“Why are you so angry?” An APIA Woman’s Narrative

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A tag I made in remembrance of 二二八事件 in Taipei, Taiwan. “Never forget your past (his/her/x) story.”

Inspired by Michelle Zhu’s narrative  for Vice

People have a tendency to ask and tone police every time they hear me make a point, albeit often an emotional point, about being an APIA (Asian Pacific Islander American) in a world that too often values marginalization. Don’t get me wrong, we’re making tremendous progress. I remember watching The Walking Dead and celebrating Glenn’s momentous role as a protagonist lead with every bone in my body. (No spoilers, but my interest has since tapered off. Sorry not sorry.) Anyway, today I feel calm and whole enough to answer the question posed oh-so many times by oh-so-many ignorant voices. What exactly does the average APIA have to forgive living in “the middle” of the U.S.? Here are a few of mine, granted, take these all with a grain of salt: I was usually the new kid. So, I suppose it’s also merely a narrative of bullying. I’ll attempt to do these in chronological order for clarity’s sake.

  • 5 years old: I remember my parents always took us shopping on holidays because America is known for fantastic store discounts on such days. My first strange feeling about race, which occurred several times over the course of many a Veteran’s Day, was seeing a Vietnam War or WWII veteran for the first time (It’s been so long, and I’m unfamiliar with military medallions).  The elderly man, decked out in his pressed uniform and hands clasped over the arms of his wheelchair, nearly lifted himself out of his chair glaring at my family. His eyes tracked us for the insufferably long way down the corridor. I have never felt more scared or judged in my life. He didn’t have to say a word.
  • 6 years old: Aunties and Uncles made fun of me for what they called 黑。 In Chinese, this means you are dark for a person of East Asian descent. I was too young to care, and I liked my sun-tanned skin.
  • 7 years old: These three girls, D, M, and K, were interested in playing with a “Chinese doll.” Meaning…me. Y, a 2nd grader who came straight from mainland China, fit into their stereotype of what an exotic Chinese girl should look like. D, instead, made it her mission to tell me how I was “not at all like she expected. I imagined you would wear one of those Chinese dresses with butterfly clips down really long black hair.” I recently looked back at my pictures, and I was cute, just not in the way she wanted me to be. I remember feeling like I had disappointed her. I remember wanting to apologize.
  • 8 years old: My 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Sager, kept confusing me with Y. She actually gave me a gift later on, in 5th grade, that was meant to be for Y. I was too ashamed for her to say anything, just thanked her and moved on. I felt like I would have burdened her had I said anything, so I said nothing at all.
  • 9 years old: I cut off all my hair, and I felt lighter. I devoured books from Lemony Snicket and J.K. Rowling. I remember feeling excited that Cho Chang was mentioned, someone that looked like me. So rare in a fantasy book. How funny that I, as Rachel Rostad mentions, ended up “just following the script” and falling into crushes with people who were very white. Thanks, J.K. Rowling.
  • 10 years old: I remember feeling depressed for the first time around this age. I had kept a journal for several years, and I remember asking myself, “What am I even doing?” It didn’t help that kids were becoming incredibly cruel about who they deemed “cool” in Arkansas. Again, they were just following Hollywood’s script, I guess. Erasure and marginalization.
  • 11 years old: I went back to China with my parents for the first time. I had not prepared for the culture shock, and I left mainly with questions rather than the answer I was looking for. I wasn’t American. I wasn’t Chinese. I couldn’t call anywhere my home, just a home in the hyphen. Chinese-American.
  • 12 years old: Officially resplendent in existential crisis. Spent the year looking inward and becoming a fail artist. I didn’t want to be good at anything anymore because that was the stereotype of the Model Minority. Smart, skinny, sharp. I was tired. I repressed my voice, grew chubby, grew dejected.
  • 13 years old: Slept for most of the day (everyday if I could) and officially done with the world. Middle school is a mine field. Correction, middle school is a mind field. People play games with your soul, gambling it against popularity and progress. I always believed that the way my family communicates is in circles rather than in the straight lines of Western “progress” plot diagrams. So, I circled in on my own ineptitude, hurt by a trusted adult who told me to simply “grin and bear it.”
  • 14 years old: An anonymous student drew a swastika in shaving cream in the front of the junior high…while we were reading Elie Wisel’s Night. This was where we went, to a place of hate and tragedy. Another POC student asked what time breakfast started, and I made the mistake of telling him when the doors opened. “7 am.” To which he responded, “Nobody f***ing asked you, chink.” I felt my heart pounding in my throat.
  • 14 years old, II: This kid who was obsessed with Naruto and being Asian (but who was absolutely not) followed me around and kept asking me to date him because he had a fetish. This was complicated by the fact that he had autism, so it was very difficult to deter him. While the current me is ashamed of this, I brushed him off repeatedly and rudely until he stopped bothering me. He was my first stalker. We rode the same bus, and I remember being scared that he was outside my window.
  • 15 years old: My parents moved me again for the 3rd or 4th time. It was hard to keep track, which made the question, “Where are you from?” even more complicated than it was due to my identity as an APIA. I was from a bevvy of places. Anyway, as you can imagine, starting high school as a sophomore leaves you with no friends at ground zero, and my school had a delightful self-imposed policy of pennying freshman. I was not amused, especially not by the people near my locker who would tape up their eyes and nose to look…like a caricature. My supposed APIA friend called me at the end of my first day to ask, “Can you make your own friends?”

