WOC Reflections and TAPIF Reminiscences

I’ve been procrastinating on studying for the GRE by actually being social for once. After work on Friday, I booked it to the CY Office to attend the API (Asian Pacific Islander) Affinity Circle meeting. Unsurprisingly, there weren’t very many of us because the API community is such small percentage of not only the DC corps, but also CY as a whole. Nonetheless, it was so nice to be able to talk to other people who are always on the same page as me. (Thank you, fellow APIs, for understanding the BS behind an office telling me that I don’t count as underrepresented in higher education. “Model minority” status, yay!) Our agenda included setting dates for future meetings and preparing blog posts, so be on the lookout for those at apicircle.wordpress.com!

After the half-hour meeting, two out of the five people who’d attended, A and R, invited me to go eat dinner with them. Over bowls of delicious pho, we shared so much salt about everything imaginable, and we even carried an entire conversation in nothing but sarcasm, e.g. how much we love it when kids ask, “Are you from China?” or “Are you Muslim?” It was exactly what I’d needed, because while I love being surrounded by POC at Ketcham, especially WOC faculty and staff, I miss being around fellow API women.

Saturday evening, I walked to an Ethiopian restaurant to meet up with my fellow Nice and TAPIF alumna, S and A. Despite the strangeness of finally seeing each other in America, we caught up on our new lives and reminisced about France. It’s odd how, despite the fact that TAPIF ended five months ago, everything already feels like a blur, like we were completely different people back then.

Even now, to me, it seems so surreal that we lived and worked in France for almost a year, just because America is so different. Nobody else in CY truly understands the TAPIF struggles of living in a small town and working a scant 12 hours a week, or the joys of having 8 weeks of paid vacation and the freedom to travel across Europe, and being able to go into a boulangerie and buy a random pastry that has a 0% chance of disappointing you. (If I didn’t have pictures and a passport, was there ever truly proof that I traveled to places like Copenhagen, Dublin, and Giverny?) Although the plus side is that, for me, I was so bored with the short work week that the busy 50 hour work weeks now feel like a blessing–I’m genuinely enjoying being busy.

P.S. A friend recently remarked that the field of French is sea of white women, and last night, I had to stop and think about how accurately the TAPIF demographics reflect that statement. The majority of assistants were, in fact, white women, and as for the few Asians in the program, every single one of us experienced racism. Hell, I even met someone in DC who actually left the program because she was the only Asian in a town smaller than Laon and couldn’t be bothered to deal with the resulting racism. This is why I’m so done with white people (not my woke friends, but, you know, white people as a whole).



Things Kids Say

I’m officially going to document what my 2nd grade babies say and do, because they’re just too cute. (I’m so disappointed that it’s illegal for corps members to take or store photos of kids on our phones, because I just want to show everyone how absolutely adorable they are.)

  • One of them tied this little heart charm onto my backpack, and then told me, “You can keep it forever so that you remember me forever.”
  • Kid: “How old are you?
    • Me: “How old do you think I am?”
    • Her: “100?”
    • Me: “No, not 100.”
    • Her: “1000?”
    • Me: “No, you gotta go under 100.”
    • Her: “90?”
  • One of my kids (who’s so cute, she’s rocking the whole “big eyes, missing front teeth” look) came up to me and asked, “Did you get whoopin’s as a child?”
    • Me: “No, I did not. Do you get whoopin’s?”
    • She replied gleefully, “No!” and then proceeded to skip away.
  • The same child held her arms out to me and sang, “Wanna be my lover?”
    • Me: “Your what?”
    • Her: “Will you be my friend?”
    • Me: “Yes, I’ll be your friend, but you have to pinky promise me that you’ll behave.”
    • Her, five minutes after the pinky promise: “Will you be my friend?”
  • One kid was upset over a pencil and wouldn’t do her work, so I asked if she wanted to use my “special pencil.” She nodded, and I forked over one of the mechanical pencils in my pocket. After she did her work, she brought the pencil back to me at the end of class. I legitimately thought I’d never see that pencil again.
  • My partner teacher told a little space cadet to collect everyone’s worksheets, and this poor boy did not know how to stack papers. I had to try so hard not to laugh, because he was gathering them in his arms like a bunch of leaves while holding his jacket in one hand. Unsurprisingly, he dropped them, and as I helped him pick them up, I asked, “Do you want me to hold your jacket?” and he claimed, “No, I got this.” He proceeded to bring an armful of disorganized papers to my teacher. I could not hold back my laughter.
  • One kid asked, “Is Ms. Z your sister?” Hon, she’s white and I’m Asian.
  • Another kid guessed that I was 18, and then 13. This is what I get for having #babyface.
  • Someone asked, “Will you be my mom?” No, honey, no matter how cute you are, I will not be your mother.
    • She also told me that she was going to take me home with her. Not that I would mind because she’s so cute, but that goes against CY rules.
  • Actual quotes from two kids: “Donald Trump isn’t mine” and “I didn’t vote for him.”
  • Not my story, but I love it nevertheless. One of my teammates who works with 1st graders asked one of his kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
    • Him: “A vegetarian!”
    • J, understandably confused: “What do they do?”
    • Him: “It’s like a doctor, but for pets!”

