Tutoring the Kingpin

Helping an auntie study for her citizenship exam brings back memories of educational discrimination.

Nuttaphol Ma, "Mr. Proud, why do I have to memorize the Star Spangled Banner?"

At the communal dinner where we all sat on the floor next to the blue plaid tablecloth highlighting the green curries and the fermented fish sauce, I projected my voice: “Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the federal government. What is one power of the federal government?”

One auntie answered, “To print money.”

“WAR!” the other yelled, tipsy from the wine, the tequila, or both.

As the February New Mexico sun died down, the drinking game continued on. In a friend’s living-room-turned-artist-studio, six Thai people of various generations loudly, drunkenly, and crassly covered the civics questions of the American citizenship test.

“Name one war the United States has fought in the 1900s,” I asked. After the World Wars, and Cold War, the Korean War, and Vietnam were named, they were surprised to find the (Persian) Gulf War as the sixth, forgotten one. I sensed their worry. Two of the Aunties were about to take a citizenship test in the upcoming month, which was why one of them handed me her iPhone and had me read questions from a YouTube video of a US citizenship flashcard test.

To add my own flair, I lingered on Susan B. Anthony and Martin King Luther Jr. a bit. The test said only that they both “fought for civil rights.” In my broken Thai mixed with first-generation English, I explained that she was a white woman, and he was a Black man. It sobered up the conversation a little, the hint of voting and racial discrimination being part of the many dark fabrics of this country, until the tipsy answers mixed with Issan dialect were blurted out again when we started the next question. I felt responsible, as a first generation of a diaspora, seeing the process of assimilation and naturalization to become “Americanized” that many without the cultural or language barrier took for granted.

One auntie—the most respectable, oldest, and shortest kingpin of them all—was determined to make me her tutor, booking me the next day, because fuck the hangovers. I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico as a Labor Fellow for a two-month art residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute with other artists and writers working on the theme of labor. I knew nobody, but met a Thai artist, Nuttaphol Ma, who was an alumnus for the Art Institute’s immigration justice residency and is now a staff member. He welcomed me to his community of Thai people, maybe over a dozen in all, which I dubbed “Thai Town Santa Fe” after Thai Town in Los Angeles. While others reassured the auntie that she will ace the test, I sensed a familiar dread that had nothing to do with her intelligence. I was a young guest they coddled, babied with alcohol, curries, and impromptu karaoke sessions. The auntie initiated by opening up an app on her iPhone and attaching a portable USB mic. After all this laughter, after all these karaoke ballads, these perfectly crooned sad Thai love songs, I felt it was my duty to become her tutor. I had to show up when the Thai Town Santa Fe kingpin subpoenaed.

Driving in her car with beanie babies and teddy bears at the both sides of the windshield, she told me she actually has a tutor as part of a program. But she stopped going. Part of it was because she could only ask five questions in an hour that she doesn’t understand, then she’d have to go again the next week. A large part of it was that when she asked the tutor, “What does that mean?”, they’d just repeat the same answers, but louder. On a separate occasion, when asked why the zip code can five number and also nine, she was told, “Why don’t you google it?” The trauma of being made dumb, made to look stupid, in an education setting, felt familiar to me.

We agreed on the time a week later and found ourselves in a loud cafe, then a quiet library. There we took up space on a U-shaped arrangement of oak brown tables: a stack of the N-400 Application for Naturalization printout in one pile, a booklet of citizenship questions in another, her composition notebook cracked to reveal previous penciled notes in Thai. My laptop was in the middle, opened to Google Translate, zoomed in on the browser for oversized web fonts and legibility.

“Why the fuck does the test ask these questions?” I thought, reading questions about justice and the Supreme Court. “Half of the government don’t work anyway.” At least, not for us, not for people of color and especially not for Black and Indigenous communities. It had taken me decades to understand this after being told that it was my fault I couldn’t pull myself up by my own bootstraps.

I raged at these questions, coming in and out of reality, blurring the stylish Auntie wearing a slick back ponytail, a floral dress, and a furry trench coat, with the image a twenty-year-old me. I started to disassociate, thinking about the unpleasant tutoring and school sessions I tucked away inside my head, a nerve twitching on the surface of the cranium. In seventh grade, a vice-principal told me, “You make me sick.” In college, a Boomer-aged poetry professor angrily barked, “Do you even speak English?” as I read out loud a poem of a Surrealist era, when really he was just upset about me being late. Even though I received a full scholarship to art school, bullying and sexual harassment were the norm. I didn’t understand most International Art English, or Art Speak—the pompous press release language of artist statements and gallery catalogs. No one cared if I or my family couldn’t pay a studio fee of a few grand might have to drop out; meanwhile, there were speculations of mismanagement of school funds. 

After moving away from school, I learned about the Zombie Formalism period in the early 2010s, when tremendous capital entered the art market, searching for contemporary abstract expressionist art to collect and resell at a profit. Wall Street bros entered the art world, snapping up the work of young BFA and MFA bros with sizable Instagram followings, making them rich overnight. Though it’s fun, now that I’m in my thirties, to read about critics calling their near-identical paintings “elevator music,” it is more of a relief to find confirmation outside of my lived experiences that fads are created within the art market, and that I was not meant to be uplifted by the institution. This was something that I had speculated, but had been assured wasn't true: There was no privilege or nepotism, they said, but rather hard-earned meritocracy. At that time, there wasn’t much transparency about the unethical practices of art institutions such as museums, galleries, and universities. This year, after numerous institutions posted black squares on social media in performative mourning for George Floyd’s death, Instagram was flooded with personal grievances of racism, sexual harassment, tokenism, whitewalling, and exclusionary practices. These posts were collected by accounts such as @Changethemuseum. The practices of these institutions have been less about the civic duty to provide platforms for artists, as we have so much to give, than about the bottom line: how they can continue to extract from our creative vitality and uphold the hierarchy for profit. 

