My Family Taught Me About My Roots

Being home with them during the pandemic showed me the narrowness of the history I learned in school.

by Vienna Du

Art by Vienna Du

When I was in elementary school, I noticed that White students were favored by my teachers, from being picked first to be class monitors to being excused when bullying other children.

In toy stores, my sister and I looked at rows and rows of White dolls wondering why none of them looked like us. There was little about people of color in my history classes. Instead, many lessons seemed to glorify White people and their achievements, such as how Christopher Columbus should be celebrated for “discovering” America, while ignoring that he was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of indigenous people.

In 5th grade we learned about the Holocaust, and when I told my mother that’s what we were studying, she told me I should also know about the Nanjing Massacre. Hundreds of thousands were killed by Imperial Japanese in Nanjing, China, from 1937-1938. This event is also known as the Rape of Nanjing, because in addition to the killing, tens of thousands of women were sexually assaulted by Japanese troops.

I wondered why that wasn’t also taught in school.

One reason might be that the New York City school system does not consider Chinese history to be as important as European history. This is not meant to undermine the Holocaust in any way, but I still think that my history is as significant as White people’s.

But clearly, no one else did. So it seemed to me that it was better to be White than Chinese.

At Home, I Felt Special

In spite of what I learned at school, I felt proud and special to be Asian at home. I loved our traditional foods like steamed bao, noodle soups, and scallion pancakes. I adored the Chinese song competition show “Singer.” My mom had me and my sister watch Chinese movies so we could learn more Cantonese, which was fun.

On Lunar New Year, we had an elaborate dinner at my Grandma’s house and she gave out red envelopes filled with money. When my sister and I were younger, we wore our qipao, traditional Chinese dresses decorated with floral patterns. Mine was silvery pink with a swan design.

During the Mid-Autumn Festival, we ate mooncakes for dessert. I like the lotus flavor, and my mom likes the mooncakes with a variety of nuts. Then, we peered out the window into the dark sky and gazed at the moon.

Learning about my family’s history and being more steeped in my culture every day made me feel proud to be Chinese.

Family Stories Around the Mahjong Table

I was more out in the world than at home, so it was hard not to feel inferior a lot of the time. But when I started high school during the COVID-19 lockdown, my perspective changed.

While I was at home with my family, we went on weekend hikes throughout the fall until it was too cold. I remember how crunchy the leaves were when we walked along the path. It was fun to spend time with my mom and sister and especially my Dad.

He was working from home during lockdown and we talked a lot more. I learned that he grew up in South Vietnam, among other ethnic Chinese. He rode on the back of his dad’s Vespa to travel around Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and to the beach which had black sand. He described the common street food he loved, such as pineapple and chili peppers.

In the evenings, we played Mahjong. I learned the traditional Chinese game from my Grandma and Dad. I learned much about my Grandpa during Mahjong. He owned his own jewelry shop in Saigon,which was on the first floor of his house,where he crafted gold rings by hand.

I also spent time in my Grandma’s kitchen, where she taught me how to make delicious meals like her steamed fish and long-simmered soups. During these special evenings, I started speaking Cantonese more to communicate with her.

Learning about my family’s history and being more steeped in my culture every day made me feel proud to be Chinese. And as a result, no longer inferior.

More Aware of Racism

But at the same time that I began to feel more comfortable with myself, I began to think more about racist comments made to me.

I thought back to my 8th grade history class when we were briefly learning about China during World War II and someone whispered to their friend, “Don’t they eat cats and dogs over there?” This felt degrading to me.

Many racist comments are often deemed as “a joke,” and woven into American culture, but they undermine racial minorities. I remember my friend teaching me a handshake game when I was in elementary school, which included a chant, “Chinese, Japanese,” and the hand motion that went along with those words involved pulling the corners of your eyes up and down.

A History of Racism Against Asians

I also began paying attention to how Asians in general were being targeted. Since the start of the pandemic, hate crimes against Asian Americans have skyrocketed. According to the FBI, hate crimes against people of Asian descent rose by 76% in 2020. My friend’s aunt, who is Chinese, was punched on the subway. News of anti-Asian attacks stirred up lots of fear about whether it was safe for my family and me to go out; we worried about being attacked.

I also did some research and learned that racism against Asians is nothing new. In particular, I’ve taken it upon myself to learn more about this country’s racist history towards Asian Americans. For instance, the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed in 1882, prohibited Chinese immigrants from coming into the United States for 10 years. This was a result of White Americans spreading xenophobic propaganda against Chinese people to keep them out of San Francisco.

Racism was also a root cause behind Japanese American internment camps set up here during World War II. Japanese Americans were placed in these isolation camps because the U.S. government feared that they could be spies for the Japanese government. Approximately 120,000 people were imprisoned at these camps. “We want to keep this a white man’s country. All Japanese [should] be put in concentration camps for the remainder of the war,” said Idaho’s Attorney General, Bert Miller. According to the National Archive at the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum, “American-created internment camps are rarely discussed in history.”

Learning about these historical events and spending time with my family during quarantine makes me feel proud to be Asian American. My history is equally as important as White history and should be acknowledged. From educating myself and becoming closer with my family, I am happy to be who I am.

Discussion Questions

1. How does the curriculum being taught at Vienna’s school impact her? How can leaving out certain cultural histories, while focusing on others make students feel?  
2. Although Vienna wasn’t given the opportunity to learn about her cultural histories at school, how important was learning about her history from her family? How can our families be a tool to help us learn about our cultures?
3. How did Vienna’s view on her identity change after she learned about her cultural histories through her family?

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