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.

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