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Saturday, 28 May 2016

Whose Stories Matter?

A few months after I started teaching at an international school in Singapore, I sat down at my desk with a cup of hot coffee and a pile of short stories that my ninth graders had written.

The first story was about a New Yorker named Joe who is caught in the middle of a gory murder mystery. At one point in the story, Joe runs his hands through his light brown hair in an exasperated gesture, as his blue-gray eyes twinkle. Joe is clearly White.

The second story was a tragic narrative about a young teenage girl named Sienna who is grieving over the loss of her mother. Over the course of the story, Sienna meets a young man named Steve, who offers her comfort. Early in the story, Sienna’s blonde hair flies in the wind, and later, she glances at Steve, and her soft hazel eyes meet his piercing blue ones. Clearly, Sienna and Steve are both White too.

Here’s the interesting part: both these stories were written by Asian students who had spent their entire lives in Asia. As I worked my way through the pile, I realized that all my students – my Chinese students, Korean students, Indian students, and Japanese students -- had crafted Caucasian characters in Western settings. This particular class was about 70% Asian, and many of my students had previously attended local Chinese and Indian schools. Yet every single story had a White protagonist.

I was surprised. In a decade of teaching White students in the US, I never had a single White student write a story about a non-White protagonist. In contrast, year after year in Singapore, all my Asian students write stories about White characters in Western settings. The default character, at least as teenagers see it, is a White one. And the default setting seems to be a place in America or Europe.

I joked about this with my students when I returned their stories: Who’s going to tell me a story set in Singapore with a protagonist named Mustafa or Mei-Jia? Don’t Asians fall in love, solve mysteries, and deal with conflicts? Don’t Asians have stories to tell too? Some of my students laughed; others shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

Had they, through a steady consumption of Western children’s books and Western media, internalized the belief that stories about Whites are better stories? Visit any toyshop or bookshop in India or Singapore, and you will encounter blonde haired dolls, Ladybird readers with Peter and Jane, and posters of smiling White children playing and reading.

Or, was their choice of Western characters and settings actually a function of the language that they were writing in? Would an Indian child writing in Hindi craft a story about a Caucasian named Joe who lives in New York City? If my Korean student were writing in Korean instead of English, would she have been more likely to set her story in Seoul and narrate a romance between Ji Hoon and Min Seo? Would Singaporean children writing stories in their mother tongue – Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil – create White characters in Western settings? Perhaps the issue was that the history and culture associated with the English language somehow demanded the protagonists be Western.

I am not sure whether my students’ inability to imagine Asian characters in Asian settings is a function of the language in which they are writing or of their social conditioning. Perhaps it is a blend of both. What I do know, however, is that my Asian students respond very well to books by Asian authors set in Asian contexts. And I also know, as an English teacher who scours libraries and online book shops for titles, that there are too few Asian books for children. When my students read stories by Amy Tan, they nod and laugh, as they recognize the foods, smells, tastes, and sounds that Tan describes. When they discuss the mother-daughter relationships in her books, they often say things like, “that sounds so familiar.”

I see this recognition in my own children’s reading experiences as well. When I buy picture books with Indian protagonists and Indian settings for my daughter, she scrutinizes the pictures carefully. She loves the pictures of mischievous Neil Hariharan in Anushka Sankar’s humorous book “Excuses, Excuses.” And when she first encountered Pooja Makhijani’s book, “My Mother’s Saris,” she turned to me and said, “the girl looks like me.”

Moving to Singapore jolted me into recalibrating my own storytelling. Of all the recent stories I’ve concocted for my daughter, her favorite is about a beautiful fairy named Sarita who has chocolate brown skin and long black hair that shimmers like black silk. Sarita is queen of the fairies in Fairyland, and she, together with her band of fairy friends, manages to defeat evil witches, tame terrible monsters, and save Fairyland from all sorts of awful fates. Often my daughter becomes a character in the story as she too somehow ends up in Fairyland to help Sarita in her magical quests.

Given that many Asian students, particularly in Singapore and India, live and study in English speaking contexts, maybe it’s time we provide them with English stories that are set in Asia so that they begin to see English as a global language that they can claim as their own, a global language that can tell their stories as well as it tells the stories of Joe, Sienna, and Steve.

Our children deserve a wide range of children’s literature about Asian characters in Asian countries. We need to write and publish these stories for them, both in English and in Asian languages.

My hope is that down the road when I grade my students’ stories, I will be able to read about Li Jing’s search for love as her black hair flies in the wind and Hassan’s brilliance at solving mysteries as he navigates the back lanes of Kampong Glam in Singapore.