Unapologetically Showing Up for Myself: Reflections on NCTE 19

Thanks to the #DisruptTexts crew for having these shirts made

“To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. In order to change and transform the world, they must change and transform themselves.”

Honestly, I wasn’t looking forward to NCTE this year.  In the past, NCTE has been a complicated space for me, one that is as exhausting as it can be exhilarating, and one that is always overwhelming. I came in with a lot of things that I had to get done: on the plane, during the conference, on the way home.  Always all the things, right?

In the weeks approaching this NCTE, I have had a lot going on, and my mom’s birthday (she would have been 81 this year) came on Saturday, my busiest conference day.  There is always a tension in complicated grief on birthdays and anniversaries, so I wasn’t sure how it would all go.

But, it was probably the most beautiful and affirming conference experiences that I’ve had in a long time, maybe ever.

And it was because I showed up for myself.

I have spent my entire life showing up for others: my mother, friends, colleagues, my children, students.  I love these people, don’t get me wrong.  It is an HONOR to show up in love, solidarity, affirmation, coalition, for others.

But in showing up for others, I often forget to listen to myself and what I want or need, relegating those thoughts to the shameful realm of selfishness.

This NCTE something strange happened.

I just focused on being present. I focused on what I needed in any given moment.  I focused on healing parts of me that I’ve been working towards embracing and understanding for the last couple of years: my identity as an Asian American woman.

I went to Asian American (and women of color) author sessions; I facilitated an Asian American teacher panel; I co-presented with my friend Jung about our research on Asian American teachers; we co-facilitated the Asian American caucus open forum and first ever networking event, and I met a lot of amazing authors.

I didn’t push myself to hang out with all of the amazing people I love at NCTE.  If I saw them, we hugged and talked. If I didn’t, I wasn’t running around frantically to make things happen (well, except for when I was running frantically after the teacher panel to Debbi Michiko Florence’s signing that was already over, insert sad emoji here).  I connected with people I didn’t know, but now consider friends.  I met people who I’d only ever seen on Twitter. I spent quality time with people I deeply cherish.

I was present.

I showed up.

I showed up for myself.

I showed up for the little girl who loved to read, who loved the windows into the worlds of others.

I showed up for the teenager who had just lost her mom, and who desperately needed to be seen and understood.

I showed up for the young mother who felt so overwhelmed that she just wanted to become invisible.

I showed up for the Asian American associate professor who is trying to embrace all of who she is, so she can show up stronger for herself and others.

I showed up for the author inside of me, who sees the calling and knows she has a voice and a story to tell.

And you know? Even though there are still all the things to do, I am letting go of some of them, to make room for the best people and the best things, the affirming things, the enriching things, the nourishing things.

So, I am not bummed if I missed you at NCTE. I am not sorry.

When our paths cross next, I will be more present with you because I am transforming.  When I show up for you next, I will show up with more of myself because showing up will be borne of love and choice and not obligation and inadequacy.  I will know what I am bringing to you through knowing who I am.

Much love to all of you who I did connect with at NCTE, whether for a super brief selfie of appreciation and love or a 5-minute conversation or over food, in sessions — however it was, thank you.  I am grateful for your contribution to me, for the restoration of being fully present.

I’ll see you all when I see you all next. In love and with gratitude.


A Moment of Silence

This time, I cannot go to a vigil.

Despite all the offers of support, I don’t really want to talk through it.

Sometimes, with some moments of grief, all I want is to be alone, at least for now.

I believe in the power of collective grief; I believe that people coming together to grieve can be a powerful beginning to healing, can be a call to collective action, but I can’t this time.

The school shooting in Santa Clarita has hit me especially hard.  I haven’t lived in Santa Clarita for over 20 years, and while I still feel many connections to that community, it’s not really home anymore.  But Santa Clarita is the city in which I first experienced my own trauma, an immediate, individual loss, that of my mother, hit by a truck as she crossed the street.

A year to the day my mother died, I sat on the corner across the street from my old house, the corner that led to my high school, the corner where my mother was trying to reach, on her way to the bus stop, when she died.  I sat with flowers and a candle, alone.  I felt so profoundly alone.

I spent many moments in the 10-15 years following my mother’s death hiding the deep and profound loneliness that I felt after her sudden loss.  I spent that time covering up my loneliness with success, with leadership, with some really poor relationship choices and some (thankfully) better relationship choices, with action.  I had to keep moving to stay alive, and to not be engulfed sometimes by the grief that had no words.

