America’s Unwanted Daughter

Yellow Peril.”
The Wuhan Virus.”
The Chinese Virus.”

Chink.”
“Cough into your elbow.” (Comes closer) “I SAID COUGH INTO YOUR ELBOW!” (Repeats multiple times in a train between stations, so I cannot get out).
“Get away from me.”
– What people have directly said to me

COVID-19 is most definitely changing my experience as an Asian American. When I first wrote about the coronavirus “back in February” (so… just a month ago), I had no expectation that my life would be where it is today. (Did anyone though?) What I shared on video with USAToday had a greater impact than I thought it would – for better, for worse, for everything in between.


Starting in March and as COVID-19 started to escalate in the United States, my commute to work started to feel awkward and uncomfortable. People would move away from me, and glare at me. They didn’t need to say anything racist; I felt the racism with their eyes. “Are you sick? Are you a carrier of the coronavirus?” These were the questions that their eyes tried to pierce at me.

In Asian culture, it is a proactive measure to wear masks, but for so long in American culture, masks had an association of being negative, and perhaps still does, of automatically labeling someone as sick. Maskophobia is real, and I struggled for weeks in my decision to wear a mask or not. Did wearing a mask mark me as a target of racist attacks? Did NOT wearing a mask make me susceptible to violence? To mask or not mask, there was no clear answer. There is still no clear answer. I only started wearing a mask this past week, and I always walk quickly, shifting my gaze downwards to avoid being a victim of a hate crime.


As a result of sharing my thoughts online, I started getting so many messages from people I have met in my life, and from countless strangers as well. I am grateful to have so much support, but the hate continued to spew as well:

“Forget racism. I am so sick of people turning everything happening to racism.”
– A white person.

“Welcome to the freaking club. Here, make yourself right at home.”
– A person of color.

I unfortunately expected it from white people. The rhetoric was nothing new.

But it has been incredibly hurtful from people of color.

Here I had subscribed to the media channel where Asian people have truly “made progress”, having finally been highlighted with “Parasite” winning the Oscars, and movies like “The Farewell” changing the landscape of what it meant to be Asian American – for the non-Asian American. But these accolades and the continuation of the model minority myth (which has its own harmful effects) were quickly shoved aside by the endless headlines of the “Asian virus”, and not the “New York” virus. This isn’t my first encounter with being called “chink”, or “dirty”, or “smelly”, or being told that “Chinese people are disgusting.”

How do I even respond to, “welcome to my world”, when I’ve suffered from racism since I was a child?

What is the proper response for “welcome to the freaking club”, from another person of color?

How dare I think that the racist tropes of Chinese people, of Asian people, could not possibly make such an overwhelming comeback in my lifetime.


One comment I have been severely criticized for was,

“Yes, I am Asian, Yes, I am Chinese, and I’m really proud of that.”

I didn’t realize that by saying that I would be interpreted as supporting the Chinese government and communism (which, to be clear, I do not). After all, I just wanted to express that I was proud of my Chinese culture, and where my parents came from. Lo and behold, tons of Chinese people verbally fought each other online on this one statement alone, either denouncing the Chinese government and the evils of communism or standing by the Chinese response to this outbreak.

People interpreted “I am proud to be Chinese” as a political statement. I hated that what I said polarized and divided people. It kills me that this one statement is as divisive as saying “I am proud to be American” today. What are the “United” States anyway?


I also received so many messages about how sorry people were that I had to experience this with my students. Racism is learned behavior, and NO CHILD IS BORN RACIST. My intention was never to create a pity party, and especially not one that would further marginalize my predominantly African American, Caribbean American, and LatinX students.

How can I talk about racism without igniting further racism or marginalization? Explaining to every person that my students were not at fault, but were reinforcing learned racial stereotypes was exhausting. Yet, I continued trying to extinguish fires of misunderstanding. Did I end up actually putting out the fires, or did I simply fan the flames? Did I inadvertently pour more gasoline on the fire that seemingly divides people of color? I felt my racial fatigue continue to burden me, with no sign of an end in sight.


I can’t stop thinking about the Asian American youth. As a born and bred New Yorker, and product of the public school system, I am so disheartened when I read about the experience of Asian American children and teenagers. Katherine Oung, a Chinese-American teenager in Florida shared this experience,

“Not only do we have to be afraid about our health. But we have to be afraid about being ourselves. Class basically just started. One of the girls said all Chinese people were disgusting. And so I literally like raised my hand up and was like “I’m Chinese.” She didn’t even say sorry. She didn’t.” (Katherine Oung, New York Times).

