PHOTO COURTESY OF LINFENG CHEN
The American public school system is changing. As the epidemic of anti-Asian hate swelled to a new peak during the COVID-19 pandemic, activists have pushed back against harmful stereotypes. In school systems across the U.S., policymakers have advocated for changes to their state’s curriculum to reflect better the diversity of their student body and surrounding communities. Illinois, the first state to require the teaching of Asian American history in 2021, began implementing this new curriculum in public schools this academic year. In May, Florida became the most recent state to require Asian American history to be taught in its classrooms.
The progress made by Asian American activists, policymakers, and educators has been impressive, but the work is not finished. Anti-Asian hate and ignorance continue to pervade classrooms, despite these efforts. In May 2023, the Maryland state legislature passed a bill that provided grants to local school systems to encourage more student field trips to museums, such as Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) museums. Yet, students continue to face discrimination, even with additional efforts to increase diversity. A first grader in Maryland’s Howard County Public School System was repeatedly harassed by her peers on the way home from school, where other students would make inappropriate gestures and make fun of her Chinese heritage. Moreover, required reading materials and a lack of nuanced discussions about U.S.-China foreign policy have increased anti-Chinese sentiments within classrooms. These sentiments are often directed at Chinese American students. Linfeng Chen, a Howard County school board member, recalled that his son felt ostracized when the school morning announcements replayed news reports about the “spy balloon.”
Other Chinese American students felt uncomfortable reading Red Scarf Girl in their middle school English classes because they felt that the book painted the Chinese government in a negative light and placed those stereotypes on all Chinese people. Nearly half of all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders nationwide reported experiencing discrimination in 2023, and Asian American students are a part of that statistic. Even with the progress in incorporating Asian American history into school curricula, discrimination and anti-Asian hate still plague Asian American students. Our public school system must address this hatred and incorporate more inclusive, culturally competent changes to classrooms.
In the face of these challenges, the Asian American community in Howard County has pushed for the school system to recognize their culture and traditions. The Asian American communities rallied together for years to petition the school board to add Asian American holidays to the school calendar, which only included Christian and Jewish holidays. In 2016, the school board voted to expand its calendar to include Eid Al-Adha, Lunar New Year, and Diwali as days for school closure to allow Asian American students the opportunity to celebrate these holidays with their families at home.
Asian American students and parents have strived to share their holidays and cultural traditions with peers and school faculty, as well. Every year, around Lunar New Year, families visit their children’s schools and spend their day making dumplings for the school’s teachers and staff. They also bring paper lanterns and other red-colored decor to line the hallways. Just as the hallways are decorated each year around Halloween and Christmas, the Lunar New Year decorations brighten the hallways and make students excited about the holiday.
Asian American youth have used their agency as student leaders to create clubs and events that celebrate the diversity of cultures at their school. In Howard County, Project Lotus aims to share Asian American culture. Its members collaborated with other student clubs, such as the Black Leadership Union and the Muslim Student Association, to host a Culture Day to celebrate the diversity within the schools’ student body. Lily Peng, a high school student and the founder of Project Lotus, expressed that “the months of planning were all worth it to see the community come together and celebrate each other’s cultures.” The event boasted performances and cultural activities that attendees could participate in. Reflecting on the impact of that night, Lily believed that Culture Day “reaffirmed the importance of diverse communities” at her school. Asian American culture and traditions are a part of the diversity that make up our schools, communities, and country. Recognizing and including the Asian American community is not adding to the picture of America but completing it.
Despite persisting discrimination, Asian Americans have pushed for the visibility of their community and their heritage inside and outside of the classroom. The Asian American community is an intrinsic part of the fabric of the U.S. Asian Americans are students, leaders, mentors, volunteers, and community members in towns and cities across the nation. Our history, culture, and traditions deserve to be learned about and celebrated.