When I heard about the shooting on Thursday, that profound loneliness of grief and sudden, traumatic and tragic loss came flooding back.  I felt profoundly for the journey of loss that all of the community, affected by this tragedy, will face in their own ways.

I felt the fog of fragmentation as I tried to continue moving forward in spite of all the things crossing my mind. This was in my hometown.  The shooter is a hapa boy named Nathaniel, the same name as my own hapa son.  It was only a month before the 7th anniversary of Sandy Hook where I almost certainly would have lost my nephew if his birthday was just a month later. It was only 9 days before my mom’s birthday. It was less than 6 weeks from my own moments of sitting on the floor of my office, huddled under a desk.

All of the things.  All of the fragments.  All of the moments.

But I had to teach. I had to facilitate a professional learning session and plan another one.  I had to attend a training. I had to coordinate hospitality for church this week. I had to get new shoes for my 4 year old. I had to finish my Chinese homework. I had to grade lesson plans.

All of the things.  All of the fragments.  All of the moments.

Through the past 72 hours, what I have most wanted, but what has proved so elusive, is the comfort of being alone until I could be together. Not the profundity of relegated solitude, but the peace of chosen solitude, the necessity of being alone because I literally don’t have words for what I’m feeling.

I don’t have a solitary life. I have built a community grounded in love and support. But right now, I can’t draw from that community.  I need some time, some moments to get through it on my own before I can begin to articulate anything else. The tricky thing about grief is just that when I am ready, I’m not sure if anyone will remember, and I do not want to remind them.

All of the things.  All of the fragments.  All of the moments.

My heart is with the people of Santa Clarita, those who will go to the vigil, those who won’t, those who are grieving, those who are not.  I know how collective tragedy can bring a community together, and how it can tear individuals apart.  I am in it with you, the way I am in it with all trauma survivors.

I hope that by recognizing what I most need, by taking this moment of silence, by reclaiming my solitude as healing, by slowly bending down and sweeping together the fragments, I’m best honoring the complexities of grief and healing.  I hope that you’ll find the way you can best heal in this moment too.


How Do You Move Forward When the World Keeps Shattering Around You?

I don’t claim Santa Clarita often.

I have a complicated relationships with my hometown.  It is a place where I struggled to find self-acceptance, a sense of true belonging, and where I lost my mother.  But, it is also the place where I grew up, that inspired my understanding for the importance of educators, where many people close to my heart still live and teach and raise their families.

This morning there was a school shooting at Saugus High School. A very dear friend of mine from childhood works in this district. When I first heard the news and before I could google search that she worked at another school in the district, I frantically texted to make sure she was alright. She was. She was at the district office in a training.  She was returning to her site.

It is exactly one month before the 7th anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook school where my nephew was a second grader at the time of the shooting.   The blog post I wrote On Trauma and Teaching is a post about collective trauma that I returned to this morning.  The following Monday, I wrote about the importance of humanization as a society, in No Ordinary Monday.

Last month, I wrote about our own campus lockdown in another post What does it mean to be “okay”? Three days later, as I thought about how to support my students through our collective trauma, in Reflections on Today’s Community Circle & Doing My Best, I talked about the autopilot I go into after having experienced so many incidents of violence so close to me and people I love, and about trying to bring restoration through acknowledging our shared humanity and our collective trauma.

So, here I am, less than 6 weeks later, facing another moment of collective trauma, this time in my hometown. And I am doing what I know to do to move forward, to write, to share, to think through healing, to advocate for a greatest emphasis on our shared humanity.

But the breaking is hard. It is especially hard on a Thursday, when I have regular life scheduled until 8:30 pm tonight. I let my colleague and friend run the meeting I had at 10am so I could sit in my dark office and write this post. But at 12, I’ll need to go to class, at 2:30, I’ll need to be on a call, at 4, I’ll need to teach, at 7, I’ll need to go to a PTSA meeting.  And I will go, I will do, I will move forward, because what else is there to do?

In the midst of it all, life continues to move forward. I continue to make mistakes (including two I realized while I was writing this post). I continue to struggle to be my best self.

But how? How do you just keep moving forward when the world keeps breaking for those around you? How do you keep picking up pieces that seem to be smaller and smaller and more fragmented each and every time? How?

Asking for a friend.  Asking for myself. Asking for us all.


Grief and Mothering

Let me first off say that last week was an amazing week.  So, so, so, so many great things happened.  I was selected as a speaker at our spring TEDx talks on campus, a chapter proposal for a book project that I’m excited about was accepted, a call I’ve been waiting on for awhile happened, I made progress on a research project that I love.  So many great things.

Last Friday, my eldest twin daughters also turned 30.  We adopted them when they were 15 so they’ve now spent half their birthdays as part of our family.  Our relationships as a family have been complicated in ways that no one could have prepared me for, ways complicated by our individual traumatic losses of our mothers, by struggles with mental health, by different understandings of how to show love and be loved, by our different races and the ways we walk through the world.  I love them more than the world, but that love carries with it a lot of complexity that I hold close to my heart because it is not fully my story to tell.

In 11 days, my mom would have turned 81.  She died when she was 56.  November and the Thanksgiving season have, for 25 years, been complicated by the deep sense of loss at her absence.  Even more so in the last 15 years since becoming a mother. I’m always prepared for it to hit, except that I’m never fully prepared for it to hit because grief is tricky that way.

This last weekend, I worked with a colleague and her research team to do some data collection at a local aquarium.  One of the families was a mother, father and the mother’s parents with their two young daughters. As I observed the family, I felt the profound emptiness that I have felt before, that my own children will not ever know my mother, and can only hope to have a few memories of my father, who is in his 90s, in Myanmar, and who I know so little about myself, having grown up largely without him. I felt a ridiculous sense of guilt at not being able to give my children that love that grandparents can provide. I felt tired because we sometimes feel so alone as parents, with my in-laws (who love my children deeply) across the country and my own parents not around.

After coming home from data collection, my daughter and I read A Big Mooncake for Little Star by Grace Lin. It was by request of my daughter who said that it was her favorite because Little Star and her Mama are so beautiful.  My daughter sees the beauty of Asian faces reflected back at her.  Although she doesn’t know it, she sees that she can be beautiful and included.  It reminds me that I didn’t see myself when I was younger and how my son still doesn’t see himself in his middle school reading and I feel moved and full of love, but also that there is still so much work to do.

Then yesterday, a text on the Chinese school group chat about the low test scores in the class.  Cue all of my guilt at my son being the only one in the class who doesn’t have any real Mandarin speaking family members in the house. Cue my profound sadness that I didn’t value learning Mandarin as a child when my family spoke it around me. Of course, I know this is structural and due to pressures to assimilate and earn worthiness. I know I am not alone because I’ve heard it in my interview data of Asian American teachers. But, I feel so deeply alone. And I wish that my son still had my mom so that he could practice his Mandarin with her. I wish she could see that I see the importance of embracing all of who we are, that I am proud of all of who we are, that I am sorry I didn’t see when I was his age.

I miss my mom.

In all of it, the joy of the last week, in all the struggles, in all the beautiful everyday moments and the hard, complicated moments of mothering and life, I miss my mom.

Cue grief that comes from the deepest parts of you at a time when you just didn’t think it would be there.

That’s it. That’s the post. Sometimes grief and mothering is just so hard.

Mirrors, Windows, Hopes and Dreams

A bookmark featuring two of the four Jasmine Toguchi books by my friend Debbi Michiko Florence

Almost 30 years ago, Rudine Sims Bishop published an essay on windows and mirrors in children’s books (which was a keynote address delivered at the CSU San Bernardino Reading conference).  In this piece, Sims Bishop talked about literature as existing “to transform human experience, and reflect it back to us so that we can better understand it,” doing so through providing a window (“imagined or real, familiar or new, panoramic or narrow”) or, in the right light, a mirror for to “see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.”

Growing up, I read a lot. I looked through many windows, but often didn’t see my own experiences reflected, as a second generation Asian American little girl.  This is not such an unusual phenomenon, even for children of color today. My friend, Sarah Park Dahlen and her colleague David Huyck have created this infographic that highlights the disparities in children’s book diversity, with animals actually having more representation in children’s literature than all non-white people groups combined. I loved reading, literature, the humanities, and studying all of these in school, which I probably loved more than anything.  But I also didn’t see myself reflected in the race and ethnicity of my classroom teachers.  While I loved my teachers so much, I remember only 1 teacher of color (a Latino male biology teacher) in my entire K-12 schooling.

