Learning to Speak Up: How Chinese Americans Are Embracing Debate

Aug 9, 2017

Most seventh graders spent this past summer swimming at the pool or hanging out with their friends. But not Hannah Wang. She’s one of 20 kids who attended a week-long debate camp for the Chinese-American community in Wake County.

I was an instructor there, and I watched Wang walk into camp every day with her ponytail flopping on top of her purple backpack. At first, she was shy and reserved.

Before camp, Wang told me she felt “nervous because sometimes you feel like you might mess up.”

These feelings may have been heightened by the boys who dominated the room.

“The boys are always the loudest,” said Olivia Liu, another student.

“Yeah, they’re they’re loud,” Wang replied.

That’s where this camp has played a role in helping these Chinese-American girls become more comfortable and confident when speaking.

Alice Zhao gives a speech on the benefits of United States investment in India.
Credit Allison Swaim / WUNC

Grace Jin is another instructor at the camp. She was on the debate team at Cary Academy and knows just how loud these boys can be.

“They were all white males they all had blue eyes and they were all semi aggressive in their style,” Jin said. “Anytime a female competitor or even any person of color did well, it was surprising to people.”

Anytime a female competitor or even any person of color did well, it was surprising to people. -Grace Jin

Jin and I worked on empowering kids like Wang to speak up. 

This is in part why Wang’s mom, Huimin Chen, is more than happy to drive her daughter to camp every morning. She says there’s a noticeable difference in how American and Chinese kids express themselves.

By nudging kids to skills like communication, the parents say they’re moving away from a typical Chinese emphasis on science and math.

Redefining norms is no easy task. To get there, I led students in researching topics such as increasing the minimum wage and investing in India. We also worked on presentation skills, perfecting pitch and tone, and using hand motions.

Hannah Wang delivers a practice speech in preparation for the tournament.
Credit Allison Swaim / WUNC

On the last day of camp, Hannah Wang walked up to the front of the room, her familiar ponytail bobbing, and introduced herself before giving her speech.

“For the judges and parliamentarians, that’s Senator H. Wang,” she said to the group, as she spelled her name. “As always, I’m at the leisure of those above me, so give me a smile or a nod whenever you’re ready.”

In just a week, Wang, who barely said a word on her first day, gave an entire speech on pursuing military action in the South China Sea.

“China does not want any peace brought in the South China Sea,” she declared.

We are hard workers but we can also lead this world. We can run this world. -Maria Lu

Maria Lu is the coordinator of the camp. She says many Chinese parents hold advanced degrees and work at well-known tech firms, but few advance to management positions. I've see this with my own parents. Maria believes that public speaking is crucial for Chinese-American kids like Hannah to see themselves as leaders.

“The way we can tell people our vision, the way we can talk with people, the way we can communicate with people to not only show our ideas ...we are hard workers but we can also lead this world. We can run this world,” Lu said.

As for me, I wish there had been a camp like this when I was 12. I had to figure it out mostly on my own. But I did, and I am excited that maybe, the next time I’m judging a high school debate tournament, I won’t be the only Chinese girl in the room.