YourWords STL

Suzi Wan and the Language Instinct

Feature Blog by Program Director, Anna Ojascastro Guzon


Last week at Marygrove, our classroom included two students who were black, two who were white, and one who was half white and half black.  Two of the tutors were white. I am Asian. The staff person from Marygrove, who assists us, was black.  I am Catholic, but I don’t know if any of the students or other tutors practice a particular religion. The tutors were all from West County. The students were all from North County schools.


In our microcosm, lasting 90 minutes, one time per week, I have never perceived racial, cultural, or religious tension.  Although, there is some tension every week.  Often, a student doesn’t want to do homework, or doesn’t feel like writing, and we have to convince the young man that schoolwork and writing isn’t so terrible.  Also, with this age group, and with children who have experienced some form of abandonment, there is a constant push and pull in establishing trust.  On one week, a student will be talkative, friendly, and cooperative and the next week, that same student will have his arms crossed for the first 30 minutes, and insist that he doesn’t need anyone’s help.


I won’t speak for the other tutors, but I grew up very differently from any of the students, whom I volunteer to teach. My parents came to St. Louis from the Philippines almost 60 years ago. They are still living in South County, in the house in which we moved almost 40 years ago, when I was just a few months old.


When living in South County, I attended a parochial grade school for seven years.  The families who attended were white, middle-class or lower middle-class, and Catholic.  For a few years, I was the one and only minority at the school of about 550 students and 20 teachers. I was often asked if I was black.  My kind-hearted peachy-skinned girl friends would ask why my skin was so much darker than theirs.  I remember explaining what melanin is and how it works.


When in sixth grade, my class had to decide on a theme for our costumes to be worn at the end-of-the-year parade, followed by the school picnic, the most exciting annual event, next to Christmas and Easter. In kindergarten, we each dressed as a different letter of the alphabet.  This time, one boy suggested that we all dress up like fortune cookies and I could lead the parade dressed as Suzi Wan, a 1980’s, Chinese version of Chef Boyardee, with a catchy commercial at that time.  As my classmate suggested this, I remained speechless.  Our teacher, who was leading the discussion, wrote on the blackboard, “Suzi Wan and the Fortune Cookies.” At that point, I yelled, “No. Way.”  Mrs. T looked at me and said, “You don’t like the idea, Anna? Why not?”


“Because……..I’m not Chinese!” Confused about my classmates’ intentions and my teacher’s lack of putting a stop to the madness, I didn’t know how to articulate how I felt. But at 11 years old, I knew that Suzi Wan was an embarrassment. Literally parading, dressed as this stereotype  (although I probably didn’t know that word at the time) would have been mortifying.


“We know you’re not Chinese! You’d be wearing a costume. How about we just let everyone take a vote,” said Mrs. T.


As she called out the different suggestions to be voted upon… punk rockers…robots…when she came to Suzi Wan, I glared down everyone that I could and said “Do NOT raise your hand.”  Suzi Wan did not win the majority’s vote and I let out an audible exhalation.


Recalling this story makes me laugh, only because my world is so different now. It’s hard to believe that having the only person of color dress up, as a caricature of an Asian person, seemed like a good idea…to a teacher.


My sons attend New City School, which my husband and I chose because we wanted our children to be surrounded by a diverse population. Our boys were accustomed to New Jersey, where we used to live, surrounded by people of every color, culture, and religion. More than any other elementary school in St. Louis, New City prioritizes diversity. And their students thrive on their differences.


The students that we tutor at Marygrove differ in their academic strengths, recreational interests, taste in music, and taste in literature. The most common topic of conversation, next to school, is their families. I have sat next to every young man that we tutor and listened to stories of Mom, Dad, an uncle, a sister, a grandmother. They all miss their families.


So what matters most to us, during the 90 minutes that we’re together, is our abilities to communicate and understand each other.  The city of St. Louis, the state of Missouri, the world is filled with people who are fearful of the unfamiliar. It’s an instinct. But the instinct on which we focus, in the YourWords classroom, is language: the need to put words together and be heard. Every week, there’s a tension between these two instincts. But it’s the uniquely human instinct, which needs to carry the day.



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