Teaching “The Oriental”: 3 Things I Wish My Teachers Knew About Me as an Asian Student
A thought piece for Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month
I lived in Arlington Heights for the majority of my upbringing, a racially homogenous suburb of Chicago at the time with 94.8% of residents identifying as white and just 3.7% as Asian. Naturally, almost every person I interacted with was white, including my teachers and classmates. I was a visible “other” and there was no escaping it.
My Korean name is Wooli, which translates to “we”. It’s a personal pronoun in both English and Korean and certainly not a common name. Wooli is the North star my parents gifted me – a reminder that no matter where I moved and the spaces I occupied, that I would see myself as “we” and not “them vs. me”. If I’m honest, this felt like an impossible principle of inclusion. School teachers and staff called me “The Oriental” and I didn’t know how to navigate into “we” when everyone around me unconsciously and consciously excluded me.
On the weekends, I attended Korean school. It was organized by the local Korean church and for many, it served as a place we could hang out while our parents worked. While this was the one place I could look around and see people who looked and sounded like me, I was experiencing what Du Bois calls Double Consciousness – the dual self-perception of remaining true to my culture while conforming to the dominant white society and its expectations. My identity was split between Korean and American, with both communities concurrently rejecting me. On one hand, I was a foreigner borrowing space that wasn’t mine and on the other, I was “too Americanized”. “Twinkie”, “Banana”, and “Fob-wannabe” added to my collection of given labels. And again, I found myself sitting with the concept of “we” and it was unimaginable, unattainable even.
“I wasn’t given permission to belong.” This is what I told myself for most of my childhood. It wasn’t until I graduated college that I started to rethink this narrative. Why was I waiting for someone to give me permission to feel a sense of belonging? I decided it was un-wooli of me and I started to reclaim my identity as both a Korean and an American.
Each May, I spend intentional time reflecting on what it means to be an Asian American and what it means to create and mobilize spaces of inclusion. This year’s theme for Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is Advancing Leaders Through Opportunity. In consideration for this theme and advocating our next generation of Asian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander leaders, I’d like to share three things I wish my teachers knew about me as an Asian student in hopes it inspires educators today to creating their own spaces of wooli:
1. Confront colorblindness and neutrality
Even though I was treated differently because of my identity, my teachers were convinced that they did not see color. Both these principles cannot be simultaneously true. Colorblindness communicates that my identity and distinctions don’t matter, that the dimensions of my identity that make me unique will not be valued or even acknowledged. We cannot realize solutions for racism in education through colorblindness.
When you are Asian in a predominately white space, you do not have the luxury to unsee color. In fact, you are frequently reminded that you are not part of the in-group, and the expectation is to blend in with the majority. Fitting in is the opposite of belonging and yet America prides itself on the melting pot model. The melting pot asks people like me to abandon our unique identities and yield to a final product of uniformity. I was often told to speak more English at home and to stop bringing Asian food for lunch, both pieces of feedback that came from my teachers, role models that I wanted approval from. I was made to believe I was inferior, and I was ashamed of being Korean.
Our job as educators is to encourage our students, so they can realize their full potential. This means creating opportunities to retain and celebrate their integrity, cultural identity, and all the pieces that make them unique.
2. Earn trust by being worthy of trust
When I was in second grade, I moved to a new school and was tagged an English Language Learner (ELL). This terminology has evolved since, but I remember feeling defeated that my competency in a different language was never considered or counted towards my academic assessment and potential. I felt like a failure.
The one class I felt I excelled in was Music. It was the only class I could participate in without English proficiency and the only time of day in school I felt I wasn’t disappointing the adults around me. Unfortunately, Music was one time a week and it often conflicted with my ELL time. I was pulled out of class, in front of all my peers, to go and sit 1:1 with an adult who held a black and white binder of various images. My task was to label each image in English. This was my one task for the full hour. Music was my one win and on days I was pulled for ELL time, I went all day long failing and dreading the work in front of me. I was not given a single win, and I started to lose trust in all the adults around me. Being an Asian student in America has been defined by a framework of success and failure and my self-esteem was at an all-time low. I started to experience memory loss, blocking out events and names that I associated with stress or trauma. Memory loss is a defense mechanism to protect ourselves from psychological damage. To this day, my music teachers are the only names of my teachers that I remember, and the only adults I trusted with my education.
Trustworthiness is an essential ingredient in relationships. A trustworthy person is one that is reliable and can be trusted completely. I was missing both components. I couldn’t rely on my teachers to prioritize my well-being and I couldn’t trust my teachers to see me beyond my Asian label and what I had to offer beyond improving my English proficiency. Doing the work to being worthy of a student’s trust is central to building a trauma-informed learning environment.
3. Proactively include mirrors and windows
1 in 2 Asian Americans report feeling unsafe in the U.S. due to their race/ethnicity. This is an alarming reality that all educators must acknowledge. This is due to experiencing or observing discrimination on the basis of race, not seeing yourself represented in positions of power, and not being taught historical truths about American history and the important contributions from Asian communities.
I disliked History class for this reason. Page after page, my textbooks reaffirmed that all the great inventors, explorers, and leaders, were white. There was no learning, discovery, or entry point for me to see myself and my potential. I didn’t have a mirror. Effective teachers who are culturally responsive and informed, plan for both mirrors and windows. Mirrors representing content where students can see themselves reflected and windows representing the opportunities students are given to look into and learn from the lived experience of others.
I encourage all educators to include both mirrors and windows so students can see their potential, feel championed, and build community with their peers – one that celebrates their cultural identity and self. We owe it to our students to pulse the evolving sociopolitical landscape and respond with transparency, care, and intention.
Cho holds credentials in DEI and Instructional Coaching and is a specialist in brand trust, business transformation, and employee experience. She has supported clients like Microsoft, Chanel, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, GSK, Haleon, McKinsey, Lindt, DIRECTV, Planet Fitness, Tencent America, and Kaiser Permanente, just to name a few. She was recently named a finalist for the LA Business Journal’s DEI Executive of the Year recognition.