The email message came with the word "HELP" in caps in the subject line. "Dear Mr. Lam," it says, "My name is Dao and I am having difficulties with my essay in my English class. I am reading one of your short stories for class assignment called 'Grandma's Tales'‚ It is a really good story but I can't seem to find the REAL theme of the story. Can you please help me?"
It is not the first time that a student from some college or another writes to ask me for help with his or her homework. They couldn't come up with the answers to the assigned questions, and this being the information age, they go on line directly to the author.
What is particular in my case is that, overwhelmingly, they are Asian students. I suppose being one myself, and an immigrant to boot, they figure it somehow fitting that, given the stress they are under, I should help them.
Indeed, one can almost sense a palpable desperation in their emails. HELP is one of the common subject titles and "Assistance Needed" is another. And my all-time favorite: "A favor for a fellow Vietnamese immigrant."
While it flatters me to know that some of my work is being taught in college, and that I have done my share in confounding the mind of college students, it never fails to astound me what some of these young people would do to avoid thinking. They'd rather risk being chastised by the writer than go through what they surely hate to do on their own: using their noggin to think critically.
Kishore Mabuhani, a career diplomat from Singapore, recently wrote a book called "Can Asians Think?" The title is misleading of course, since Kishore Mabuhani, for one, can and does think brilliantly but he did point out that, as a habit, Asians tend to fall into complacency and conformity. While more and more are winning prestigious literary and artistic awards, the vast majority are rushing toward economic success without a moment to reflect.
It doesn't help, of course, that self-expression is largely discouraged across the continent of Asia. Indeed, the language of argumentation is often frowned upon in a region where harmony is emphasized over individualism, and where, with the exception of a handful of countries, democracy does not exist.
To do well in the sciences and to memorize the classics have been traditionally good enough to make you a more-than-competent professional. Think too hard about an issue, especially ideological ones, who knows, you might turn into a nonconformist, a radical or, god forbid, a dissident -- and therefore a danger to the status quo.
Now I can almost hear the cynical reader say, "Ha, that's what's happening here too; the lack of critical thinking is widespread, considering the state of American public education." And he has a point. But to compare the system with Asia, there is something that is fundamentally different: America still values the maverick, the inventor, the loudmouth class clown, the individual with a vision. And American kids growing up saying I -- as in "I disagree" -- without having a second thought.
It is not so easy for an Asian kid in a Confucian family household to say something like that. As a frequent judge of high school writing contests, I find it curious that in many Asian American entries the writer, who otherwise has perfect command of English, could not use the first-person narrative, the I. It gets stuck in the throat, somehow, and does not come off easily on the written page, and he or she often resorts to "one" instead of "I", even when addressing a topic as close to home as family.
I myself remember those dull tropical afternoons in Saigon where I recited poetry classics in front of an old geezer of a literature teacher who smoked. If I always cried at poetry recital it was for good reasons. Each time I forgot a word his ruler would land deftly on my open palm. And that, I might add, was the bulk of my Vietnamese literature education -- from which I rebelled and yet, to the astonishment of my parents, became an American writer.
And here's another example: A friend who taught English in Japan once told me that in her classroom of Advance Placement high-school seniors, none will answer a simple question. They know the answer, she said, they just wouldn't raise their hands to offer it. "You have to call out their names. It's rude to show that you know more than your fellow student."
It is a generalization, but Asia is a continent where the ego is largely suppressed. The self exists in context of family and clan, in a shared value and ritualized language -- one in which a cliché, for instance, is not a cliché, but a way to reinforce shared perspective.
It is no wonder the immigrant from those regions is often woefully incapable of dealing with the expressive expanse we call America, where the ego is, given the right dosage, what gives creativity and invention a large boost, and where, in English classes at least, raising your hand to offer your opinions is not only encouraged but counts toward your final grade -- and it is where the Asian student, though studious, often falters.
And let's not forget, the recent census tells us that 3 out of 4 Asians in America are from overseas. No wonder many still opt for the sciences, where language is not abstract but logical.
Which explains Dao's problem. There is something endearingly naïve about her email, which I think can more or less represent for all of those who wrote me. What she wanted is a clear-cut answer. She wanted to know the short story's "REAL THEME," and assumes that I have it, and were I to hand it over, she would instantly get that much coveted A.
Alas, only if it were true. To be perfectly honest, I didn't have a theme in mind when I wrote that tongue-in-cheek story about a Vietnamese grandmother who died and came back to life and went to a party with her grandson. A few years ago I suggested a possible theme to another student who wrote me for help but his teacher didn't like it one bit. She told him he had better find a more serious theme and rewrite his paper if he wanted a better grade.
So -- "Dear Dao: I'm sorry but I am out of the homework-abetting business. It may not occur to you that there might be more than one theme to any story, and that, more often than not, there are no wrong answers in literature, only well-argued propositions. If I were you I'd go and sit under a tree and read the story aloud to a smart friend who can listen well. He'll probably have a better answer than I do. And when you figure out what it is, I hope you don't mind emailing a note to tell me."