Cycle 2: Cultural Assimilation & Social Mobility

The story of Richard Rodriquez’s education in Hunger of Memory resonated with me on several aspects in various levels. His writing provoked me to contemplate the role of ethnicity in my education, gave me a refreshing perspective in my current position as a farang, and insight into the standards I wish to hold myself by in my future teaching.

As a biracial Hispanic living in the United States I always felt as if I had something to prove in order to deem myself an “authentic Mexican”. More times than not I feel this works as compensation for my inability to speak Spanish. My mother is white and by the time my Mexican father was born, my grandparents immigrated to Michigan prior to his birth, his siblings had begun to assimilate into American culture, this including language. In reading this article I found Rodriquez’s stance on public versus private space very interesting, “I’d wait to hear her voice return to soft-sounding Spanish, which assured me, as surely did the clicking tongue of the lock on the door, that the stranger was gone” (p. 16). The comfort children find in the privacy of their home is not cultural, it is simply an aspect of childhood; however, having language resonate that strongly with such a young child will inevitably cause an effect on their education. Within the realms of education, teachers have been taught the importance of building a classroom community and a place for discussion to flourish. But when our classrooms are as diverse in their language as they are in their individuals, how can create such an environment? Rodriquez is right in understanding the differentiation between private and public space, but as an educator, it is my hope that school is a different category entirely. School is one of those rare places where public and private spheres are mixed, a different type of community is created. For a young Rodriquez to place school in the category of public only proves his personal needs were not being met in education.

Although I traveled to Thailand as a teacher, I find myself more in the shoes of a learner. There have been so many moments where I found myself empathetic thinking about the previous foreign exchange students I observed in college. Just as Rodriquez found himself surrounded by speakers of Spanish and away from gringos, I find myself venturing to locations where I know their will be speakers of English. I was also curious about the large population of Asian students at Michigan State are what appeared to be their concerning need to only spend time with one another. But as I find myself in a similar situation I realize the importance of familiarity. As much as I wish to immerse myself in different culture, sometimes, at the end of a long day all I want to do is go somewhere with English speakers and eat western food; it is just easier that way. So too I feel this is the case with not only Rodriquez, foreign exchange students in the United States and myself, but with the world of language. It is less complicated to communicate when language isn’t an issue. How do we learn to create an environment in this world, much less the education system, that is inclusive for language and culture, which is invariably the same thing?

The education experience, as well as my teaching experiences, are just that, experiences to be learned from so that I may become a better teacher with new perspective. The standard to which I hold myself to in the classroom should not waiver due to my teaching location, but should be adapted based on the context of the classroom. Again, Rodriquez not only differentiated his language experience based off of private and public spheres, but on the expression and meaning behind the language being used, “I easily noted the difference between classroom language and the language of home. At school, words were directed to a general audience of listeners. (Boys and girls) Words were meaningfully order. And the point was not self-expression alone but to make oneself understood by many others” (p. 19). This type of distinction is an indication of where our emphasis in education, is it more important for students to be assimilated into the culture of school and following orders, or to be thinkers of the world? My hope is the latter, but if we want to change the language of the classroom, as teachers we have to look at just how we are speaking within the classroom. 

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One thought on “Cycle 2: Cultural Assimilation & Social Mobility

  1. Hi Tessa,

    Thanks for your post. It was honest, probing and very beautiful!

    I was struck with your empathy for Richard, but then the way you pushed back against him. I think you verbalized something very important and smart when you said that school needs to be a hybrid public-private place. Many teachers feel this in our bones, but you put the words to it, which is so important!

    That all said, I guess I want to play devil’s advocate and argue for what Richard says: true education is a full immersion in a new environment. It is learning a new language–whether literally or not. It is tiring and it is hard as hell.

    When I was teaching in Hungary, or doing research in France, I can’t tell you how often I would have loved to eat “American food” and hang around people speaking English. And of course sometimes I did. But I also tried to push myself to put that behind me for a time, to enter into a new world, and be up for the hospitality that others were showing me. Hospitality is exhausting. It is transformative, though, to be its true recipient.

    Of course,I guess what I’m implying is that classrooms, to be truly educative, need to be more hospitable places. But for that to be the case, they also need to be much more radically foreign than they sometimes are. I assume that in any group of people, there is a way to make some feel foreign and some feel at home at any particular moment (mostly by the task being posed). The truly transformative education is one that allows you to give and to take. I think that was the shortcoming in Richard’s education. He was always the stranger, never the host. Maybe that is why he turned to writing?

    I loved your post. Thanks so much for it!

    Kyle

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