Defining Safe: One teacher’s battle for Asian American studies

Yiming Fu, Assistant City Editor

Albert Chan, a social studies teacher at Niles North High School, teaches one of the only high school Asian American studies classes in the country. The class was finally approved in 2016, more than ten years after he first pitched it.

YIMING FU: Before we begin, a content warning. This episode contains explicit language and mentions of racial discrimination.

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YIMING FU: The first Asians in America were the Filipinos. They arrived in California in 1587 on a Spanish galleon ship. Jamestown, the first English colony, was founded in 1607.

SAMANTHA FAJARDO: My people were the first ones here. And we don’t even know that.

YIMING FU: That’s Samantha Fajardo, a freshman at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, and a first-generation Filipino American. Like Samantha, I had no clue the history of Asians in America stretched so far back. That is, neither of us had any clue before meeting Albert Chan, a social studies teacher at Niles North High School and Niles West High School in Skokie. Chan said he teaches one of the few Asian American studies high school courses in the country.

Fajardo knew she needed to take Chan’s class from the second she met him, when he visited her junior year U.S. history class.

SAMANTHA FAJARDO: When he walked into the room, he had this glow. He had this angelic glow to me.

YIMING FU: Fajardo immediately rushed to her counselor’s office after the presentation.

SAMANTHA FAJARDO: I’m like, sign me up for the class, I need to be in this class, like, you don’t understand I have to be in this class. Like, I don’t care if I take it second semester, as long as I’m in this class.

YIMING FU: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Yiming Fu. This is Defining Safe, a podcast looking at the intersection of identity and student life at Northwestern.

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YIMING FU: Today, we’ll be looking a couple miles out from Northwestern to Chan’s classrooms at Niles North and Niles West High School. It took Chan a decade to get the school’s administration to sign off on the Asian American studies class.When he originally pitched the class in 2005, it was met with very little support.

ALBERT CHAN: Nobody really knew what it was. People thought — oh, well, we already have that, we teach world history, we teach about Chinese people in China, we teach Chinese history we teach, you know, like, Japanese history. We don’t need an Asian American studies course. And I said, Well, that’s not really what this is.

YIMING FU: Chan walked me through what his semester-long Asian American studies course really is. The course starts with a unit on identity and critical race theory, before moving into different waves of Asian American immigration, and then concluding with Asian American activism and present day issues.

Ten years after Chan’s original pitch, he proposed the class again, this time in collaboration with his colleague Pankaj Sharma. This time, the class was approved. He walked me through the reasons this class was important.

ALBERT CHAN: We have a lot of students who are talking about the Asian American experience with 30-40% Asian students in District 219. This would be a great class to show some representation, to talk about things that are never typically in a US history course.

YIMING FU: Sharma and Chan first had to write a pitch to the school board, and then had to develop a whole curriculum — creating units and culling resources — in order to gain departmental support. They had no other Asian American studies curriculums to turn to. No textbook, no guidelines. In 2016, Niles West still didn’t move forward, but Niles North finally approved the course.

ALBERT CHAN: It was a long process to sort of even get there.

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YIMING FU: Chan is the only Asian social studies teacher at Niles West High School, and one of two at Niles North. In his class, he said it’s important for him to build connections with students because many high schoolers have never seen an Asian social studies teacher before, despite the fact that over a quarter of the district’s students are Asian American.

ALBERT CHAN: For me to be able to connect with students is super important because I can sort of like, I don’t know, motivate them, right? Or inspire them that there’s something out there for them that talks about their unique experience that they really don’t have a space to do. They don’t really have a space for that.

YIMING FU: Chan also grew up in District 219 and attended Niles North. In the classroom, he said he discusses microaggressions he faced growing up to validate the experiences of his students, who have likely experienced similar things but stayed silent. For example, he told me a story about a time when three kids approached him on the playground and started rubbing dandelions into his shirt.

ALBERT CHAN: And I said, ‘ow stop, like, why are you – why are you being a jerk?’ Right? I was like, in fourth grade or something. And the kids, they’re all White kids, you know, they laughed, and they said: why do you care anyway, you’re yellow anyway? You’re yellow anyway. I’m like, what?

YIMING FU: Although deeply personal, Chan said it’s incredibly important for him to share his experiences.

ALBERT CHAN: So when I share those personal experiences with my students, as a child and even now when I hear things, I think it’s super powerful for them to hear it from me. Because it happened to me, and I’m an Asian and I have an Asian face. Right? And I’m sure many of them also experienced things, maybe not the same thing, right, but experienced things that they can relate to that.

YIMING FU: Kiana Kenmotsu, a senior at Niles West, took Chan’s course the first semester of her senior year. She said she really appreciates the little things Chan does to connect with his Asian students and make them feel welcome.

KIANA KENMOTSU: We’re able to talk about — what did you have for Thanksgiving? You know, not every family has stuffing, mashed potatoes and turkeys, you know, it’s a variety of things. And so little things like that, like those little senses of inclusion really do add up.

YIMING FU: But Chan’s class doesn’t just provide a welcoming space for students. It’s also given them a springboard for their passions.

SAMANTHA FAJARDO: Mr. Chan’s class definitely gave me a voice.

YIMING FU: Fajardo said she first learned the term “fetishization” in Chan’s class. She was outraged when she learned about Afong Moy, the first known female Chinese immigrant to the United States. Traders took Moy from her home in Guangzhou in 1834, so that she could be displayed as “The Chinese Lady” in front of hundreds in New York. Men would stare at her for hours.

