My daughter Hao Hao turned 16 on Saturday. Sweet 16.

She put on my tiara that I wear for my most serious writing, and she asked eight-year-old Little Brother if he had anything to say to her, expecting him to say, “Happy Birthday.” Instead, he answered, “Swagger.” (Swag 16!)

The day I turned 16, I headed straight for the Department of Motor Vehicles in Gilroy after school to take my driver’s test. The Junior/Senior Prom was that weekend and I needed to be able to drive. Full of ego and optimism, I failed that driver’s test spectacularly, but I could only see as far as the Junior/Senior Prom. My date scrambled to get his old Chevy running at the last minute, so we managed to get there. Then it broke down on the side of old Monterey Highway on the way home, and my father had to rescue us. Lol.

Since we do not celebrate Bat Mitzvah or Quinceanera traditions, I always thought of Sweet 16 as primarily about driving and dating. However, since my daughter does not yet have any interest in dating (I mean, since my daughter is not allowed to date until she is 32), and since her dad still has not given her the driving lessons he promised, we are not planning anything more than our usual Memorial Day barbeque with a hundred of her closest friends (exaggerating, but only a little) after the neighborhood parade.

Then, as I tried to decide whether we should go to Eastern Accents or Eastern Flame for Hao Hao’s birthday dinner, I got the news from Texas about Diane Tran, a 17-year-old honors student recently jailed for truancy, and I felt extravagant and shallow. They put her in jail, and I am sitting here thinking about cake recipes.

Diane Tran’s parents recently divorced and moved away, leaving her to support herself and her two siblings. She is working two jobs (one full-time, one part-time), and she is taking a full load of Advanced Placement and dual-college-credit classes. Her friends report that she is often up until 7 am finishing her homework, so she is often so exhausted that she is late for class or misses school completely. Unfortunately, she crossed paths with a judge who admitted that he wanted to make an example of her by putting her in jail for 24 hours and giving her a $100 fine for truancy (at minimum wage, $100 is almost 14 hours of work).

That is just all sorts of wrong.

First I go tell my children about this case and remind them how lucky they are.

My children know how exhausting a course load like Diane Tran’s is. Every day my high schoolers come home from school and collapse into a nap. After they wake up, they do homework until well past midnight. Their friends’ parents all report the same. They barely have enough time to do the volunteer work required for school, let alone sports and clubs. A job is impossible to fathom. And all this is without them having to worry about food or housing or transportation or money or bills. Their job is to go to school, period, and still they struggle.

I also understand how confusing and time consuming the legal and social services systems can be, how hard it is to make it on so little money, how much responsibility is involved in supporting one’s siblings, and how unforgiving the legal and social services systems can be for a person of color. In her interview with KHOU News, Tran comes across as still bewildered about her parents’ divorce—that one thing alone is derailing enough.

Texas state law allows the courts to put children or their parents or both in jail for missing too much school without an excuse. All she needed was to have her absences excused by a parent or guardian, which she did not have. All she needed was a phone call.

The Tiger Auntie in me wants to swoop in to tell her all that I know, give her the resources she needs. She should not have to be figuring out legal loopholes. At 17, she should be thinking about birthday parties.

Note: There is a petition at to urge Judge Moriarity to cancel Diane Tran’s fine and sentencing as well as a fund being set up to help her at and

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is a contributor for New America Media Ethnoblog,,, and She team-teaches Asian Pacific American History and the Law at the University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her Web site at, her blogs at and, and she can be reached at