How My Voice As an Asian American Teacher Goes Unheard — and Why I Can’t...

Voices | Diversity and Equity

How My Voice As an Asian American Teacher Goes Unheard — and Why I Can’t Speak Up

By Michael Paul Ida     Jan 31, 2024

How My Voice As an Asian American Teacher Goes Unheard — and Why I Can’t Speak Up

This story was published by a Voices of Change fellow. Learn more about the fellowship here.

“Okay! Let’s wrap up our conversations and get back together!”

As the small group discussion portion of the PD session I was attending ended, an overwhelming feeling of relief came over me. Had I stayed in the session any longer, I might’ve had to slip out of the meeting room and find a hidden spot to cry; not tears of joy, per se, but frustration — frustration I often feel when squeezed out of conversations. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say or don’t have the words, but I’m selective in how and when I speak, and that doesn’t always conform to the group environment.

While many might find it incomprehensible that a small group discussion between teachers evokes anything other than fun, fellowship and camaraderie, I find these spaces to be extremely isolating when I am the only Asian educator. Whether I’m in an online breakout room, an in-person small group or a turn-and-talk, when I’m with teachers who are coming at me from a non-Asian, Continental, mostly suburban perspective, I know I’ll end up on the receiving end of people talking at me and not to me.

If it were just me, then my own personality and temperament would be to blame, but it’s not just me. There are enough of my local, Asian American colleagues with similar stories that suggest it could be something rooted in our identity and not just who we are as individuals.

As an Asian American teacher, I believe I have a responsibility to carry the stories of my students and my community to spaces where there is little understanding of either — even when there are no students present — so our schools and classrooms can speak authentically to the diverse experiences of Asian American students and teachers.

While not every teacher from the mainland will have Asian and Pacific Islander students or work closely with Asian Americans from Hawaii, our experiences and perspectives are part of the American story. When you tell our stories, I want you to tell them with fidelity. I want you to remember that there are humans behind these stories. First, however, I need a chance to speak.

Authentically Asian and Fully American

Hawaii is where I grew up unabashedly Asian, yet fully American. Being several generations removed from our ancestral homelands, my family — like most of those I grew up around — did not feel the same need to assimilate compared to those in diaspora communities on the mainland. Instead, we melded into a distinct culture through the sugar plantation experience of our great-grandparents, with each ethnic community retaining its identity and cohesion and resisting the pressure to completely lose either through assimilation.

The decade I spent studying and living on the mainland made me realize just how different our perspectives are, and the differences between our communication styles. Whereas those raised with a Western cultural ethos are more independent, outspoken and desirous that their voices be heard, I was raised with a completely different cultural ethos, one that puts a premium on self-effacing humility. I was taught to defer to others and to let everyone else speak before speaking myself. Honestly, just talking about myself in general makes me uncomfortable sometimes. It feels like bragging, and bragging is one of the most grievous social sins you can commit in my culture.

While neither communication style is objectively better or worse than the other, my world is one in which my ways of sharing and being heard are very much at odds with the dominant culture of the West, leaving me outnumbered and in the minority. When there is an unconscious expectation that the voices of those who look like you are the only ones that are heard and prioritized, everything and everyone else becomes an outlier and an anomaly.

One of One and One of Many

In school and among my fellow teachers and educators, there are spaces in which I am the only Asian American born and raised in Hawaii, and spaces where I am one of many; in these “only-one” spaces, discussions often follow a predictable trajectory. Even before the group has convened, teachers will begin introducing themselves and connecting in pairs or triplets from which I always end up excluded. Whether there are specific protocols in place is generally irrelevant as discussion proceeds in a freewheeling manner, with some teachers speaking for disproportionately long stretches and others opportunistically interjecting themselves into the flow. Inevitably, time will run out with everyone else having had a chance to share, except for me, left to speak when no one else seems to care — or even notice.

Asian invisibility has been described as the phenomenon by which our individual ethnic identities are overshadowed by a more pervasive, dominant-culture stereotype. These stereotypes often manifest when we are confused for one another or we are all assumed to be the same interchangeable person. My experience is akin to what a colleague described as, “people seeing right through you” — literal invisibility and non-personhood. These feelings are confirmed in the rare instances I am able to get a word in, edgewise. In these instances, my contributions are often met with awkward silences and downcast eyes, almost as if a ghost has just spoken.

My experiences in “one-of-many” spaces, however, are in stark contrast. With local Hawaii educators, regardless of whether we know each other or not, conversations feel much more relaxed and equitable. Yes, there are still those who will tend to talk more than others, but there is also less of a need for people to prove themselves.

Upon meeting the other members of my department when I was hired as a new teacher, I discovered that one of the veteran teachers was my parents’ high school classmate, another teacher lived within a mile of where I had grown up, and a fellow first-year teacher went to school with my cousin and got engaged to my cousin’s golf partner.

As serendipitous as these connections seem, this is indicative of the local community and culture of Hawaii. There’s a mutual respect that I don’t sense in other spaces. It is a respect born of a multi-ethnic island culture in which people from different backgrounds have had generations to find a way to live cheek-by-jowl with each other, and in which there is just a degree or two of separation between you and the person sitting next to you in a group discussion.

In this kind of environment, I feel safe to speak up. Then again, given that I spend most of my time in predominantly white spaces with teachers from the mainland, these spaces are usually the exception, and far from the norm.

We’re Stronger When All Our Voices Are Heard

As a teacher, I wear multiple hats: not only in my classroom with my students but also as a public figure. As the 2023 Hawaii State Teacher of the Year, I am the human face of my school and community. I have had the opportunity to participate in professional gatherings with teacher leaders from across the country, and I feel the weight of the responsibility to bring our perspective to the table. Our cultural perspective as educators born and raised in Hawaii is a singularly significant one, and our perspective as Asian American teachers is one that can enrich the national conversation on race, ethnicity and identity for all of our students.

We are a multi-ethnic community living in a small geographic area and we know a thing or two about building relationships and respecting differences. In order for that perspective to be heard, teachers must form the vanguard; teachers who are willing to listen — and I mean, really listen — to the voices of Asian American teachers like me.

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