By Angeline Aow, CIS International Advisor
Earlier this year, I had the honor of giving the opening address at a prize-giving event.
My school, Berlin International School, is a part of a foundation of schools called the Private-Kant-Schule Foundation, named after Immanuel Kant. Each year, through a nomination process and selection panel, there are Kant Prizes given for literature, science, and social service to students across the schools.
As I was preparing for what to say, I researched Immanuel Kant.
I learned that he thought that the only good thing is having a ‘good will’ and that this good will forms the idea of a ‘good person’.
Kant describes a good person as one who is committed to taking moral considerations and making reasonable conclusions before acting.
But what does it mean to be a good person? And what does it mean to do good?
The more I thought on it, the more I decided to shape my keynote around it. And now I’m sharing it with you here too.
Our actions have impact. Like the effect of a droplet of water reaching far beyond its contact with the water's surface, its ripples can have a broad, deep, and far-reaching impact.
What is good for you and what is good for me is different.
At my core is my personal herstory and experiences that have shaped my beliefs and values.Your story, your core beliefs and values are different.To illustrate this, here’s a bit of my personal story and some of my perspectives about what I think it means to do ‘good’.
My name is Angeline Siew Siew Aow, and I am a Malaysian-born, Chinese-Australian living in Berlin.
I am the daughter of a Hakka mother from a village in Malaysia where rubber trees, mangoes and pineapples grow.
I am the daughter of a Hokkien father, a descendant from the Fujian region of China whose mother (my grandmother) fled from a cultural revolution.
My mother successfully completed grade 9. My father went to a British naval high school in Port Dickson and was privileged enough to have been offered overseas university study opportunities.
While he had the opportunity, he didn’t go to university. Instead, he took over the family business.
They both attended school during the late 1950s and ‘60s at a time when Malaysia became independent from British rule.
During this time, a rise of nationalism led to racial riots that saw division between ethnic Malays, Chinese, and Indians.
Under ethnic Malay governance, opportunities for my parents were limited.
With this background in mind, my parents decided to migrate to Australia when I was nine.
They felt a push away from limitations and a pull towards greater opportunities for their children, especially education opportunities.
They wanted to do good for their children.
They wanted us to be successful and believed that a pathway to success was through education, the acquisition of English, and assimilating into white, Australian culture.
They changed my name when we became Australian citizens—I was born Aow Siew Siew and I became Angeline Siew Siew Aow.
Knowing English and becoming Australian with my anglicised name was seen as a pathway to security and success.
My parents made that decision because they thought it would be a good thing.
Looking back on this now I understand that our assimilating was done at the expense of our heritage, sense of self, ancestry, language and ethnicity.
My brother, who was three when we migrated, jokes that he is like a banana—white on the inside, yellow on the outside.
Like many migrants of colour who moved to colonised countries, I experienced challenges.
Most challenging of all was growing from a newly arrived migrant, defined as a student with a language ‘deficit’, to overcoming that label and graduating from the University of Sydney with a major in English Literature and a Masters of Teaching.
Our parents made choices for what they believed to be ‘good’ for us and I felt very privileged to have the opportunity my parents paved for us.
The educators I had on my journey made choices about what they thought was good for me.
But all of this did not always have a positive impact.
I have come to understand that the ‘good’ I had access to was ‘good’ at the expense of setting aside large parts of my identity.
Being ‘good’ meant moving towards assimilation into white spaces where I was not ‘good enough’.
My siblings and I, worked hard to fit in, shed parts of ourselves and switched our accents, dialects, and sayings.
We stopped bringing our strange smelling, chopstick eating lunches into school and started eating whitebread sandwiches.
We celebrated Chinese New Year, not on the days they fell, but on the closest weekend because there was school the next day.
We understood that to be seen as successful we had to be twice as good to be seen as competent.
We learned that competition and individualism were highly valued in Australia and qualities that were perceived as ‘good’. Meanwhile, our family experiences put more value on shared care-giving, social connections and accountability.
Mostly, I learned that those with power have a right to emotional and psychological comfort because when I shared stories of racism that happened in school, I found more sympathy for the perpetrator and that it was my job to understand them and not for them to understand us.
I became ‘good’ at having ‘intercultural understanding’. I was resilient.
As I share my story, you may be thinking that it is a thing of the past.
We’d like to think that discrimination doesn’t occur in our spaces.
If you are privileged enough to believe this; you may want to think again.
Schools are a reflection of society. And the cultural norms that exist in society, also exist in our schools.
Working alongside colleagues from diverse backgrounds and perspectives, I believe that we all come to school to do ‘good’.
But is what we are doing good enough? Because how does each of us wanting to do ‘good’ end up with persistent social inequities - since we have yet to solve issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism - the list goes on...
I believe that in schools we play a key role in shaping society and I am still searching for answers regarding what it means to be a good person.
As Immanuel Kant identified, having a goodwill goes a long way.
In my opinion, though, as we seek to do good, we must be mindful that our good intentions may not always have the positive impact we hope for.
My story may resonate with you if you share a migrant background.
It was empowering to learn that a group of students I guided were nominated for one of this year’s Kant Prizes.
They interviewed migrants and wrote articles with a goal to bridge intercultural understanding through sharing #storiesnotstereotypes. I am pleased to share our Humans of B.I.S. migrant stories with you.
It is my hope that we will, as a community, face inequities together.
’Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’—James Baldwin
To accelerate change towards becoming totally inclusive schools, here are three questions for which Immanuel Kant is renowned and that we could all benefit from frequently asking ourselves:
1. WHAT CAN I KNOW?
About yourself, about others and their stories, about the inequities in society today
2. WHAT OUGHT I DO?
To evolve yourself, do with others, and do to improve society today
3. WHAT CAN I HOPE?
For yourself, hope in solidarity with others, and hope for a more equitable future.
I challenge you to take a step towards intercultural understanding by learning something about someone today—their story might expand your perspective and shift your belief about what it means to be good and to do good.
It is my hope that together, we will achieve a more inclusive, equitable, and just world where every unique identity belongs.
Join us for an I-DEA workshop
Save the date for our next Inclusion Via Diversity, Equity & Anti-racism Foundation Workshop (virtual) on 14–16 February 2023
We recognise that identifying where to start on your school's journey to inclusion via diversity, equity & anti-racism (I-DEA), and how to take action, can be challenging. This workshop is designed to support and guide you.
View our events page for latest dates and information.
The sessions will be available on-demand in the weeks following so you can catch up or view again at your own convenience.
- Register for our Inclusion Via Diversity, Equity & Anti-Racism Foundation Workshop on 13–15 September 2022
- From process to progress: Three big ideas for inclusion via diversity, equity & anti-racism (I-DEA)
- Breaking up with imposter syndrome: It’s not you, it’s not me, it’s the system
- DEI: Tools, strategies and approaches for school communities
- The CIS model for global citizenship and intercultural learning
- How international schools can safeguard LGBTQ+ students and faculty
- Head of school salary research tells a new story