By Charlé LaMonica | April 9, 2021
UNC World View stands in solidarity with all Asian Americans and people of color as we denounce violence and work toward creating a just and peaceful society. Educators have a powerful role to play.
In collaboration with Dr. Heidi Kim, Director of the Asian American Center, we asked four Asian American students to answer four questions about themselves and their life experiences prior to enrolling at UNC. You’ll find their answers below. We have chosen to keep the names of the students anonymous, but have marked them with random, consistent initials so you can track each student’s experiences and reflections as they weave through the questions.
We appreciate these four students taking the time to reflect and share their thoughts with the UNC World View community. The last question asks students specifically Today, if you could give a piece of advice to teachers in classrooms what would that advice be? Their answers clearly underscore the power of word and action.
What does it mean to you to be an Asian American?
E.A. — I am extremely proud to be Asian American because I know my family has sacrificed a lot for me to live in the United States and still be connected with my Asian identity. I feel blessed to be bilingual and identify with two different cultures that I love. At the same time, being Asian American often comes with many challenges and struggles with identity. A main theme of the Asian American experience is a constant feeling of being “othered,” meaning that Asian Americans are often made to feel too American to be considered Asian and too Asian to be fully accepted as American. These identity struggles often come with broader issues such as people not taking racism toward Asian Americans seriously, the model minority myth, etc.
M.K. — To me, being an Asian American means you identify with a unique culture that can’t be defined by Asian culture or American culture. And the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized that it’s not really a combination of the two either, it is its own entity. Being an Asian American means you can identify and find common experiences with an incredibly diverse community whether you’re first generation or fourth generation, Korean American or Indian American. It means you belong to a community that has demonstrated resilience every step of the way. But most importantly, to me being Asian American makes me a part of a long line of organizers, activists, and visionaries who are deeply rooted in American history, regardless of whether or not we are actively reminded of it by everyone around us.
A.P. — Being Asian American isn’t just having a unique set of food, or a different set of clothing, or a different language than others. It’s a feeling that goes beyond the physical, and it’s immensely complex. To me, being Asian American is being deeply proud of my cultural heritage and the unyielding work ethic of my ancestors despite countless hardships. Being Asian American is being committed to equally recognizing and supporting my American citizenship and privileges while also championing my heritage and partaking in its cultures and traditions. Being Asian American is recognizing the deep, systematic inequality in American systems, from education to incarceration to so much more, and recognizing how I both benefit and suffer from that inequality. Being Asian American is being Asian and American, two separate and often clashing worlds. Navigating that clash is the hardest part. Being Asian American is an enduring experience, something that will never go away and will always be ever present, regardless of recent media attention or not.
J.S. — Being Asian American looks different to every individual Asian American. For me, I can’t describe what it means for me to be Asian American without also acknowledging my Southern U.S. Identity. My experience. In essence, that’s exactly how I feel about the Asian American experience. It’s vast, diverse and has so many unique experiences. But in the US, to be Asian American is to bear any and every experience that a non-Asian American assumes about my identity. And, at the same time, to be an Asian American is to also feel underrepresented and misrepresented 99% of the time. I’m proud to be Asian American. But it’s taken me two decades to say that out loud, because I didn’t know I could be proud and Asian American at the same time.
Please share a positive story of one way in which a K-12 teacher empowered you as a student.
E.A. — My high school AP English teacher is someone who empowered me greatly as a student. As an Asian American woman, I have often felt as though people expect me to always be agreeable and to be passive. My AP English teacher encouraged me to speak up and use my voice. She is someone who pushes her students to care about who they are and the work they put out. She has impacted my life greatly and positively by believing in me and supporting my love of writing. She also helped me gain confidence in myself and my work.
M.K. — I vividly remember the time my 1st grade teacher pulled me aside after she announced our new table assignments. She said something along the lines of “I put you at this table with these other students because I know you’re smart and you can handle them. But if you need help, just let me know.” It was very quick, very simple, but that is the first memory I have of feeling extremely confident in myself because a person of authority empowered me to stand up for myself and believe in my own capabilities. It probably helped that my teacher was also Asian American and had the same first name as me! But she was very genuine and it made me really proud of myself to know someone thought highly of me.
A.P. — The first minority teacher I ever had during my K-12 public school experience was in 10th grade, in a business and personal finance class. The content in that class was very important, but it became incredibly invaluable because of how my teacher presented it and how willing he was to share his personal experiences. The experiences he had were like mine in a number of ways, but also remarkably different in so many others—by highlighting those differences and similarities, I was able to reflect on my own experiences constructively and use that to better inform my future goals and career choice. That teacher really went out of his way to recognize each student’s unique background and perspectives and use it to better shape his class content, as well as how much or little he needed to share to make sure every student was on a level playing field. Even after all this time, he still reaches out to check in and make sure that I’m doing well and continuing to maintain my drive and passion. I’ve really appreciated that support and empowerment, as I’d never had a teacher in the past go out of their way to equip me with individually specific keys to success.
J.S. — A large part of my high school experience was being a part of the band program. I performed in ensembles as well as marching band, where I was Drum Major for three of my years at my high school in North Carolina. My band director would always be a motivator of the group, but was also very willing to have an open office door if I had any individual problems. The most important piece of advice that I learned from him was “When in doubt, always subdivide.” Subdividing in music is a technique where, while reading sheet music, you divide faster notes in to slower, more digestible notes to understand how a certain phrase is supposed to be played. I connected this concept to every facet of my life—when things get confusing, overwhelming or doubtful, I can always subdivide the moment and find peace in all the chaos that I experience.
Please share a story that was a challenging time for you as you maneuvered through your K-12 educational experience as an Asian American.