Teacher Observations

The school year officially started on Monday, which meant that we began observations/helping out a teacher in the morning, and then a different one in the afternoon. We rinsed and repeated this schedule for the rest of the week, and because City Year helps in math or ELA (English Language Arts) classes from 1st to 5th grade, I’ve discovered that my math skills are so great, I can barely do 4th grade math. (Take that, “All Asians are good at math” stereotype.)

When it comes to school demographics, it’s different from anything I’ve ever experienced. Instead of having all white teachers, I’ve seen 3 white men and maybe 4 white women in the entire school–the rest are black, and I think I’ve seen one Asian and one Hispanic teacher. For the students, it’s pretty similar: aside from 3 Hispanic ones and a biracial set of twins who look white, everyone’s black (-passing). But on to the fun part, the actions/quotes of children:

  • When I followed a teacher into the office so that I could later watch the solar eclipse with her, this tiny kid who barely came up past my knee saw me in uniform, ran up to me, and hugged me. I don’t even know who she was, but I think that’s when it truly hit me that City Years are so well-known within the Ketcham community. (One of my biggest fears is that I’m going to accidentally trip over a kid one day. The pre-K to 2nd graders are so tiny.)
  • A kid told me that he had 100 brothers, but couldn’t even keep a straight face
  • His younger sister is the cutest little thing, a kindergartner who said “Thank you!” whenever I set down part of her breakfast in front of her. One of my teammates and a teacher started talking to her in Spanish, and she made such an adorable laugh that I want to bottle it up in a jar (someone teach me Spanish so I that can talk to her and hear that laugh again)
  • “Your hair is so long and smooth! Do you have to get your hair done? My grandma can do your hair”
  • A second grader gave me her sticker from art class, which means that she truly loves me. I stuck it in my travel journal so that I can cherish it forever
  • At recess, a 1st-grade girl asked me why I was wearing a ring. I replied, “I like wearing rings,” and then she asked if I had a man. (My spinner ring looks nothing like a wedding or engagement ring–it’s a band of steel with a dinosaur pattern.) I said, “No, I’m a strong independent woman and I don’t need a man,” and then I started chanting and clapping, “You don’t need a man” and they joined in. Goal of the year: turn the children into baby feminists
  • During lunch, a 1st grader ran up to hug me, and I told her to sit down at her table, resulting in a “Bye bye, Mommy!” Please no. I am nobody’s mother.
  • “You look like Anna! From Frozen because of your hair” (I still don’t understand this because Anna’s white and ginger, but okay)
  • A 1st grader was absolutely convinced that I’m the same age as one of the teachers because we’re the same height. Apparently height and age differences is not a thing that 7-year-olds grasp
  • This little 2nd grader literally started petting my hair. I’m going to start putting my hair up from now on to deter these grubby little hands
  • When a 5th grader asked, “Are you a teenager?” I couldn’t keep the offense out of my voice when I replied, “No, I’m an adult!”

We finally got our teacher placements yesterday, and I got…*drumroll*… 2nd grade ELA! I’m excited because that’s the grade I wanted, but we’ll see how well I can teach 7-8 year olds how to read, spell, and write because, unlike French, English makes no phonetic sense. To tide you over until next week, check out all nine of us (plus our manager) in uniforms that ensure we can never go to Target:

First day of school

From left to right: H, Sa, Z, R, N, T, C, Sh, J, and me

Final Week of Training

We spent the week looking like Target employees, because our current uniform pieces consist of a red t-shirt tucked into khakis. While being walking City Year advertisements:

