In the 24 years that I have been “Ali, short for Alicia,” I have secretly longed for a nickname of distinctive familiarity and endearment. Now, in this small provincial city tucked in the Sierra region of central Ecuador, I have been branded with the inescapable moniker of “China,” or sometimes the affectionate diminutive, “Chinita.”
Disregard for a moment the intrinsic political incorrectness and the name is made more incorrect by a small detail of ethnicity: I am not actually of Chinese descent.
When asked how to say “Hi, how are you?” in my native tongue, I befuddle my inquisitors with a reply in English. If someone is curious about life in Shanghai, I apologize that I haven’t had the pleasure and instead offer a vague description of San Francisco’s Chinatown.
I have tried to explain that I have no direct affiliation with Chinese culture and that I am in fact Japanese American. “No importa,” my new Ecuadorian neighbors say. Then, smiling obliviously, they stretch the corners of their eyes upwards in an innocent gesture to say that my Asian features qualify me as their “Chinita.”
What makes my constant struggle with racial ignorance less offensive and more amusing is the irony that, before joining WorldTeach (a nonprofit organization through the Center of International Development at Harvard University) and moving to Guaranda, Ecuador for one year to volunteer and teach English, I had spent the past two years among civil rights activists in the Japanese American community.
I worked at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California developing programs to educate young Nikkei about the internment camp experience; I spent my spare time volunteering with the Nakayoshi Young Professionals group; and as the 2008 Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen, the court and I represented the Japanese American community at cultural events throughout California, Washington, Hawai‘i and Japan.
All of that energy, effort and pride in our community seems disturbingly insignificant and irrelevant in a town that sees no further than the shape of my eyes.
Admittedly, it is hurtful when the host family that I feel so close with makes racist jokes at the dinner table. It is exhausting to be chased down the street by kids pelting me with water balloons, yelling, “Get the Chinita!”
It is frustrating when, before introductions, the first thing a university administrator says is, “You’re not from the United States.” Then after confirming I am indeed, and graciously explaining that the U.S. is a diverse tapestry of peoples and cultures, he studies me and asks, “But do you speak English?”
All of this has made living out of my comfort zone just a little more uncomfortable.
But I came to WorldTeach with a purpose. Besides wanting to learn about a new culture and language to broaden my own global perspective, I really came to simply help others where I could. My grandfather, a Nisei who was forced to leave his postsecondary studies when Executive Order 9066 was issued in 1942, never had the chance to return to college. It was he who taught my mother, who in turn taught me, the importance of education. He would say, “Someone could take away your money, your home, even your freedom, but no one can ever take away your education.”
It is this truth that compelled me to join WorldTeach and devote the year to volunteering in a community that would otherwise not have access to quality education.
Some of my students are learning English out of sheer interest, but many are taking the course out of necessity. Because Ecuador’s economy is so based in the tourism industry, a basic knowledge of English could mean a 50 percent or more salary increase, and in a town where the average annual household income is $5,000, that money could mean adding the luxury of protein to a diet of plantains and rice.
In Ecuador, a stable income and a basic knowledge of English could mean obtaining a visa and the opportunity to travel or work abroad, the invitation to a global classroom.
Once I turned my focus from frustration to purpose, I realized I could use the classroom as an avenue to mitigate some stereotypes in our little town of Guaranda. Because we work without an assigned curriculum, I am afforded the freedom and the burden to plan my class lessons every day, and every day I ask myself, “How can I incorporate this (grammar point) into that (life lesson)?”
Oftentimes this means sharing personal experiences of my Japanese American and (since my paternal family is from Hawai‘i) local Hawaiian histories. In this way I am able to introduce my students to an underrepresented and often misunderstood American culture.
My grandfather understood education as an irreplaceable gift. I believe that the education he referred to is beyond the textbooks and classroom walls. It is a realization of educating the whole person to become a productive and compassionate member of society and the world.
Some of my students never imagined life outside of Guaranda. Today, they are organizing trash pick-up days and raising funds for the earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. The work we are doing in the classroom is directly affecting the greater community.
I’ve also felt the impact upon my own life. After eight months in Guaranda, I am now more often referred to by my profession (“profesora”) than by race. Recently though, as I walked past a group of young people and heard someone whisper “Chinita,” something extraordinary happened.
A student I was with instinctively chose to defend me and turned to admonish them. “No, actually she is not China!” he shouted. “She is Japanese American, and her family is from Hawai‘i, which is an island state in America, but she lives in San Francisco, California.” The boys were wide-eyed and silent. Then he added calmly, “Her name is Ali.”
And that is how I came to appreciate being nickname-less and simply just “Ali.”
After graduating with a B.A. in English and political science from the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa in 2007, Alicia Kagawa served as the 2008 Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen. She is currently teaching English in Ecuador through WorldTeach, a nonprofit organization based at the Center of International Development at Harvard University. Kagawa has since returned from Ecuador.