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Unresolved Identities: Discourse, Ambivalence, and Urban Immigrant Students

reviewed by Martha Bigelow - July 26, 2010

coverTitle: Unresolved Identities: Discourse, Ambivalence, and Urban Immigrant Students
Author(s): Bic Ngo
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 1438430582, Pages: 146, Year: 2010
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Bic Ngo’s important new book is the result of a year-long ethnographic study of Lao American students in an urban high school, Dynamic High. In methodology and substance, this book is a brave, scholarly, and deeply human research endeavor that complicates and challenges readers to think in new ways about important issues of identity and education for immigrant youth. The identities of the youth represented in Unresolved Identities: Discourse, Ambivalence and Urban Immigrant Students are necessarily “unfinished, precarious…and contested” (p. 5). Ngo seeks to help readers see that there is not one, easy storyline that can explain the experiences of immigrant youth across time, place, or ethnicity. As such, this book offers readers a direct counter to wildly common beliefs, images, and academic representations of immigrant youth and their families as fraught with needs and deficits rather than assets and strengths. The three core questions in the book are: (1) How do dominant discourses frame urban, immigrant students? (2) How are the identities of immigrant students partial, unresolved, and more complex than dominant representations? and (3) How is an understanding of “unresolved identities” important for thinking about curriculum and pedagogy?” (p. 5). These questions are explored across all six chapters using poignant and carefully analyzed qualitative data. While based on a dissertation study, this book does not read like one. It flows with interesting, unburdened narratives and has been carefully written into clean and concise chapters, which I will briefly summarize next.

The topics of the chapters are fascinating. Chapter 2 explores the way the school is characterized. Ngo’s discussion is set within the large and typical discourse of urban schools characterized as dangerous, uncivilized, and poor. This, of course, results in the individuals who are associated with these schools as being similarly characterized. Chapter 3 tackles another deficit-oriented view of immigrant and refugee students as being somehow damaged, that they are “war babies” (p. 40). This characterization implies and includes the victimization of students’ families. Likewise, this chapter explores how urban immigrant teens may be framed as survivors, resilient, or “comeback kids” (p. 49). Ngo argues that these two opposing characterizations of urban students maintain the “hegemony of binary categories of us/them and normal/not normal” (p. 52) and cause a discourse that can confine identities in ways that hide the shifts and uncertainties of Lao American identities. This topic is the focus of Chapter 4. The stories of Chapter 4 were my favorite. I am certain that I will retell the stories of Chapter 4 the most to others, especially teachers. Stories of essentializing and racializing all students who appear to be ethnically Asian into categories of Chinese or Hmong were particular powerful. The following quote from a teacher, Ms. Kane, exemplifies this: “I think a lot of teachers just think of them [Lao American students] as Hmong with long names” (p. 57). Also instructive in this chapter is a careful and sensitive discussion of the role of the Asian Club at Dynamic High School. Ngo offers a beautifully nuanced and justified critique of the problems associated with “celebrating” different cultures at school with an analysis of a performance by the Asian Club which inadvertently reified differences and us/them binaries rather than contesting the ethnic lumping that is so common at school. This chapter also shows how part of the dynamic of essentializing students across ethnic or racial lines results in decisions about who Lao American students choose as friends and the activities in which they feel they wish to participate. Chapter 5 carries the same title as the book, Unresolved Identities, and deepens the discussion significantly. The chapter focuses on the identity work of three students. These students’ accounts illustrate how, in Ngo’s words, their identities are unresoloved, ambivalent, and conflictual and unbound by categories of identity that are strictly and statically defined. Chapter 6 confronts the important question of whether the experiences of Lao American students are different from other urban students or other immigrant students. As a reader, I have come to believe that they are, and that books such as Ngo’s are important for uncovering how and when being Lao American is unique. However, more unique in this book is how Ngo’s analysis succeeds in complicating and theorizing identity. Chapter 6 also helps us imagine how multicultural education could be different. This section is very relevant to educators who are interested in including ethnic or cultural identity in the curriculum in responsible ways that do not do more harm than good as youth work through identities they are hard at work constructing and contesting.

Unresolved Identities gives researchers new to ethnography multiple ways to understand the process of doing this work. Ngo narrates rich and interesting images of what it means to be “hanging out” with kids as a way she conducts her research and how this work results in stories, or interpretations of student and staff experiences that resonate with readers. Aptly, and following current poststructuralist thought, Ngo recognizes that the stories she interprets are partial and do not uncover any definitive answer about identity or culture. An Appendix to the book makes transparent the rigorous methodology involved in the study without interrupting the stories in the main sections of the book. Ngo also offers multiple comments on her own researcher identity that serve as a helpful model for how researchers can reveal who they are as insiders or outsiders in different spaces and interactions with the many individuals who participate in their research.  

Ngo did delve deeply into issues of how discourse linguistically constructs or frames identities of students, their communities, and their schools. This is an undeniable strength of the book. Some readers, however, may have expected language and language learning issues to be more central in the narratives of this book, given that many of her participants were likely bi- or multilingual. Explorations of immigrant youth identity and education are often closely linked to, for example, students’ opportunities to learn academic content through a new language, to their perceived status in schools as language learners, and to ways their home languages are used, assumed, or ignored in their daily lives at school. These questions, however, were not the focus of the book and the parameters of what were included and excluded were clear and justified.

I highly recommend using Unresolved Identities as a text in a range of university classes and professional settings. I have already used this book in a graduate-level seminar and it was discussed with great interest and praise. I also plan to use this book in classes with practicing teachers who are interested in exploring issues of immigrant identity in their own practice. This beautifully written research will undoubtedly make a difference in how educators understand immigrant adolescents as well as help researchers theorize identity in new and very productive ways. Ngo’s analyses offer readers new and different ways to understand the meanings within her participants’ words and their relevance to theories across a number of disciplines. Unresolved Identities successfully helps contest popular or “familiar representations of urban and immigrant students” (p. 2) and gives brilliant insights into the “incongruities and complexities of the identities and lives of students” (p. 2).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 26, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16082, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 10:07:22 AM

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About the Author
  • Martha Bigelow
    University of Minnesota
    E-mail Author
    MARTHA BIGELOW is an Associate Professor in the program in Second Languages and Cultures Education at the University of Minnesota. Her work focuses on the educational experiences of East African refugee youth, particularly those without prior formal schooling. Her new book is entitled Mogadishu on the Mississippi: Language, racialized identity, and education in a new land and will be published in the Language Learning Monograph Series with Wiley-Blackwell.
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