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  • 16 years old: Supposed APIA friend says I stole all her friends. I felt guilty for making friends with them, so I just spent all my time in my favorite teacher’s classrooms (usually English with one exception in math) or the library reading. I hated people because they wouldn’t let me be more than what they saw in front of them. More than eyes, people, what they see.
  • 17 years old: I had one of the best English classes of my life from a teacher who was featured on NPR. He centered our narratives, and finally, for once, I felt at peace in high school. I remember after I shared these stories and then some, every single person in that class came up and hugged me. Told me they cared. Told me they were sorry. And then I went to Calc AB to put my walls back up.
  • 18 years old: I remember, despite loving reading, refusing to read Billy Shakes. Knowing that he was probably a plagiarist. Knowing that he was a symbol of white privilege. Not until college did I finally get a Shakespeare professor who knew how to subvert Shakespeare and help us question the text into something relatable to POC. Other than that, I was living life beneath Caliban, not even mentioned in those plays and not allowed on the stage. Interesting, considering I was in stage crew.
  • 19 years old: Freedom. Freedom in the sense that I could study, be, and be with anyone I wanted. I met these incredible campus fellowships, who focused on diversity and APIA inclusion respectively. However, as a psychology major, I quickly realized that my classes were full of white people wanting to treat others like experiments. I appreciated the social science but immediately tacked on an English Lit major. My people.

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  • 20 years old: Hong Kong. Awakening but also brutally draining to the soul. Made fun of for being, basically, a Mainlander. I was faced with an entire other set of stereotypes for being from mainland China: “Mainlanders are rude.” “Mainlanders cannot use a proper toilet.” “They have no manners.” I had an amazing TA for a class called “Imagining Hong Kong” which re-thought these concepts. However, the teacher still treated me differently than a white peer. Looks like you can be elitist and classist no matter where you are.
  • 21 years old: I found myself beyond excited to go back State-side for swing dance lessons. However, it always felt a little bit strange that there was this global dance community with an African-American history, yet the people I danced with were an entirely different demographic. I also hated being called “exotic.” It wasn’t the healthiest relationship with dance to start.
  • 22 years old: Budapest. I love this broken yet beautiful city. Dorá led the Hungarian Refugee Center, and the people there are EVERYTHING. Those teachers were centering others before I knew what that even meant. They taught me more than I will ever be able to teach, and I’m thankful. People asked me where I was from, but English was then used as a tool for equity instead of one for oppression.
  • 23-24 years old: Graduation. Taiwan Fulbright. Love. Hate. I learned everything in that two year time span. This was a time where I felt beyond loved and cared for —-from my internship at the Asian American Cultural Center with all-APIA professional mentors and peers to the mostly-Asian church fellowship I went to…in a way, I was sheltering before a storm. Taiwan left me with scars about Mainland bias once more, but again…the kids became my kids and their stories stay with me.
  • 25-26 years old: Vanderbilt. Oh, Vanderbilt. You are a complicated mess of academia. Wonderful yet insane yet…I learned here. If anything else, I learned what it meant to define and declare my narrative as a Chinese-American woman who wants change and activism. I re-learned and un-learned what it meant for others to be scared of me. I re-learned and un-learned what it meant to stand in my power.

I teach as a third culture teacher still. I have tried my best, as a person of faith, to forgive the people in these narratives. I try my best to be a little less wrong everyday. I travel because I think it teaches you to be humble, to connect, and to find friendship in unfamiliarity. I try to be my best self, or at least to be better each day. But please…don’t ask me why I’m “angry.” It’s a long story. And besides, I’d rather call it passionate.

*I originally planned to put in photographs of others, but in the interest of their privacy, you will have to bear with the rather one-noted photos of myself. Apologies.*

 

-Y.

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Marathons & Minutes

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Keep your eyes on the end, but we’re not out of the woods yet.

This is the last time I talk about this for a while, because honestly, this is exhausting. However, I don’t quite believe in tapping out vehemently on Facebook when longer forms exist for expression. For the POC in America, for our allies, this one is for you. I think we all need a little pep talk. We need to figure out a way to keep going in this world that is not yet ready for actual, nitty-gritty revolution.

For Anthony Stephan House, 39, of Houston—the first to fall. For the other innocent black and Latino lives torn apart by shrapnel. Draylen Mason. Esperanza Herrera. For the 17 in Florida, 13 in Columbine, 5 in Jonesboro. For the students who walked out, every single one. For Jordan Edwards. For Trayvon Martin. For Laquan McDonald. For Tamir Rice. For Roshad McIntosh. For McKinney. For Ferguson. For Chicago. For Salem. For Washington, D.C. For L.A. For St. Louis. For Nashville. Austin. Houston. San Antonio. For Fruitvale Station in the Bay area.

For indigenous tribes reduced to jerseys and epithets like “The Redskins.” For the indigenous descendants and the NAH at UIUC who endured “Chief Illiniwek,” a fictional, disturbing racial caricature. For my acquaintance Xochi and others like her who had to endure 4 years at U of I while seeing heads of Illiniwek displayed in shop windows which historically called for something far more terrifying. For indigenous tribes pushed out of their homes into “reservation camps.” For those suffering under the continued erasure and claim of colonized history. For the sufferers of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

For Enrique and others who attempted his journey. For my Latinx students: Jennifer, Cianna, Michael, who are dealing with more than 5th graders ever should, anywhere. For the parents at my school who are advocates and activists. For terrified parents, suffering from border patrol scammers. For 120 days. For fellow human beings labeled as “illegal.” For the Chicano Movement. For parents fighting for their children, and children fighting for their parents. For love that most know distance and time before hugs and held hands.

For my third culture fellows. For Japanese internment camp survivors who lived through FDR’s heinous Executive Order. For ancestors who lived through the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1924. For the often invisible, insidious fight. For the five Indo-Chinese elementary students massacred in Stockton, 1989. For Vietnam War refugees. For the refugees. For the missing and murdered Chinese takeout delivery drivers. For #notyourasiansidekick. For Vincent Chin. For the Kaos who caught it all on camera. For Asians living in the South.

For students and teachers enduring systemic, rampant racism. For anyone enduring systemic, institutionalized racism. Insidious, nefarious, heinous racism that is far more salient than we know.

