From classroom to community: NU students celebrate AAPI heritage through creative class projects


Photo courtesy of Christina Wu

Weinberg freshman Christina Wu designed stickers inspired by plants with symbolic meanings in Chinese culture. She is selling them on Redbubble to fundraise for a Chinese community organization.

Yurui Wu, Reporter

From selling self-designed stickers to performing an online concert, students in Asian languages and cultures Prof. Jingjing Ji’s Chinese 115: Chinese I Accelerated are working on projects beyond the classroom to celebrate Asian American culture.

The accelerated course is designed for Chinese heritage students — all 23 enrolled this quarter are Chinese Americans, Ji said. When she saw the significant increase in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic, she said she felt an urgency to design a unit in her curriculum that provides space to discuss anti-Asian racism while also learning the language. 

The unit spans the month of May, which is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. After showing and discussing the PBS documentary series “Asian Americans,” Ji asked her students to complete projects that emphasize marginalized voices and build inclusive communities.

With these goals in mind, Weinberg freshman Kelly Mei returned to Chicago’s Chinatown. She said the neighborhood was a significant part of her coming-of-age, allowing her a place to develop an appreciation of her heritage.

“The time I spent in Chinatown coincided with a lot of thinking about my cultural identity,” Mei said. “Previously, I never really occupied spaces that were really made for Asian Americans.”

Hoping to find people who share her experience, she asked on social media if other Chinese Americans have a place in Chinatown that is significant to them. After conducting additional interviews, Mei went to the neighborhood and shot over 100 photographs. She hopes to publish them with the title “Chinatown: A place like no other.”

A violinist, Weinberg and Bienen junior Claire Cai is using her talent to showcase Chinese classical music. She plans to perform He Zhanhao’s “梁祝,” or “The Butterfly Lovers,” a famous Chinese piece of violin concerto based on an ancient legend.

“Within the classical world all you ever hear about are western composers and their work is what everybody knows,” Cai said. “Nobody really knows any minority composers.”

Cai hopes to showcase Chinese composers by sharing a recording of the concert, which will feature a second violin piece from her and two piano pieces by her classmate, Weinberg junior George Yang. 

“There are characteristics in Asian pieces that are unique to Asian composers and cultures,” Cai said. “It’s something I think more people should know about.”

Weinberg freshman Christina Wu is collaborating with other students to sell self-designed stickers online. They are in the process of determining a community organization to donate proceeds. 

While watching the PBS documentary, Wu said she and her teammates were shocked by the financial struggles of many Asian Americans. Inspired to help members of her community, Wu designed stickers featuring bamboo, pine tree, plum blossom and lotus flowers — four plants that represent venerable characteristics in Chinese culture.

She said the class project also made her realize there’s so much more to her Chinese heritage than just learning the language.

“Learning the culture and the history is also very important,” she said. “You’re really part of a community. You can make an impact, no matter how small you think you are.”

Ji said she thinks she made the right decision to include social justice content into her course. Her students are interested in the topic, she said, and shared many thought-provoking conversations.  

Now, Ji plans to recommend the incorporation of conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion into language instruction to her colleagues at NU and at a national conference she is attending this summer.

“I’m thankful to my students. They taught me a lot in the whole process,” Ji said. “Their thoughts, their sharing of experiences growing up here in the society are really inspiring to me not just as a Chinese language teacher but also as a Chinese mom.”

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