Thought long and hard about writing this entry. The event left a lasting impression in my brain and it still bothers me. I admit I might have made a mistake by speaking up in a room full of middle school educators who are at different places in their journey but I thought it was important.
A question was asked about using student names in math problems. One teacher said it wasn’t really important. I said, and I selected my words carefully, “I don’t agree with that statement. My students will never see their names in textbooks; Zykia and Chin liked seeing their names in problems.” Not much discussion took place after that.
Later in a larger session a teacher of color was sharing her classroom work and I was singled out. It was awkward. She pointed to a student in a slide and said, “This is my Chinese student, Noah.” People laughed. My heart broke. I said, “good one.” I did not want to point out what she and others may not have understood. We were both at a conference with equity as a focus; where did the disconnect occur?
My experience in the classroom has been always to ask students what they wanted to be called. My former student Jason really wanted to be called Chin. He didn’t like his “American” name.
Many Chinese have “American” names for the convenience of others because their name may be difficult to pronounce, for assimilation purposes, and because of cultural differences associated with communication and the use of a given name. More details below. Times are changing however, even in China. If you search up the new generation of Chinese actors you will now see Chinese names; the expectation, learn how to say their name. Link to “Why some Chinese speakers also use Western names.”
In the early 2000’s a group of 12-15 educators from China came to visit our middle school. I made sure faculty knew about the differences in our cultures and how to interact with our esteemed visitors. When they arrived, I was given a list of their names: Tom, Fred, Joe, Larry, Tim, John, etc. When I asked why not use their given name I was told people “butcher” the pronunciations. So our students met Chinese teachers with “American” names; first names only. I found it odd but honored their request.
Back to the conference; insult to injury came when we were asked to make meme’s about our experience at the conference. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good conference. I also asked my students at the end of the year to make memes about the year with one caveat: no microagressions. My students had been taught; use animals, cartoons, fictional images and be kind. Funny but kind to get their point across. There was no stipulation made for a room full of adult educators. Yikes! The teacher next to me, showed me a meme with Chang Kong-sang (Jackie Chan) in a popular meme pose with the caption, “What in Name?” Ouch! She probably didn’t know I was a Japanese American or that what she thought was so hysterical was to me a microaggression.
There was a flashback to my high school years when my mother had to renew her drivers license. She returned home and I could see she had been crying. Mom seldom showed any emotion and never made a fuss about things. She wouldn’t say... then she showed me her license. Instead of Yoko it said “Loko”. The humiliation and pain was evident and I basically forced her back with me to the DMV. I asked politely first (my mom was standing right there) to have it changed to her correct name. I was met with disdain and anger. It took everything I had not to lunge at the woman who didn’t know a name is important. It took a while but we got it changed. My mother was embarrassed. It was a lesson I’ll never forget.
I left the conference that day and decided not to attend the evening gathering. Instead, I found a lovely, authentic Japanese restaurant where I was greeted with the traditional Japanese “irasshaimase!” which means welcome. Had a fabulous meal at the sushi bar and it ended with laughter. At the end of my meal the young man sitting next to me asked if the waitress was my mother. I paused and thought, not a time for education... go with it. I said “Hai! Would you take a picture of us?” She understood and laughed too!
One of my classroom mantras is “Not everyone gets to the party at the same time or with the same gifts.” I am reminded that it applies to adults as well... especially in these times.
The word has many connotations but for me, it is a reminder that the status quo of inequity, racism, and injustice need to be constantly disrupted. I have walked in many marches, held many signs, written many letters to representatives and honestly, I was getting a little tired. Thought I was starting to sound like a broken record (vinyl). Seems we (people who care about others) take one step forward and three steps back. There have been so many times I felt alone, an anomaly, someone considered out-of-step with reality and then there’s that “intimidating” word.
But in late June I left a math conference with renewed energy to disrupt, even if it makes others uncomfortable. I also learned to take time for renewal and find allies in this life-long quest. Still learning real history (not the crap they fed us in the 50’s/60’s) and how to apply my personal narrative but I will continue to fight for what is right. So, future entries and or meetings might just tick some folks off - mission accomplished! The “peaceful consensus” maker will add another dimension to her repertoire.
I hope I’m making a difference in the lives of my students, but especially for my sons and their futures. Hope that I can also help this third rock from the sun become a more beautiful and peaceful home.
Shout out to Marian Dingle for her time, words of wisdom, and inspiration.