I remember crying at a writing tutoring session when I presented my financial need scholarship letter, trying to articulate the trauma of growing up in poverty with immigrant parents in Chicago, and the tutor saying she didn’t see why there was anything special about “my circumstances” to be asking for money. And I felt so invisible, so dumb to show myself once more. I saw this feeling reflected in the Thai Auntie, and I was determined to heal the parts of ourselves that were made to feel abnormally stupid and othered when it comes to learning and succeeding.

I never understood why these things were happening to me as they happened, and was never never able to confide in anyone after. Now that I’ve learned vocabulary about oppression, I’m better equipped. I wanted to make sure that the Auntie had a pleasant learning experience and that she understood that she was not defective.

To the Oppressed
And those who suffer with them
And fight at their side

I reread again the opening words of Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, this time in PDF. I first read those lines a decade earlier, in print out form, as a required class assignment in my twenties, and I didn’t understand them. I had internalized that I was dumb, illiterate, because I was still struggling and no one came to fight at my side. First generation students often navigate the education system by themselves, as their parents are unable to help them. And though the language of support was present in these radical texts, I thought I wasn’t good enough to cross into the world where someone had solidarity with the poor like me. I felt as if those who saw that I was struggling liked that I was struggling, while they earned capital from the visibility they gained by lending me a hand when it suited him. Why was I shot down? At everything I did? Why can’t I be one of the tokenized ones? For some social benefits, for some kindness. Every time I tried to explain the feeling of being punched down, I was minimized and told that I was “misinterpreting” the situation. Now I can plainly see the racism and misogyny that’s prevalent in art academia.

I fantasized about calling them, these offenders who etched negative experiences in my young brain. I’d say hi, say, “You—the vice principal who crouched down to my height to tell me, ‘You make me sick’—might not remember me, but this is how you affect children. I need you to know that this is how you affect people.” Maybe that’s how I can time-travel and be someone who fights for me at my side.                          

Sometimes the Auntie would stop me at a question: “What does that mean?” We’d plug in words such as “civilization” into the Google translator, then click the “listen” icon to hear the definition in Thai. We plugged in “military,” “paramilitary,” “self-defense unit,” “vigilante unit” to see if there are any nuances in Thai. Since I have a limited vocabulary growing up here, I actually wanted to learn. But she completely understood.

“Ah! I see.” She’d write in English on a random blue line, pencil in next to it with the Thai explanations.                                               

Telling someone “why don’t you just google it?” is a display of power to determine a relation of inferiority. Insinuating that the person is too stupid to understand something of the cultural norm, when the majority of people in the culture lack the skill to even explain the norm, is an act of a top-down domination. The education system is often top-down with punishments. Seeing the abundance of police officers in high schools compared to the number of counselors and programs for restorative justice suggests this. It is a domination that deprives its victims of the freedom education promises.

One of the interview questions we role-played was, “Have you EVER lied to any US Government officials to gain entry or admission into the United States or to gain immigration benefits while in the United States?”

I thought, “Every participation in the system that requires you to interact with a white supremacist history as an alien settler must require a sense of self-erasure.” We’ve all lied by omission to become American, to be part of the system.

But you learn to code-switch. And the correct answer is “No, never.”

They don’t see the ballads, the sad Thai love songs bellowed across fried fish. The friendship, the community.

After our two-hour session, the kingpin handed me two twenty-dollar bills. I declined. She declined to accept my refusal. It went back and forth, with some comments about me being young and probably needing money, and I accepted it. If I hadn’t, it would’ve gone to a tutor that didn’t do shit. She asked if I wanted to go to the gym and hot tubbing with her before the heavy snow came to Santa Fe that week. I felt that our session was successful, that I reflected to her how smart and resourceful she has always been.

I am now in another art residency, having flown a redeye to upstate New York before the physical mobbing and attacks on Asians folks on public transit due to the coronavirus appeared on the news. For the first week I felt as if I had come back to the east coast to confront a bully, but now I feel I came back to myself—the young, unparented, impressionable self—to congratulate her and thank her for the things she endured to get me here. When her image appears, I tell her that she is resilient. She has always been smart. She has always been resourceful. She deserves all the hot tubs in the world.

I finally checked my Facebook messages. The Auntie sent a selfie of us. The text below it read, “I miss you, my beautiful friend,” punctuated with a pink two-heart emoji. I sent her a text on the day of her test, in fragmented languages, wishing her good luck. Now we wait and see. But her Facebook had new updates of her stylish clothes in an album a few days later. She looked happy, bright, and vibrant, able to conquer the world. And that’s what they don’t see.


Art and Music, Education, Immigration, Race, Language


1 comments have been posted.

What starts as a warm family story of tutoring her auntie for the citizenship test turns into a revealing look at American society in this moment. She starts talking sweetly about the job and generosity of the teacher, "to make sure that the Auntie had a pleasant learning experience and that she understood that she was not defective." Then she goes much deeper, reflecting on her own experience as an immigrant, a woman and an artist made to feel invisible and dispensable. "The trauma of being made dumb, made to look stupid, in an education setting, felt familiar to me." And then to deftly put that experience in the context of American dominant culture and capitalism. She reflects and sharpens the clearer understanding that is starting to dawn on all of us in this time. Amazing impact for 2200 words. Well worth a read.

Lee Lancaster | October 2020 | Portland Oregon

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