This one is for you.

Do not give up your name, even if your parents ask you to. Renaming is a way for assimilating, first generation parents to make it easier on the white majority. It is a way for them to take away your power. “Sherry” caused me far greater turmoil than “Yue.” Roll call was a punch to the face every time. Will my teacher linger too long, butchering those beautiful Chinese syllables and tone? Will they, time and again, apply English phonics to it, transforming it into an accusation, “YOU?” I would swoop in, ashamed for something I should not have been ashamed for, and say, “Just Sherry.” Once, the AP Lit teacher sarcastically snapped, “Well, that’s close” and caused the whole room to snicker loudly. Do not hold onto the anger, but let it make you stronger.

Do not let the stereotypes and misrepresentation define you. For too long, I squashed and repressed my voice, thinking I had to be demure, quiet, hiding behind those too prevalent giggling Geisha and Madame Butterfly images STILL TO THIS DAY popularized by eurocentric audiences (and transformed by Seattle).  No, absolutely not. No more. My awakening doesn’t have to make you comfortable. I thank God daily for my internship at the UIUC Asian American Cultural Center, that I learned alongside daily from empathetic, culturally aware mentors and peers. Thank you for teaching me that tears show a greater warrior than shouting can, but that there is still time for shouting and protesting. Thank you for bearing the burden alongside me. Thank you for telling me that my anger didn’t need to dissipate. Thank you for not tone-policing. I found my voice through a small group of determined, hilarious, complex individuals who let me fight against the oppression of singularity.

Fight for your cause, whatever that may mean. If you are a policy maker, speak up. If you are a student, stand up and speak up. Do not EVER let a teacher reduce you to “girl” or “boy.” If they do, like they did to me, steel your spine, do not back down, and persevere. Walk out if need be. If you are a teacher, advocate and let your students voices be heard. Fighting for your cause, some days, might be just taking care of you. Do not let mental health and self care be brushed under the rug. This fight is exhausting, and it is different for everyone. Do not let someone define the fight for you. Do not speak out until you feel ready. That may mean you are the only APIA student, one of two POC, in your program. That might mean you may not be respected for your time or in that place. However, I did it for the sake of looking my grandchildren in the eye someday and saying, “I stood up. I did not back down.”

Know that you are loved, deeply and profoundly. If not by people, then I truly believe by a giving and gracious God. Do not be defined by their God. I believe you are made in God’s image, who no man, woman, child, or anyone has ever seen fully while alive. In my deepest wells of sorrow, I have turned to prayer because I believe my God is an activist and sees real, racial, social pain. When my mother tone-policed my poem yesterday and told me my feelings were wrong, I sent up a few prayers. She only saw my hatred, but didn’t see the cause. I always remind myself, if Jesus was furious enough to brandish a whip in the temple, I don’t see why I can’t write a righteously angry poem. I will share with you, though, she made me feel guilty anyways.

“Know thyself.” Only you know how much you can bear in this age of heartache and destruction. But know that you can create. You can build. You can connect. Know that there is a whole web of intersectionality out there. Know that even when Facebook “friends” might erase you, you are not invisible. Know that your fight is not alone, even if you are physically alone wherever you are. Know that you are not obligated to speak on behalf of entire continents or entire people groups when a teacher (or student) asks you, “So what do you think? I mean you are [insert who they “think” you are]….aren’t you?” Know that Mr. Rainer in 8th grade was being incredibly racist when he said, “Asian history is so cool because it’s all these people who look like each other fighting.” In that instance, 8th grade awkward self, you were validated in your anger. Stop feeling ashamed for being alienated by your teacher.

Know thyself. Know your eyes are beautiful. They are beautiful, they are beautiful, they are beautiful. Yes, they are small. That doesn’t warrant the: “chink” comments. Ever. Get rid of the glue, the eyelid tape, the “ulzzang” lenses. Your eyes don’t warrant surgery, ever, no matter the in-group and out-group pressure. EVER. Love your skin. Yes, you’re yellow, something that colorism in Asia won’t let well enough alone. DGAF. Be you. Don’t feel the need to subsist on Korea’s laughable set of foundation choices— choose other brands. Laugh at the haters crying crocodile tears. Love yourself.

This is for you, but this is also for me and for my future children (students, or mine otherwise). I want them to have a guardian who doesn’t fault them for being any size, shape, color, creed, gender, sexual orientation— who doesn’t fault them for being them. Who puts the unconditional in unconditional love. That’s my dream. To look my child in the eye and say, “These are your great-grandmother’s eyes. She survived the Rape of Nanking. These are your great-grandfather’s ears, who participated in Manchurian Resistance by not learning a colonizer’s language as a student in Beijing. This is your grandfather’s skin, who marched for APIA rights in college. These are your grandmother’s hands, who was a remarkable and well-known organic chemist. These are your uncle’s legs, a man who listens and walks contemplatively before speaking. This is your father’s smile, who went through medical school to help the under-served. This is my raspy voice I give to you, so that you too may speak up even amongst the turmoil. But really, the voice is yours.”

 

This voice is ours. Let it not be silent. It is a marathon, and yes, we should keep checking the minutes…but take care of yourself. The race is not finished until it’s finished.

-Yue

*Note to the internet: please be patient if I do not moderate your comments. As urgent as I know all these issues are, I will be taking some time offline in self care over the next few days.

