th grade girls late one day after school: “Mr. Tschang, do you have a life? I mean, not to be disrespectful or anything, but do you do anything after school ends?” My reaction: “Well…um…yeah…sort of… yeah, I do other regular things.” I was mostly lying and she knew it. The truth is that teaching isn’t like 75 percent of the other jobs out there, where you punch a card from 9 to 5, go home and don’t think about work until the next day. Teaching is all-consuming; when you choose to teach, you automatically choose a certain lifestyle with built-in limitations on your social life. Don't believe me? Here's a fact: for two years running, the only female in the lower 48 states to give me any attention is Kiwi, my sister's dog.

So sure, I envy people that can make it home for Ally McBeal or be the life of the party at Thursday happy hours, but you know what makes this worth it? A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a parent – a 40-year old woman who works as a crossing guard and moonlights as a clerk at an Osco drugstore -- who pulled me aside and, in the most heart-felt way imaginable, asked me – practically begged me – not to leave the school until her two middle-school daughters graduated from high school. Eat your heart out, MasterCard -- those 5 minutes of pure gratitude were as priceless as it gets.

A teacher, you say? Nah…call me the luckiest guy on earth.

Let me know what you think:

Monday, January 15, 2001


Note to doting, ambitious parents: Exactly what are you paying for when you fork up 120 plus grand for little Johnny’s liberal arts education? Is it the ability to read and write critically? A broad knowledge of all needed for scintillating cocktail conversation? The literacy skills needed to read the New York Times? No, no and no.

Here it is, plain and simple: The modern liberal arts education really teaches you how to quickly research any given topic, master it and – assuming a self-proclaimed air of expertise -- write on it convincingly within a tight, sub-48 hour timeline. That’s it: the $120,000 skill.

By my senior year, I was confidently and passionately churning out policy papers on arguably our country’s greatest dilemma -- what to do about our decaying industrial cities. After all, didn’t listening to top professors and reading through all the urban studies books in Yale’s vaunted stacks qualify me as an expert? Who cared that I was judging places that I’d spent little (if any) time in? I’d mastered all the academic theories and statistics and cases, and my arguments all sounded so good, so logical, so damned right on paper. Accordingly, my professors consistently validated this so-called ‘expertise’ with high grades, flowing praise and few red marks.

By graduation, most of us had bought into 'The Academic Bubble World Myth' – that expertise could be found in the ‘right’ sources and argued with the ‘right’ logical reasoning. Many of my brightest classmates took that belief and their $120,000 skill to McKinsey and Goldman Sachs on Wall Street, where -- as analysts -- they looked at some data, assumed expertise and gave Powerpoint presentations to corporate clients. Yet other classmates took that belief and their big-money skill south to the Beltway where – as Congressional aides -- they read a few journals, assumed expertise and inked policy papers for a few guys named Kennedy and Lott.

I, on the other hand, stayed in town after graduation and started to question The Myth. I mean – despite all the classes I took, books I read and papers I wrote; in other words, despite mastering the $120,000 skill -- what did I really know about cities and their issues with housing and education? The answer: not a whole lot.

It was at that precise moment that I decided to see these cities up close and personal. The ensuing three years have taken me deep inside housing projects, homes, homeless shelters and schools in some of Providence and Boston’s most troubled neighborhoods.

So, what have I learned?

Here’s a start: I’ve learned that benign intentions often result in horrific consequences. What I’m referring to here is the tendency for well-intentioned liberal Harvard PhDs, The Nation journalists and other so-called pundits to proscribe benign -- and, absolutely inane -- public policies in neighborhoods they have never lived in and in schools they have never taught in. Let me step back for a second.

I came out of college with pretty left-leaning political views – the belief that poverty and crime were ‘structural problems’ caused by forces beyond our control; that ‘morals’ and ‘values’ were hollow-sounding words; and that all poor, misbehaving kids needed was a healthy dollop of kindness.


Sure, my dear friend Tobi -- a sometimes-reformed Providence drug dealer -- had been dealt a bad hand in life but that didn’t explain why he had to objectify women (“Yo, I’ve been with 70 different women in the past year,” said with a charming grin). That didn’t explain why he had to blow his weekly paycheck on bottles of 40s, and that surely didn’t explain why he simply and adamantly refused to take any responsibility for his destructive actions.

Sure, the women at Rosie’s Place – a women’s shelter and soup kitchen in Boston’s South End where I volunteer every other Friday – have been down on luck, but that doesn’t explain the ingratitude and lack of appreciation that I often hear: “I can’t believe you don’t have any cherry pie today! I don’t eat pumpkin pie…Where’s the damn cherry pie?” all spoken with disdain.

Sure, my students in Providence and Boston weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths – indeed, most of them qualify for free or reduced lunches – but that shouldn’t excuse laziness or disrespect for others or inappropriate language. What many ‘inner-city’ (read: poor black, Asian or Hispanic) students really need isn’t flexibility and progressive Ted Sizer-styled learning but strict, old-fashioned structure and discipline (and I learned this the hard way). What they need isn’t empty, liberal public rhetoric about "not giving up on public schools" but a real commitment from adults who are willing to invest their lives into teaching and work long hours. What they need isn’t warm fuzzies and touchy-feely sympathetic love, but hard lessons in character – lessons about what responsibility, integrity, perseverance and civility mean.

So I guess this makes me a traitor: a cultural conservative. But here’s my point: over the past three years, I’ve learned firsthand that many of the problems in cities today are a result not of ‘structural changes’ but of thousands of poor individual choices aggregated together. The trash dirtying Olneyville streets in south Providence, the graffiti on school property (“I hate this f*cking school” painted on my elementary school in Providence), the urine in housing project hallways: those are the product of individual irresponsible choices that someone made, not Post-Industrial white-flight or Post-Cold War industry-decline.

In short, I’ve learned (1) not to judge topics that I really know nothing about -- and (2) that The Academic Bubble World Myth is, after all, just a myth.

I'm waiting to hear from my liberal friends: