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Looking Beyond the Minority Myth

Vanessa Li knows how tough it can be for Asian immigrant teens

Vanessa Li knows how tough it can be for Asian immigrant teens

By Penina Braffman

Vanessa A. Li has worked as a volunteer at the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and in the Hong Kong Department of Health conducting public health surveillance—so her current focus, on teens in New York City’s Chinatown, might seem a bit anti-climactic. But Li, a master’s degree student in TC’s clinical psychology program, feels she’s found her niche.

Born in Hong Kong, Li attended boarding school in London at age 13, an isolating experience that awakened her to Western misconceptions of Asian immigrants.

“I think there is the stereotype of the ‘model minority’ put upon Asian immigrants, which mistakenly assumes Asians can make it and succeed in this country,” she says. The reality in the United States is that many Asians, though they may have been professionals in their home countries, end up working in restaurants and factories because of the language barrier they face. As a result, their teenage children often drop out of high school to help support the family, which isolates them from their peers. Many Chinese-American teens also lack siblings because of China’s one-child policy—another social deprivation.

“The biggest issue for me is helping them with their self-esteem,” Li says. “Many of them aren’t getting support from their school or home environments.”

Li travels to Chinatown several times a week to work as a Teen Health Advocate at the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center and as a mentor at the Herald Youth Center (HYC).

“Though it’s not directly related to my academic work, it’s a great opportunity for me to put theory into practice,” Li says of her work at the health centers. “The days I work there are sometimes the best parts of my week.”

Li runs programs educating teens on nutrition, family planning, mental health and other health issues, and is helping to start a support group for Asian-American girls. She credits the developmental focus of her classes at TC for preparing her to connect with teens. A course titled “Racism and Racial Identity in Psychology and Education,” taught by instructor Anika Warren, inspired Li to run a series of workshops on the topic of racism for a group of tutors and their immigrant students at HYC. The workshops discussed tools to cope with racism and also educated teens about stereotypes to ensure that they avoid labeling others.

“I see a lot of young immigrants going through the culture shock, isolation and racism that I experienced,” says Li. “I just hope that with my work and my energy I can empower and encourage them to be motivated and not give up their dreams.”

Published Friday, May. 20, 2011