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Asian on the Navajo Nation

By Jessica Shyu — November 21, 2006 3 min read

A month and a half ago, Chinese people around the world celebrated the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, a joyous holiday of telling legends of the Moon Lady, eating moon cakes and gathering with friends and family.

Too bad I didn’t find out about it until the day after. In an e-mail. In a forwarded cartoon message from my mom.

Apparently I am not very good at being Chinese. I attended a high school with a population of about 30% Asian Americans, but had few friends of Asian descent. I subscribe to Asian American women’s magazines, but am illiterate in Chinese. I minored in Asian American Studies in college and can recite historical dates and contentious issues of race, but found myself desperately thumbing through Google to figure out what the heck a Mid-Autumn Moon Festival was all about.

A year and a half ago, I would not have cared. I have spent much of the past two decades breaking away from stereotypes about Asians. I was terrible in math. I hated Hello Kitty. And while I respected my culture and loved my family, being Chinese and looking Chinese only set me apart.

But after moving to the Navajo Nation, where everything from the morning pledge to the principal’s moccasins are rooted in Navajo culture and traditions, I have found myself desperately grasping for my own. When my colleagues explain the Ye’be’cheii dances, they want to hear about Chinese rituals too. When my assistant reads our students stories about the ma’ii, or coyote, in the winter months, I want to have a traditional Chinese story to share of my own. In Tohatchi, where there’s a Chinese American population of one, there is no question I am different. But for some reason, highlighting my differences around here makes me more the same.

And so that is why my mother rush-delivered two boxes of Chinese mooncakes to New Mexico the weekend after the holiday. That is why at 11:30 p.m., on a Sunday night three weeks ago, I was desperately researching on Google for Mid-Autumn Moon Festival facts to make a reading worksheet. And that is why the next day a dozen Navajo children were figuring out whether they liked red-bean mooncake, pineapple mooncake or lotus mooncake better. (Lotus won, hands down.)

I moved to New Mexico in part to learn about another culture, but ended up learning to embrace my own. Back home, public translations were always muttered and avoided. But when my grandfather visited my school last spring, I found myself loudly translating to him in Chinese without a second thought. Even my German-Italian American boyfriend was more enthusiastic of my heritage than I was and encouraged me to travel through Asia to practice the language (especially after he witnessed vendors in New York City’s Chinatown complaining about my accent and syntax). Back at home, I never dared eat anything at work with soy sauce. Last week, I found myself selling kung pao chicken and rice for $2 a plate to the staff members at school. It was a hit. People are requesting egg rolls with the next lunch sale.

Diversity isn’t too big on the Navajo Nation. Despite having worked at my school for a year and a half, I am still constantly asked “what” I am. That is a question I normally jump at (I’m human. What do I look like?), but people want to know. Whether I like it or not, I represent an entire race. I teach my students about Chinese culture, I feed them Chinese food and I teach them about multicultural identities. One of my proudest moments was when someone asked me, “What are you, Ms. Shyu?”

Before I had a chance to answer, one of my students in special education piped up, “She’s Taiwanese American, because her parents were born in Taiwan and later moved to the United States and Ms. Shyu was born in DC. She’s American. And she’s Chinese. She’s two things. Like us.”

The opinions expressed in On the Reservation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.