On: Teaching Asian American Literature

I could have avoided it.

I think.

Maybe I could have finessed my way around the oddity of teaching Asian American Literature to a student population that’s 95% Hispanic and Latino, many of whom did not choose to be placed in the course.


I like to think I could have.

I went the other way, though, and took the awkwardness of the situation head on. Same as I ever have, really. I’m not old enough yet to know better, so all my students ever get is honesty — they know, before too long, that I’m open about my screwups, honest and critical in my feedback, and truthful about damn near everything else.

Plus, they say it’s the best policy, or something.

“You’re probably wondering why you’re in this class,” I guessed, met by a smattering of slight nods and a room still cautiously attentive. “Most of you aren’t Asian, after all.”

And then I charged on, filling the next couple minutes by preaching about the value of humanities, of seeing other perspectives; how reading about other experiences led to a better understanding of one’s own; how this culture my students had rarely encountered shared much in common with them, and they simply didn’t know it yet.

I’d love to tell you that that speech was successful, but the truth is that classrooms don’t really turn on these big, magical, inspiring moments, despite what we’ve been trained to believe by Robin Williams and Edward James Olmos. All I really did that day was hope. We played an icebreaker game and introduced some class rules too, but mostly, I hoped that some part of my message would take hold.

Three weeks later, there are a few encouraging signs that something is starting to grow in my 7th period — we spent the first two weeks comparing how various ethnic groups arrived in America, before we turning our focus toward lesser publicized Asian groups. As they panned through the data, and I hovered around at each table, students are surprised and full of questions, finally starting to glimpse some diversity in Asian America. Some are stunned to find out how these Chinese were literally legally banned from coming into the country for many years, and have started probing why some groups make it to college disproportionately over others.

And a few — not many, but a few — have told me they are really glad they are in this class, much to my eternal surprise. Like I said, these are small, encouraging signs that hope has left something much more meaningful, and make it worth being on red alert every night lesson planning.

Those nights usually mean a continued scramble for suitable texts, for writing that can frame some of my students’ lives, and despite all my hunting, I almost always home with my hands less full than I would like — there’s no easy reader or anthology or online repository for me to pull work from, and bookstores aren’t exactly packed wall to wall with Asian American poetry or accessible immigration narratives. Even Google, in all its search engine glory, manages to disappoint me.

It shouldn’t be this hard, I find myself thinking often. There are Asian American writers out there. There is good, meaningful writing by Asian Americans, full of life and verve — the kind of writing that, no matter its topic or content, can cross oceans and tongues, docking in a reader’s heart and mind instead. It exists. So where is it? Why can’t I find more of it? Why does it exist only in these nooks and crannies, but never the forefront? 

I’d love to tell you that this nightly scramble has resulted in the discovery of the perfect reading list, too, but in all that searching, the first thing I’ve really come across is understanding — this smallest, most insignificant lesson that I’ve somehow never been more sure of, never known more deeply than now.

My friend Meg Elison once told me that I could not escape this — that, surely enough, this realization would inevitably show itself, no matter how hard I tried to deny, to run, hide or flee. She is, I’m sure, smugly thrilled to read the four words that follow:

I have to write.

have to write — I have to stop this tango with my fears, the round and round with insecurity and procrastination and whatever demon of convenience wants to dance with me at the moment. Granted, I say this a lot, and I have said all of this before, because if I am being truthful to myself, when I peel back the layers of me, there’s a living, breathing voice that no self-doubt can ever completely suppress. I am lucky enough to have one and know well of its existence — it is raw and without refinement and wild, but beats there still, despite denial.

What is new, though, is the sense of responsibility I feel to use that voice, whether it leads me to pain, frustration, vulnerability, or to say things that should be better left unsaid, to dig into places that should be better left still earthed, in pursuit of some syllabic perfection that may never be found.

But still, I have to write. Because if I don’t, I’m part of the problem, willing myself into the silent void that frustrates me so deeply every night, becoming a part of the very absence I am teaching with the goal of erasing.

If I cannot find the writing I want, then it falls on me to create it myself, even if I might always fall short. It is no small irony, I am sure, that my classroom has a Toni Morrison poster that says something to the exact same effect.

And all of this is true, too, for my wonderful, impossibly brilliant, beautiful and far, far more talented Asian American writer friends, who I am referring to specifically above, who cannot quit or get discouraged either, whose voices I will shelter and fan with encouragement myself, if I have to — all to work against a world that works to blow us out. For each of us, the content, the form are almost irrelevant, secondary to being heard, because the act of being heard is meaningful alone, even when — especially when — the work to get that far is actively crushing every atom inside of us.

I’d love to tell you there was more I’ve learned three weeks into teaching this class, but that’s the most I’ve found so far.

I have to write. And so do you.


1 thought on “On: Teaching Asian American Literature

  1. Nam,
    I know this is an old post, but I just wanted to pass on something to you that I learned. For over 12 years I was an adult leader in my local Boy Scout council and lead many organizations within scouting. I have always felt that as a leader, you need to ALWAYS take the high road and do the right thing – especially if you want the kids to take the scout oath and law seriously, but I also felt it was my responsibility to be an example to them. As a youth I had a lot of bad experiences with older scouts, and I realized much too late in life that I did the same thing to the younger scouts when I was one of the older guys.

    One of the council groups I lead is called “Order of the Arrow”. It actually is a group that encourages service and leadership growth and it helped me a lot when I was a quiet Asian kid many years ago. Anyway, during my 6 years running that group I was constantly under fire for not doing what other ADULTS wanted done. And for sometimes having difficulties since I had the youth do all of the planning and execution of events. I was falsely accused of wrongdoing and even accused of theft of council funds (even my brother constantly made random accusations) all to get me discredited and kicked out. I retired from that position a few years ago but here is why I am telling you this story. Several of the youth have gone on to impressive colleges and jobs and have thanked me for setting a good example, and for helping them understand what it means to be a leader. And they appreciated me backing them up, being supportive, and helping them understand how to manage their way through the challenges they have faced so far in their lives.

    What you are doing with your kids, while they may seem unimpressed and disinterested, is IMPORTANT. It’s OK for them to see an adult male be vulnerable and open, it’s OK for them to understand the broader context of being non-white in America (especially now), and it’s OK for them to have a safe place (your classroom) to become more comfortable with themselves. While you are being the “ideal teacher” (from your experience) you are setting an example for them.

    Keep up the good work.

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