 

“Here’s to the Ones that Dream”

PSA: I realize there are several issues with La La Land which I plan on addressing on my other site. However, I did want to address some points about dreaming and giving up which have resonated with me each time I’ve seen this film.Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, standing and indoor “I’ve been working at it for 6 years, and what if it’s all just a pipe dream?” This line from La La Land with the symphony really hit home last night. For many of the dreams I’m pursuing, I’m hitting around the 6th or 7th year. Particularly in lindy hop (if you don’t know, it’s a Harlem-born, African-American accredited improv social dance), I’m in my 6th year of pursuing and practicing the idea of simply embodying a rhythm. I feel frustrated because of this: Who actually is judging and how are they judging? Someone told me recently that judges in swing dancing don’t have a set criteria. They place you based on how they think the dance would feel to them, how you look, and…in all honestly, it feels really subjective. It makes me tired. I don’t think I want to compete anymore. Are you judging me for musicality or hearsay from other dancers? Are you judging based on what I wore that night, how the audience responded, or I don’t know, the smell of my breath? My terrible posture? Maybe I’m ill-suited to the climate right now of criticism, maybe I’m just “too sensitive” as people have tried to insist my entire life, or maybe people are just too damn satisfied with themselves. Who knows? I surely don’t…or at least, that’s what my scores would tell you. I can’t help thinking that people want me to quit. “Too awkward.” It’s this stinging criticism I can never seem to shake.

My other dreams, particularly of writing a novel, have sat on the back-burner for no other reason than the continued criticism I’ve heard. When I was young and impressionable, a few “well-to-do” people in the church fellowship I joined took the liberty to shut down many of my creative outlets. When I think back to those times, I can’t help asking: Who gave them the authority? What credentials did they even have? They were dancers, writers, and musicians…but for them they had “made it” on a college stage playing to a group of APIA Christians every Friday night and Sunday morning. So, I guess having a regular “gig” makes you more critical of those just trying to “make it” at all. I’m not sure, but I’m still attempting to remove all the salt from those old wounds. My words don’t flow as easily or as eloquently anymore. They feel a bit stilted from years of fighting off attack. “Your words don’t have any heart.” That was one of the worst ones, from a panel of purported God-loving Christians. I remember trying to hide the tears on the bus ride home. I remember feeling ashamed of dreaming and wanting.

In many ways, I wonder if I’ve given up. I’ve tried to quiet my movements, dancing and writing, smaller brush strokes…just blending in really. It’s a vicious cycle of feeling unworthy so my posture is terrible, and so it continues. I anticipate those critical eyes upon sharing a poem again, and the words stop on the page. I see the hundreds of people I’ve encountered tugging at their eyelids or making nonsense syllables, because for them, I’m nothing but a stereotype they’ve seen on the screen or in a cartoon.

THIS advice? “This is for the ones who dream, foolish as it may seem.” Don’t stop. Even if it’s just dancing one night a week or practicing on your own to videos you love. If you’re still scared of prying eyes…get out there. Write in journals, on toilet paper, on napkins, in bathroom stalls, and in blogs that no one ever reads. Dance because you don’t know any other joy. Write because you can’t imagine doing anything else. Dance because it connects with you with more people in more ways than you ever imagined. Write because you can create, destroy, and there is a great and terrible beauty in it. Dance because maybe you won’t ever be the best dancer on the dance floor, but you can be the oldest, the one who still dances at 90. I don’t have to be the first, I just want to be the last. The last one standing, the one who has outlasted the worries of work, the pulls of marriage, and the hecticness of family. I want to be that person dancing even if no one is watching. I want to write like I breathe – if I don’t, I’ll die and nothing can stop the action of in, out, in, and out.

I hope you dream. I hope you haven’t let others stopped you. And…I think I owe an apology as well. My own self-criticisms have stopped me from realizing the greatness of others, because I’m partial to a culture of self-deprecation. So, here’s my encouragement: Be great. Don’t settle for good or better. I always tell my students, “Do your best.” Whatever it takes. Late nights after work, after 120 papers and 7 hours of agonizing. Do your best. When even your best friends see you as less-than. Do your best. When you have to cry to get through the day, maybe more than once. Do your very best to not let your dreams fall by the wayside.

I read a cheesy book, one of those habits books, a while ago as volun-told reading…and this one fact stuck with me. To be a master at anything, you need to invest about 10,000 hours. Jamin Jackson, one of my dance heroes, also told a class this: “You can be a master.” What do I ask for my students? Mastery. One part about mastery is that you don’t have to “get” everything, you just have to pass. The best part of mastery? You get to drive how much you pass. Good, better, best.

Scrape your dignity off from the sidewalk. Yes, I’m crying like a baby, but I’m going to get up everyday and do some work not for any person. Just for the dreams.

 

 

The Negative Film

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Somewhere in the Pacific, 2015.

What is really so very jarring about people is not what they say directly to you, but what they’re actually thinking deep down. The Upside Down, for all those Stranger Things fans out there. That’s what I’ve always been somewhat morbidly obsessed with and plagued by. How do people get by with their uglier, wild side peeking out from just beneath the surface?

I remember a few years back, at this gospel retreat, I remembered this couple very fondly. I didn’t know them well but we were on amicable terms, enough to summon a greeting when coming face to face at least. Due to some fluke of humanity or a curse at birth, I’ve always had the displeasure of near supersonic hearing…and accidental eavesdropping. So, there I was, cleaning out my room, listening to this couple rant on and on about how ridiculous my comments were in the seminar.

“Well, you know. She’s an English major. She can only see the world through that lens.”

“I mean, I don’t think he said anything even that offensive.”

“Right? She just took it the wrong way.”

On and on they droned, running circles around my response to a Moody Bible speaker who I thought was masogynistic and ill-informed. What they don’t tell you about church but what most of us experience is that Christians are often our harshest critics. Anyway, there I am, separated from these pseudo-nice fake people by a cheap, semi-open door. I could hear my blood pumping through my earlobes, whether from fear or sadness or rage…I don’t know. It felt like a betrayal, as if they hid their cruelty some place that I couldn’t respond to it.

