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Stages of American identity

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A girl in the spotlight sang a plaintive love song to an auditorium packed with proud parents and jittery, joyous teens. The melody stayed with me for a week, but I can't recall any of the words; they were sung in Chinese.

The event was staged by 7th- to 12th-grade students, members of an Asian-culture club at a Boston public school. They treated us to a lion dance, several heartfelt solos, and a fashion show – everything from saris to kimonos. "Asian Night 2002" also featured routines that blended Asian styles with universal teen dance culture – a little hip-hop here, a few mouth lights there.

People of every hue filled the auditorium, and even on stage, it became clear that students didn't have to be Asian to want to participate. One white, blond boy, for instance, appeared during a dance number carrying paper lanterns on a pole. Apparently he's studying Chinese.

It would be easy to see all this as just another occasion to ooh and aah over America's diversity.

But the student essays included in the program were intended to prompt reflection. They reminded me that the people who bring the world to our doorstep sometimes struggle with the complex identities they forge as a result.

One girl wrote about befriending a fellow Chinese-American in second grade, a girl who "walked with ching-chong noises following her every step.... The only three English words she spoke were 'Leave me alone.' "

The atmosphere in the auditorium was celebratory, but as I read the essays I couldn't help but wonder if these students had experienced jeers and tears at some stage of their lives – before they made their way to a stage where their blended identities were cheered.

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