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More than Dumplings and Red Envelopes: What happens when we question who is absent in our curriculum

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    Ingrid Wong, School Designer, NYC Outward Bound Schools

Like many others raised in the 70s and 80s, I received very little instruction in elementary and secondary school about the history of Asian Pacific Island Americans. This was made more remarkable by the fact that I was raised in Hawaii, which has a population where approximately 24% identify as Asian and another 24% as ‘Multi-Ethnic.’ Although we had exposure to many cultural traditions of the islands and countries of Asia, my peers and I were treated to a largely apolitical and Euro-centric education, not surprising given Hawaii’s history as a state founded on U.S. occupation and Native Hawaiian colonization. 

The omissions we experienced were not exceptional. The story of Hawaii was among the many oppressions committed in our nation’s history and our school merely replicated the assimilationist agenda that spanned much of U.S. education. African American and Latinx history were also largely absent; that I had contact with very few people of those backgrounds made my childhood even more insular.  

Now that I am a parent, I have found it increasingly hard to know what I should expect from my childrens’ schools in terms of representation of Asian/Asian-Americans people, culture and history, and when to speak up about it. In my children’s earlier years, it seemed school was for making connections and foundational academic and socio-emotional skills, less important to have preferences about content. So long as the people, places and things chosen by their teachers led to a love of learning I was satisfied. Their classrooms were far more diverse than ones I grew up in, and that already felt a special opportunity. 

But by the time my younger son joined the 4th grade, I felt a growing sense of discomfort with the absence of Asians in the curriculum, in spite of all the other aspects of the school that contributed to an equitable learning environment. He was lucky enough to have the same teacher as his brother, a gifted and dedicated teacher who was also a trainer for Responsive Classroom.  In her class students learned about the Black Lives Matter movement and young activists who fought for social justice. Students challenged the dominant narratives about Thanksgiving and learned about the concept of stereotypes. So, when a couple of other Chinese mothers in our class asked if I was interested in helping with a Lunar New Year presentation, I was all for it, though I was a bit unsure how the topic would be interpreted through the critical lenses that framed the curriculum. The teacher thought it was a good idea and that she wanted to include Lunar New Year as a part of her current Identity unit. She shared with us some materials about African American and Latinx identity to give us a sense of how it would fit together.  I was aware of the curriculum—my older son gained a great deal from it. At the time I did not ask if he learned that Asians were also a group that was often misunderstood and subject to discrimination in our country.  

But now there was an opening-we as parents were invited to join the curriculum. Was it really enough to say Lunar New Year summarized us as a group, our experience? I did not want to question the teacher, who I respected and thought was doing a great job. I did not want to offend the other mothers who seemed excited about the event—would they share the same point of view? After some deliberation, I had to say something. If any teacher would be receptive, it would be this teacher. So I wrote an email (excepted):

“With almost no representation of Asia or Asian Americans (or even immigration) in our school’s  curriculum, one day on Lunar New year might not serve the topic of identity and representation well. One way it might connect is that Lunar New Year celebration is a tradition and traditions are part of one's heritage and heritage makes up identity. Lunar New Year also connects some Asians in the US to the practices of other Asians around the world, including what they believe is their "homeland" (China, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, etc), so diaspora as a theme could relate too.

If we want to discuss Asian American identity more deeply with comparable themes to the Hair Love book and other topics that have been presented to the students related to social justice, [then one idea is] that Asians, like other immigrants have been viewed as outsiders in this country at different points in time. We are also a diverse group that is more than Chinese people, including Indians, Pakistanis, and even Pacific Islanders and people see us as monolithic. Another theme is the idea of assimilation...the pressures to do so, what it looks like and how it can create a generational divide/tensions."

I shared a chapter book by a Chinese American author that changed me when I was 10 (In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord) and a few picture books in our home library about Lunar New Year. I also admitted that I had no children’s books at home about Asian American leaders or history and that I was willing to order a few for all of us to explore.  After hitting send, I wondered what response I would receive, if any.  