E.A. — Moving from a not-so-diverse county to a more diverse county was a culture shock for me and a challenging time of my life. As an Asian American who grew up in a more rural area, many people pre-judged me as “white-washed.” I felt intimidated by many Asian American peers who chose not to accept me before truly getting to know me. Similarly, as the only person of color in some of my friend groups, I was made to feel like I had to laugh off causal racist jokes made at my expense. It was a difficult time because my identity was always in question and there wasn’t a community where I could fully be myself.
M.K. — The first time I learned about any kind of Asian American history in a classroom setting was this last semester, my sophomore year of college. Throughout my K-12 experience, I never learned about the first Asian American Filipino immigrants, Chinese immigrants who built American railroads, Patsy Mink, Vincent Chen, Japanese Americans who were illegally incarcerated during WW2, or even about South Asians who faced discrimination after 9/11. The only time I ever learned about anything remotely related to me and my heritage was during a history class when our teacher briefly mentioned the high death toll of the Korean War. And no one else in the classroom was Asian, so of course they naturally all looked at me. My senior year of high school, I taught a seminar after school with four other classmates about AAPI issues. Everything we taught we had researched and found ourselves.
To summarize, my entire K-12 educational experience as an Asian American was challenging because I was passively taught that I had no place in society, in history, in American culture. My only role as an Asian American in the classroom was to act as representation for past “enemies” abroad or a model minority. And if I wanted to learn about myself, I would have to do that on my own time.
A.P. — I was born in the United States and only speak English. In 6th grade, my math teacher would typecast every South Asian student, including myself, and frequently make insulting comments towards us about if we could speak English, if/why we were successful at school, and many other microaggressions. She would also have this punishment system where she would place “misbehaving students” in the back of the class, facing away from the instructor – and most commonly, those students would be minorities (and quite honestly, most often it would be South Asian and other Asian American students in an otherwise predominantly white classroom). Experiencing these microaggressions and instances of racism, but only being at such a young grade, I did not feel personally equipped to either stand up for myself in the classroom or escalate the situation—and moreover, given my background, I did not want my parents to know or understand what I had experienced given the racism they had experienced after immigrating to the United States. Many immigration stories are about coming to the United States for opportunity and for something better, and Asian immigrant stories are no different—I did not want to be a contributor to disenchanting that dream and their opportunities. Ultimately, I just persisted through that year and told my parents about it years later.
J.S. — Where do I begin… the entire time was a challenging time for me. Going to a predominantly white, rural and low-income school system as a young Asian American was extremely difficult. I remember in 1st grade, on diversity day, my mom came with me to class to present our Filipino American culture. We came with a Barong, the national dress for Filipino Men, which is a translucent silk dress shirt. Filipinos usually wear a white undershirt with the Barong, but this day, my mom forgot the undershirt. So I wore my Barong without the shirt. I remember walking in and seeing the eyes of my classmates look at me in bewilderment. A lot of them laughed at me because they could see through my shirt. I felt shame about my racial and cultural identity for the first time. I spent years burying that identity, making myself seem “more white” like many of my classmates. I rejected my identity and never spoke about it in my time at school. My world at home was extremely disjointed from my world at school, and no one—no teachers, no classmates, not even my fellow Asian American friends would talk or ask about the Asian American Experience, except when they needed to validate an Asian American stereotype. By the time I was a junior in high school I thought this process of hiding my racial identity had reached success. But when I ran and won the race for senior class president, the candidate that I beat, along with his friends tweeted “congrats (name of the senior class president from the year prior).” The person who was the senior class president was also Asian American. So at the end of the day, I was minimized down to my race, or at least the perception of my race by my classmates. And in many moments, that still holds true to today.
Today, if you could give a piece of advice to teachers in classrooms what would that advice be?
E.A. — My advice for teachers today is to actively reflect on your biases and adapt your teaching to better serve all students. Things like the language you use in lectures, images you pick for presentations, and examples you provide in assignments can have a huge impact because they can either make your students feel seen or ignored. As classrooms are becoming more and more diverse, culturally responsive teaching is becoming more necessary in ensuring the inclusion and development of all students. Teachers need to not only actively address ignorant behaviors in class but also adapt their teaching materials to reflect the diverse experiences and attitudes of the world.
M.K. — Don’t box students into what you think their identity entails, rather give them the space and time and resources (actual lesson plans or reading material, not time after school to do it by themselves) to grow into their own person.
A.P. — I would urge teachers to come into the classroom with as little subjective assessment of and as much empathy for their students as possible. Education (especially public education) is the great equalizer in that so many people from vastly different backgrounds partake in this shared learning experience and grow together to become empowered and poised for success after graduation. However, those background contexts from which students come from greatly determine the degree to which success can be achieved, and not recognizing and accounting for that in the K-12 context can create this massive feedback loop of failure. I can remember countless times where my personal identity or circumstances influenced my work or grades, and the amount of support or empathy I received from teachers dictated how I would move on from that (either positively or negatively). I have to imagine that it’s become significantly more difficult it is for students in the virtual learning environment to have their individual circumstances recognized and validated, especially at a time when personal circumstances so greatly define access to education, meals, etc.
J.S. — Have empathy for your BIPOC and other minority identifying students. Educate yourself instead of ignoring the “statistical anomaly” of having one minority identifying person in your class. Google is an amazing tool to understanding communities and identities that are not of your own. Don’t ask the one Asian American kid in your class a question on behalf of the entire continent of Asia, because that’s a lot of responsibility for a kid who is 6–18-year-old to possess when they’re still trying to understand their placement in a society that doesn’t value them as much, doesn’t validate their problems, and doesn’t listen to their communities. For many BIPOC individuals—especially those who live in the South—their experience is extremely isolating just by sheer existence. It’s best if you don’t perpetuate that isolation by singling them out based on their race and culture.