« The non-entry | Main | Giving thanks »

Asian on the Navajo Nation

| 15 Comments

Me_and_grandpa_march_2006A month and a half ago, Chinese people around the world celebrated the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, a joyous holiday of telling legends of the Moon Lady, eating moon cakes and gathering with friends and family.

Too bad I didn't find out about it until the day after. In an e-mail. In a forwarded cartoon message from my mom.

Apparently I am not very good at being Chinese. I attended a high school with a population of about 30% Asian Americans, but had few friends of Asian descent. I subscribe to Asian American women's magazines, but am illiterate in Chinese. I minored in Asian American Studies in college and can recite historical dates and contentious issues of race, but found myself desperately thumbing through Google to figure out what the heck a Mid-Autumn Moon Festival was all about.

A year and a half ago, I would not have cared. I have spent much of the past two decades breaking away from stereotypes about Asians. I was terrible in math. I hated Hello Kitty. And while I respected my culture and loved my family, being Chinese and looking Chinese only set me apart.

But after moving to the Navajo Nation, where everything from the morning pledge to the principal's moccasins are rooted in Navajo culture and traditions, I have found myself desperately grasping for my own. When my colleagues explain the Ye'be'cheii dances, they want to hear about Chinese rituals too. When my assistant reads our students stories about the ma'ii, or coyote, in the winter months, I want to have a traditional Chinese story to share of my own. In Tohatchi, where there's a Chinese American population of one, there is no question I am different. But for some reason, highlighting my differences around here makes me more the same.

021And so that is why my mother rush-delivered two boxes of Chinese mooncakes to New Mexico the weekend after the holiday. That is why at 11:30 p.m., on a Sunday night three weeks ago, I was desperately researching on Google for Mid-Autumn Moon Festival facts to make a reading worksheet. And that is why the next day a dozen Navajo children were figuring out whether they liked red-bean mooncake, pineapple mooncake or lotus mooncake better. (Lotus won, hands down.)

I moved to New Mexico in part to learn about another culture, but ended up learning to embrace my own. Back home, public translations were always muttered and avoided. But when my grandfather visited my school last spring, I found myself loudly translating to him in Chinese without a second thought. Even my German-Italian American boyfriend was more enthusiastic of my heritage than I was and encouraged me to travel through Asia to practice the language (especially after he witnessed vendors in New York City's Chinatown complaining about my accent and syntax). Back at home, I never dared eat anything at work with soy sauce. Last week, I found myself selling kung pao chicken and rice for $2 a plate to the staff members at school. It was a hit. People are requesting egg rolls with the next lunch sale.

Diversity isn't too big on the Navajo Nation. Despite having worked at my school for a year and a half, I am still constantly asked "what" I am. That is a question I normally jump at (I'm human. What do I look like?), but people want to know. Whether I like it or not, I represent an entire race. I teach my students about Chinese culture, I feed them Chinese food and I teach them about multicultural identities. One of my proudest moments was when someone asked me, "What are you, Ms. Shyu?"

Before I had a chance to answer, one of my students in special education piped up, "She's Taiwanese American, because her parents were born in Taiwan and later moved to the United States and Ms. Shyu was born in DC. She's American. And she's Chinese. She's two things. Like us."

15 Comments

your white american boyfriend sounds like a really swell guy!

It is very interesting, we try to define who we are by trying to find commonalities with the culture we are in, but in reality we tend to learn more about the subtle differences that make "our" cultures unique (in addition to the major differences). It is also interesting to see other "mainstream" people internalize what Native American go through when we leave our homes and our reservations. It definitely is an eye opening exeperience, an experience only a few can actually live through. Think about all the teachers that travel to isolated reservations and leave after one year due to their failure to adapt...while we, Native Americans, are expected to succeed in a lifeway that we do not come from.

Living in Pennsylvania, My fellow students of Native heritage and myself, also must "represent" whether we want to or not. We have to work twice as hard just to live in both the pennsylvania world and within our own cultures and traditions. Being a "transplant" to this western culture really opened my eyes to understanding not only "Pennsylvanian", but to hold on to my own traditions.

Your boyfriend is a hunk and a half! You are one lucky woman!

Jessica, thanks so much for your blog. it's both human and thoughtful (making it pretty unique). As an off-white American teaching English in Taiwan I have some sense of the culture shock your situation must entail.

It was very interesting for me to read how you and your students are two things. In Taiwan everyone seems to be one of two things, either Taiwanese or wai guo ren. I'm interested to see what happens as Taiwan evolves; will people like me end up being American-Taiwanese?

I also wanted to ask you if you feel more accepted and comfortable on the reservation than in the larger white society. Any thoughts on that subject would be great, thanks.

Ryan

Hi Jessica!

I just read your blog and want to congratulate you. I am TFA alum (1994 Delta) and am doing some research for another project when I came up this blog. I think too often we try to overtly ignore what is most present about ourselves and our students, whether we want it to be present or not. This sort of anti-color, racial,ethnic, lingustic blind sometimes hurts us more in our classrooms then helps. Good for you for engaging in the culture conversation and hopefully moving beyond just the stereotype of "chinese" food and mooncakes to something much deeper and meaningful. It's about connections and community.

Cheers.

Count your blessings, gal ....

I am just hoping that I have such a guy !!!! I am telling you it is a rare breed.... My boyfriend cares more about his tradition.... he thinks my customs are frivolous...

Count your blessings, gal ....

I am just hoping that I have such a guy !!!! I am telling you it is a rare breed.... My boyfriend cares more about his tradition.... he thinks my customs are frivolous...

Do you believe American Indians are related to Asians?

Jessica,
loved your blog trying to get a moon Harvest Festival lesson ready myself for middle school SP. Ed boys to teach tomorrow . will read Round as a Moon Cake and maybe make a dragon with circle loops and circle head. Talk about the rebellion of the Chinese vs. the Mongols 1000 yrs ago. got the recipe
will make the cake for Josh's b -day next week.
would love to be out there w you. My neice was a few yrs back.
God bless your efforts there Jess.
patti j

Let me tell you a little story...about a young belagana who, in 1990, decided to take a job at a little lodge just across the Colorado River, near Navajo Springs; which is near Bitter Springs.

I worked with, and was befriended by, a Diné family.

Fast forward eighteen years...its the closest family I have to this day (in fact, I just received a call from one of my adopted family while writing this comment; telling me they're camping on the Paria plateau tonight).

You may physically leave the rez, but it will never leave you. Trust me on that! Maybe more importantly, the ties you made will be with you always.

You are just now beginning to count the blessings from your time on the rez. Like a fine cognac, the complexities and character of the experience will mature over time.

If you're in uncomfortable position and have no cash to move out from that point, you will require to receive the home loans. Just because that will aid you definitely. I take bank loan every single year and feel myself good because of this.

Hey very nice blog!!

Hey Girly, Y u date white gai ?

Chinese guy and his spring roll not goot enuff 4 u ?

Prease be mo chinese !

Hey Girly, Y u date white gai ?

Chinese guy and his spring roll not goot enuff 4 u ?

Prease be mo chinese !

Comments are now closed for this post.

Advertisement

Recent Comments

  • Mr Ree Kuan Yu: Hey Girly, Y u date white gai ? Chinese guy read more
  • Mr Ree Kuan Yu: Hey Girly, Y u date white gai ? Chinese guy read more
  • Golden Bolf: Hey very nice blog!! read more
  • MadelineAlvarez25: If you're in uncomfortable position and have no cash to read more
  • Robert: Let me tell you a little story...about a young belagana read more

Archives

Categories

Technorati

Technorati search

» Blogs that link here

Tags

Pages