When NYC schools were still open, Stuyvesant High School teachers penned a letter pleading for the closure of schools, citing that

“Compounding [students’] terror is the racism many of our Asian and South Asian students are experiencing as they commute to school. Not only is this a viral epidemic, it is a threat to our global mental health.” (New York Teachers, New York Times)

I went to Brooklyn Tech, another public specialized high school in NYC with thousands of students. How would 14-year-old me respond to exacerbated comments on my Chineseness and my Asianness – in AND out of school? If I am experiencing extreme discomfort as an adult, what are the almost 200,000 Asian kids in our public school system feeling? It’s horrific to imagine and I want to do something, but I don’t really know what to do. Are they voiceless, and if so, how can I help speak up for them? How do I empower them to #washthehate? What long-term effects in mental health can I possibly help in combatting on their behalf?

The feeling of helplessness as an Asian American educator is paralyzing.


I may be scared for myself, but I am truly terrified for my parents – on so many levels. My parents are senior citizens who enjoy walking outside. One of the reasons my dad immigrated to America was for cleaner air. My dad has severe asthma, and has experienced near-fatal asthma attacks a number of times in his life. I tell my parents constantly to stay home (as if I’m the parent now ha), and I’m scared that the airborne spread will infect them if they are not careful.

I am merely scared for the actual spread of the virus, but I am beyond terrified of my parents potentially being on the receiving end of a violent, racist attack. With over 650 racist acts over the last week (and those are only counting reported incidences), many of them against elderly Asian people, I can’t help but live in terror for my parents. Will they make it back from grocery shopping safe, alive, breathing, and unharmed? Will they come back from their walk commenting on the trees they saw blooming, or having been spat at by others? Will my parents have to die from the air they sought to breathe here or from the hate that we label as “freedom of speech”?

HATE is a virus that is spreading quicker than COVID-19, and I constantly wonder if my parents have already been victims, but just haven’t told me.


My mom saw the video where I shared my experiences, and hasn’t talked to me about it. Through my brother, I found out that she wished I hadn’t said anything. She fears for my safety, and is afraid it marked me as a target.

A few days ago, I received these posts on my personal Facebook wall:

“Just saw your video how you were like I am proud to be a Chinese well then fuck you because you guys have put everyone in danger if you love your country so much ask them to be hygienic stop eating bats snakes rats because it’s easy to say you love your country but stand up for what is right or wrong and I f****** hate china and Chinese people.”

“I am against racism but then you guys are just acting like nothing happened look at the world around you and your country did this.”

… What?!

I literally felt frozen, and unable to physically move. My mind went completely blank. This personal attack cut me, even though I tend to pride myself as someone who doesn’t mind the thoughts of others.

My friends reported both comments as hate speech (fun fact: I am not able to do that even though it is my personal Facebook). The first one was removed. The second one wasn’t, and still lives on my Facebook wall. I guess microaggressions aren’t considered “hate speech enough“.

People apologized to me for having to experience this. “That guy is stupid and doesn’t know what he is talking about!”

Oh, by the way, the person who wrote that is a woman of color.


When people ask me “How are you?” I’m truly uncertain how to respond. Do I say yes to make you feel better? Do I say yes to mask my incoherent mind and thoughts? Do I say yes and wear an actual physical mask?

Or do I say no and make you privy to all that I am thinking and feeling? Does saying no make you feel sorry for me? Does saying no make you feel pessimistic instead of wanting to be optimistic in this time? Does saying no make me selfish?

How am I?

I am incoherent.

I am still uncertain if I should wear a mask or not, even though I have currently decided that I should.

I am apprehensive of writing, recording, and sharing my thoughts because I do not want to further divide people, or add fuel to the racism that exists.

I am wary of everyone around me because of my Chinese face.

I am nervous for our Asian American youth.

I am terrified for my parents’ lives. For all Asians and Asian Americans’ lives.

I am worried for my own students in this time, who are facing an extreme number of inequities – if the inequities can even be counted.

I am skeptical of the media’s portrayal of COVID-19 for likes, subscribes, and follows, and not for spreading TRUTH.

I am uncertain if my friends who are healthcare workers will survive.

