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By Dina Tsuyuki

“After I landed my first teaching job, the department chair’s first remark was, ‘That’s odd that someone like you is an English teacher.’ I had the nerve to reply, ‘It is the only language I speak.’”

As I watch the news and see segments about violence targeted at Asian Americans, I am in tears, as I too am Asian. I feel sadness in my heart; however, in reality, this is what a person like me has felt throughout a lifetime of growing up in America. As a fourth-generation Japanese American, I know the sting of inequality.

The recent shootings in Atlanta resulted in the deaths of eight people, including six of Asian descent. Local and federal authorities are still investigating whether this was a hate crime — a travesty, considering the shooter targeted these massage parlors and knew they primarily employed Asian women. Less than 10 days later, another mass shooting occurred, and the Atlanta deaths were no longer in the public eye. Do we matter?

All four of my grandparents were in the Tule Lake internment camps during World War II. My grandmother instilled in me that not everything is equal. Being a young bride looking forward to all that life had to offer, Grandma Helen had so much taken away — a house, her and her husband’s life savings, and everything she owned packed in a small suitcase as she departed to the unknown, which would be the next four years of her life. Three of her four children would be born at the camps, and it will always sting for them to write “Tule Lake” as their birthplace.

Growing up Japanese American was still a challenge in the 1970s. In the small agricultural town in which I lived, there was no shedding the features that make me uniquely Asian, and I always felt I was judged by my outward appearance. Being different forces you to keep quiet, to be shy, and I lived my entire childhood that way — not wanting to stand out. Who would have thought I would become a high school English teacher?

As a kid I never felt that I was on an equal playing field. Not only did my appearance make me different, but my religion did as well. I never wanted to let people know that I was Buddhist, as many parents of schoolmates didn’t welcome someone who did not believe in God. For this reason, religion is a topic I seldom discuss. As a child this was difficult to compartmentalize. I remember thinking: It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in God, it was just that I was Buddhist.

I remember the teasing on the playground. Boys always called me “Dina Cheena.” Discrimination on the playground was a part of growing up, but experiencing it from adults was also demoralizing. Not making sports teams or being chosen for extracurricular activities as a teenager further brought me face to face with the inequalities in a small town.

Moving to Southern California for college opened up opportunities for me to feel accepted. I was finally able to be me. However, there were still remarks about ethnicity, and the bias about speaking perfect English. I can remember a college professor asking a student who spoke Hawaiian Pidgin English to leave class, stating, “There is no place for that here.”

In addition, much of the English curriculum in college was based on stories from the Bible, which also left me at a disadvantage. I remember a professor saying, “If you don’t know the Bible, you shouldn’t be an English major.” This brought me back to the uneasiness that I felt about being Buddhist and thinking, “Darn it for throwing a wrench into my potential as an English teacher.” Somehow, I managed to muddle through the course, but it ingrained in me a feeling that I might not be a legitimate English teacher due to my religion.

After years of living in Southern California, I remember landing my first teaching job. The department chair’s first remark was, “That’s odd that someone like you is an English teacher.” I had the nerve to reply, “It is the only language I speak.” An English teacher should know that you can’t judge a book by its cover!

There is no escaping it; my features are something that will always be a part of me. A close teacher friend once stated that he loves how Armenian students are so proud of their culture. I agreed, but embarrassedly thought to myself that I was not proud to be Japanese American because it kept me from being “equal.” This saddened me and made me feel like less of a person due to the discrimination I experienced throughout life, but it also was a harsh reality for me.

As a teenager in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was my president. He signed my Physical Fitness Certificate, he contributed to bringing down the Berlin Wall, and he issued redress money to interned Japanese Americans. I do not like to publicize my political views, but I am a Republican. In early 2021 and over the past four years I’ve been saddened that being a Republican has taken on a different cast. Now it’s a negative thing to be patriotic, and waving a flag is linked to extreme groups. I was disheartened when the former president referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus.” Once again, I am feeling that “someone like me” does not belong, in this case as a Republican.

Thinking back to kindergarten, I remember learning all the songs about patriotism and the lyrics: This land is your land, this land is my land, this land was made for you and me. I was hopeful then as a young girl entering school, and in the almost 50 years since, I thought we would have made more progress in America.

Dina Tsuyuki has been a high school English teacher in Southern California for 27 years. A member of Whittier Secondary Education Association, she and her husband raised twin daughters who are now in college.