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Cultural Context: A Critical Component to Teaching Asian Novels BY EVA LIU

Cover Image Courtesy of Google Images

Made in China. A label that I desperately wanted to rip off when we read The Joy Luck Club in class. Everyone was stealing glances at me, as if they were checking to see if the stereotypes matched up. Some imitated the Chinese accent, and others made assumptions about Chinese mothers. If those were only moments of discomfort due to my sensitivity, what came later was hurtful, a moment that I still vividly remember after two years.

“Eva, how do cats taste?” he turned around when a cat showed up in the Joy Luck Club movie.

I was speechless, rather taken aback.

“I bet dogs taste better, huh?” he added, laughing at his own comment.

Other than my friends, whom I ranted to, I never found the courage to speak up about my discomfort to a teacher. As the only Chinese girl in my English class, I just secretly wished we would be finishing the book soon so all the discomfort would disappear. I struggled to draw a line between a joke and an offensive comment, and I wasn’t the only one.

“When we watched the movie adaptation of [The Joy Luck Club], the comments made were offensive. And I understand that some people may have been trying to be funny. [They] were mostly making fun of Chinese people eating dogs and being good at math, perpetuating stereotypes by making those snarky comments. It wasn’t an ideal learning environment,” senior Ayisah Anderson said.

Class of 2020 alumna Katherine Han also experienced moments of cultural insensitivity.

“I felt that there was a lack of understanding of the culture behind the story, and it led to some maybe unintentional but still culturally sensitive comments about the book and the characters,” Han said.

Instead of avoiding sensitive topics like race and culture, we need to embrace personal and vulnerable conversations in class.

The problem of cultural insensitivity extends to junior high as well. Sophomore Samantha Hsuing recalls feeling uncomfortable in seventh grade when she read American Born Chinese because, as an Asian, she never heard about some of the stereotypes in the book.

“It would be better if those stereotypes were not talked about in the first place because some of the boys in my grade would make jokes about it afterwards, which definitely made me more uncomfortable,” Hsuing said.

While in-class discussions can be monitored, conversations about race and culture outside the classroom sometimes go astray, especially without the control and supervision of teachers. When Hsuing described students repeating “fresh off the boat” jokes in the hallway, I was deeply disturbed but rather not surprised as I recalled a student with a Chinese hat repeating “ching chong” remarks.

Because of these jarring and uncomfortable moments, it is even more important to make sure we are having the right conversations in class. Instead of avoiding sensitive topics like race and culture, we need to embrace personal and vulnerable conversations in class. Even though students have experienced cultural insensitivity in the classroom, the efforts of English teachers to approach difficult conversations about Asian culture are not overlooked.

“I genuinely thought that my teacher tried her very best. I think that the literature teachers here at Pinewood are already very good at creating a safe atmosphere for us, but I do feel they teach Asian novels with a small fear that anything anyone might say will be offensive to an Asian,” freshman Sophia Yao said.

To avoid those moments of discomfort and confrontation, introducing cultural and historical context before students read Asian novels is key.

When it comes to cultural and racial sensitivity in the classroom, efforts need to come from both the teachers and the students.

Co-head of the English department Sabrina Strand encourages teachers to be brave and call inappropriate comments out and not let them go by as jokes.

“Asking people ‘what did you mean by that’ or ‘why did you make that comment,’ I think that will make [students] really think about what they meant when they said it and probably would lead to most students to realize they don’t actually even believe what they said,” Strand said.

To avoid those moments of discomfort and confrontation, introducing cultural and historical context before students read Asian novels is key.

“The extent of the context that we were given was here’s a little bit about the author and that was pretty much it. We were just thrown into The Joy Luck Club,” Anderson said.

“It’s not enough to just have a book that explores a protagonist or a culture that is not white or mainstream. You have to put that in context, and you have to make sure that the students have a rich and a 3-D understanding of it,” Strand said.

Freshman Sophia Cheng also wishes that there were more context taught when she read Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

“There could have been more background given on the Cultural Revolution. My grandparents lived through it, so I know more about it. But obviously there were students who didn’t have that personal experience and enrichment. It could be more effective if we read it during the school year instead of during the summer. For example, I am reading the Book Thief, and [literature teacher Eric] Schreiber had us listening to interviews from the Holocaust museum. If we had done [something similar] for Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, people would appreciate it more and understand the context of the story more,” Cheng said.