I am alarmed by people who continue to commit sinophobic acts of prejudice – verbal, physical, violent, all of the acts.

I am afraid that people will stop caring about violence against Asian Americans, and Asians around the world.

I am America’s unwanted daughter. Raised here, I live and breathe my freedom of speech, but it is undesired, unwanted, and HATED. I am hated.

My mom wishes I would just stay quiet.

But I can’t. And I won’t.

Tired of Being Asian

I am a proud Asian American, a proud Chinese American, first generation raised in America, first to go to college and earn a Bachelor’s and Master’s, currently pursuing my doctorate, and just truly so proud of my culture and who I am. To many, and hopefully my family and in some ways even myself, I am the epitome of the American dream.

This is sadly not about that.

I want to detail what it has felt like to be an Asian person in America since the outbreak of coronavirus.

Imagine the first time hearing about the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan leading up to Lunar New Year, THE biggest holiday in China. As someone with a majority of my extended family in mainland China, the first thoughts are worry, concern, and just a hope that everyone is okay. As Lunar New Year occurred, my extended family in Shanghai didn’t even all meet up on this big holiday – the first Lunar New Year since my grandmother has passed. It was supposed to be a momentous one, one of continued life of the younger generations. Instead, all WeChat conversations that I was a part of focused on this spread of this virus, the travel bans in and outside of China, and warnings amongst family members to stay indoors as much as possible. Better safe than sorry – I get it. In fact, my paranoid self even wanted to stay away from Chinatown at first. How ridiculous a thought and action I upheld, until I realized the suffering of Asian businesses because of sinophobia.

It was only a conversation I heard about amongst my Asian/Asian American community until the first confirmed case occurred in the United States. Immediately, my newsfeeds on Facebook and Instagram were flooded with warnings to get protective health masks to try to prevent its spread. I immediately googled the effectiveness of health masks to mixed results – but I also wanted to be proactive and safe, for myself and my family. By the time I went to a pharmacy, I had found out that all health masks were sold out EVERYWHEREincluding on Amazon. I shrugged it off and figured the paranoia and “proactivity” would blow over – but the masks never restocked.

As days and weeks started to pass by, I started to read about racist attacks against Asian Americans and then the experiences people were having in NYC. People with Asian-sounding last names not being picked up for Ubers, racist slurs being targeted toward any Asian people who would cough on a subway, and people moving away from any Asians with a face mask on (which by the way, is seen as a proactive measure in East Asian countries and preferred, as opposed to a reactive, “I am sick” statement as it is received in the West). It was so disappointing to hear, but became even more disheartening when I started to read personal experiences of people I personally knew post what happened to them on their social media.

But it didn’t hit me fully until this week at my school, I had heard rumors spread about the possibility of me having the coronavirus. I immediately felt truly more heated than I thought I would, even though I knew it was because of the spread of misinformation and the association of the virus with “Asian-ness”. I ended up addressing the coronavirus with my elementary school students (for now) as follows:

  • There are things that you hear that are false and things that you hear that are true.

  • Not all news is factual – there are some things on the news that are false and some that are true.

  • It is hurtful when I hear that some students have been saying I have the coronavirus because it is false. There is no evidence to support this claim. Just because I look like a group of people who are primarily affected by this virus, does not mean I have it. Yes, I recognize that I am Asian/Chinese, but if you are thinking that I have it simply based on the way I look, it is an unfair assumption.

  • It is even more hurtful if you heard someone say it, and you either laughed at it, or affirmed that this may be true. This is perpetuating misinformation.

  • I am similarly reading information about the coronavirus on the news and am fine to have a discussion or debate about what we hear based on what we know.

  • I sincerely hope that any students who may have said something, laughed/affirmed something that was said about me having it, or even THOUGHT about it takes the time to reflect on their thinking. I do hope to hear some apologies without personally requesting them from any students just because they feel that they need to.

  • If there are any questions you have about my Asian-ness or Chinese-ness, please ask instead of assuming.

I was really proud of this response (because it took a lot of my own personal self to talk out), and I was also grateful to hear students come up to me personally to apologize on their own accord for either saying, laughing at, or bystanding in the situation. But I also knew that just because I addressed it with some students, it wasn’t the end of this and I had more to do as a teacher.