That whole retreat, which was meant to be family, proceeded just like that. People were kind enough, but it was always just a veneer. For instance, we have this habit of staying up late with the youth group playing silly games and messing around until 3 in the morning. Well, this time, when I tried to comb past the lines of distance and time, I was immediately blocked out of the group. One of my close friends talked around me. Meaning, I was physically present within a circle of conversation but I wasn’t invited to respond to any of the questions they posed. It left me feeling hopeless, like my voice would never be heard or valued.

I don’t know why I bring all this up now, it’s pointless really. Only that, the church, as much as I love it, is flawed. It’s filled with liars, backstabbers, cheats. I used to adore this one person there. Only, upon addressing this unrequited infatuation, I found myself the laughingstock of the entire church group. People were literally talking about this years after the initial occurrence, it never died down.

So I left. Bitter, angry, and more than a little bit irritated that a place which claims to be based on a strong foundation of unconditional love became more than a little bit conditional. I’m not saying I was the perfect candidate or member. I’m still a believer, albeit over 800 miles away in a different city with a different church family. I didn’t move entirely because of a broken church body, but I will say it was a factor.

What I will say is…there was a habit of being two-faced that I didn’t appreciate. If you’re going to be nasty, be nasty to my face. I’m wondering if this is particular to the Asian American church or if everyone can be just this mean. Worried about face and all that. I suppose that’s why I’ve had this long, de-toxing hiatus from social media. Fake love, fake friends…I didn’t need that in my life anymore.

The new chapter starts here.

Introverted, Not Spineless

I woke up this morning mildly disturbed by a vivid dream. On the edge of a huge tank, perched precariously on the edge was a tiny bowl with a violet beta fish languidly mulling about. Inexplicably, a huge royal blue fish jumped out of the tank to hover over the small bowl. The beta immediately hopped out of its tank as I attempted to snatch the looming predator away. As the gigantic fish flipped and flopped about, he made a mad dash into a corner where he proceeded to gasp for air. Due to my fury at this fish lunging at a smaller one or perhaps recovering from the surprise at the larger fish lunging out of the tank, I left him gasping until his scales turned different colors, from blue to purple to red. For whatever reason, I took the near-limp fish and eased him back into the tank just in time. Before I woke up, what I remember is feeling the fish’s pronounced, bony backbone.

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I always assumed that it would always be the beta who needed saving, the little fish who appeared defenselessly before this unknown, ominous entity. However, it was this huge fish with a solid spine that, in the end, was deemed weak. Among several of the critiques as a new teacher I received this year, one particularly passive aggressive feedback was the notion that I was somehow spineless. That, being quiet or introverted, was akin to an unfavorable timidity. However, I think my unconscious was trying to tell me something else entirely. What comes to mind is this passage in 2 Corinthians which speaks on how the weak will be made strong. So much of this year was focused on being loud and “power-posing.” To “fake it until you make it” and like-minded cliches. However, as time went on, I felt so fake and inauthentic. I felt as if I was betraying my quieter students, the ones who preferred to work on their own rather than in randomly assigned small groups. I forgot to make time and space for those who don’t like group work or who may need some time to themselves.

I will always choose the title of facilitator over teacher. Teacher has come to mean so many things which are not true to the profession – lecturer, disciplinarian, dictator. While I do believe rules and regulations have a time and place in creating a healthy classroom ecology, I do not believe in instilling a culture of fear. So much of this year has been simply keeping the fear at bay, both the anger and impatience in my heart and managing the anxiety my students felt about their over-tested academics.

“For when I am weak, then I am strong.” I wonder if in my dream, I was the beta or the predator. Certainly, this year, I felt like the beta who would puff up lace-like fins in order to look just a bit larger than I actually was, to falsify bravado I had no business knitting together. I wonder, if, in some ways, the predator was an omen of a possible future. Perhaps, one day, I will be a big fish in a big pond but the moment I denigrate or condescend is the moment power will corrupt absolutely.

To the people who told me, both upfront and behind my back, that I was spineless and that I had no business in a classroom: who made you the arbiter of all classroom decisions? Who said that only the loud, the outwardly strong and extroverted, are the ones who belong in the profession? Introversion is a precious gift, a means to reflect deeply and unperturbed by the many distractions allotted by our sales-centric world. Gandhi, Lincoln, Maya Lin…the people I look up to all took time for introspection. Jesus was recorded in scripture as taking time away from the crowds, to escape and to pray. I think about the creatures in this vast wilderness who are legitimately spineless.  The Irukandji, or Kingslayer, jellyfish is the world’s smallest yet most deadly jellyfish with a sting more potent than 100 cobras. Invetebrates though they are, jellyfish are some of the oldest and most mesmerizing organisms still in existence today. Some of them are even so-called “immortals” who age backwards. Spineless is just an ill-informed, derogatory phrase for people who want to look down on others wired differently than they are.

So much of our lives are focused on more or bigger. “A spine made of steel,” bigger paychecks, greater confidence, and more stability. Yet, in our efforts to grow up and maximize so much superficiality, we forget the value of small. My voice might be soft spoken but the words I have to say are no less valuable. Three of the simplest, monosyllabic words in the English language can be combined to create a powerful, some would say life-altering statement: “I love you.” Small is might too. It matters when you take time out of a class period to check in with a student who is crying. It matters when you go back and talk with a student who blew up in your class or who believes you to be unfair. It matters if you take the time to say thank you, to write a note, or to give an encouragement…even if you receive nothing in return.

I think the beta and the predator live in tandem inside me. Like many people, I feel the call to dominate or to be “strong” in some worldly sense, but another side of me, the kinder voice, reminds me to take time and reflect, to not jump so recklessly into risks. I need them both. One to remind me to think wildly outside the tank, the other to examine the steps already taken. But, perhaps, the most valuable lessons are learned from the jellyfish who is not actually a fish at all. Spineless, yes, but with a powerful punch. Softbodied yet deadly.

