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.

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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.

Violence & Space

I wrote this for a Classroom Ecology discussion post. Just wanted to share it in this space as well. Dealing with some ish. -YY

As a minority growing up in several regions across the United States, I have never experienced a sense of safety in mixed race company. From the moment I set foot on American soil, I knew I was an Other, bound by my slanted eyes and yellow skin. By the time I was in third grade, my classmates had already begun making fun of my eye shape by pulling at their own lids and asking repeatedly why my English was so good. Due to my parent’s continued graduate studies and reliance on visas to continue living in the U.S., we moved several times, and I was always the new kid in public schools. I remember getting kicked in the stomach repeatedly by an older kid at a friend’s house and mocked on the bus rides home from Kingsville to Perryville in Maryland. I was never safe, not as a woman and definitely not as a minority. I feel as if I have lived the dilemma Leonardo and Porter (2010) discuss in regards to minorities feeling caught between “becoming visible” and “remaining silent” (140). As a young student, I had so much to say but I was so scared of tokenization or being pointed out yet again as a Chinese person.

Speaking from the margins, I have seen students complicit in their privilege and ability to ignore the topic of race. When I was part of a student campus-wide initiative for sensitivity training at UIUC on behalf of the Asian American Cultural Center (AACC), we spoke with the administrative body and organized a campus conversation. Many minority and international students testified with horrific stories about how white students had begun a hashtag trend called #tooethnic when they saw minorities in the local bars. Instead of acknowledging these voices, many white students REPEATEDLY told minorities, told us, that it was “just a joke,” that we were “taking things too seriously,” and that we were taking things “out of context.” I was astounded by the lack of awareness exhibited by these students. As Leonardo & Porter point out, a brave coalition of minority students “participating in public race dialogue makes them vulnerable to assaults on many fronts” (140). The white students who stepped up to the microphone were standing right next to the diverse student panel, yet they couldn’t see the individuals on the panel because these specific students felt their personal identity was under attack. How do you tell someone that the privileged life they grew up in is segregated and, quite honestly, racist? How do you get someone to acknowledge privilege when they don’t even see it yet? How do you address these topics as a minority student and teacher? Is a safe space even desirable?

In terms of the violent spaces discussed in Leonardo & Porter, I have only really experienced this ecology in three separate settings. One was an elective English course we dubbed “Feelings” class with Avi Lessing my senior year in high school. By creating an open space where we could argue and come to terms with each other but also voice our narratives, I finally found my own voice. After I “spoke my truth” for one class, every single student, regardless of SES, race, or creed…told me they cared about me, hugged me, and they were sorry about the violence caused by the brutal, systemic microaggressions and explicit bullying within our school. They let me speak my piece, and I let them speak theirs. Before the end of the class, we made a vow never to share anything that was spoken within that 3rd floor classroom. Rather than cutting people off, it was more to secure the sanctity of that environment. There was something sacred about that space and what happened.  Later, in my senior year of undergraduate, I worked as the communications intern for the AACC. I worked with Filipino-Americans, Indian-Americans, Sikh students, Muslim students, and best of all, our entire administrative staff was AAPI. For the first time in my entire life, I worked in an organization that was completely AAPI minority. I had professional staff who I didn’t have to explain where I came from or where my parents were from. They knew me. Through the AACC, I also participated in LeaderShape, a one-week campus-wide retreat that promoted intensified collaborative learning. The conference divided us into small groups consciously aimed to encourage intersectionality. Like Lessing’s class, we fought through racial stereotypes, in-group discrimination, and class differences. Through it, we realized how much more we cared about each other. How much we needed to be heard and how much we needed each other. I still think about Louie, Josie, EV, Destinee, Ellory, Elizabeth, Nate, and Natalie every single day. Further, we were asked to create visions to impact our campus and world. I have seen so many of my Leadershape classmates change their visions to realities, creating a more inclusive, inviting campus. Their contributions, wrought in violence and turmoil, were refined when unveiled to the larger community.

I am still grappling with the inequalities I see every day in this nation, on campus, and in myself. There is only one AAPI Heritage Month. There is only one Black Heritage Month. My old campus still has an unofficial, abusive mascot called “Chief Illiniwek” which promotes violence to indigenous students every. SINGLE. DAY. We still don’t talk about the Vietnam War civilian casualties or who killed Vincent Chen. Or, we talk about it and we ignore the real issues. Why are there so few minorities in our very own SED program? Where is the minority professional staff? Why do I still feel so invisible here? I only know that I want to not be silenced any more. I will cry, scream, shout, or whisper…but I will not be walked over any more. Maybe you won’t hear me. Maybe it isn’t my time yet…but I am too tired to not go on. These experiences have changed me. They have made me, violently or not, find my voice. In the novel Prep, an African American student said in regards to race, you have to make ripples and not waves. I am still trying to make my waves into ripples for this world.

Sins Unforeseen

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An open letter to a campus church. Names have been changed and protected.

I’m lying awake tonight thinking of a particular moment, standing in front of a line of judges, speaking my truth. My poem has been workshopped to death, encouraged by Pastor S. and breathed life into, through chewed up pens and hope welling up like ink…I have worked on it through depressive episodes, wanting to talk about God and life and possibility…all to be laid asunder by M__, a sneer and a scoff at the ready. M__ is not a poetry expert. He has only watched Spoken Word on Youtube. M__ considers himself to be a purveyor of fine words. He is all crossed arms and peering over hipster frames. “Let me stop you right there.” M___ says, “Your poetry has no soul. It has no heart.”