As recently as three days ago, the NYC Department of Education issued a letter about Coronavirus to all employees citywide. Imagine my shock when online, in NYC teacher forums, educators were joking about the GREATER likelihood of school shutting down for the coronavirus than for snow days. Imagine my further dismay reading non-Chinese, fellow educators make casual comments about the coronavirus that either furthered the paranoia of its spread, or helped continue the underlying racist attacks that so many news outlets are insinuating. Imagine my insides cringe at stepping into spaces where the coronavirus is joked about, and others laughing about it. Imagine my anger finding out that my friends who are Asian American educators as well have had to hear children utter racist comments that equate the coronavirus to Asianness, and also hearing that so many schools have not been proactive in addressing – some even going to lengths to avoid these difficult, necessary conversations. It has been infuriating.

All at the same time, in this past week, I have received more racist comments than I remember receiving in a long time. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I was either walking or on the subway, coughed (because of asthma, not because of me being sick, and COVERING my cough), and having one or a combination of the following reactions:

  • People giving that cold, harsh, eyes-of-caution stare
  • People literally telling me to cover my cough multiple times (even though I have)
  • People moving immediately away from me
  • People muttering unkind, racist slurs under their breath (but just audible enough for me to hear)

I have turned the volume up so high on my headphones this week while going about my life because I cannot bear to hear, read, or experience anything further. I am so tired of social media because all I read about is the coronavirus, and this is so unfortunate because there are people who are truly affected by this virus in their health, and I cannot focus on the facts, because there is too much racism between the lines.

I want to be invisible and LOUD ABOUT THIS simultaneously. I want to help create a change in perception, for my students, for my community, but I have felt so RACIALLY FATIGUED, a term my friend explained to me this week. According to Critical Race Theorist William Smith, racial battle fatigue (RBF) is a

“public health ad mental health illness [based on the] cumulative result of a natural race-related stress response to distressing mental and emotional conditions. These conditions emerged from constantly facing racially dismissive, demeaning, insensitive and/or hostile racial environments and individuals” (Smith, 2008).

According to Smith (2008), racial battle fatigue stems from racism and microaggressions and to find these in society today, “one must not look for the gross and obvious…. but the subtle, cumulative miniassault is the substance of today’s racism” (Smith, 2008).

Racial microaggressions are a form of psychological warfare and are defined as:

1) subtle verbal and nonverbal insults directed at people of Color, often automatically or unconsciously

2) layered insults, based on one’s race, gender, class, sexuality, language, immigration status, phenotype, accent, or surname

3) cumulative insults, which cause unnecessary stress to people of Color while privileging whites.

(Smith, 2008).

I can’t feel like I constantly have to stand up for my race and explain my Asianness – non-Asian, non-Chinese people need to STAND UP also.

“We must go beyond educating students about basic infectious disease prevention, such as hand washing. We must also address the growing stereotyping, racism and discrimination that pose long-term threats to our health, economy, and individual and collective psyches” (Torres and Cao, 2020).

Words matter. Actions matter.

Words hurt. Actions hurt.

I am so proud to be Asian American, but I am so tired of being Asian American.

 

Who am I to SPEAK OUT?

I recently attended a professional development entitled “Empathy, EQUITY, and Excellence; Inviting Diverse Perspectives on Repertoire and Responsiveness”. My immediate reaction to any workshop on equity is one filled with hesitation, caution, and skepticism – especially because of how loaded the term “equity” can be, and how often it unfortunately can be misused (especially when equity is interchangeably used with equality). I quickly felt grateful, however, for a person of color as a keynote speaker – especially having sat through so many workshops where a white person would colorfully use the buzzwords of “equity,” “equality,” “diversity”, “justice”, and “inclusion” (to just name a few) to almost fill their quota of saying the words loud and proud.

Keynote speaker Dr. Danielle A. Brown, founder of My People Tell Stories, helped me feel less apprehensive upon defining equity, diversity, and inclusion as separate entities that must cohesively exist in our teaching. Dr. Brown then continued to discuss a concept of “universality” – specifically universality and the music educator:

“There are two ways that the concept of universality will work against you as a music educator:

  1. you believe in the concept that ‘music is universal’
  2. you believe that you have overcome the ‘music is universal’ concept

(Brown, 2019)

I felt guilty right away. I have definitely uttered those words “music is universal” with nothing but good intent that we could all “speak the language of music” – but good intentions are not good enough, and I know that good intentions do not mean the actions are free from harm or wrongdoing. Then this slide came up on the screen:

Universality of Dominant Culture

Be careful that your use of the word ‘universal’ is not merely a euphemism for ‘superior’ or dominant culture.”