  • We met a majority of the teachers at Ketcham, most of whom were WOC, and let me tell you, I am beyond excited to be in an environment where I’m not surrounded by white people–or more specifically, white men. I think I could legitimately count the number of white teachers there on one hand.
  • A warm-up activity involved moving around the room depending on social identifiers such as race, physical ability, sexuality, age, ethnicity, marital status, etc., and I stepped over to the race sign in response to the social identity that I’m always aware of. I started talking about how diversity is important because, aside from two Chinese classes in college, I’ve never had an Asian teacher or professor, and a white male teacher replied, “I’m coming from the other side, privilege…” and I thought, “Oh, my heart, I hope this entire school is social justice-aware.”
  • The school fed us free soul food for lunch, and in case you were ever wondering, free food is one of the ways to my heart (as long as it’s not R-MC or American cafeteria food)
  • I was placed in a math workshop even though I’d signed up for the English Language Arts one, so I muttered jokingly, “This is racial profiling”
    • Z: *begins laughing at me*
    • R, noticing her laughter: “Sarena, you’re so cute”
    • Z: “Sarena? No, she’s so salty”
  • At the math workshop, a corps member told me, “There’s someone on our team who can’t do math. We asked her what 6 x 7 is, and she was like, ‘I don’t know'”
    • I stared at him blankly before replying, “I don’t know, either”
  • Everyone on my team has applied for and then been assigned coordinator roles, so I’m now officially in charge of positive school climate
  • My team had a training session about how to talk to kids about Charlottesville and other sensitive subjects
  • I had a nice bonding conversation with a teacher about being WOC, and small world, she’d actually lived in Short Pump for a while
  • “What’s your name? Sarena? I’ve never seen it spelled like that before”
  • I broke down laughing because three elementary school boys saw several of my teammates and me, and while the older ones excitedly announced, “New City Years!” the smallest one muttered, “I don’t know none of these people so I can’t talk to them”
  • Decorating our CY room was a great team bonding experience–I stuck Leslie Knope compliments on everyone’s lockerIMG_6112

City Year Camp

Last week consisted of more tedious PowerPoints that have probably permanently shortened my attention span, so I’m going to spare you from that boredom and instead get into the Summer Leadership Academy, a week-long program led and taught by CY members. My team worked with K-2 students, and I legitimately forgot how small children actually are. The highlights (both positive and negative), but mostly comments by/about the students:

  • A 4-year-old, about fruit punch CapriSun: “It tastes fresh.”
  • I almost cried several times because these children were just so small and cute and pure…when they were behaving, at least.
  • A kid threw herself into my lap and shouted, “Mommy!” I almost noped my way out of the room. I am nobody’s mother. I’d rather be called Madame.
  • These kids were simply fascinated by non-black people’s hair. One kid told me, “I like your hair!” and now I can’t dye it again. (Kidding, I have to get rid of the “unprofessional” pink/purple/grayish-brown streak.)
  • One 4-year-old, who’d spent a good portion of the morning crying, asked me while I was walking him to recess, “Is Mommy coming back? Fast?”
    • As I’m walking him to the bathroom after recess: “You said Mommy was coming back!”
  • An attempt to say “arts and crafts” became, “I love arts and crabs.”
  • A 2nd grader: “Why are you always laughing?” (Do I look that smiley???)
  • One kid told me that Freddy the Bear was going to eat me. Guess I can’t trust anyone named Freddy.
    • This kid was happily drawing animal characters from the video game Five Nights at Freddy’s, and then suddenly said, “I’m going to get red. For the blood,” and just casually got up and headed for the markers.
  • A kid, after she fell down and started crying: “I want soda!”
  • Two children, looking at and arguing about a postcard of the Temple Bar in Ireland: “Is that the Flash? Why is he in the picture? No, that’s not him!”
  • A first-grader, about a snow cone: “It tastes like red.”
  • I hardcore disappointed a kid because she was running around tickling random corps members, but I have the magical power of being utterly unticklish.
  • It’s sad how gender stereotypes are already ingrained in these children. I was wearing one of my brother’s old clip-on ties in an attempt to make my t-shirt look less casual, and a 1st grader asked, “Why are you wearing that? Ties are for boys.” Sigh.

These children get so attached so quickly, I don’t know how I feel about it. Also, a friend and I had this wonderful venting session because of many reasons, including one very lovely moment when we got called “push-y over-y.” Thanks. Ahem. I’m going to stop the salt here and say that this academy/summer camp was such a good hands-on, learning experience for when we actually start work on the 24th.

