When Albert Chan was growing up in north suburban Skokie, he never had any Asian teachers. He didn’t learn anything about Asian Americans in U.S. history either. Sometimes, he’d hear racist taunts in the classroom and out on the playground.
“I didn’t really know what to do with that information,” Chan, who is Chinese-American, recalls. “I didn’t know who to talk to about it. And even when I went home, my parents would say, ‘Oh, just keep your head down. Work hard at school,’ which is typical of many Asian Americans and how we’re raised.”
Chan said it made him feel like a perpetual foreigner, and he struggled with his identity. Nearly 25 years later, the 41-year-old now teaches history at the high school he attended, Niles North. More than 30% of students in the district are Asian, but Chan feels little has changed since he graduated in 1997.
“I see the same things in my students now,” he said. “They feel stereotyped all the time, … like their experiences are reduced to these historical assumptions of who they are as Asian people.”
In 2016, Chan with the help of another teacher put together an Asian American studies course. He said it helped him understand his identity, and it offered space for all students to discover themselves as Americans.
One of the things students are surprised to learn is that the first Asians that arrived in North America were Filipinos in 1587 — predating the Puritans and the pilgrims.
“There was a group of Filipinos on Spanish galleon ships that arrived on the west coast of California,” he tells his students. “But that’s not in our history books.”
Chan is among only a handful of educators across the country who teach a class in Asian American history. But now, a proposal in the Illinois legislature called the TEAACH Act aims to make it a requirement to teach a unit of it in elementary and high schools. It comes as there’s been a rise in anti-Asian hate, fueled by rhetoric that Chinese people are responsible for the coronavirus.
“The rising anti-Asian racism, which we have been living with for sometime, has intensified,” said Seong-Ah Cho, an organizer with Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago, a group that helped draft the bill. “But because of this, there’s really a moment where people are seeing this is really important.”
Cho says schools could create a unit on their own, but there are also free teaching materials and resources the state has already identified that pairs with a PBS film series.
The TEAACH Act passed the Illinois House in April, and is now pending in the Senate. Supporters hope it will pass before the legislative session ends on May 31. But there is some opposition. During a floor debate, Rep. Avery Bourne of downstate Litchfield, said she was moved by the testimony, but voted against the bill.
“This should happen at the local level where school boards and parents and students, like the students who testified in our committee can have this heartfelt conversation within their community of how do we become better,” Bourne said.
Rep. Fred Crespo of suburban Streamwood questioned the proposal at first, saying what’s to stop more groups from pushing to have their histories taught in schools. He changed his stance after talking to his wife, who is from the Philippines.
“She starts telling me things that have happened to her over the last 10, 15, 20 years,” Crespo said. “I think I know her better than most, and she starts telling me things I never heard about, and it broke my heart.”
Alyssa Santos, a senior at Chicago’s Lane Tech College Prep High School, listened in on that debate. She’s a student leader with the Hana Center, a community organization focusing on Asian Americans and other immigrant groups.
“He knew nothing about what she experienced as a Filipino growing up in the United States,” said Alyssa, who is Filipino-American. “That conversation at home happened because of the TEAACH Act.”
Alyssa wonders if it took a married couple so long to talk about this, what about schools where there are few or no Asian students? She doubts Asian American history would be a voluntary topic of conversation, and that’s why she thinks a statewide requirement is necessary.
A painful moment sticks with Alyssa this year. Days after the Atlanta spa shootings in which six Asian women were killed, one of Alyssa’s teachers gave students time to talk about what they were feeling.
“Instead of the discussion of how we can support the students in our class who are visibly upset, who are sharing their thoughts and the fears that a lot of them have had, then it shifted to a whole thing about the definition of a hate crime,” she said. “It was very traumatizing.”
Alyssa thinks if there’d been education and a deeper understanding of Asian Americans, there wouldn’t be discussions like those that feel dehumanizing.
Another student, Kiana Kenmotsu is taking Albert Chan’s Asian American studies class this semester.
“I could not name a single Asian person that’s done anything to contribute to society until I took that course,” said Kiana, who is Japanese-American. “It was at that moment that I gained so much pride for just Asian Americans as a whole.”
Kiana is hopeful for the passage of the TEAACH Act. She sees it as another part of American history.
“Not only Asian students can take pride in it, but also simply American students,” she said. “We can all take pride in just the accomplishments we’ve had.”