Asian American Student Union and Project Pengyou discuss importance of teaching and preserving Asian history

Panel featured speakers focused on uplifting Asian American stories

Asian American Student Union and Project Pengyou discuss importance of teaching and preserving Asian history

Editor’s Note: Panelist Emily Brignand is a columnist for The Eagle and was not involved in the writing, reporting or editing of this story.

The Asian American Student Union and American University’s chapter of Project Pengyou hosted a joint panel Thursday, featuring speakers who discussed how Asian American history is preserved, taught and used to empower communities. 

The three panelists were Executive Director of the 1882 Foundation Ted Gong; AU Asia, Pacific, and Diaspora Studies professor Elaine Cho; and sophomore Emily Brignand, who is the director of education and culture at AU Project Pengyou. Public history graduate student Mia Owens moderated the event. 

The 1882 Foundation is a non-profit organization that seeks to raise awareness of the history and ongoing impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Project Pengyou is a flagship initiative aimed at fostering U.S.-China youth leadership, launching over 80 campus chapters across the country. 

A focal point of the panel was the lack of Asian American history taught in schools, which Cho elaborated on through an anecdote of her own high school experience. 

“[Growing up] I barely had any knowledge of Asian American studies or anything about Asian American history,” said Cho, who was raised in Texas. She said that her first exposure to the subject was in an AP U.S. history class, where a teacher “glossed over” the Japanese internment camps. 

“Any student, no matter what race, what background you are … if someone says ‘that’s it,’ you’re like, ‘I’m going to go and get more information,’” Cho said. “Because of that, I inquired more about it, but the more I inquired about it, I couldn’t find much information in my local library … It fueled me to get more interested in learning about our Asian and Asian American history because that’s part of my identity.” 

Brignand said that for her, learning about Asian American history as a biracial individual has been a journey of self-discovery. 

“As someone who is trying to self discover, I’ve been having trouble really knowing who I am,” said Brignand, who added that her struggle with identity began when she returned to Nevada after living in China for six years. “When I came back, I had a lot of internalized racism because going to middle school and being one of the only Asian people … it felt out of place.”

Now, Brignand feels that more emphasis should be placed on teaching a fuller picture of Asian American history in schools. 

“I think it’s really important for us to use this opportunity and learn more about the world and ourselves, as well,” Brignand said.

The panel comes as advocates across the country are pushing for lawmakers to pass legislation that would require schools to teach about Asian American history. Several states, including Ohio, Florida, California and New York, have begun working towards the inclusive curriculum, according to NBC News. Illinois became the first state to mandate the teaching of Asian American history in public schools last July. 

It is changes like these that Gong said are necessary to protect the stories of Asian Americans from erasure. 

“There is a subset that needs to be looked at, and that is the Asian American component,” he said. “In order to develop those resources and those topics that are not going to be mentioned … that’s where the Asian American studies component comes in.” 

Gong recommended that teachers of students in the K-12 range should “embed Asian American topics within core curriculum.” 

The panel also touched upon cultural appropriation in the media and among celebrities, such as the “fox eye” trend — using makeup to emulate “almond-shaped” eyes that critics say appropriates the Asian facial feature. 

“A lot of times white TikTokers would take trends from different cultures and then use them to their name,” Brignand said. “It’s somehow okay for other people to do it, but when Asian Americans embrace the way they look, it’s somehow judged differently.” 

Cho mentioned that Asian-American appropriation can be traced back to the early Hollywood era.

“It is appropriation because they don’t know the history of it,” Cho said. “Those kinds of stereotypes are long-standing … At the same time people wonder why Asian and Asian Americans are offended because they don’t listen to our stories or experiences.” 

Gong said knowing one’s history and identity are interconnected. 

“The idea is you need to understand yourself, and that requires you to understand all the things that make you up,” he said. “That includes all this history, all this culture, the difference in what that means and that includes the idea of ‘how are you an Asian navigating America?’” 

Looking to the future, the panel stressed the importance of being politically active to pave the road for change. 

“Something that matters a lot to me and a lot of people I know, especially at AU, is the fact that we need to have our voices in important matters that go on in this country,” Brignand said. She also encouraged Asian American audiences to “occupy spaces,” or build a larger presence for themselves in areas where they have been historically underrepresented. 

Cho said that she hopes Asian American students keep advocating for themselves. 

“Tell this University what you want,” she said. “Don’t let it fade… We’re here, we’re here to stay. So continue to speak up.” 

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