by Paula Yoo
When I visited my parents’ house several years ago, I found a box filled with my old drawings from elementary school. I smiled at the cute images of myself in kindergarten, with my black hair and dark eyes.
But as I flipped through the pages, I noticed something was… off.
The drawings of me with black hair and dark eyes were soon replaced with blue eyes and blonde hair.
I was holding a tangible piece of evidence as to why representation matters not just in books, but in our schools. Looking back, I realized how little—if any—Asian American Pacific Islander literature and history had been taught in depth when I was growing up. I didn’t know that 19th-century Chinese immigrant laborers helped construct the Continental Railroad. The illegal incarceration of the Japanese Americans during World War II was just a couple of pages, maybe even a side bar, in our US History textbooks. And as a Korean American, I learned more about the Korean War at the dinner table from my parents than I did in the classroom.
The irony? Many award-winning AAPI children’s/YA fiction and nonfiction books were published back then. But during the 1970s and ‘80s, AAPI subjects were not considered “mainstream” enough to be taught in-depth in K-12 classes. As a result, there was not enough access for these books. For example, when I was in elementary school in 1975, Laurence Yep’s Dragonwings won a Newbery Honor. But I never saw his books on our library shelves. I did not know about him, along with Yoshiko Uchida, Allen Say, Sook Nyul Choi, and others until I was an adult.
I felt cheated. I lost a valuable part of not just my childhood, but my identity.
And I had the drawings to prove it.
This lack of access has existed for decades and impacted how we understand Asian America in the present. In May 2021, according to a national survey conducted by the nonprofit Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change, 42 percent of Americans could not name a single Asian American figure when asked. “Don’t know” was the No. 1 answer. The next 2 answers? “Bruce Lee” and “Jackie Chan,” thus affirming the stereotype of only associating Asians with martial arts.
During college and beyond, I did my own homework on Asian America by devouring every single AAPI history book I could find. That inspired me to write AAPI nonfiction books for young readers. I did not want children growing up like me with this huge gap of in their education.
Because this gap can have devastating—and even fatal—results.
Anti-Asian hate crimes have been skyrocketing since the start of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. As of September 2021, more than 10,000 pandemic-related incidents of anti-Asian physical and verbal harassment hate crimes, including several deaths, have been reported.
The AAPI community fought back. Demonstration rallies swept the country. Prominent AAPI members of Congress banded together to create the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. signed this into law on May 20, 2021. This date was especially significant to me, because it was two days after what would have been Vincent Chin’s 66th birthday. Vincent Chin was the subject of my latest YA narrative nonfiction book, From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement (Norton Young Readers, 2021). My book is about the 1982 manslaughter death of a Chinese American man killed during a wave of anti-Asian racism influenced by mass layoffs in the auto industry due to competition from Japanese import cars. Chin’s case would become the first federal civil rights trial for an Asian American, and his name became a symbol for anti-Asian racism.
Soon after the 2021 COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act was passed, Illinois and New Jersey became the first two states to mandate Asian American Pacific Islander history in K-12 public schools. California recently passed a law requiring K-12 Ethnic Studies to be taught as well. New York and several other states are now working on similar legislation.
“The mandates in Illinois and New Jersey mean that all students, and especially Asian American students, will finally see Asian Americans as central rather than peripheral or invisible to our American story,” says Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen, PhD, Associate Professor, School of Information Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“Asian Americans and Pasifika or Pacific Islander peoples have a long history in the Americas which is often erased, making it seem like [we] just arrived here last week, month or year,” agrees Dr. Betina Hsieh, associate professor of Teacher Education at California State University Long Beach. She believes that teaching AAPI history and integrating nonfiction writing in K-12 classrooms “…helps us move away from the idea that Asian Americans are one interchangeable group that are all alike and fit neatly Into stereotypical boxes.”
But mandates are just the first step, warns Dr. Jung Kim, Associate Professor of Literature at Lewis University. “It is important to ensure that an in-depth, nuanced history be taught to show the rich and diverse history of Asian Americans,” she says. “To that end, experts and educators must work together to help develop and disseminate curriculum that is sensitive and thoughtful.” Kim and Hsieh, who co-authored The Racialized Experiences of Asian American (Routledge, 2021), found that many of the educators they interviewed had similar experiences to my own, not having access to Asian American representation in their K-12 schooling experiences and often feeling like they were cheated out of learning about a part of their identities and the histories of Asian Americans.
So, let’s now take a step back and look at the toxic and tangible results of what happens when AAPI history is NOT taught in our schools. What happens when we are erased? In September 2020, the Stop AAPI Hate Youth Campaign released a report in which 1 out of 4 AAPI youth reported experiencing anti-Asian physical and verbal harassment and bullying because of the pandemic.
That statistic breaks my heart. Think about it. What if this whole time, AAPI history was already being taught in depth in all K-12 classrooms across the country? Instead of 1 out 4 AAPI children being bullied because of the pandemic, perhaps that number could have been… zero.
Give It a Try
I hope my personal story inspires you to look into your own heritage as a source of inspiration for discovering nonfiction stories told from unique points of view. What are little-known historical events or figures from your heritage that you feel are not only universal but relevant to what’s happening today? Because all of our voices are universal and empowering for those who have had to rise above the noise to be heard.
Meet the Author
Paula Yoo is a TV/feature writer and producer, musician and author of over a dozen children’s and young adult books. Her latest YA narrative nonfiction book, FROM A WHISPER TO A RALLYING CRY: THE KILLING OF VINCENT CHIN AND THE TRIAL THAT GALVANIZED THE ASIAN AMERICAN MOVEMENT (Norton Young Readers 2021), won the Boston Globe Horn Book Award, was longlisted for the National Book Award, and was a finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction.
 Wang, Claire, “Survey finds that 42 percent of people in U.S. can't name one Asian American,” NBC NEWS, May 13, 2021. doi: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/survey-finds-42-percent-people-u-s-can-t-name-n1267283
 "Stop AAPI Hate National Report," Stop AAPI Hate, September 30, 2021. doi: https://stopaapihate.org/national-report-through-september-2021/
 Sprunt, Barbara, "Here's what the new hate crimes law aims to do as attacks on Asian Americans rise," NPR, May 20, 2021. doi: https://www.npr.org/2021/05/20/998599775/biden-to-sign-the-covid-19-hate-crimes-bill-as-anti-asian-american-attacks-rise
 Interview with author and Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen, February 1, 2021.
 Interview with author and Dr. Betina Hsieh, February 1, 2021.
 Interview with author and Dr. Jung Kim, February 1, 2021.
 Wang, Claire, "'You have Chinese virus!': 1 in 4 Asian American youth experience racist bullying, report says," NBC News, September 17, 2020. doi: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/25-percent-asian-american-youths-racist-bullying-n1240380