Nguyen: On Amy Tan and STEM careers

Phuong Nguyen

When I was young, my teachers taught me two rules to survive in school: First, the teachers are always right, and second, if they are wrong, go back to rule one. Teachers are the authority figures that you don’t want to mess with. Growing up with those two rules, I tend to have the habit of agreeing with what other people say, especially if the person speaking is a recognized authority. However I learned to break that pattern and to try to practice critical thinking.

Recently, in our class, we read a piece called “Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan. Tan is a successful writer who has voice and recognized by readers. She produces illuminating and beautifully written novels, stories, and essays. Therefore when she gives arguments or opinions, people tend to agree with her instead of scrutinizing or challenging her.

In this essay, Tan describes her thoughts about language, especially English, from the perspective of an Asian immigrant who lives in America. Tan’s mother speaks English with a Chinese accent and syntax. Later in the essay, she acknowledges that the English her mother uses is labeled “broken” or “limited,” which is the barrier that causes her mother and a lot of other Asian-Americans to struggle in dealing with people. Tan questions the phenomenon: “Why are there few Asian-Americans enrolled in creative writing programs? Why do so many Chinese students go into engineering?…. Asian students, as a whole, always do significantly better on math achievement tests than in English.” Then Tan somehow implies that there is a link between these phenomena and “broken English.” In other words, she is implying that Asian-American students apply to engineering and other sciences because their broken English prevents them from pursuing a career in language.

Even though I am not going to totally refute Tan’s arguments, I have found two main critiques. First, language skills can sometimes take talent and some people are just better than others. Second, STEM careers tend to attract more people because such careers provide more practical training for jobs.

An immigrant might not have broken English but refuse to major in English because of practical reasons like jobs, money and so on. Tan needs to recognize that language specialization, in general, is not an attractive option for some students whether the student is an Asian-American or not. In other countries, the STEM fields attract more students than English and linguistic fields. If people prefer careers like business and engineering than language, it may not be because of their inability to speak English.

Also, Tan‘s comparison of the achievement tests in English and math of Asian-Americans to make her point of the impact of “broken English” is not convincing. When an Asian student scores higher in math, is it because he or she is inherently good at math or because he or she does not do well in English? In other words, the student himself is better in performing math, but his English is not that “broken.” If the same student takes achievement tests in math and Chinese, would it make a difference? Regardless of the language that the student takes, a student may tend to score higher in math than in a language. For example, I am Vietnamese, and to me and a lot of my Vietnamese peers, we tend to struggle more in Vietnamese than in math. There are also native English speakers who score higher in math than in English. Therefore, the question is, is it because of the subject itself—math or a language—or the limitation of language used by immigrants?

Furthermore, everyone can be a writer, but not everyone can be good at it. If the person is not passionate about writing, regardless of how supportive the teachers, families or environment are or how proficiently he or she uses the language, he or she still cannot succeed. Not anyone can be a writer like Tan.