HomeCampusApplesauce: On becoming an Asian American teacher

Applesauce: On becoming an Asian American teacher

By Nathan Reddy, Community Works Institute

I wrote my college essay—the one I sent to all colleges—on my leading a “bi-cultural life.” The gist of it was that I was immersed in an American culture at school, and an Indian culture at home. It was an extremely simplistic rendering of the complex dynamics children of immigrants navigate. For the supplemental essay for the university I ended up attending, Cornell, I said I wanted to be a clinical psychologist specializing in the psychological traumas of young Asian Americans, being bold enough to cite the alarming number of Asian American students ending their own lives at Cornell.

The juxtaposition of my common essay, which depicted a seemingly innocuous life led by children of immigrants, and the supplemental admission that such a life was not so innocuous after all must have been jarring for the reader. In any case, I was admitted despite the  glaring discrepancy, and six tumultuous years later, I have decided my true calling is to be a teacher. An elementary school teacher to be exact. What changed my mind? Despite the overwhelming figure of the selfless teacher, the move I made to become a teacher involved some intrinsic motivation, and it’s that motivation which convinced me it was worth it to enter an elementary school teacher preparation program starting this summer.

As someone who has experienced suicidal thoughts before, primarily throughout my college years, I have come to a different understanding of what suicide expresses. From a deficit point of view, the Asian American college students who ended their life were broken. This is the conception I was working with when I wrote my supplemental essay, and mental brokenness is the assumption made of people in general by an uncritical clinical psychology. Now, however, I look beyond the physical act of suicide and towards what it expresses: a broken society. Everyone undergoes the process of dehumanization as they progress through this society, and suicide, at least for those Asian American college students and many others, is an act of protest. An expression towards no expression at all.

If you’re considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at  1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Suicide is a dramatic example, it is the ultimate example as well. Even in the most dire of situations, more often than not people make the choice to live. But living within a broken society, we slowly join the ranks of the living dead as the innocence and beauty of childhood slowly, but at an increasingly rapid rate, ebbs away.

My mom loves an anecdote that my kindergarten teacher once told her. I was a child that was excited to experience even the mundane aspects of life, and the daily reminder of that was my visible excitement in opening and enjoying my applesauce. Since then, my mom has asked me innumerable times, “where is the child who loved applesauce?” It wasn’t so much the act of eating applesauce that my teacher was spotlighting, but my anticipation in doing so. I had something to look forward to every single day that I knew would make my day brighter and my life worth it: applesauce.

I learned to ignore my mom’s queries about where the boy who loved applesauce went, so I never told her that my taste for applesauce never wavered. I would eat a bucket-full right now if it was available. What changed was my continual graduation into a life filled with the woes and worries that beset a middle-class Asian American youth. My parents like to say they didn’t ask me to be pre-med when I started college, but the overarching culture, or ideology, of middle-class Asian America which identifies one’s worth with the level of formal education they attained, with doctorhood being the pinnacle, was more powerful than an explicit ask. All of my parents’ friends’ children were either doctors or in the process of earning their MD. I’m not doubting their intrinsic love of medicine, but I would bet that they know what I’m talking about when I say no one asked me to become a doctor nor did I have any desire to, but I figured I should become one.

Education slowly became about social advancement, not the art and science of learning about and living life. I loved to anticipate applesauce because I could be completely immersed in the act of eating it. In a way, I would like to return to the elementary school classroom to re-attain this aspect of childhood that I haven’t felt since, well, childhood. Well, that’s not true. I experience happiness intermittently, but it’s fleeting. When it does happen, though, I cherish it and relive it in my darker moments. I will become happier through my eventual work with human beings who haven’t completely undergone spiritual disfigurement yet: my future students. I hope to share many happy moments with them. Losing human spirit isn’t a process exclusive to Asian Americans, in fact, I project it will become increasingly more inclusive as society “progresses,” but my main job as a teacher will be to validate every single one of my students’ “applesauce” moments, and as I hinted, create some of our own. I hope to impart the importance of remembering and cherishing those moments as one gets older and more “mature” (read: more dispirited). I would like to teach them that no matter how old they get, and how entrenched life may seem, there will always be moments of pure joy and learning to look forward to. Moments of sheer, childlike wonder that feed the soul. How will I have kindergarteners, or even sixth graders (undecided as to the grade I will teach) come to these conclusions?

One important consideration is pedagogy, but it’s also important to remember that although my personal philosophy will inform my pedagogy in conscious and unconscious ways, it’s not up to me what exact conclusions my students come to. As an educator, my job is to be a guide through their own journey towards self-knowledge, not a depositor of sterile knowledge, the latter of which makes up the bulk of education now. The magic of my philosophy on life is that it’s not a directive, but simply a celebration of life and learning. I don’t know how I will teach yet, but I know I will focus on moments. It will be a pedagogy of having my students experience, and feel free to experience, profound moments which will lead them to their own conclusions about themselves and their world. My only directions are that they understand the value and sort out the significance of these moments while they experience them, and recall these reflections when they need to, thus strengthening them with age and rekindling their desire to forge on. Kind of like what I’m doing through this essay. Their reasons—and my reason—to live. Our applesauce. I know this much about how I want to teach, and it’s what being an Asian American teacher means to me.

About the Author: Nathan Reddy recently graduated from Cornell with a BA in American Studies, with minors in Asian American Studies and Public Service Studies. At the same time of graduation, he had also completed the Cornell Public Service Center Scholars Program, the University’s service-learning program which he says, “personally made college worth it, intrinsically and because it inspired me to become an educator myself.”  He says that this essay chronicles his experience details as someone with an Asian American identity grounded in service-learning principles, and how that perspective informs the way he operates in the world, now and in the future. Nathan is a regular contributor to Community Works Journal and is currently a Fellow with Community Works Institute (CWI). He is currently pursuing his masters in education at the University of Virginia.

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