Letter to Younger Self
"Creative Corner" contribution by Elisabeth L. Chan, George Mason University
Dear Younger Me,
Wow, it’s been a minute. I’m a professor now... Can you believe it? Oh, and I decided to go back to school and get my Ph.D. Crazy, right? I know this is not what you had in mind for us. Haha… This is a little awkward, but I need to say…
I’m sorry. I hated and rejected many parts of you. I had some misguided notions about what you were supposed to be- how you didn’t fit inside dominant white norms of society. I didn’t accept you for who you were, and that’s my bad. I now draw strength from us as a whole, less fractured person.
I remember you denying your heritage, refusing to say you were Chinese when people asked where you were from, saying instead you were from Tennessee (which you are), your mom was from New Jersey (which she is), and your dad was from Britain (well, a British colony).
Years from now, you’ll learn there’s nothing wrong with your Chinese-ness. It will become a source of pride in family and in yourself. You’ll be able to say the words “I’m Asian American” and eventually even “I am Chinese”... aloud... without hesitancy.
The loss of your heritage culture and the struggle and journey to regain it will fuel and shape your PhD studies and your teaching philosophy. Rooting yourself in your culture will help you find your way to critical narrative methodologies. Knowing yourself and accepting yourself- your epistemological and ontological commitments- will lay a strong foundation for your identity as an activist-researcher and critical educator.
I honor your memory. You’ve been gone for many years now. I still hear a whisper of you, catch a shadow of you, here and there. I actually think about you often. I reflect on the lessons you taught me and how I have grown.
Schooling was painful. You hardly saw yourself represented. Well, last year we got our first Chinese version of Little House YA novel, so it’s just decades too late for you. I mean, I still read it, though, and thought how great it would have been for you.
You made yourself sick over grades. I’m sure it started when that white teacher called you and a white student to the side only to tell you that she beat you for top score in the class by like a point. I know you were thinking, “What was the point of calling you over in the first place just to tell you that?”
I know school has always been super important to you. Don’t worry. It still is. You are an educator now after all... but you problematize schooling now. All. The. Time.
You’ll learn about the forms of systemic racism infused in schooling and academia, and engage in ways of problematizing your own role within it as an educator and educational researcher as you continue building networks and exploring ways to transform schooling. Education has roots in white supremacy with a controlling, punitive-focused lens, of which grades are a part. Grades are often arbitrary and place unnecessary institutional stress and pressure on nonconformers. Grades don’t represent your self-worth. The letters that will matter more for you are B.S., M.A., Ph.D. In the end, you’ll realize grades aren’t as important as the network of people you know.
Thank you. You endured many hardships because of the uncertainty that you felt about who we were- racially, ethnically, culturally. These blows hardened you and strengthened us- we became resilient.
Remember when that guy asked if you could speak Chinese, and you were like, “no,” and he was like, “What a shame”? You got mad because you didn’t feel that you should feel shame for speaking English and not Chinese. Well… I have to say, I kind of agree with him, not because you should feel shame, but because the ways that the hegemony of English and societal structures, including schooling, robbed you of that piece of your heritage is shameful. I wish you didn’t wait until your late twenties to learn about your history of Chinese Americans in the U.S., the Chinese Exclusion Act, but especially the Mississippi Delta Chinese. It’s your history. It’s our history.
Maya Angelou*** said, “The more you know of your history, the more liberated you are.” Knowing there was a community with a history where you and your family fit would have tempered your resilience sooner, more evenly, less damaging-ly than the discriminatory, challenge-laden path you eventually wound your way down, getting closer to realizing your full potential.
Some say they wouldn’t trade all the pain and struggle because it made them who they are. You would probably agree with that, but I disagree with you. I would trade some of the trauma. The ends do not justify the means. You are already the great/grand/daughter of immigrants = strong. You would still become stronger, but you would draw your strength from different sources, like your heritage.
One of your strengths has been just taking chances and opportunities as they arise without overanalyzing the uncertainties that lie ahead. As you do that, surround yourself with good people. It will be harder for you to find mentors, so seek them out. Practice being confident, asking questions, and speaking up to find your voice.
Your older, somewhat wiser self
***Norman, C. (2012). Maya Angelou public radio special: Award-winning poet on why Black history month still matters.
Elisabeth L. Chan has over 15 years of experience as an English language educator. She has advocated for, presented, researched, and published on social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion in TESOL, where she draws upon her lived experiences as a second/fourth-generation Chinese American from the U.S. South. She is currently ABD and "dissertating" at George Mason University, specializing in Multilingual/Multicultural Education with a secondary in Interdisciplinary Critical Perspectives and Social Policy. She strives to center intersectionality, criticality, and relationality in her research.