There is this quote I will never forget on the wall of the middle school counselor’s office. It read, “Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard.” I don’t know enough about the world, and I do not claim to master anything here. I will forever be a learner, forever ready for the next onslaught of reproach from people who disagree or who come bearing a methodology of “they know best.” The difference, I suppose, is not what you do, but how you do it.

Stay with your soft voice. Do not believe the voices who want to turn you into their version of loud.

Stay driven. Do not let this world slow down your intrinsic motivation.

Stay young at heart. Only the disenchanted really and truly age.

I’ve not yet healed from this year. I betrayed my own inherent needs to reflect, to ponder, and to slow down. It will take time for me to come to terms with many of the decisions I made in my classroom that I now wish to revise. However, maybe that is the most important part of this entire process — to learn deeply from mistakes made on ground zero.

I have seen too many talented peers leave the classroom. I do not know what my future holds, but I will tell you this:

I will stay soft.

Microlove instead of Microaggressions

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I had a chat with my students this week, and it has been weighing heavily on my heart. It’s not a conversation I think I am ever meant to forget. I wrote a reading lesson surrounding the question, “Have race relations in the U.S. improved, gotten worse, or stayed the same?”by tying in To Kill a Mockingbird as the canonical text of reference.  We built on the skeletal themes of TKAM, but what really jarred the students was the spoken word piece “Emmett” I played for them as a warm-up. Most of my pedagogy surrounds validating student voice, and this was the first time I let students in on my obsession with spoken word. I expected my students to roll their eyes or scoff at me for trying to, once again, to be relevant in some way.

Instead, I was floored by their reception. Though I did warn students the lesson would be heavy and they could decide whether or not to participate, most students wanted to talk about racial profiling, even at their own school. One of my students did need a moment outside, but this person was able to come back and contribute so whole-heartedly to the conversation. I’m not saying this is ideal…I know in some way, I was bringing what I believe was a necessary risk into the classroom. We talked about the elephant in the room, even reading “Unpacking the White Privilege Backpack.”We talked about the hurt we inflicted on each other. We talked about how “real” the conversation was, and I ran around the room trying desperately to implement my mentor teacher’s advice–value the student voice. Don’t just talk about what you’re interested. Find what’s interesting to them.

I don’t think it was a raging success by any means. In fact, I think my mentor teacher did one better in his later classes. But…it was a start. I had accomplished something, and for once in my very short career as a novice teacher, I got a glimpse of what it’s like to connect with students through a text. I still failed; I didn’t emphasize the traditional text enough, I probably forgot a formative assessment, and some students who were not PoC probably felt incredibly isolated. I bit off more than I could chew, but I don’t know that I would ever stop talking about the master’s tools and our sometimes futile attempts at dismantling the house of privilege. It was desperately hard. It was desperately needed.

One of my students talked about how a teacher at a school made a microaggressive comment about her living arrangements. Many did not know the details about Emmett Till. When they did, they could not stop asking or crying. Others could not stop talking about the privileges in the backpack. Perhaps it wasn’t solid, capital-D discourse in our class that morning. Perhaps it was a flop in pure academic terms or core ELA standards. But…somewhere deeper, something inside us changed. Up to then, I feel like I was just going through the motions of teaching. Quite honestly, I felt a bit trapped by what I interpreted as limitations – in my experience, my procedures, and my severely lacking teacher voice. Something my mentor teacher said really hit home a few days later. I was complaining about how I was too sensitive and needed to toughen up, something my dad had reiterated many times before.

My mentor said this. “Don’t squash it, use what you have. What do you have? Compassion and passion. Use it.”

I’m still working on developing compassion. I’m still working on sorting out all the gears in my teacher toolbox. I don’t know what “ideal teaching” right now looks like. If you ask any of my students this week, they can probably list a whole, lengthy volume of my shortcomings. I’m not there…yet. I’m not a great teacher…yet. (That sounds very conceited, but a teacher’s gotta dream).

Give me 10 more years. Maybe then I’ll have something for you.

-Humbled & Curious

 

 

Peace on Earth, Goodwill towards All.

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I have not been a kind, decent person in 2016. It has been a rough year, full of mountains and molehills of my own making. Pressure-cooked and puffed-up, I spent so much time wasted on anger. Not just anger…pure fury. Imagine sticking your hand into a piping hot vat of water, so hot you feel cold. I was the water, and everyone I found fault with? Burned.

Of course, the justifications were endless: they were [racist, sexist, antagonistic, too cynical, too optimistic, too rude, etc.]. I couldn’t get over the small stuff, heck, I sweat out the big stuff too. Anxiety when pulled too tight acts as a tourniquet around your heart. Sometimes, you are fit to bursting with something; anger or sadness in my case. It is not the most ideal place to be, especially for an educator-to-be.

I don’t know where this chip on my shoulder came from, only that the block I’ve been around never seems to be the same block. I am getting lost somewhere in my own brain in the pavement cracks. When did I always start looking down on myself and others?

I don’t know that I believe in new year resolutions, but I do believe in a strong will with a clear purpose. For 2017 and beyond, I hope to dwell less on anger and hurt. I hope this blog to be less of a dialogue of dread and more of a catalogue of surmounting joy. Counting my blessings and what not. I guess I’ve always associated happiness witha  kind of ignorant bliss. Surely wise people can never be truly happy. Indeed, as always, I am proved the fool. Joy is deepened with wisdom and suffering.

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Your Humble Narrator,

Y.

Maybe It’s Not For Me.

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I’m good at hiding. Squirreling away pieces of Dove dark chocolate and almond slivers and just disappearing into the edges of my covers. I’m good at slouching and wiling away hours binge-watching Narcos, Doctor Foster, and any number of documentaries on Netflix. I know I have somewhat of a penchant for writing, though probably not a gift. I’m good at finding a certain slant of light to photograph moments and memories. I’m an okay listener and a halfway decent friend on a good day, when the wind is just so.