(Brown, 2019)

My mind was blown! Music was and is not universal. Music is not universally understood, and how music functions in each community, culture, and society varies. It made sense, but I could only focus on the number of times I have personally labeled the music I have taught as being “a way for all people to communicate”, even though I do not represent all people, all cultures, all ideas.


When our workshop separated into smaller group work with fellow educators, we were first asked to create playlists that represented our own identities. That seemed fine, harmless even because we were speaking our individual selves ONLY.

It was as if I was almost waiting to be triggered in this work when we were then tasked with creating playlists of repertoire selections. After putting up my selections of “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera (for legato, tone, and self-empowerment), “Own It” by Black Eyed Peas (for harmony, articulation changes, and self empowerment), and “Duke’s Place” by Duke Ellington (for unison playing, and jazz to be included in the traditional orchestra setting), the following selections came up for me to write on our chart paper from my fellow orchestra teachers:

  • “African Adventure” by Robert Sheldon with this description:
    • “When it comes time to celebrate the musical colors of Africa, combine forces with your string group and percussion ensemble on this stylish concert work for the developing ensemble. Repetitive rhythms and a catchy melodic hook propel the piece forward as it develops momentum and dramatic flair. Substitute Orff instruments for the melodic percussion for an even more authentic timbre. A guaranteed favorite!” (J.W. Pepper).

  • “Hanukkah Habenera by Tim McCarrick:
    • “‘Carmen’ meets Hanukkah in this remarkably clever combination of The Dreidel Song; Hanukkah, O Hanukkah and Bizet’s famous Habanera from his most famous opera! It all works amazingly well, with shifts from minor to major, a seamless bass line, and lots of tongue-in-cheek humor! What a hoot! Highly recommended! (J.W. Pepper).

  • “Dragon Dance” by Michael Story:

I could feel my hand begrudgingly writing these especially horrid selections up, as if there was some permanence and upholding of the racist status quo that I committed by even charting them up. It seemed as though my fellow orchestra teachers felt proud of their answers, and “inclusion” of repertoire they believed to be representative of their students.

Dr. Brown warned,

“Don’t assume students will always identify with their cultural heritage.” (Brown, 2019).

Is it really “inclusion” if each piece was written by a white man?

It is really “diversity” if the only allusion made to culture was in the title and then peppered into the description as if it were seasoning on a dish?

What killed me the most, though, was when one teacher eagerly stated,

“I teach ‘Dragon Dance’ because I think my Chinese kids like it.”

There’s nothing like something hitting you personally, and that hit me really hard. If I was that Chinese kid in your class, did you even ask me? Did you even find out more about what dragons symbolize in my culture? Did you ask me if I, or my Chinese peers, identified with Chinese culture? Did you even WANT to know all these things, or were you just giving yourself a pat on your back for being “inclusive”?

I grappled with this catastrophe – of teachers who lived under this false pretense of “doing good”, perhaps even with that good intention, but actually perpetuating harm to their students. I wanted so very badly in that moment to speak out, but felt so silenced by the overpowering whiteness that permeated in that room which would have made me out to be “that one girl of color who is a young teacher and just angry.” (And yes, I say girl because unfortunately my word often continues to be degraded due to my age). Yet, I myself have been that person who at first “taught hip hop” because I thought black kids could “relate” to it – without even asking. Who was I to say that someone was wrong? Who am I to SPEAK OUT?

At the end of this small group work, I could only bring myself to cross out that line I charted that “Dragon Dance” was “representative of Chinese kids”. I re-wrote:

“representative” of Chinese kids.


I continue to wonder what would have been the right move in that moment. I can’t help but feel simultaneously guilty to have upheld the status quo, but also continue to feel protective of who I am and what I share, and my own growth in understanding this important, necessary work.

To my fellow music educators, and educators at large – consider the following as a first step:

  1. Ask. Ask your students first about who they are, what they identify with, and what they perceive to be part of their identifiers. It isn’t always race, ethnicity, and gender, and don’t assume their answers because it is DANGEROUS to assume. Perhaps more importantly, listen to what your students say. Don’t just ask for the sake of asking.