Illustration by Callie Pruitt

On the other hand, teachers struggle to cover all the context they would ideally like. For example, when teaching American Born Chinese, Strand didn’t get to her slides talking about the origin of Chinese Americans, the discrimination they faced when they built the railroads during the rush of immigration to the United States and how there were anti-discriminatory Chinese laws. She said there was not enough time.

“It’s not enough to just have a book that explores a protagonist or a culture that is not white or mainstream. You have to put that in context, and you have to make sure that the students have a rich and a 3-D understanding of it,” Strand said.

The timing of teaching cultural context can also be tricky; various teachers often have different philosophies. For example, English teacher David Wells prefers introducing cultural and historical background as students read the book.

“ I like the students to have a tabula rasa before we begin reading a work,” Wells said.

Co-head of the English Department Patricia Carleton acknowledges that it’s a learning curve for the teachers.

“[But] I hope [students] know that a teacher would never want someone to feel awful. And if a conversation goes out of control or if the teacher didn’t shut it down, we absolutely need to know because we don’t want someone feeling that way,” Carleton said.

Teachers share the discomfort with students when it comes to situations like these. Strand said that teachers are not comfortable with those tough conversations because they fear of doing it wrong.

Compared to teaching cultural context, building the bridge of communication between students and teachers seems like the biggest challenge.

“I think keeping opening lines of communication is important. I think trust between the teachers and the student is important, and hopefully, a student feels comfortable coming to talk to a teacher,” Wells said.

Yao said she might be uncomfortable talking to an English about an incident of cultural insensitivity.

“[The teachers] would think it was their fault and beat themselves up about it. And in future classes they might decide to not explore the literature as deep as before for fear of offending someone,” Yao said.

Teachers share the discomfort with students when it comes to situations like these. Strand said that teachers are not comfortable with those tough conversations because they fear of doing it wrong.

“Teachers are used to being in charge and having the answers, but in these kinds of conversations, there is no right or wrong; it’s more like a discussion of something that is uncomfortable and a lot of the times personal. I think the teachers aren’t necessarily experts in guiding those types of conversations, and they don’t want to do more harm than good,” Strand said.

Anderson and Strand are both hopeful that the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) staff training will improve the learning environment for minority students.

“The goal of the DEI training over the next few years is to create a culture and community at Pinewood that we feel more empowered to have these kinds of conversations. I think the teachers have the best intentions, and they don’t want to alienate minority students. But I think we need to learn how to make the difficult conversations,” Strand said.

As a journalist and a senior, I have finally found the courage to face the cultural discrimination I have faced in the past. But I blamed that on my sensitivity until I had the chance to talk to all these Asian students, from the class of 2026 to the class of 2020.

“I know that English teachers already tell students to not use racial slurs and make fun of stereotypes. But the reality is, people still do. There are always going to be more people making fun of my race, and I just have to deal with it,” Hsuing said.

Cultural awareness needs to come first, and cultural sensitivity and understanding will subsequently trickle in.

Heartbreakingly, almost all of the ten Chinese students I interviewed confessed that they would not be comfortable talking to a teacher if/when they experience a case of cultural insensitivity. But seventh-grader Sophia Lee warmed my heart with her words.

“I trust my English teacher a lot, and would feel comfortable discussing something like this. I’m sure that although Pinewood is a pretty safe space, people might accidentally be insensitive, and I would trust all the teachers to do what would be the best in the situation,” Lee said.

It’s going to be a long journey for both teachers and students at Pinewood to learn how to have the difficult yet necessary conversations about race and culture. They will take bravery, they will take time, and they will take vulnerability. And maybe even rounds of trial and error.

To get there, we need collaborative effort from both the teachers and the students. English teachers need to work on giving sufficient cultural and racial context for Asian novels and calling out students who make inappropriate comments about race. This responsibility extends to students as well; they should hold each other accountable for creating a safe and welcoming learning environment for everyone. Cultural awareness needs to come first, and cultural sensitivity and understanding will subsequently trickle in.

As a graduating senior, I sadly won’t get to witness the Pinewood community becoming more culturally and racially sensitive, aware, and accepting, but Lee, Cheng, Yao, and Hsuing will. So will their classmates and the classes of 27’, 28’, 29’... and that’s what matters.

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Eva Liu
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