I drove back to my apartment on the outskirts of campus in tears that night, followed by more sleepless nights filtered only by deepening sadness. He attacked the one identity I felt confident as, a writer, one that I was trying to merge with my relationship to God. I was not confident, but I trusted that pastor and those judges with what I valued the most–my heart on my sleeve, an offering of words. M__basically said, your offerings aren’t good enough here.

Sad to say, I never felt worthy in the confines of that place. I knew that the church was not a building, but a people…but how the church crumbled from the Cornerstone. We lied, gossiped, and cheated. One year, I was so fed up with feeling more like a stepping stone than part of the church, I slept my life away. Entire days and hours spent staring at popcorn ceilings, an internal scream bursting in my brain. What type of Christians were we all? I had “friends” who promised to be there all the time, only to blame the collapse of other friendships on me. I had leaders who preached one thing, only to exhibit another in their lives. How weary the heart grows, how inconstant people can be.

“Train your eyes on God. Fixate not on people, because people will always fail.” It’s true. In a church system divvied up by Harry Potter-esque houses, when even leaders exhibited bias and indifference based on house unity, it was difficult to want to be a part of ministry. Even more so when leaders thrust work on you they didn’t have time for, when people don’t even bother to call you…except to ask for a ride. Bitterness, a rancid, seeping stain, soaked through my faith. Nothing mattered.

Train your eyes upon the Lord. “This table is for pimps, prostitutes, sinners, and saints. God came not for the healthy, but for the sick.” I was so sick as an undergraduate. I was so sick, yet I kept ingesting poison. Avoid the other Christians that lead you astray, that gossip and say horrible things about each other. Keep accountable with God.

In church, I was called awkward and ungraceful. In church, I was called uncreative. Clumsy. Stupid. Untalented. I was led to believe I was a failure by freshman year. I was unclean. I didn’t belong. In church.

This is an open letter to super churches, the ones who motivate and inspire but also have a hidden layer of malice through their members. Take care of your flock, the marginalized and maimed. The ones spit on and stoned. The ones others call horrible names. The ones who are talked about. I am working on forgiving. I know God is just. I know He sees all. I believe He knows my pain. I do not need to react, but I do want to share. I have been wounded trying to make my way to prayers. I have been struck down in lock-ins and walking down hallways of prying eyes. I wanted so much to belong, only to feel completely left out. “Weirdo.” “Awkward.” “Sensitive.” “What’s wrong with you?” “Stop stumbling people.” Stop. Just stop. Stop treating people you are supposed to love like crap.

There is too much world in this bitter cup. I still carry the dregs of memory with me, M__. I have held onto them for so long. You were awful. You did not speak the truth in love, nor were you acting on behalf of a Christian organization. What you wanted to do was to protect a popular image at the expense of a young voice. You wanted me to be silent, to keep quiet, to just shut up already. But let me tell you. I have found my voice again. As God is my witness, I am not done speaking my heart.

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned;struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. -2 Corinthians 4:8-10 ESV

Life in the Ivory Tower

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Life at a top private university in the South isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Sure, some aspects remain the same to my undergraduate public university experience–the endless papers, the engaging yet demanding professors, an over-representation of beige and grey interior decor..Other issues, I could do without.

As much as my undergraduate had a reputation as a party school, I never felt left out as a minority. With a large AAPI population, Asian American Cultural Center, and more student-led cultural clubs than you can count, my undergraduate life felt full of new experiences and a sense of safety. Here, not so much. Every criticism and condescension feels personal, a thousand pricks which increase incrementally in pain. Aside comments like, “Ugh, the people in this class” when I tweeted about being one of the only minority kids in the room in a #educolor chat. Belittling remarks about where to attend class when the location shifts every few weeks. Harsh, withering comments from a superior that felt quite personal, despite peers who performed equally on a task. It feels so alienating, even if faculty don’t “mean it.” Even if it’s “just part of their generation.” Even if “oh, you know, they’re just a little racist.” Enough is enough. The unsettling amount of microagressions plaguing both the student body and acting faculty disgusts me. How can anyone live with so much hate, so much disdain in upturned noses?

Grading here is fair, as are many of the faculty in terms of performance rating. However, the running commentary surrounding topics, from diversity education to representation, leaves me feeling exhausted. It’s exhausting being here as a minority graduate students. I feel like I have to act as an ambassador for not just my country, but an entire section of the globe….because THAT’S how white this campus is. Not to say I don’t have amazing conversations with my peers or that they’re ignorant. The students who are admitted here are articulate and culturally savvy. However, it pains me when I notice I’m one of the only ones who has lived experiences with personally directed racism. I’ve spent nights crying, wondering if I was targeted because of my race at work. Though I feel comfortable in my skin, I sometimes wonder what it would be like if I had gone to Columbia instead.

I’m sad here. One cannot survive on academics alone. I miss the AACC, Lunch On Us programs when controversial topics were discussed openly, I miss taking classes from faculty who knew exactly where I was coming from and who sometimes even came from a place like me. I miss a sense of lived cultural competency I’m not getting here. I miss not hearing behind-the-scenes talk of, “Oh, she’s a traditional Chinese applicant” and blatant ignorant comments like, “What do our Asian friends think?” as if we all thought the same thing. My anger has petered out into exhaustion.

I wish it was different. I wish my voice wasn’t seen as bizarre or “unique” or as just another “student of color.” I want to be heard, as a person. Please pass on the privilege and listen, really listen. I can’t be silent anymore.