How one family’s Chinese immigration story taught students about history

Posted 5/19/21

King teaches Asian American history every year as part of her American history course, but this year, increased violence toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders has made the lessons even more important.

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How one family’s Chinese immigration story taught students about history

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When Chatham Central history teacher Amy King taught her students about Asian American history this year, one of her students was shocked to learn America had forcibly relocated Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II.

“He said, ‘I never knew we did that,’” King said.

King teaches Asian American history every year as part of her American history course — the Chinese Exclusion Act, Executive Order 9066 and exploitation of Chinese labor to build the transcontinental railroad — but this year, increased violence toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders has made the lessons even more important.

Last month, ahead of AAPI Heritage Month, King invited her friend, Karalee Wong Nakatsuka, to discuss her own family’s immigration story as King taught about immigration restrictions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries which made it nearly impossible for Chinese people to immigrate to the United States.

Nakatsuka, who is Chinese American, is a U.S. history middle school teacher in Arcadia, California. She and King met virtually as finalists for the 2019 National History Teacher of the Year. What started as connecting over both being “pandemic moms” eventually led to Nakatsuka sharing her family’s story: her grandfather, Chun Ning Wong, immigrated from China in the 1920s as a “paper son,” or a Chinese immigrant who arrived in the U.S. with purchased fraudulent citizenship papers.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, my kids need to hear this story,’” King said. “I said, you know, I’m not good on this topic. I need to do better, will you help me with really bringing to life what Chinese Americans have faced? And she was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll do this thing.’”

Nakatsuka prepared a video presentation about her grandfather’s immigration story, connecting his story to the broader context of the Chinese Exclusion Act. That law was passed in 1882 and was the first significant law restricting immigration into the U.S., with very few professions exempted. It was repealed in 1943.

For Nakatsuka, who teaches in a largely Asian school district, teaching her students more accurate Asian American history is an important part of increasing representation for her students. But this history is important for non-Asian students too, she said, because it helps all students make better sense of the world around them.

“The personal is profound,” she said. “That’s why we hope for historical empathy that we teach our kids to look empathetically at the past — that laws affect real people. Because people today vote, and they don’t think about the people that it’s affecting.”

In America, there are ideals and there is reality, Nakatsuka said. She and King stressed this is not part of a political agenda, but something that is backed by historical facts and primary source documents. Like Nakatsuka’s grandfather, many Americans were excluded in a variety of ways from participating in the free America the founders wrote about.

In North Carolina, the State Board of Education and state legislature has argued over the history of America — namely whether teaching students about systemic racism is appropriate. Republican board members and legislators have said teaching that America is racist takes away from the good things the country has accomplished.

Many history teachers — King and Nakatsuka among them — disagree.

“We’re not trying to take away history. We’re not canceling history,” Nakatsuka said. “We’re trying to show the history of ‘We the people,’ an inclusive ‘we.’”

King aims to teach the “hard history” in all her lessons, not shying away from teaching about events such as lynchings, segregation or exclusionary immigration laws.

In recent years, she’s put an emphasis on using current events to teach about history. Her work led to her being named a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, a field-based professional development opportunity with National Geographic meant to help educators bring new geographic awareness into their learning communities.

“Unfortunately, in the last year, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to talk about some very, very difficult things going on in our country, and one of those is this violence and hate and discrimination and verbal attacks on Asian Americans,” King said, adding that many of her students are surprised they’ve never been taught about the historical marginalization of Asian Americans before.

“I think it is often a wake up call to them as to why things are happening today,” she said. “And they see, ‘Oh, this isn’t new’ — that this anti-Asian hate has been going for a long time.”

For many of her students, especially those who are seniors, King’s American history courses could be their last history class ever. Chatham Central, located in Bear Creek, is in a rural area and King said many of her students have not previously heard about the “hard history” she teaches.

Raeshaun Cline, a senior at Chatham Central, is taking American History II with King. Like some other students, he was surprised to learn about how devastating America’s bombing retaliation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was for the Japanese people, with some effects still felt today.

“We don’t really talk about it that much and this is a travesty,” Cline said. “I think it’s really important and something that needs to be taught. … People don’t really think about it, especially in the country where I’m from — there’s not a huge Asian American population. So it brought more awareness to that.”

King stressed that lessons like the one she and Nakatsuka taught rely on facts, not political slant.

“We teach about politics, all throughout history. But we don’t teach students how to think, we teach them to think,” she said. “We teach them to think about these complex issues, and to see that many of these complex issues have long stories behind them. We want them to recognize those stories, to be informed and for that to help them make informed choices and decisions.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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