After all of this, I could only conclude that music really isn’t universal. Do not blanket what you perceive to be music that is cultural OVER me as if it is some protective shield through which we can connect under.

“Safe Space”

So often, educators throw out this sentence to students, colleagues, families, and other stakeholders in education:

“You are in a safe space.”

What IS a “safe space”?

What does it mean to be in a “safe space”?

According to Crockett (2016), the history of the term “safe space” stems from the LGBTQ+ community:

“A ‘safe space’ is a place where LGBTQ people don’t have to think twice about whether they can show affection for their partners — and whether they can just be themselves.

It’s the same basic idea for other groups, like women and people of color, who tend to be less well-represented or well-respected by society at large. People whose voices are quite literally heard less than those of white men, since white men still tend to dominate conversations in mediaclassroomsboardroomspolitics, and everyday life.”

When I first started my teaching career, I thought a safe space was a place where students felt safe to learn – physically. As long as no one was hurting each other, and all students were able to sit quietly, listen to me when I spoke or gave directions, then we must have been in a safe space.

“You are in a safe space, and you are safe to take risks.”

After a few years, I started to learn about “feeling safe to take risks”. How could I encourage this in my classroom? Maybe if I just narrated “do not be afraid of mistakes; mistakes are part of the process”, students would feel safer. According to Harvard Politics, this attempt could be labeled as working towards an “academic safe space”:

“The idea of an academic safe space stresses the end goal of encouraging individuals to speak. In this type of space, people are still made to feel uncomfortable, yet it’s ‘safe’ to take intellectual risks and explore any line of thought. Here, ‘safety’ protects your right to make others uncomfortable with ideas and rational arguments. It’s important to note that in this setting, free speech is the end goal. This type of safety is commonly emphasized in classrooms and discussion groups, where open dialogue is particularly valuable.” (Ho, 2017).

So I adjusted my narration. I encouraged students to have what I thought were critical discussion points, and to explore disagreements in music and the music-making processes – all while respecting each other’s opinion by having politically correct and careful conversations. One student could express their thought, and as long as another student responded by starting with “I disagree because” in a mild-mannered, polite way, students could express their free speech and meet that specific end goal of having valuable, open dialogue. I was convinced that this was enough for intellectual safety because with this shift in my narration, students could be in a physically AND intellectually safe space.

“You are in a safe space, and you are safe to take risks and express your emotions.”

Just because my students were “nicely” (read: calmly, tracking the speaker, not being disruptive) disagreeing, does not mean they were able to express their emotions behind their words. According to the New York Times,

“In most cases, safe spaces are innocuous gatherings of like-minded people who agree to refrain from ridicule, criticism or what they term microaggressions… so that everyone can relax enough to explore the nuances of, say, a fluid gender identity.” (Shulevitz, 2015).

So my next adjustment was to ensure that students would agree to a set of behavioral norms in order to have productive conversation. Upon reflection, perhaps it was even less of an adjustment and more of a restatement of being politically correct in order to avoid discomfort.

Thus emerged a tension between academic and emotional “safety”. Ho (2017) wrote,

People begin to have bloated and unclear understandings of how academic spaces should be considered “safe”. A new iteration of the concept has emerged—some students advocate to expand emotional safe spaces to encompass the campus as a whole. This new space is a false extrapolation of the originals, mistakenly operating under the unshakable credo that in an academic setting, people should feel emotionally secure.

A problem arises in this case. There exists a tension between emotional safety and academic safety. If the goal of an academic setting is to keep people comfortable, then the acceptability of speech will be determined by how objectionable it is. And if arguments are limited based on how offensive they seem, people are expected to adhere to an implicit set of polite ideological norms. Speech is allowed so long it doesn’t appear to conflict with the socially accepted opinions on certain touchy topics. In this way, new safe spaces become less about respecting and empowering individuals than sanctifying certain ideas. Provocative speech is censored, which has pernicious effects on the academic tradition.

Most people understand the value of protecting disagreeable ideas in a classroom, and they appreciate the existence of cultural groups and organizations… But in a dorm or house, what should be the priority—courteousness or freedom of discussion?

In a recent discussion with Juliet Hess, Hess named that she did not believe there could be a truly safe space; rather the question is:

“How can we be as safe as possible?”

