During the Covid-19 pandemic, Asian Americans survived the dual threats of the public health crisis and anti-Asian sentiments. In the Winter of 2023, I was concerned about informing college students about the severity of the racial injustice in American society, especially its influence on the Asian residents in Buffalo, and I designed a roundtable talk for my Asian history course. I invited guest speakers on behalf of various Asian groups to share their stories about the pandemic with my students. This article aims to review the design and deployment of this roundtable talk and the importance of including racial justice-oriented projects in the classroom.
Why Teach Asian Buffalonians’ Stories in an Asian History Course?
This question was raised frequently when I reached out to Asian Buffalonians and invited them to join my class as guest speakers. Indeed, an Asian history class is seemingly meant to cover Asian emperors and kings from hundreds of years ago or the Korean and Vietnam Wars. However, the combination of my personal experience with anti-Asian sentiments, concern about the level of community-engagement in history education, and my research record motivates me to add such a less Asia-focused section into the class.
As a Buffalo-based history instructor of Chinese background, I am also a victim of anti-Asian sentiments. I experienced being yelled at to “go back to China!” on the street. The traumatic encounters with racism fostered me to consider integrating a racial justice-related section when designing the Asian history class in the winter of 2023.
The prevalence of anti-Asian sentiments during the pandemic has a historical origin. Long before the Covid-19 virus blamed Chinese people as the consequence of cruelty in butchering and biting bats, Chinese immigrants were portrayed as “rat-eaters” in the late nineteenth century. In my opinion, history should not be understood as a dead past but as events that happened before that now affect the present. Hence, the Asian American experience with racism originated in the interwoven history of Asia and America.
When preparing for this Asian history course, I deliberated on how to prevent students of non-Asian heritage and backgrounds from viewing Asian history as merely the exotic past of countries and peoples on the other side of the world. In my class, I particularly foregrounded the strong connections between Asian countries and Buffalo in the 20th century. For example, when lecturing on the post-WWII history of Southeast Asia, I played a video of Myanmar immigrant celebration of their Water Festival in Buffalo before the pandemic. I emphasized this burgeoning Asian immigrant community in recent decades, which aims to inform students of the closeness of Asian history to their neighborhood.
Furthermore, concern about racial justice and the locality of Asian history in Buffalo motivated me to think about how to add a community-based section into the class. The selection of the roundtable-talk and story-sharing format was inspired by my in-progress community-based humanities project, which aims to document Chinese immigrants’ experiences with the pandemic. In collaboration with the leadership of the Chinese American community in Buffalo, my colleagues and I have conducted many oral interviews with Chinese immigrants and internationals of different occupations. The success of the oral history project inspired me to consider adding a live-talk section into class, which provided students with opportunities to not only listen but also to communicate with the speakers.
Preparation and Procedure of the Roundtable Talk
After finalizing the format and contents for the class activity, I began my work on reaching out to representatives of various Asian communities in Buffalo. During my efforts to seek a candidate for the guest speakers, I took advantage of my own social network, asking classmates, colleagues, Asian immigrant communities, and the ethnic church. After sending dozens of invitations, I selected four speakers of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds: Ngo (Burma), Kavitha (India), Lily (China), and Chris (Korea) are affiliated to either college or church in Buffalo. Their presence represents the diverse voices of Asian Buffalonians of different occupations on the roundtable talk.
The story-sharing section was hosted online on January 23, 2023. Its procedure consists of a brief lecture, a roundtable talk, and a discussion section. Before the guest speaker joined the Zoom classroom, I began the class at 11:30 AM with a brief lecture about the background information. I addressed the surging anti-Asian sentiment during the pandemic, the increasing reports of anti-Asian crimes across America, and the significant presence of Asian immigrants and their descendants in Western New York, especially in Buffalo. At 12:30 PM, the four guest speakers joined the virtual classroom. The roundtable talk started with their introductions, which was followed by the organization of the talks by raising three open-ended questions in sequence:
- ” How is your experience with the pandemics, such as the experiences with the social distance policy and the “lockdown” period in early 2020, in a general sense?”
- “Do you encounter anti-Asian sentiments such as hate crimes and speech or hear about their happenings in your friends and families in Western New York?”
- “Besides the prevalent traumatic narrative of the Asian Americans’ experience with pandemics, I am wondering about the measures you and your ethnic community take in helping other members in your neighborhoods, such as voluntary services?”
After the talk, I encouraged students to share what they took away from the talk. I devised an asynchronous discussion section using the online platform Padlet, “a software people use to make and share content with others.” Student posters on the Padlet proved the success of the section in achieving this goal. For example, one student addressed, “it is a pity that there is still racial discrimination in this society, especially because the new crown has aggravated the racial hatred of some extremists, but now Asians are no longer silent, they know how to speak out for themselves, and people have begun to pay attention to the survival of Asians.” Apparently, the responses epitomizes students’ awareness of racial justice after attending the roundtable talk.
While preparing for the course and composing this article, it was reported that an Asian student was stabbed and suffered from a hate crime in Bloomington, Indiana. In terms of the exacerbation of racial relations and the rise of anti-Asian sentiments across the United States, it is urgent to improve student racial justice literacy. This practice of integrating local Asian community members’ voices into the class may inspire other history teachers.