On December 3, 2009 at South Philadelphia High School, 26 Asian immigrant students were assaulted by classmates, the majority of them African American. Thirteen of those attacked ended up in the emergency room.
The Hyphen Magazine article “Are You Picking On Me?” by Helen I. Hwang goes in detail and in depth about the event and what went down that tragic day. What’s most disturbing is the way the district and the school handled the situation that day and the long time problem of bullying of API heritage students at that campus. There was an attempt to mute the race-based aspect of the bullying and attacks, and 80 API students had to boycott the school and have outside community support and intervention in order change the unsafe environment that was specifically and especially hostile to API.
Having been a public school teacher, I’m especially disappointed and offended by such poor handling of the race tensions in a public school environment by the faculty, staff, and administration at the school.
Every single American of Asian Pacific Islander heritage I know has a story about how they were made fun of, psychologically abused, and even physically assaulted based on their race, and now Asian American students are officially the most bullied group in the nation.
It’s hard to come across an API who hasn’t experienced race-based bullying, but for all of you who were left out, there’s always Rush Limbaugh mock-imitating Chinese President Hu Jintao or the infamous racist UCLA girl.
So the question is, how do we solve this problem? There are many possible solutions, but one obvious and core solution is the “authority” adult figures in schools must lead the way. The school staff and faculty as well as district response plays a central role in fostering a safe learning environment and teaching the next generation what it means to be a citizen of the world.
I’d like to present my own experience with race-based bullying in some more detail as a casual anecdotal case study to illustrate how the school faculty and staff can have an ENORMOUS impact on setting the tone and stage for student-to-student interaction. For elementary school, I went to a small private Christian school in a Los Angeles County community that had very few Asian heritage Americans living in the area.
First, let’s start with the bullying.
“Ching chong ching chong wing wong long!”
I was six years old and the only kid of Asian heritage at my entire elementary school, and this little kindergarten Caucasian boy was trying to convince me he could speak Chinese.
“I can speak Chinese! See? Ching chong wing wong!” He broke out laughing with great amusement.
I looked down at him with disdain. I thought, Who does this little kinder think he is anyways? Messing with me when I’m a 1st grader and older than him…
“Look kid,” I said in perfect Los Angeles English, “I can speak Chinese, and I don’t understand a word you’re saying. So you can’t speak Chinese.”
“Yes I can! Yes I can! CHING CHONG!” He laughed nervously and less energetically after this attempt to reassert himself, realizing there was some logic to what I was saying. In retrospect, I’m sure he was mimicking adults somewhere in his life who were probably making fun of me and my family in front of him. Needless to say, he never bothered me again after that.
I was probably the first person of Asian heritage that many of my classmates and friends had ever interacted with. And, of course, I was asked if I was related to Bruce Lee.
“Yes. He’s my uncle,” I lied. I had an uncle in Taiwan who was a black belt in tae kwon do. Close enough.
“Oh yeah? How come you don’t have the same last name as him?”
“He’s my uncle. Do you have the same last name as all of your uncles?”
That ended there as well. Or did it? In another possibly related event, another classmate asked me if I knew karate.
“Yes. Yes I do,” I lied. After watching kid-kung-fu classics Young Dragons and 7 Lucky Ninja Kids I had asked my parents if I could take karate lessons, but we couldn’t afford it (and they thought I was too boyish already and discouraged it).
“Prove it!” he demanded.
Not knowing any martial arts or even how to make a proper fist, I grabbed the poor boy by the shirt. I couldn’t bring myself to actually hit him, so I shook him around a bit, and a button popped off his shirt. He burst into tears and went crying to the teacher (who happened to be his mom. *GULP*), quickly dragging her over to me. I was still standing there stunned, sure I had just bought myself a one-way ticket to the Principal’s office.
“SHE DID KARATE ON ME!” he wailed.
She looked at me, then back at him, then back at me.
“Did you do karate on him?”
In a moment of panic, the only thing I could do was tell the truth.
“I don’t know any karate.”
Staring at both of us for another moment, I saw a faint smile creep across her face. She tried to look firm.
“Okay, nobody does karate on anyone else, got it?”
I nodded in shock as she walked away, letting me off scot-free.
The worst bullying I dealt with was this upper-elementary girl, about two years older than me, who started singling me out at the playground and around school. She started by staring me down for no reason for a few weeks. Then one day she came up to me and pointedly said,
“I don’t like you.”
At that young age, I wasn’t exactly sure why she would single me out out of all people. I didn’t even know her or talk to her before she started to bother me.