We can NEVER assume the space we are in safe, and it is up to each of us to ensure that the space is made as safe as possible by those of us within the space. As we continue to walk the fine line of encouraging safety while also upholding the norms we (ideally collaboratively with stakeholders) may set in order to have discussions that are productive, can a “safe space” truly be inclusive of the physical, intellectual, AND emotional? Are we taking on too much with this one term? Is this term meant to take on so much?

In our continued attempts to define what a “safe space” in our work, with our peers, our families, and everyone else we interact with in life is, I wonder how many of us can/will/reject the following questions:

“When I say “you are in a safe space”, what does that mean to you?”

“What should be the priority—courteousness or freedom of discussion?” (Ho, 2017).

“How can I help create space a space as safe as possible for us both?”

“What do you need in order for the space to be as safe as possible?”

Some words of advice from #44:

“You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. … So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that — no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths.” (Obama, 2016).

Crockett (2016) concluded,

“Inside or outside of safe spaces, the real problem is usually a failure of empathy, and the real solution is treating others with humility, respect, and compassion and being willing to learn from our own mistakes.”

I can learn from my mistakes, but can I truly create a safe space? Can you?

Pronouncing Names RIGHT, Not “White”

I wrote the following excerpts in Fall 2011 as part of two blog posts for Generasian, an Asian American interest then-blog-and-publication (now multimedia platform) at New York University.

My American name is Alice Ann Tsui, and the only thing about my name that makes it “Asian” is my last name. My Chinese name is 徐晓兰 (Xu Xiao Lan in Pinyin) – which, at one point in time, Google Translate interpreted as “Dawn of the Orchid.” That translation sounds quite epic, but does an exotic meaning exist behind every Asian name?

In an 8asians article contemplating this question, Koji Steven writes:

When [people] ask what [my son’s name] means, they want to hear something more fortune cookie. Something like, “Wind blows down the north face of Mount Fuji.” I have no idea what the heck that means but it sounds pretty darn exotic doesn’t it?

I have come across this experience myself quite a few times. Questions such as “what does your Chinese name mean” often imply that the inquiring person expects a unique meaning dissimilar to any possible story of the Western name. However, Steven continues:

I wonder if people with more traditional Western names are asked what their names mean. I’ve never wondered what John meant or what Lisa means…

According to this site, John means “God is gracious.” And Lisa… means “God’s promise.” Maybe because the names are so common, I’m surprised to find out that they have such deep meanings. I wonder if Johns and Lisas know.

My parents never explained my Chinese name to me as “Dawn of the Orchid.” To this day, the actual meaning of my Chinese name is quite lost in translation and I only know that my mother and I share the same character of “orchid.” As for my American first name, I have never gotten any further explanation than hearing from my parents that they liked the name Alice because they thought it was “nice sounding.” My middle name Ann was given to me as a suggestion from a nurse present at my birth.

Using the same site Steven used, Alice means “noble,” and Ann means “He (God) has favored me.” I am quite sure my parents do not know that the combination of Alice Ann has this prescribed meaning, just as I do not understand my own Chinese name.

While the etymology of names in English may reveal more than what is apparent to the naked eye, the same goes for names in Asian languages and, in fact, names in all languages worldwide. Common names simply get a bypass on the question, although the truth is that each and every name is unique. Every name has a unique story behind it, and while etymology may be fun to research, we define what our names mean through our life stories. It’s not “West versus East,” but rather “Common versus Uncommon,” respectively. (Tsui, The ‘Exotic’ Asian Name)


When I was in elementary school, I had a very diverse class setting but Asians were still the minority. While I consider my elementary school experience as a happy and great one, there were moments of bullying that I will never forget. My first instance I remember was when non-Asian students would ask me how to pronounce my last name: Tsui. I would phonetically say it slowly: “TSOY, like the t and the s are blended together.” But that response was merely followed by remarks including:

Soy? Like soy sauce?!

Tee-soy? Haha!

Suey… suey suey suey!

Tissue!

(Tsui, Asian Kids are the Most Bullied)


The excerpts I have included continue to resonate with me deeply today, 8 years after I have originally written them. I was reminded of these experiences by Hasan Minhaj, the political comedian and host of Patriot Act, in his recent videos discussing his experiences with pronunciations of his name. Most notably to me, Minhaj recounts a time when he was auditioning and his name was mispronounced – and he himself reiterated that it did not matter.

Within the first minute of another video, Desi-American kids and Hasan Minhaj start off by naming how their name is actually pronounced, but then pronounce it the “White” way.