SAMANTHA FAJARDO: And that was when I realized this is fucked up, like this is wrong. And then I really, like I connected the dots to my own life and saw that, oh, there are some guys who told me, oh, I have yellow fever and started talking to me just because I was Asian.

YIMING FU: Fajardo said the class inspired her to spread awareness on social media and engage with organizations like the HANA center to empower Asian Americans.

SAMANTHA FAJARDO: The passion that grew within me was ridiculous. Like, I did not stop. I would continue to do my Asian Studies homework and other classes. I would tell my best friend. He would have like this expression to him whenever I talked about this class, like he’s never seen me like this passionate about something, and I’ve been in a lot of stuff and a lot of activities.

YIMING FU: Like Fajardo, Kenmotsu felt a fire lit under her.

KIANA KENMOTSU: I think taking this course really opened my eyes to all the power, like, all of the powerful leaders that we have.

YIMING FU: She said Chan’s class taught her about innovative, accomplished and trailblazing Asian Americans in all different fields — and that knowledge inspired her to have conversations with her peers about her perspectives.

KIANA KENMOTSU: That’s one of the reasons why I’m even doing this now. It’s not in my comfort zone.

YIMING FU: She said that in reference to the fact that she was willing to do this interview.

KIANA KENMOTSU: But I know that I have power. And I think that’s something I didn’t fully realize just how much power I had. And how much of an impact I can have.

That was one of the highlights, you know, of this whole year was just seeing the impact that strong, particularly Asian women are able to have.

YIMING FU: While speaking with. Chan, I learned about Asian American figures obscured by traditional textbooks. I learned about Bengali community activists in Harlem, about Susan Ahn Cuddy, the first female gunnery officer in the U.S. Navy, about Larry Itliong, a Filipino American union leader who led the Delano Grape Strike, and about Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American who cradled Malcolm X at the time of his assassination. Hearing all this history I myself never learned enraged me. Growing up, I never spoke up for my needs because I never saw Asian Americans leading or taking charge.

KIANA KENMOTSU: I was finally able to begin to see a full picture. And that was a big deal. Because it’s shifted the way that I even live in my daily life in the sense that I’m able to feel so much pride.

YIMING FU: Chan’s students continue to rave about him and the class.

KIANA KENMOTSU: He is one of the very, very best teachers, as a person he is so kind, and just the perspective he brings into a classroom is so open minded.

YIMING FU: Like Kenmotsu, Fajardo deeply appreciated her teacher.

SAMANTHA FAJARDO: He felt like a friend. Like this man — he is not afraid to tell us his weird stories from college and stuff. He even admitted he dressed up as PSY once at the school assembly, and he wasn’t afraid to show us a video. And he was just caring. Like, if you’re having a bad day, he’ll come up to you. If you tell him something exciting that happened in your life, he’ll radiate the same energy, but like ten times more. And he’s definitely a teacher I will remember for the rest of my life.

YIMING FU: Fajardo said she always knew she wanted to be a teacher, but taking Chan’s class made her want to become an Asian American studies teacher.

SAMANTHA FAJARDO: I was just so shocked that he had to go through all that, just to get a class open. And I want to follow in his footsteps, because there could be other kids like me.

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YIMING FU: While Chan has inspired many, he said he still isn’t able to connect with students as much as he would like, especially at Niles West, where Chan only teaches first period. He then goes straight to Niles North, where he teaches from third period onward.

ALBERT CHAN: It takes me 15 minutes door to door to get in from desk to desk.

YIMING FU: The sobering reality is that Chan is one teacher, teaching one of the only Asian American studies courses for high schoolers in the country. And sometimes, he said, it can get a little lonely not being able to bounce ideas off of colleagues. Even Sharma, who Chan created the Asian American studies course with, doesn’t teach the class himself.

ALBERT CHAN: It’s hard. It’s hard for me even to tell him like, hey, this worked really well, today. This was an awesome discussion. And it’s like, “oh, yeah, well, I don’t have those discussions, because I teach these other classes.”

YIMING FU: Chan also said he still feels out of place at larger social studies teachers conferences because most teachers still don’t understand what Asian American studies is.

ALBERT CHAN: But what’s more depressing is that nobody really cares, right? Unless they’re Asian teachers themselves, which then there are few.

YIMING FU: Chan was particularly disturbed at one of his conferences when a world history teacher from another district presented graphic organizers with anime-style illustrations and said his Asian students would probably enjoy them the most. Chan was fed up.

ALBERT CHAN: So I stood up to make my presence known. I didn’t say anything. I just stood up. I’m like, “Hey, I’m an Asian guy in the audience. Right?” I didn’t think that was funny — I didn’t say that, right, but that was sort of my intent. And then I left. Walked out of the room.

YIMING FU: Chan hopes for change. He hopes for more ethnic studies classes. And he hopes for more diverse curriculums that will teach the next generations a fuller picture of history.

ALBERT CHAN: I hope our conversation is a sign right that we’re kind of going through like an Asian American awakening right now. And I would hopefully call it one day, like sort of a new Asian American movement.

YIMING FU: For Chan, Asian American studies is so crucial because it brings to light how Asians fit in with the American fabric today.

ALBERT CHAN: We need to talk about these things. And we need to have a reckoning about our identity, our culture, our history, and we need to demand that we be a part of American history and sort of these discussions because we should be, right? And we have been here. But we also need to find our place as brothers and sisters with all people of color.

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NARRATOR: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Yiming Fu. Thanks for listening to another episode of Defining Safe. This episode was reported and produced by me, Yiming Fu. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Madison Smith, the digital managing editor is Haley Fuller, and the editor in chief is Sneha Dey.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @yimingfuu

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