This post was written by NCTE member Mohit Mehta.
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. First recognized by a congressional resolution in the late 1970s, this commemorative month is known today by half a dozen acronyms including Asian Pacific American (APA) Month and Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Month. While each of these designations attempts to capture the diversity of more than 22 million Asian Americans, 1.5 million Pacific Islanders, and half a million kānaka maoli, no one month is long enough to highlight the breadth of experiences of our largely heterogeneous group.
During celebrations like AAPI Heritage Month, we run the risk of attending only to surface-level displays of diversity. At the same time, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month sometimes foregrounds only dominant East Asian experiences, voices, and identities. Pre-packaged curriculum and widely available online resources sometimes highlight aspects of Asian American culture that have been easily incorporated into the mainstream. These symbols—dragons, henna tattoos, chopsticks, kimonos, leis—are fetishized and easily become proxy for race and ethnicity. Instead, as educators, we can take AAPI Heritage Month as an invitation to learn more deeply about the broad Asian American experience while centering the students and families we serve in our schools. For example, multiple states now have requirements to teach Asian American history. A wealth of children’s, middle grade, and young adult literature invites critical inquiry into aspects of our collective histories. With Kao Kalia Yang’s The Most Beautiful Thing (Carolrhoda Books, 2020), The Top of the Trees (Carolrhoda Books, 2021), and A Map Unto the World (Carolrhoda Books, 2019) we can teach about the US involvement in Southeast Asia and the multifold experience of Hmong Americans. When paired with a historical overview of both Islamophobia and Japanese American incarceration, Samira Ahmed’s Internment provides an opportunity to dialogue about the experiences of minoritized populations that have been racialized as threats to the United States.
As teachers of language and literacy, we aim to include a wide range of literature that provides students with access to multiple perspectives by and about historically marginalized communities. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Than Nguyen refers to this as narrative plentitude. But the wide heterogeneity of Asian American experiences means that books about certain groups cannot be found yet on library shelves. For example, in Austin, Texas, we host a community-based literacy program for youth with the primary goal of teaching Asian American history through youth literature paired together with primary sources. We are challenged to find books that reflect the identities of Burmese and Nepali American youth. Instead, we work to position students as experts of their own communities. We provide youth participants with the tools necessary to collect family histories. They then choose a section of the oral history to create a digital composition that layers audio with animation. In this way, students tell the stories that are important to them and that reflect communal cultural wealth.
Another way to promote narrative plentitude is to connect students with local Asian American and Pacific Islander histories. In Austin, Texas, several historical landmarks, including a laundry owned by a Chinese-Mexican American family, invite deep learning into immigration policy, race, and urban development. When Joe Sing moved to Austin in the early 1900s after working on the Transcontinental Railroad, he married Frances Moreno, a Mexican American woman who lost her citizenship by marrying a foreigner, according to the 1907 Expatriation Act. After visiting the Sing/Moreno home and laundry either in person or virtually, we might learn about Chinese migration to the United States and some of the immigration policies that created permanent categories of exclusion for Chinese migrants. Similarly, there are thousands of local Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian histories that are available for our students to capture through oral histories, neighborhood maps, and multimodal compositions that encourage both language and literacy practices and contextual relevance.
By honoring local histories and positioning AAPI students as experts of their own communities and contexts, we can both counter the homogenization of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as one indistinct whole, and move beyond the problematic focus on the fetishized symbols of pandas, pagodas, and chopsticks. Each Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is an invitation to do better.
Mohit Mehta is the assistant director for the Center for Asian American Studies at UT Austin and a PhD candidate in curriculum & instruction. His research focuses on the teaching and learning of critical visual/racial literacies through graphic texts in the context of Asian American history. A former bilingual elementary school teacher, Mohit has also worked in various multilingual settings including Nicaragua, Guatemala, India, and Palestine. He volunteers regularly with newcomer students at a local dual-language elementary school.
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