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Life Experiences Color Online Classmates’ Identities

Life Experiences Color Online Classmates’ Identities
By Lydia Lum

The words “race blind” literally took on a new meaning when I enrolled in an online class. Gone were the labels I had used so often, like reaching for a TV remote control. Black and White. Asian. Multiracial. So it wasn’t surprising that race crossed my mind during a 10-week Internet course for first-time authors. Because I never met my classmates in person, I wondered what their ethnicities were. But did the color of their skin matter? These were among the many thoughts that emerged from my online class experience.

Sure, putting race and ethnicity aside, there are drawbacks to not physically being “in class.” The teacher’s e-mailed critiques were sometimes confusing. What she and I would have cleared up in a single verbal exchange if we had met in person, instead required several e-mails. Equally time-consuming was couching my comments when critiquing others’ writings. I practically became addicted to the punctuation marks that form the Internet smiley face. Good grief! Wasn’t taking a class online supposed to save time? For the time saved in commuting to a brick-and-mortar class, I may have spent the same amount of time drafting and editing e-mail.

My writing class was my first back-to-school experience since earning my bachelor’s degree in the 1980s. The online journey began when I hopped onto Google and typed in words like “writing” and “class” and “fiction.” I had actually been considering a brick-and-mortar class when I found an online alternative. I decided I had nothing to lose. I signed up and paid my tuition.

The class format called for the teacher, a published author who had taught fiction writing to “live” university classes, to e-mail lessons and assignments every Thursday. No chat rooms, no online meetings. As students, we read lessons and submitted work at our convenience. No grades. No demerits for skipping assignments. In fact, the teacher encouraged the six of us to skip assignments, rather than get bogged down. Surprisingly, foul weather affected us even in cyberspace. In late November, one East Coast student e-mailed from her workplace. A bad storm had knocked out the power at her home and thousands of others for several days, and she couldn’t post any more chapters until it was restored. Furthermore, our class still had the subculture of an “in-person” class. Much like gossiping after class, several of us swapped e-mails and privately vented our irritation after we had reviewed unnecessarily condescending critiques from others.

I quickly grasped the hoopla surrounding online classes. Like books on audiotape, online classes give us another way to shoehorn learning into our hectic lives.

I noticed that each of my classmates distinguished him or herself quickly, probably as a result of posting manuscripts-in-progress and words of encouragement daily. And because I “heard voices” in their e-mail, it made me wonder how they looked. No one asked another’s ethnicity, and I only volunteered mine while doing an assignment. I wrote that my manuscript re-creates the ordeals of 175,000 Chinese immigrants, my great-uncle included, who were held and interrogated at a detention camp before World War II. I also mentioned that I was American-born and raised.

Bios of my classmates and teacher, interestingly, contained everything but race. Instead, the self-portraits were “Arizona native,” or “transplanted Californian,” and listed careers like journalist, lawyer and retired college professor. As class progressed, our life experiences emerged. One man, with grown children, had lived in Tokyo for 30 years. One woman, a North Carolina daily newspaper copy editor, had lived in Hong Kong previously. Their last names sounded Caucasian, but how significant was that? My cousin’s wife is Ruby Chun. Sound like an Asian name? When you see her naturally blond hair, you realize she’s Caucasian. So any of my classmates could have been biracial, multiracial or a minority with a Caucasian surname.

Furthermore, I saw from critiques that all of my classmates’ life experiences and writing and editing skills colored their comments. And those comments helped strengthen my manuscript. My North Carolina classmate, for instance, confirmed that the dialogue of Chinese-born characters in my manuscript accurately captured the speech patterns of her former neighbors in Hong Kong. When my storytelling became illogical a couple of times, my North Dakota classmate, who gave no hint of her ethnic roots, reminded me of the probable physical characteristics of my Chinese-American protagonist — short and dark-haired.

Does race play a role in a class setting, whether online or in person? Of course it does. But I think one’s talents and life experiences play just as large a role, if not larger. n

— A longtime Black Issues correspondent, Lydia Lum is a frequent public speaker and is authoring a book about Chinese immigrants at Angel Island. She can be reached at [email protected].

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