What I’m quite sure of these days…is that I’m probably not the best teacher. Perhaps I shouldn’t teach anyone. I don’t know if it was the right decision to come to a predominantly white, Southern, private institution. I don’t know if I can ever overcome this sense of feeling so inadequate in a space I cannot ever call my own. I don’t know if the classroom can ever be called a home, especially when all attempts to speak out are silenced. Why is it that all modern teachers must be loud? “Work on your teacher voice.” My favorite instructors have been the ones who don’t scream in my ear, who earn my respect with wise words, not loud ones. “It’s just a first year teacher problem.” But…I’ve already worked a year. Also, I don’t think numbing yourself to the humanity of your students is a “solution” to whatever problem you’re imagining. Something about this whole process just feels wrong and contrived. Maybe this isn’t who I was meant to be all along.

All the courage and bluster I managed to conger up from idealism and 24-year-old hopes has dissolved in the well worn grooves of the school I work at and the university I attend. I feel less sure of myself and more aware of my faults. I feel like my faith has been tested, and I feel alone. The worst of it all is…none of this makes any of the education system better. Feeling badly about something, even voicing an opinion about it…will not change much with rampant stubbornness. One of my superiors said this week, “The system is not going to change for you.” Is the system going to change for anyone?

We are policing people of color in metro schools. I am a person of color who is forced into a surveillance role, and I have forsaken my creativity. I don’t believe engaging teaching should be neglected in pursuit of test prep, but what can I do in the position I am in? I have always felt like I had some sort of agency as a student, but the illusion is gone as an adult. The system rules in hierarchy and madness. It is measured in spoonfuls of coffee and administered daily. Why is it that I look forward to being alone these days instead of being in the classroom?

I have more questions than answers. I have more disillusionment than optimism. I don’t know what life looks like past this M. Ed., or if this too shall pass without a degree at all. I don’t know if I chose the right path, one where I teach ELA but barely have time to enjoy the pleasures of a good book. I feel like my soul has grown old. I don’t know if this will get better or if the gnawing, sinking feeling in my chest will sink into itself.

Growth mindset and grit are weapons of mass distraction, as a famous education professor so eloquently presented. I am measured by my weight in efficiency. I am not a naturally efficient person. I have always wandered in the garden or the greenhouse or the museum. I have never taken a straight path anywhere and prefer to explore rather than seek out. I believe it is a Western notion to cut through bluntly. It is not in my nature to splice and split and force. I do not know who I am when I yell and glare and punish.

This is not me. Students: I promise you this. My work will not punish you, I mean to nurture. My work will not put myself first. I will not complain about you to other teachers. I will treat you no less than another human being. I promise to care and to not value you against the point systems implemented against you.

I am tired. I think this vein of education is depressing. I grow weary of measuring life out in lunch breaks and stale coffee. I am tired of gossip and pseudo-mediating, negotiating over the best way to whitewash my statements.

Maybe this isn’t for me.

On ‘Letting It Go.’

This is an op-ed piece written to complement this post on LindyHopped (aka Swing of Things). 

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Image courtesy of Cinemagraphs

I recently had the pleasure of reading this re-post from a dance partner, the very dance savvy Eddie Rutland. The post reads as follows:

“This generation is so intelligent. They care about racism, feminism, ableism, and that’s such a positive mentality, but they need to leave room for forgiveness,” she said. “Nobody is perfect and people are educating themselves at different paces. So be mindful.” -Halsey, singer/songwriter of The Badlands.

Yes, we should forgive, and be mindful of what it means to be from different backgrounds. Before this quote, Halsey also reportedly says, “I don’t speak for anything” and “I can’t speak for any experience but my own, and if people can relate to that, then that just goes to show how similar people are despite the diversity.” I have mixed feelings about Halsey’s statements. On one hand, as a marginalized person, do I even have a voice to forgive? Do I have a voice that people can here? Because I am not part white, are people more likely to typecast me, write me off, stereotype me, or interrupt me? I wonder about forgiveness in a society which limits agency of the Other, that undermines my and many other identities simply because we are. Yes, I want to reach the point of forgiveness but not until we’ve had an intense conversation about what it means to be privileged.

Whiteness and status lend agency. They lend privilege. Halsey recognizes she doesn’t speak “for anything,” yet by nature of her craft, she does. The fact that she fails to recognize her platform is a lens of the colorblind philosophy rampant in the “New Americana” she perceives. I bring up Critical Race Theory, the issue of “comfort” or perceived “safe space,” and intolerance masked in every U.S. subculture not because I’m a masochist (sometimes it feels like it), but because minorities are being silenced. When we say “just forgive” or “just get over it,” we are silencing people. What would have happened to the feminist waves and movements if people listened to “just forgive?”

I self-identify as a person of faith who loves Christ and God. I am aware that this marker immediately shuts people down because of how horribly the Church has failed with forgiveness, love, and tolerance. Christians are some of the most racist, mean, cunning people I know; God came to heal the sick, not the healthy. I do believe in the power of forgiveness, and I see that sometimes people equate forgetfulness with forgiveness. I don’t forget. I think that’s ridiculous, because even old wounds leave ugly scars. Sure, these wounds have healed, but I still run my fingers over the raised tissue. It’s a warning, to tread carefully. Telling a marginalized person to forgive is like telling people who have little to no agency to tolerate oppression. NO. I will bow my head to God alone. It IS oppression, however subtle and dismissive the comments manifest themselves. I see it in my classes. When friends, good friends, say things like, “Oh, well your opinion is wrong” or when they talk over me, “Well, I think you mean….” No. Hell no. Let me talk. Let me have my voice. Don’t FORGIVE when it is in your place, for once, to listen.