Why are names still being mispronounced and colonized (also read as: appropriated) today?

Why is there a “White” way to pronounce names with roots in non-English languages? 

As an educator, I have seen and heard other educators mispronounce butcher and Whiten names for convenience sake. What is “convenient” for the educator is inflicting harm on a child’s identity. Too often, we have learned that as long as we try our best to say it, that’s all we can do. NO! We MUST do better and get it right – right not in the way of how we may know to pronounce it from a prior experience teaching a student with the same name, but right in the way that we are saying a specific child’s name exactly the way the specific child wants us to say their name.

In fact, let’s forget the educator perspective for a moment. What is “convenient” for another person to say, is HURTFUL to the person whose name it is. Equally if not more  appalling is when I hear people anglicize names – such as from “Juan” to “John”, or when my mom was given an “American” (read: White) name (that by the way sounded NOTHING like her Chinese name) because her Chinese name was “too hard” for her coworkers to pronounce correctly.

My name DOES matter, and who I am, does matter. (Minhaj, 2019).

My parents chose my name “Alice” not because of its meaning in the baby book dictionaries (I doubt they even looked in those), but rather because it was “easy to pronounce”. Somehow, prior to my birth, my parents already internalized the idea that having a non-English first name would make my life more difficult, or perhaps even their lives more difficult as non-native English speakers. This “easier” first name seemed to be defeated, however, by my “impossible-to-pronounce” last name.

Since I had a last name that was “difficult to pronounce” for most English-speakers, I started to believe that the accurate pronunciation (by my account) of my last name was insignificant. It took a long time for me to become somewhat comfortable with correcting people with how to pronounce my name, and to this day I still sometimes give up after 2 or 3 tries and the other person does not say it properly. These messages of my name having exotic (read: interesting for the story, not for the actual transliteration or pronunciation of the name itself) meanings while simultaneously being unpronounceable were communicated to me as a kid, and people with exoticized and/or mispronounced names should not feel the need to shed their cultural skin for a more colonized one. There is NO such thing as a name that is too difficult to pronounce. There is NO such thing as a name that does not matter.

My name matters. As I wrote 8 years ago,

we define what our names mean through our life stories (Tsui, 2011).

Tell your life story with how YOU want your name pronounced.

Take the time to make sure another person’s name matters as well. 

A Whitened Idea of Racial Identity

American folk music, as the general music education community knows it today, UPHOLDS systemic racism – most notably, White people on top and Black people underneath them. What I think most music educators in America consider to be folk music today is a WHITENED idea of racial identity. What has been acceptable in the American music education classroom as folk music (think “This Land is Your Land”) is filled with music by White musicians but not representative of our students.

“American folk music has at some times subverted and other times reinforced the categorical boundaries between blacks and whites in twentieth-century United States. … Genre boundaries then become social boundaries. Folk music inverts the usual relationship of genre and social boundaries. Folk music is always the culture of some “other,” either racial, regional, class, or national. Before it was called folk music, American vernacular music was much more racially integrated than the society around it, creolized across a spectrum from predominantly European to predominantly African-influenced, but with most exhibiting both.
Before the era of commercial recording, black and white musicians sang the same music, learned techniques and songs from each other, and shared a social world of performance. The concept of folk music was created by academic elites, but remained unfamiliar to most people until the organized left took it on as a cultural project in the late 1930s and 1940s. Both academic elites and political activists constructed the genre as an alternative to the racialized genres that the commercial recording industry had dubbed “race records” and “hillbilly music.” American communists and their allies were especially self-conscious about using folk music as an instrument of racial solidarity in a particularly racially polarized era. Submerged by McCarthyism until the 1960s, folk music was revived as a racially unified genre, but quickly became whitened.” – (Roy, 2002)

Let’s talk more! What are your thoughts?

Update:

“White critics in folk music and elsewhere have often taken it upon themselves to define “authenticity” in a way which includes white performers with black influences, but excludes black performers with white ones.” – (Berlatsky, TrackRecord, 2017)

  • Why are White people allowed to define “authenticity” in America, but not anyone else?
  • Who is excluded when music educators attempt to define “folk music”?
  • Why does music that has originally been shared and passed down in another country not included in the notion of “American folk music” if it is continued to be shared in America?

We cannot perpetuate “American folk music” to be White and exclusive.