You’ve been in France too long when you…

  • Are both confused and horrified that a grocery store is open until 9pm on a Sunday
  • Catch yourself daydreaming about French bread
  • Procrastinate on packing for days and then stuff a box full of French books. Priorities.
  • See someone smoking and immediately think, “How dare you? That’s only supposed to happen in Europe!”
  • Wrinkle your nose whenever your parents see “French bread” at grocery stores and ask if you want some, to which your only response can be a despondent, “That’s not French bread”
  • Dream about telling your roommates that you’re a French snob when it comes to food (the sad thing is, that’s completely true)
  • Are deeply offended by the fact that a one-way, 20-minute trip on the DC metro costs $3.85. Why does American public transportation suck so much?
  • Think you’re hallucinating when you see an ad in French on the other side of the tracks. Nope, turns out that the Alliance Française happened to know where to find me.
  • Still can’t believe that America can justify charging $2.99 for a loaf of bread when you can walk into Carrefour and buy a baguette for under a euro. Capitalism, ugh. Take me back to the French cost of living.
  • Stand at your dining room window and yell at a guy, “Sir, pick up your dog’s poop! This isn’t France!”
  • Get beyond excited when you meet an aspiring French major and two people with French mothers
  • Stumble across a farmers market near a metro stop and become absurdly happy because it reminds you of walking through France. And then proceed to stare in shock at a baguette’s $4 price tag and a $3 pain au chocolat labeled “chocolate croissant”
  • Learn from a random City Year person you’ve never seen before that she’s already heard that you’re planning to apply to grad school for French. It’s been all of one week, and I’ve already established a reputation as the French nerd.
  • See a French flag hanging outside a classroom in your elementary school and want to know who that teacher is so you can work with them
  • Basically go to Giant for the sole purpose of purchasing buy-one-get-one-free French yogurt (look how cute these little pots are, though!)
  • IMG_6085
  • Hear a City Year person say “French” on the metro, so you instantly look up and walk towards them because that’s a conversation you need to join
  • Are low-key tempted to buy a French pastry from the farmers market but are afraid that it won’t live up to your expectations
  • Have never been happier to see that the Silver Spring library has four whole shelves of French books
  • Can’t resist buying a 5-cent postcard from a thrift store because it reminds you of your study abroad days in the Côte d’Azur
  • IMG_6089

A Weekend in DC

Since City Year gives us $200 for the metro every month, I figured I might as well blow through as much money as possible before August. What better way to do that besides meeting up with friends in a conveniently flat and walkable city?

Yesterday’s adventures:

  • Met up with an R-MC friend on a whim
  • Explored Chinatown and bought groceries (Okay, well, he did; I bought some haw flakes for 60 cents because I need my occasional dose of Asian snacks)
  • Looked confusedly through the National Portrait Gallery because we don’t understand art
  • Felt like snobs commenting on how ugly all the concrete buildings in DC are (he studied abroad in Japan, and we all know how much I love the architecture in France)
  • Discovered that a map lied to us and made the walk to the National Mall look much farther than it really was
  • Got distracted by food trucks (and got so much food from one purchase that we’re both still eating it)
  • Lost our sanity because an ice cream truck would not stop playing the same tune over and over again

Today’s adventures:

  • Went to a Paul boulangerie to meet up with A, my fellow Nice and TAPIF alumna–and TAPIF travel buddy–and some Francophile ladies in their 20s to practice our French skills
    • Almost cried at the sight of sandwiches and macarons and tartes and croissants and pains au chocolat
    • Was absurdly happy to eat a sandwich that consisted of real French bread
    • Horrified that a pain au chocolat cost $3.95–like, I could get one of those in Laon for 50 centimes
  • Learned that one of the girls quit TAPIF halfway through because she was the only Anglophone and the only Asian in her tiny town. Oh, the joys of racism.
  • A and I happily caught each other up with our lives since leaving France, and we walked around DC speaking French because we missed using it so much. We probably confused so many people, but I regret nothing.
  • Bizarrely enough, this is the first time we’ve met up in the US–before, we’d only met up in France
  • Explored the Smithsonian and the National Gallery, where I picked up everything related to France in the enormous gift shop and remarked, “Oh, this is cute!” and then promptly set it back down because “This price tag is not cute”
  • Passed a family in the Smithsonian speaking French, and then later in the metro, my head automatically swiveled towards another French family and a random guy telling his friend how he was going to take French in school
  • Nearly died on the metro because the lights kept flickering and then we stalled in total darkness for three minutes in an undetermined tunnel

City Year Training

After two days of training, I can finally explain what City Year actually is—an education-focused nonprofit that places diverse teams of AmeriCorps members in high-need urban schools in order to provide a continuum of academic and socio-emotional support, foster a positive school environment, and improve graduation rates and college + career readiness. We have 2 ½ more weeks of training, but I’m just going to highlight yesterday and today to sort of give you an idea of what we’re doing. The exciting news, school placement and grade level, doesn’t happen until Friday.