It is terrifying to me that so many people in the U.S. are ready to let it go. To quote the Fort Worth slam team in their spoken word “McKinney,”You people are too damn satisfied.” I do not write off forgiveness. I support listening to diverse opinions, and I want people not to shut down after hearing the affect behind counternarratives.

Before asking forgiveness from others, perhaps ask to forgive yourself. We all deal with privilege, and we all need to check our privilege. I am not “safe” either. I am biased towards students who have been bullied, harrassed, who are minorities. I must chide myself to remember the different facets of issues without denying agency.

On people who think I talk too much.  I am talking because I didn’t for 20 years (I was made aware of my race by age 4). On people who think I don’t “forgive” enough. I forgive you by telling you these things. If I didn’t care, like I didn’t for 20 years, I wouldn’t say a word.

It’s about time.

-Yue

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Bursting Seams

Originally written for Dr. Hundley’s Pop Lit class. Thought I would share. -Yue Yuan, copyright 2016. Do not take without reference or proper citation. Inquire author in comments.

The Arrival: What is your family story around immigration? Write a narrative of your family’s journey.

Burst Seams (of the American Dream)

“你妈和我,刚来的时候,只带了两个行李。”
Your mother and I, when we first go there, had only two pieces of luggage.

I hear this statement-story every time I head home to our family’s wannabe-Frank Lloyd Wright bungalow on the crossroads of {town} and ____-side Chicago, A____ neighborhood. My 爸 (bà), with much bravado and pseudo-humility, berates me with his first generation Chinese “coming to America” graduate school journey any time he can get a word in edge-wise. I heard it growing up whenever I asked for anything, including a pet. “You want a DOG? We were so poor when we came here, we lived like dogs! Your mother and I, when we first got here…” and so on. Every time I wanted art supplies or asked to quit piano or go to a non-school event extracurricular. “Do you know what your mother and I gave up to come here? When we first got here…”

When we first got here, we were poor. I was two and I still remember the ancient, sputtering Toyota, “holy” only in the sense of its threadbare seats and my parents’ reverent excitement about owning a vehicle, any vehicle really. I remember being part of Asian-American college or church communities in Kansas, Iowa, Maryland, Arkansas, Chicago… My first chosen family, though, was in Kansas. I remember Suzi most of all, especially as part of her “gang.” Suzi— a twelve-year-old demon who knew how to pander to adults but make any younger kid’s life a living mobster movie. She taught me my first cuss words, how to fight, and how to nurse a baby bird back to life. I thought she was awesome. Back then, life was all about comparison (“Why can’t you be more like Suzi? Look at how her hands are curved on the piano…”), and I understood what it meant to be raised by a village. At first glance, we lived in a cheap two bedroom, but in reality we conglomerated into three floors, three units, three families in one. Blue light deal at Kmart, as my 妈 (mā) would say. Xiaoxi, Suzi, and I wandered Apt. Q like we owned the place, excavating dead lizards in asbestos-infested, dusty corners and turning purple honeysuckle fields into other planets. It was heaven and hell in Manhattan, Kansas, a poor college town in the cornfields named after a famous metropolis. Paradox and borders and mix-ups, like all the others which define my life.

My mother and father came to the U.S. from country and city, 河南和北京。They refused to compromise on our culture, and I love them for that now. I regret every fit I threw about Chinese schools across the country, from BoPoMoFo alphabet soup in Kansas to the “General” Zhang 老师 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I regret quitting for the last time junior year of high school in the UIC parking lot, seeing the empty tiredness of my  mother’s face.爸妈, 真的对不起您们。 I have searched for this Asian-American feeling in corners of the universe, in my Hong Kong University study abroad and a Taiwan Fulbright. I searched for the feeling of home in boy’s smiles and empty promises, in the catch of moonlight on Lan Kwai Fong rooftops, and again with B, hovering centimeters away watching the stars on a shoddy picnic bench in Luodong. It wasn’t all empty tiredness, but it was country and city, world’s end, and I was just beginning.

My parents gave my younger brother and I everything. Two poor graduate students came from China, worked 70 hours a week in their respective majors, earned their Ph.D. and MBA degrees, and hustled up the “good ‘ol U.S.A.” social ladder in record time. Well, it still took them and me 18 years to get naturalized citizenship, despite having countless work visas, student visas, and green cards.No citizenship when you choose the U.S. over China, did I mention that? So, as I was sworn in with my little U.S. flag pen, I felt like I betrayed my mother country. Turncoat, that’s what it feels like to be a hyphenated American some days.

My parents gave this country their youth, their love, their hope. What did they receive in return? Two spoiled children who eat Chipotle burrito bowls with chopsticks and Sriracha. Bigger houses, more devices, less family time. These days, when I head home, we are glued to black mirrors of iPads or iPhones. I long for the simple days of smelly rice vinegar kitchens and my mother’s cheapo “these-ingredients-were-left-over-from-the-lab” cheddar breads. I miss being poor but so close, so ready to be a team. We were a team. The American dream? It’s tearing apart the fabric that was…us.

I came to this city with two pieces of luggage, my dad, a car, and naïve hopes. Vanderbilt is the whitest place I have lived in since Arkansas, when I swore to myself I would never return to an area South of the Mason-Dixon line. My life can be measured in departures and arrivals, dim sum and skillet breakfasts, possibility and oppression. It takes everything inside me not to head to the tarmac runway when I hear, “But where are you from-from?” “But where are your parents from?” “Why don’t you just go home to China.” I want to kick somebody. I want to scream. I want to fucking punch someone. We are Chinese-American, but the two are but faux friends, smiling fu dogs who really want to tear each other’s throats out.

The nations inside our family want to kill each other. The identities inside me want to rip me apart.

The seams are bursting, and I don’t know if I can hold it all together any more.