“I just don’t.”
After that, she started to put her hands in front of her in prayer position and bow to me whenever she saw me.
“Shalom,” she would say. She did that a few more times throughout our encounters at school.
I was utterly perplexed. Did she think “shalom” was Chinese?
Then, she started physically pushing me whenever she saw me. At first it was just a light pushing. I would just be standing somewhere and then suddenly get pushed (bad ninja skills, I know), and I’d turn around and see her staring at me with that dry I-hate-you look on her face.
Finally, she went too far. I was standing in line on the concrete walkway with my classmates after recess, waiting to be lead to our classroom by our teacher, who hadn’t arrived yet. Suddenly, she came up to me and shoved me, causing me to fall on the concrete.
I stood back up and looked her angrily in the eyes.
“Why are you so mean to me? I never did anything to you!”
At first, I thought I was going to have to duke it out with her right there and then. She had no change in response to my question, just the same stoic look of hate she always gave me. But then my friends and classmates spoke up.
“Yeah! She didn’t do anything to you! Why did you push her! That’s just mean!”
She glanced over at them as they bore down on her with angry faces, totally backing me up. She was older, and we were definitely shorter than her, but strength in numbers I suppose.
“I don’t know, I just feel like it,” she said, and then she turned and left, her expression still the same, but her eyes looking down instead of right at me. After that, she never bothered me again.
When asked about my experiences with racism growing up, I used to say that I was just too clueless to know I was being picked on because of my race, which was true, but now that I’ve been a teacher myself and know a little more about the world, I realize the teachers and the staff had played a HUGE role in my being able to get by relatively unscathed.
At various times throughout my elementary school experience being the only Asian around, different adults at the school made a targeted effort to create a safe and accepting environment for me to thrive in.
My very first day at the school, I remember my 1st grade teacher introducing me to the class, explaining to them that I was of Chinese descent, and she asked me if I knew any Chinese and if I would teach the class. Being the attention-hog that I was (and still am), I was thrilled to get up in front of the class and teach them the only two Chinese characters I knew: big and small. At 6 years old, it was my very first experience teaching a class of students, and well, being a full fledged educator today, you can see how that affected my future.
At another time, I recall feeling particularly down at lunch time because my lunch was totally different from everyone else’s lunch. No one was picking on me or anything, I just became painfully aware of how everyone else had sandwiches and Caprisun or Hi-C while I had a carton of asparagus juice with a bowl of last night’s leftover fried rice. Just as I was losing my appetite, a teacher walked by us in the lunch room, looked down at my lunch and said in a loud voice that rang through the whole cafeteria, “You get Chinese food for lunch? WOW! I wish I could have Chinese food for lunch.” And that was it. Suddenly I had the coolest lunch in the room, and cold fried rice never tasted so good.
Then there was the teacher who’s son I had my first non-existent sparing session with. She could very well have dragged me to the Principal’s office and lodged a full complaint about me being violent on the playground, but somehow, I got the feeling she knew the whole ordeal and happened because of racial misunderstanding, and she simply wagged her finger in a light warning before dragging her son off to the bathroom to clean his tear-streaked face.
The adults didn’t just do it for me, the Asian kid. When a new Armenian heritage student joined our class, I remember the teacher asking her if she knew and would sing an Armenian prayer song for the class. She smiled shyly, but I could tell she was so proud to share. When she was done singing, our teacher put her hand over her heart and breathed out with so much emotion, “That was so beautiful.” I remember thinking, “Gee, I wish I was Armenian.”
If this environment of love and acceptance had not been created by the teachers and staff, I wouldn’t have had such a wonderful childhood there, being so different from everyone and yet totally part of the crowd. Most of the time, I wasn’t thinking about how I was the Asian kid. I was just another kid, just like everyone else even when I wasn’t. If such a positive tone hadn’t been set by the adults, I’m sure no one would’ve backed me up when the situation with the older bully started to escalate to physical violence. I wouldn’t be telling you about my experiences with an amused smile on my face, because nothing would have been funny about being treated like a freak or pushed around for being different and having to face all of it alone. Even worse, to be blamed for it happening.
Unfortunately, that’s what happened at South Philadelphia High School.
I was told once that as the teacher, I would be the weather in the classroom. I think that’s an excellent description of just how much impact teachers and other adult figures at school have on the sort of environment our young grow in. Love, respect, and open-mindedness is an integral part of any curriculum. Education that does not reach beyond just facts and figures, that is not human at the very core, is no education at all.