I’m too lazy/tired to write paragraphs, so bullet points, here we come:

July 24:

  • The worst. 9 straight hours of training that consisted of being cooped up in a room and enduring PowerPoints. It was like taking two finals and then attending classes.
  • That lovely moment when someone tells all the first-generation college students to stand, and basically everyone who does is a POC
  • Someone described DC as a “transit-rich” city. Ha. American public transportation sucks.
  • My notes devolved from important info to complaining in French so that no one could understand my writing
  • Provided free entertainment for one of my founding team members—at one point, I thought we could finally leave the room, but it turned out we had one more task, so I stalked back in muttering, “This is torture”
  • I’m pretty sure I left a piece of my mind on my chair. I will never recover that piece of my sanity.

July 25:

  • Much more exciting. More interactive activities and some actual service (we probably had the easiest task; one of my roommates had to clean a park)
  • Mildly offended that we had to go to a corner that represented our favorite subject in school, and French wasn’t an option
  • Traveled with a team leader and five other of my founding team members to the Ronald McDonald House
  • Bullied by my new “friends” because I was terrified of the Ronald McDonalds, dolls, and giant stuffed animals scattered outside and inside the house
  • Cooked spaghetti and meatballs, as well as made a salad, to feed 20 people (check out our salad, ft. me chopping lettuce [I’ve graciously blocked out the other team members’ faces because I’m not sure what the policy is regarding social media posts])


  • Got to see families get excited about our fresh food
  • After a grand total of two days, I’ve already garnered fame as the salty/sarcastic/cynical one: right before they got off the metro, two of my teammates told me, “Sarena, I’ll look forward to seeing your smiling face tomorrow” and “I’ll look forward to all your complaints”

Welcome to City Year

(I forgot to post this on the 17th. My bad.) After an exhausting day that gave me horrible flashbacks to the trademark inefficiency of French bureaucracy, I’m officially registered with City Year! This is going to be a huge change from TAPIF, where I nearly lost my mind from the sheer boredom of 12-hour work weeks. Instead, we’re working 50 hours a week, earning a $629 biweekly living stipend, and enjoying the not-so-beautiful American world of 12 personal days.

Also, I’m sure I’m going to sound like a total snob saying this, but the public transportation here is effing terrible compared to France and Europe. I’m still in shock over the fact that we had to pay $3.85 for a 20 minute ride. (Why can’t I just pay 1.70€ for a ticket that lasts 90 minutes and includes unlimited transfers? Take me back to Paris.) Also, who charges more money for peak times? Curse you, American capitalism. And the fare machines here don’t even have touch screens or maps. What year were they built in, the 60s? There’s a problem if I can navigate the vast Parisian metro more easily. In a foreign language. And roll easily through the public transportation systems of countries I’ve never actually lived in before, such as the Netherlands, Denmark, and Ireland.

Ahem. I’m going to stop being a Debbie Downer and say that, on the bright side, I’m so excited to live in a liberal area after Marine Le Pen-voting northeast France. DC has random gay flags everywhere, and we even ran across a church that had a Black Lives Matter sign outside. Silver Spring, Maryland is so much more vibrant than Laon—a downtown! A metro! More than a single street of shops! Neighbors who are my age!

Speaking of which, everyone that my roommates and I have met so far seems really awesome. Like TAPIF, we’re all dedicated to City Year some way or another…although after meeting recent high school graduates, I feel like an old lady.

Anyways, the plan after these next 11 months is to attend grad school for a French PhD (If I pass the GRE. And get accepted into a school). Also, bienvenue à la vue from our apartment, where we have free utilities and can happily blast the AC after long, hot work days:



Addressing Race in France

Back in June, I was solicited to write a column about my experience living as a Chinese-American in France. Of course, I got right to work because the prospect of paid writing was far more attractive than studying for the GRE.

My original intention was to be as salty as possible, but I realized that wouldn’t be very encouraging for anyone looking to study/work/live in France, so I ended up balancing the negative with the positive. The piece has finally been edited and published at On She Goes:


Regardless or not if you’re interested in traveling to France, if you’re a WOC, On She Goes is a great travel resource! And if you’re a WOC writer, they take pitches–and pay for accepted pieces.