On my way to Minnesota, I was stuck en route in Atlanta.  In a red hoodie and jeans, I must’ve looked like a kid, as I wheeled my bag outside to find the shuttle to my hotel.  While rummaging through my paperwork to find which hotel Airtran had stuck me in, I was accosted by a man who stood uncomfortably close to me.  Reading my sweatshirt, he immediately said, “Hey, California!  You’ve come a long way!  Are you looking for a place to stay?”

His polo shirt said that he was the shuttle driver from a Motel 8.  I looked at him, said no and that I had a hotel.  The man didn’t leave.  Instead he asked, “Where are you from?”  At this point, I knew he was probably hitting on me and I was getting annoyed at how persistent he was being.

I replied rather coldly, “Rochester.”  He then said, “No, where are your parents from?”

Pretending to be busy on my phone, I said, “Vietnam.”

Still persistent, he said something in what I had assumed to be butchered Vietnamese and asked, “Is that right?”

I didn’t know how to get rid of him, so I lied and said, “I don’t speak Vietnamese.” and then proceeded to ignore him, which made him finally go away.  After I said that, I felt a sense of shame, as if lying about my Vietnamese fluency was a denial of being Vietnamese.

I’m still contemplating about this moment, because I am not sure whether this is something most women are used to encountering, or whether it is unique to my Asianness.  When I am “hit on” by men, they are usually of a different race, and suddenly my own race becomes an important point of discussion.  I recall one time when a worker in his thirties actually approached my father and asked if he could date me.  At that time, I was an intern at Fort Ord, and seventeen.  You can only imagine the pure anger and dislike my father had of the man after that, although I suppose in this man’s mind, he thought it was an appropriate thing to do.  I was told by my father to never approach this person, even though he worked in the same office.  Like a good little girl, I listened, even to the point that I had to tell my supervisor, who had asked me to retrieve a map from the man, that I did not feel comfortable around that man.

The issue of race, nationality, and the assumption that I am a small, soft spoken Asian female have always come to question for me.  Because I don’t look black or white, people assume that I must be a foreigner.  I remember in my junior high French class, a classmate asked me what my nationality was.  I said I was American.  She replied, “No, I’m an American.  What are you?”  This became a very interesting discussion in my small group, and I pointed out that American meant citizenship, and nothing more.  To her however, “American” was equated to being white.

At the American Evaluator’s Association conference, I ran into an older Asian man who sort of reminded me of my father.  He asked me where I was from, to which I replied, “Rochester.”  I waited for him to ask more about my nationality, but instead he nodded in a friendly way, accepting my response.  When I asked him where he came from, he said Brazil.  I must’ve had a look of surprise, because afterwards he said, “I know, you probably thought I was Japanese.”  Initially, I thought he was kidding.  It wasn’t until after the session, when we exchanged business cards, that I found out his first name was Oswaldo, and that he taught at the University of San Paulo in Brazil.

Ha!  The tables had been turned!  I, normally the victim in of mistaken citizenship has suddenly fallen to my own assumptions about him.  It was a very humbling moment.

Later I found out that Oswaldo’s parents were from Japan, and that he was brought up in Brazil.  Although he could understand Japanese, he could not speak it, and was fluent in Portuguese and English.  We had an interesting conversation about culture – the fact that both of us were hybrids.  Our parents chose to “blend” into American (or Brazilian) culture, deliberately isolating us from our native cultures in order to adopt the new and be assimilated successfully.  This left us both with a feeling of disconnectedness from our native cultures.  Although could relate to both, it felt like things were missing; that we didn’t, and don’t fully belong to either culture completely.  In college, I was often referred to affectionately as a “banana” – yellow on the outside, and white on the in.  Because I did not, and could not relate to the “Vietnamese” crowd, I was “not Vietnamese enough” as my cousin used to say.  However my appearance, and my unique background – the very assimilation of American culture leaves me not entirely “white” American either.  I am on the edge of both cultures, often relating to either one or the other, depending on the situation.

In reading Settlage and Southerland, we as teachers bridge two cultures – that of the students, and that of the culture of science.  Our assumptions, based on appearance, the nuance of language, and our bias affects how we may act with our students.  Being between two cultures, as they are in the classroom, may give our students a feeling of disconnectedness as well.  A question that they may have (and one that I have asked myself many times) is, “Can I live in both?  Or, must I decide between one or the other in order to fully belong?”  There’s no cut and dried answer to this, and the answer sometimes is very personal, individualized and contextual.

As I’ve learned from Oswaldo, the only way to develop and nurture these new cultural understandings (and the ways in which they play) is to provide opportunities for our students to talk about themselves, and to recognize and value what they say.  In doing so, we learn about each other.  In the plenary talk by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, author of “Decolonizing Methodologies,” she spoke of “negotiated space,” that special space that bridges one culture and the other, where both meet and mix in dynamic ways that can provide opportunities for constructive dialogs.  This negotiated space is in our classrooms.  When we provide spaces for students to talk, and where their input is equally valued, respected and recognized, our entire community benefits from new understandings.

This is not so different from Gee’s (2003) projective identity space – that place where students interface between their “real-world identities and the virtual identity” (p. 66) – virtual identity being the identity of the scientist.  When this happens, when students dialogue and negotiate their own projected identities, they have the potential of actually taking these virtual identities on – gaining skills and the critical thinking that is embedded with these virtual identities.  As Gee says, “something magic happens.”

It is this negotiation, the ability to recognize our cultures, and to talk about them in nurturing spaces that enable and empower us to grow beyond our “real-world identities.”  Even so, just like my negotiation of Asian-American cultural identity, this becomes an ongoing process that is dynamic, complex, and transformative.

I went back home to Vietnam for the first time when I was seventeen for my grandfather’s funeral.  It was as much a foreign experience for me, as it was for my family, who had only known me when I had been a tiny baby.  My voice was hoarse because they wanted me to speak in my heavily accented (with English) Vietnamese, and oftentimes talked about how I walked and acted differently, like an American.

Shortly after my grandfather was buried, my mother took my grandmother, aunt and cousin out to the gravesite, to the monastery that was on the property.  While the adults talked, my cousin, who is my age, and I decided to go explore a rice field – something that I had never seen up close before, and neither did she!  We were both city girls, although in two completely different cities.  Upon walking out into the field, we got stuck into the mud that went up literally to our knees.  I remember how the mud sucked off her flip flop, and we had to go fish for it.  By the time we got back to the monastery, both of us were covered in mud and laughing hysterically at the experience while the monks washed us off with cold buckets of well water.  I remember the experience poignantly, because for the first time, I saw my cousin for who she really was to me – family.  In struggling in the mud, I forgot about being a foreign American, and was able to share a very memorable experience that finally made Vietnam feel like home, and my Vietnamese family feel like family for the first time.  It was an opportunity, an experience for me that bridged beyond both cultures.

The shared experiences we provide in the classroom are ways to bridge the gap between cultures.  It is the act of transformation, that ongoing state of becomming that I would call meaningful learning.