Are you looking to diversify your ELA curriculum and add AAPI voices in ELA? One easy mistake that we all may be guilty of doing is simply including a voice, but not doing the work to understand the actual perspective it lends to the American experience. In other words, including diverse voices is more than checking off a box or simple inclusion: It means offering a completely different perspective through a different cultural lens. What this requires is you stepping out from behind your own cultural lens, and using the lens of the author to better understand their story.
Joan Sung is a passionate ELA teacher in Washington State. I’m thrilled to have her share a wealth of knowledge about teaching AAPI voices in ELA. Be sure to follow Joan here: @joansungwriter , visit her website here: Joan Sung, and check out her cultural competency course here: AAIRE’s Asian American Cultural Competency Training for K-12 Educators
How to teach AAPI voices in ela with joan sung
Show your students a map of Asia
No, really. What does AAPI really mean? Explore this alongside your students. Unfortunately, Asian Americans are usually considered a monolithic identity in our country. But in reality, the cultures could be wildly different. By showing students a map of the entire continent of Asia, they can fully recognize that the term Asian American does not do our identity any justice. They may come to realize that it is, in fact, incredibly lacking to those of us who identify as Asian American. The reason for this frustration is that many Americans do not understand that the term Asian American actually encompasses many more identities than just Chinese, Korean, and Japanese and that we all have our own unique cultures. But somehow, somewhere in our history, we got lumped into one category or one singular identity.
Using the term Asian American and assuming that it is a monolithic identity would be like calling Americans “North Americans” and assuming that the culture in Mexico is the same as someone from America. Or even comparing the culture in America to the culture in Canada. The continent of Asia is huge and it would be illogical to assume that every ethnic group in the continent would have the same culture. This is to go without saying, there are many transcultural commonalities between various cultures, but it is best to approach the term as if we are all different and learning about the shared cultural points, rather than assuming that we are all the same (which, in turn, minimizes our experiences and identities).
So where did the term Asian American come from? In 1968, historian and activist Yuji Ichioka created the term and unfortunately, from there, it backfired and became a common misconception to associate only those from China, Japan, and Korea as Asian American, excluding Indians and even some Turks and Russians. Fascinating, right? So what is a potential remedy? Specifying South Asian, West Asian, etc. I personally like to call those of us who are of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese descent as East Asian to clarify any potential confusion.
You may still be wondering, Okay… But where did the term AAPI come from? What exactly is it? You may have noticed a shift from the usage of Asian American to AAPI and Asian American and Pacific Islander. This was to remedy the deficiencies in the term Asian American and to be more inclusive for others who actually do belong to the Asian American community but were historically left out of the identifier. Some use this term interchangeably, others have made the full transition to use AAPI, while some continue to use Asian American while understanding that it is a term that has issues. AAPI was a positive “rebranding”, if you will.
Address Asian American Themes
When going over common themes in the plight of identifying as Asian American, my best advice here is: Handle with care. Due to the historical racism against Asian Americans and the determination to see them as “others” in America (also known as the Perpetual Foreigner, more here: Perpetual Foreigner – Systemic Racism Against Asian Americans) there does happen to be common thematic elements in a good number of Asian American stories. Thematic topics such as the feeling of being torn between two worlds (being an American and staying true to your parents’ heritage), the feeling of being an outsider in America, rejection, racism, failure to assimilate to American culture, and feelings of shame. However, it is important that you spend time with the students to explain that this is not the entirety of the AAPI experience and that there is joy. To assume that because we are reading about one side of an experience does not mean that to be AAPI is dredged in sorrow and despair. There is a lot of beauty, pride, and joy in being AAPI that may not be indicated in the story you are reading in the classroom. But that’s not to say that it is not there. This would be a good time to show the students the TedTalk, “Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and review why it is important to approach these stories with an open mind, and to walk away from these stories with that same open mind.