I wrote the email on Saturday morning and received a response on Sunday afternoon.  It read:

“Thank you for this email. I really appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with you about how to integrate more authentic and complex representation of Asian Americans and Asians into our curriculum. I completely agree that it is lacking and that we need to do more than highlight one Chinese holiday to do justice to the diverse experience of Asian culture.  

[As a result of this exchange] I have planned to do a lesson Thursday as part of our identity unit to try to unpack the labels Asian, Asian American, Pacific Islander, AAPI and explain that a person can identity as Asian but also be Chinese or Japanese or Indian or Vietnamese and so many more.  As part of the lesson, I plan to playthis video that I found that tries to represent the complexity of Asian identity told from the perspectives of Asian-Americans.  I want to create space to address stereotypes and for students to ask questions and hear answers from each other, not just me.  I had trouble, as you mentioned Ingrid, finding picture books but this article also seemed like it would be helpful to aid in our conversations.  

I'd appreciate your feedback about the video and the article and anything else that you think would be helpful for me to know.  I hope that learning more about the complexity of the Asian experience can help students have a more accurate context to appreciate the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration. 

Ingrid, I would love to take a look at these two books if you end up getting them Asian Americans who Inspire Us, Role Models Who Look Like Me and get them for our classroom if you think they are good.

Thank you again for engaging with me about Asian representation at [our school].

Several other emails were exchanged between the parents, teacher and me, all just as supportive and honest, affirming the importance of having these ‘crucial conversations’ (defined by Patterson, Kenney, et al as ones which the stakes are high with the chance to change relationships and the way we live).  As parents with immigrant parents from China and Taiwan, we agreed that we were products of cultural programming that largely left these topics at home, while home was a place of silence due to trauma and a fear of vulnerability. We felt limited in vocabulary to engage our children about racism and our identity as Asian Americans, and ambivalence created uncertainty about what to expect from teachers, what was worth fighting for, and fears of losing whatever comfort silence provided us.   

In the end, the mothers’ presentation on Lunar New Year was a success, with hong bao (red envelopes), dumplings, and delightful excitement from the class. We emphasized that not all groups celebrate Lunar New Year and those that do may have different rituals or beliefs. The teacher engaged in her own study of the topic which informed a new series of lessons. In addition to the sources shared in her email, she selected The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang as one of the books she would read aloud at their morning meeting. In her words, the book “grapples with the complexity of racial identity without it being the only plot-point. the main character is struggling to hold parts of her Chinese culture (language, food, traditions, family) while also maintaining her “Americanness” (basketball, friends, school).”  Far from being a one-off experience, Asian American was a topic that was returned to repeatedly, and looked at from different perspectives.  

But the work is far from done. I write this blog post in the last weeks of Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage month and in the midst of escalated violence and hate-related crimes resulting from the need for a scapegoat for Covid-19’s devastating impact. As the U.S. and world at large falls into greater distress, the more anger and blame turns toward those who are not in dominant groups, the most vulnerable. We are not the only group at risk, but we are among those at risk. This is not the first time we have been ‘otherized’ as the foreign threat or the outsider, a monolith, indistinguishable from one another. We emerge from invisibility only to reinforce myths about the “American Dream,’ only to be cast as the model minority, and our stories are manipulated to support the oppression of other groups, demanding conformity, submission. How often have I piped up to tell a story that I believed was uniquely Asian-American, only to have it go unacknowledged or universalized with the response “Oh, all groups go through that...’’ How many more of these “minor feelings,” as Cathy Hong Park refers to them, do we have to suppress in response to this informal curriculum that dismisses us and quickly translates to, “You don’t matter”?  Even the trope of the “Tiger Mom’’ disincentives Asian parents from speaking up, for fear of appearing entitled, invested only in gains for our children.  As educators we must make it our work to challenge dominant narratives and allow for the stories of the marginalized to be told in rich, authentic and historically accurate ways that disrupt cycles of socialization and cycles of oppression.  In addition to doing the work that is needed to develop curricula that are truly inclusive and anti-racist, we also need to shift our mindsets away from color-blindedness and toward a belief that children can handle these challenging topics, if they are taught well. Let’s equip them.