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A memorial to the victims of Japanese war crimes at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum in Nanjing, China.

Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

The Asian history I never learned in school

Stuck at home during the pandemic, my family shared stories and taught me to embrace my Chinese heritage.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

In elementary school, I noticed that my white teachers favored white students. They were first to be picked as class monitors, and their behavior was more likely to be excused when they bullied other children.

In toy stores, my sister and I looked at rows and rows of white dolls, wondering why none of the toys 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. Christopher Columbus was celebrated for “discovering” America. That he was responsible for the deaths of so many was essentially ignored.

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Vienna Du

Courtesy photo

In fifth grade, we learned about the atrocities of the Holocaust, and when I told my mother that’s what we were studying, she told me I should also know about the horrors of the Nanjing Massacre; that’s when the Imperial Japanese in Nanjing, China, in 1937 and 1938, killed hundreds of thousands of people — soldiers and civilians alike. This event is also known as the Rape of Nanjing because Japanese troops also sexually assaulted tens of thousands of women there. 

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

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

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 them with a variety of nuts. Then we peered out the window into the dark sky and gazed at the moon.

But away from home, when I was out in the world, I often felt inferior. It wasn’t until I started high school amid COVID-19 lockdowns that my perspective changed.

While I was at home with my family, we went on weekend hikes in the Palisades, Pyramid Mountain, and Buttermilk Falls, New Jersey, autumn leaves crunching beneath our feet. It was fun to spend time with my mom and sister and, especially, my dad.

Being more steeped in my culture every day made me proud to be Chinese.

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

In the evenings, we played mahjong — a traditional Chinese tile game my grandma and dad taught me. As we played, my grandma told me stories about my grandpa. He owned his own jewelry shop in Saigon where he crafted gold rings by hand.

I also spent time in my grandma’s kitchen, where she taught me how to make delicious traditional Chinese dishes, such as steamed fish and long-simmered soups. I started speaking Cantonese more to communicate with her during these special evenings.

Learning about my family’s history and being more steeped in my culture every day made me proud to be Chinese. I no felt longer inferior. As I began to feel more comfortable with myself, I started to think more about racist comments made to me. I thought back to my eighth 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 comment felt degrading to me. And when I was in elementary school, I remember a friend teaching me a handshake game that 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. Many racist comments are often deemed “jokes” and woven into American culture, but they undermine racial minorities.

I also began paying attention to how Asians were being broadly targeted, often violently, in American society. Since the start of the pandemic, hate crimes against Asian Americans have skyrocketed. Hate crimes against people of Asian descent rose by 76% in 2020, according to the FBI. 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 researched and learned that racism against Asians in America is nothing new. For instance, the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed in 1882, prohibited Chinese immigrants from entering the United States. This law resulted from 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. About  120,000 Japanese Americans were placed in these isolation camps because the U.S. government feared that they could be spies for the Japanese government.  “We want to keep this a white man’s country,” Idaho’s Attorney General Bert Miller said at the time. “All Japanese [should] be put in concentration camps for the remainder of the war.” 

Spending time with my family during quarantine and learning about these historical events — events skipped or glossed over in school — made me proud to be Asian American. Our stories deserve to be shared and recognized. I am happy to be who I am. 

A version of this essay first appeared on Youth Communication.

Vienna Du attends the Scholars Academy at Susan E. Wagner High School on Staten Island. She enjoys expressing herself through writing and started her school’s online school paper. Vienna is passionate about creating artwork (@artistvienna on Instagram), traveling, and spending time outdoors with her friends and family.