rESEARCH aAPI Author’s Culture
Before teaching AAPI voices in ELA, spend time researching the nuances of the author’s culture that may influence the story or the author’s perspective. What I mean by this, is if you don’t take the time to understand the culture and teach the culture to the students, there is a very likely possibility that there are some elements in the author’s story that may go over the students’ head or may lead to a critical misunderstanding. For instance, if you didn’t understand what Tiger parenting was, then you may think all of the mother characters in Amy Tan’s stories were all horrible women and lacked maternal instincts. However, Tiger parenting is an East Asian mother’s love language. It is to be hard on your child so that they can be better prepared for the world. I like to read my students this article: What Is Tiger Mom Parenting? Experts Say This Parenting Style Can Be Harsh, But Warm
Another nuance that you may want to explore if your author is East Asian is the idea of a group identity. In America, our culture is to emphasize the individual. The individual is the center. But in parts of East Asia, the family unit is what is central. This identity is known as “The Face”. This is actually part of the reason why these cultures are known as (and this term is so annoyingly negative in connotation) “high shame cultures”. This is because before every step a family member takes, every decision, they are expected to consider the family first and how their decision will affect or reflect on the family. The family unit is a singular identity. And with that, you can see how if you are reading about an author who is of East Asian descent, there may be pressure to please the family or to avoid bringing “shame” upon their family by making them as proud as possible. Through an American lens, these nuances may be misconstrued and a student may not understand the pressure a character faces due to their family obligations.
There is also another type of shame that is part of the AAPI plight in assimilating in America. In Amy Tan’s “Fish Cheeks”, the Chinese American protagonist is ashamed of the traditional Chinese dishes her mother cooks for her when they have White American company over to their house. A teacher may want to do an activity with their students where the students journal about a time when they felt embarrassed by their parents. However, we must understand that the shame in these stories is different. This shame is the type of shame that makes us ashamed of our culture and our identity. This shame made us ashamed of our parents. By having non-POC students write about a time their mom embarrassed them by yelling “I love you” in the school parking lot does not equate to the pain felt by a POC when they felt shame about their culture. So, please, refrain from drawing parallels between non-POC students’ experiences and POC stories. Do not forget to remind students that they may not completely understand the POC experience, and they are not meant to. It is simply a window for us to hear what an author has to say and for us to take every opportunity to learn about someone else’s life. The point is not to empathize. It is to sympathize.
Research Context of AAPI Story in ELA
The thing about being AAPI is that our stories are very much shaped by our parents’ stories– our grandparents’ stories. Our family’s past is our present and our future. Reserve some time in the pre-unit to discuss any historical events that may have impacted the character’s story. For example, in “Rules of the Game” by Amy Tan, a student will not understand any of the advice the mother gives if they do not learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act first. The idea here is that if we can understand the events that impacted the protagonist’s mother, we can then understand how the mother’s experiences affected the way she treated her daughter. When teaching AAPI voices in ELA, History.com is always my go-to for historical background information for stories such as these.
Preview Outdated Language
Make sure you preview your story before your kids read it! Is there any outdated language? Racial slurs that need to be addressed? Two of the most common ones plaguing the AAPI community would be “yellow” and “Oriental”. I always tell students, “Oriental is a rug, not a person.” And funnily enough, one year I was able to find an NPR article that hit the nail right on the head. I’ll share it with you here: ‘Oriental’: Rugs, Not People
Be prepared that this question may come up from students: “Why can we say ‘White’ and ‘Black’ but we can’t call Asian people ‘Yellow’?” I’m not sure if there is a simple answer for this, but just tell them that a group gets to determine what is offensive– not everyone else. And make sure to tell them that it very well could have to do with the historical events around the term. For instance, the term “colored” is an outdated term that was historically used on segregation signs. It is full of connotations due to the surrounding events of that time.
If you are looking to incorporate some AAPI voices in ELA, I cannot recommend Amy Tan enough (in case you didn’t notice I was a huge fan from how much I wrote about her above). She has several short stories that you could pull from. Monica Sone is another author I strongly recommend, and the way she wrote Nisei Daughter allows you to pull from various chapters if you wanted to teach it in parts instead of the whole novel. There are some fascinating elements of her story, such as the name change (going by Monica instead of her birth name, Kazuko), and how it was really up to herself to discover what it meant to be AAPI, not anyone else.
Finally, I’ll leave you with this: Just try your best. You won’t get it right the first time and no one expects you to. The fact that you are putting forth an effort is what matters. And the fact that you are here, reading this, speaks volumes to the effort you are making. Please remember that if you make mistakes (which you probably will because we are all human), it is what you do after the mistakes that make you a star.
Thank you so much Joan! This post is invaluable. Be sure to follow Joan here: @joansungwriter , visit her website here: Joan Sung, and check out her cultural competency course here: AAIRE’s Asian American Cultural Competency Training for K-12 Educators
Want to go further? Keep reading here: How to do a Diverse ELA Curriculum Audit