Sunday, January 13, 2013

Autobiography Pt. 3: English as a Second Language

I recently have been asked by a few people about how I became interested in antiracism.  In helping myself move forward, I realize that I need to look back.  Also, I hope to convey the sense that I too am on a journey; I am a work in progress.  This is part of my story. 

Eight o’clock in the morning is early on a Saturday and even more so if you are a college student.  And if on top of that, you are getting ready for a day of yard work, it can seem daunting.  I know from experience.  I had dragged myself out of bed on many a Saturday morning to go on volunteer work days over the years.  Now an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, I was making sure my students from mainland China spent a morning raking leaves and cleaning gutters. 

I came onto the ESL scene at a time when “service-learning” was all the rage in higher education.  It was working its way down to K-12, and had only made a dent in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages).  However, I had taken an elective in my master’s degree courses that required me to design a course syllabus.  One of the options was to design a service-learning course, and through a series of events, that course design launched me into a full-time teaching position.   The problem came when none of the literature prepared me to teach disgruntled teenagers from China.   

As I have said before, my interest has always been Mexico.  I speak Spanish.  I found myself repeating that mantra internally through the rocky first, second, and third semesters I spent teaching classes comprised primarily of mainland Chinese young adults.  They resisted me at every turn, and I pushed right back.  I often said that it was like I was teaching English as Foreign Language in China, except I had skipped the “honeymoon stage” of culture shock, and skipped right to “disorientation” and “aggression.”  I was annoyed by a group of people I didn’t understand and who I felt didn’t understand me.  We had different goals and different worldviews.  This discord was only compounded in teacher workshops as we sat around “student bashing,” commiserating about our shared “problem children.”  I watched myself move from a progressive stance on language learning I had acquired in graduate school, to a more conservative, “Speak English!” approach. It wasn’t always that way, though. 

The glorious moments with the Chinese students came as I continued to teach my class on social justice with the service-learning component.  I was invigorated as I planned lessons about issues of social inequality.  In fact, I was getting an education right alongside my students, as we learned about stereotypes, racism, global warming, and urban development.  I even invited my old friends from non-profit organizations to give lectures about refugees, "White flight," and racial inequality.  They had been the ones to first teach me about the history of St. Louis in a different way than I had grown up with.  I learned how racism had left an indelible mark on the landscape and people.  My friends introduced me to authors who wrote about racial inequality, which led me to other books that I read in my free time, including Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (Tatum, 2003)  and The Souls of Black Folks (Du Bois, 1973).  It really came home to me that I had to move in the opposite direction of history trends of White segregation, and I taught this to my students with a passion. 

Again, the practical application of this knowledge came slowly.  I remember one semester I had a very honest discussion with my students after we had reached a moment of impasse.  They were consistently failing to meet my expectations.  Many of them didn’t do the homework I assigned, they tended to not participate in class, or they didn’t show up at all.  At this point in my teaching career, I didn’t think to ask them about their perception of the class or the ESL program.  I was frustrated and I could tell they were, too. 

“Don’t you want to pass ESL and go to academic classes?” I asked in a bewildered tone. Silence. Finally, someone ventured a response.  “We don’t care about ESL.  We just care about business classes.” I retorted, “But you have to pass ESL if you want to go to business classes!”  Silence.  Again, someone bravely attempted a reply, “You are angry.  Do you hate Chinese students?”  Now I was dumbfounded.  “Of course not.  I don’t hate you. I guess I’m just frustrated because I thought Chinese students would be good students.  We have a stereotype here in the U.S. that Chinese students always work really hard, come to class every day, and get good grades.  And they are good at math.”  Now the students grinned broadly and a few chuckled.  “Well, of course we are not all good at math!” one student responded.  “We are very lazy,” another added.  “Well, I guess there are lazy people in every country,” I said.  “Right,” they agreed and smiled knowingly.  They seemed relieved that they were not the only ones who experiences discomfort as they encountered the “other,” especially if it was their teacher who was supposed to “know it all.” 

Interestingly, at this very same time we were learning in the class about the dangers of “positive” stereotypes.  Specifically, there is a view held by many Americans that Asians are the “model minority.” This is similar to belief that Asians (i.e. Chinese, Japanese, and Asian Indians) are “almost White” (Bonilla-Silva, 2003), which akin to saying they are “inferior, but better than the other people who are more inferior.” This monolithic view of Asians is just as damaging as negative stereotypes, since it reduces individuals to a caricature (Lee, 1994).  Also, the students who don’t fit the mold are treated as deviants, which is what I had unintentionally done to my students.  Further, it ignores extreme diversity within the group we label “Asian.”  My students had been born in mainland China, which is very different from being of Asian descent born in the United States.  Further, certain groups of immigrants from Asia tend to have high levels of education.  Other groups, especially refugees from Laos and Cambodia, who do not have very high levels of education and tend to have dark skin,  experience more intense levels of discrimination when they come to this country.  

My biases against speakers of other languages besides English, against Chinese people, and even against Asians were thrown into sharp relief at this time in my life. I was a trained ESL teacher, who was supposed to value all languages, but I didn't value anything I couldn't understand. For the first time in my life, I was in a situation where I could not speak the language of dominance.  Although I had been to other countries, I had been fluent in Spanish for a long time, and so I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t know what was going on.  I thought of myself as very multicultural, but I really only liked Spanish and Mexico.  I was generally uninterested in Chinese culture, and what I did know, I evaluated on the basis of my own cultural norms and values.  I slowly learned to see my Chinese students’ culture and language as beautiful and complex. While I mostly wince in pain as I recall the damage I must have done to those poor students, I am grateful for the lessons that they taught me.  

Autobiography Pt. 4: Sociolinguistics


  • Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield. 
  • Du Bois, W. E. B. (1973). The souls of Black folk. Millwood, N.Y: Kraus-Thomson Organization Ltd. 
  • Lee, S. J. (1994). Behind the model-minority stereotype: Voices of high- and low-achieving Asian American students. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 25, 413–429. 
  • Tatum, B. D. (2003). “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”: And other conversations about race. New York, NY: Basic Books. 

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