“Yes, Sybille, I would like you to back off . . .”
I didn’t allow myself to actually say it. But I really would have preferred it if she just went her own way. I needed to walk alone awhile and think.
In a captivating story in a “Children’s Literature” issue of the online magazine Words Without Borders, a boy from Taiwan growing up in France struggles to understand racism.
The boy, Alex, reflects that the racist bullying he experiences is “not surprising—with everything you hear on the news, how can anyone be expected to think well of the Chinese?” This question takes on particular meaning in the U.S. today, with some politicians irresponsibly casting blame on Chinese people for the coronavirus. For this reason, it is a particularly good time to critically examine bigotry towards Asians and Asian-Americans – and this story, entitled “The Park Bench,” provides an excellent starting-point for this conversation.
“The Park Bench” also has a far-reaching emotional resonance; as Daniel Hahn writes in the issue’s introduction, Alex’s story “could in fact be set in lots of places. Racial bullying in high schools is not limited to France . . . the personal experience—the moving story about the loss of a culture—will be familiar to too many.”
Below, you’ll find a summary, discussion questions, additional readings, and potential assignments.
The story begins at lunchtime, when students are released from school. Alex lives far from home, so he usually has his lunch on a particular bench in the park. (Students may be able to relate to the importance of the question of where to eat lunch, especially for children being bullied.)
Alex is content with his lunchtime routine – but when a new friend, Sybil, insists on joining him, he does his best to turn her away. Why?
Racist graffiti has been appearing on the bench. It is painful enough to read it to himself, and even worse to have Sybil see that day’s writing: “Rice Balls Alex.”
Alex—that’s me. I’m an East Asian boy. And believe me, being on the receiving end of insults like this is no fun at all. . . . I forced a laugh that was about as joyful as a tired old smiley.
But Sybil surprises him: she is “livid” with anger. Alex is at once grateful and regretful:
It was stupid of me to drag her to the bench. . . . Now I had to admit that it was aimed at me.
This passage provides an example of this story’s truthful, empathetic depiction of Alex’s interior life: author Sandrine Kao gives her child narrator an authentic voice and complex emotions.
In the last section of the story, Alex encounters a neighbor and faces a familiar dilemma for immigrant children: he is too “Chinese” for his French peers, but too “French” for older Chinese immigrants like Mrs. Huang.
Mrs. Huang also inquires about Alex’s father, who left for Taiwan several years before and does not seem likely to return. Alex’s internal dialogue about this is brief, but heartbreaking: “No matter how often we write, there’s no answer. . . .”
Ideas for Student Activities and Discussion
To get students ready for reading this story, you might want to start with this question from the Learning Arc published by the organization Re-Imagining Migration*, “How can we approach the sharing of stories of migration with understanding and compassion?” If working with elementary students or new learners of English, you might closely read and closely read and paraphrase the question before going into responses.
As they read, students might mark the parts of the story that resonated with them – “Note the places where you feel a connection – maybe you’ve felt a similar way, or something similar has happened to you. Maybe it’s making a friend you didn’t expect, or figuring out where to eat lunch, or feeling different from other people, or something else.”
After reading, have students discuss the places they marked with partners. (If you are teaching remotely, students might use WhatsApp or the private chat option in Zoom.) Ask them to work with partners to note the emotions Alex might be feeling during the moments they marked.
If students can do this in a sensitive way, you might also invite a few to act out Alex’s conversation with the other students about being from Taiwan. After the performance, ask students to free-write for a minute about how Alex might be feeling after the conversation, and, again, share with partners.
Then, you might ask students to reflect and journal in response to the question: Have you ever been labeled, stereotyped, or otherwise misunderstood by others? (This might not necessarily have been on the basis of ethnicity; for example, in the Chinese story “Timid as a Mouse,” a young man desperately tries to overcome his reputation for shyness.) How did it feel? What did you do, or not do?
Finally, discuss: Have you every misunderstood, labeled, or stereotyped someone else? This is a difficult question, but one way to look for possible answers is to recall certain memories: Has another person surprised you by being different from what you expected? What did you expect? What surprised you?
- It’s a Chick, Not a Dog: A very different story of an unexpected friendship: a girl chronicles her mother’s friendship with a chick
- I Am Not Your Cholo: A personal essay about being a Latinx immigrant
- A Planned Brief Documentary on a Teenage Boy in a Badjao Village: A poem about an indigenous boy in the Philippines. (This poem and the story below are significantly more complex than “Park Bench,” so teachers of younger students might have them read excerpts rather than full texts.)
- Timid as a Mouse: a Chinese story in which a boy and his father try to transcend their labels, with tragic results.
- American-Born Chinese and Level Up, by Gene Yuen Lang
- The Watsons Go to Birmingham, by Christopher Paul Curtis
- The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
** For more stories of the Asian-American experience, please see this reading list from Leighton Suen, an English and ENL teacher at Brooklyn’s FDR High School.
On anti-Asian bigotry during the coronavirus epidemic:
Below, watch a video from an 11th grader, published on the New York Times website: “How Coronavirus Racism Infected My High School.”
Our partner organization Re-imagining Migration has a guide to teaching with the video and an upcoming webinar: “Perspectives on Anti-Immigrant Prejudice for Educators,” on April 17th.
Additional resources include:
- Article with historical background and teaching suggestions from Teaching Tolerance
- Recent articles and news stories (at an advanced reading level) are on NPR and in the New York Times, among other places. Try “Chinese-Americans, Facing Abuse, Unite to Aid Hospitals,” from the NYT.
Chinese and Chinese-American culture:
- The graphic fiction Sharing, a thousand-year-old love poem and several dozen other stories and poems from China in the WWB Campus collection
- Museum of the Chinese in America (Thank you to Peizhe Xu of FDR High school for her timely mention–Eds.)
- Chinese Immigrants Past and Present, an article on the Re-Imagining Migration website
- Poems from Chinese immigrants detained at Angel Island
- The China Institute
- The Asia Society
- Memoir: Write your own story of a time when you were labeled or stereotyped. How did other people respond to what happened? How did you respond? You may illustrate your story if you wish. Challenge: Instead, write about a time you labeled or stereotyped someone else.
- Essay: Look back at the part of the story that begins:
Anyway, it’s my dad’s fault I can’t speak Chinese anymore. All he had to do was stay here.
How do you think Alex feels about his father’s leaving? (Look for several different emotions in the passage.)
If you decide to teach “The Park Bench,” let us know! We’d love to provide support and hear how the lesson went. And if you have a moment, check out the entire children’s literature issue of Words Without Borders, featuring stories from around the world, for a wide range of reading levels.
P.S. If you teach French or have French-speaking students, you might use the French edition of the book, entitled le banc. The first few pages are available for free online via Amazon’s “Look inside” feature!