This absence of representation internalized itself in ways that I didn’t fully realize or recognize until fairly recently.  In terms of literature, I thought my voice and my story (or stories of other Asian Americans) didn’t matter.  I felt invisible. I knew I wasn’t quite “American” as represented to me in texts, but I also didn’t really feel Asian. I didn’t embrace the integration of elements of my heritage culture from my immigrant mother and elements of my American culture, which was all around me, but didn’t fully reflect my experiences. I accepted the invisibility of my experience and figured that I should just aspire to an idealized (white) American culture that seemed so cool, but somehow just beyond my reach.

In the classroom, I didn’t think about becoming an English teacher.  Despite my deep love for literature, for people’s stories and for their histories, and despite my success all around as a student, I felt steered towards STEM fields (after all, both my parents were scientists and my brother was an engineer). I didn’t think that my stories mattered in classrooms, in literature, in history, so why would my presence matter? When I eventually did pursue an interdisciplinary major with a heavy emphasis on literature and social science and went into middle school teaching, I labeled myself the “black sheep” of my family.

Despite having taught successfully for many years, obtaining a PhD and becoming an academic, it is still hard NOT to refer to myself as the “black sheep” who wasted her potential in the sciences for a relatively low-paying, low-status profession. I fight this sense of shame internally often, even though I’m so proud of what I do and I know intellectually how important it is.  Sometimes, it’s so hard to feel that truth.

While these disparities and discourses continue to persist, even in 2019, I recently got present to the power (and joy) of challenging these silences and the deficit framings towards my own identities that I continue to battle, both internally and through a lack of representation in larger society.

I got there through reading bedtime stories and doing educational (interview-based) research.

Recently, my 4-year old, Jojo and I just finished reading the Jasmine Toguchi series written by my friend, Debbi Michiko Florence. I love this book series because it’s incredibly charming and it centers around the 8-year old girl adventures of the series protagonist, Jasmine Toguchi, a Japanese American girl growing up in Los Angeles with her older sister, mom and dad.  What I love about this series is that I could really see myself and my Jojo’s experiences in those of Jasmine. Jasmine is an American girl, but in each story, there are elements of her Japanese American identity that are highlighted, whether through the central event of the book (mochi pounding at new year, or taiko drumming for the talent show) or whether a corollary, but important subplot (girls’ day and Jasmine’s daruma). While we are not Japanese American (we are Taiwanese American), the parallel journey of Jasmine as an Asian American girl helped to normalize the bicultural nature of my life that I couldn’t really embrace as a child. (It also helps that Jasmine and Jojo both love flamingos, art and adventure)

Jasmine is so different than what I remember of Claudia Kishi, from the Babysitter’s Club, the only Asian American character I remember seeing in my childhood.  Claudia seemed way cooler than I was (I was much more like her older sister, “Mean Janine”) and she also seemed able to fit in with her (almost all white) friends seamlessly, which made me wonder what was wrong with me.  I appreciate Ann M. Martin’s inclusion of Claudia and Jessi, an African American character, in the BSC series, and the way that Claudia’s character challenged expectations by being the cool artist, but I never really felt like I could relate to Claudia, although I desperately wanted her experiences to reflect mine.

The desperation of wanting to relate to Claudia parallels my sense of wanting to feel like I wasn’t alone in my experiences of not quite fitting in anywhere. Only as an adult have I come to the realization that this false sense of loneliness and isolation is indeed false. For me, this happened through my research on Asian American teachers.  I’ve been recently re-listening to the interviews that are the core of this study, and with each interview,  I am reminded that the experiences that were so isolating to me throughout my life, are actually far more common than little me ever could have imagined.  The sense of difference, the shame of my heritage language and culture as a child, the guilt that I feel as an adult at having had that shame, the desperate attempts at cultural reclamation, the long overdue (and ever evolving) sense of racial consciousness — they are all themes in my data, themes in the lives of other Asian American teachers.

Although I wish these weren’t themes in the data, there’s a strange relief in knowing I am not alone.

This reminds me of the importance of telling these stories.

This brings me back to mirrors and windows, to the parallel journeys that remind us that we are not alone, that our experiences are deeply human, and that our humanity is not lesser than that of anyone else.

I am inspired by these stories and by the hope that these stories bring, that my own children will see themselves through windows and mirrors I could only dream about.