Teacher's Guide

Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage and History in the U.S.

A man and woman are performing the traditional Philippine folk dance Tinikling, which involves a pair of two bamboo poles.
Photo caption

Tinikling, the most well-known traditional Philippine folk dance, is performed in the province of Bohol.

Since 1990, the U.S. government has designated the month of May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, celebrating the achievements and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in the United States. The month of May was chosen to mark the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant to the United States on May 7, 1843, as well as the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869.  This Teacher’s Guide offers a collection of lessons and resources for K-12 social studies, literature, and arts classrooms that center around the experiences, achievements, and perspectives of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders across U.S. history.  

Guiding Questions

Who is Asian American and Pacific Islander? 

How have AAPI individuals contributed to the history and culture of the U.S.? 

How have Asian Americans advanced civil rights in the United States? 

Who was Vincent Chin?

To what extent was Angel Island the “Ellis Island of the West”? 

How did the narrative of AAPIs change between the 1850s and the 1980s?

Background on Terminology

"Asian Americans" Documentary Resource

Asian Americans is an NEH-funded documentary series that examines the significant role of Asian Americans in shaping U.S. history and identity from the first wave of Asian immigrants in the 1850s to the present day. 

 

 

"Asian American" & Civil Rights

The term “Asian American” was coined in 1968 by student activists Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka, as a unifying political identity for different groups of people of Asian descent. With the Black Power Movement, the American Indian Movement, and anti-war movements expanding, Gee and Ichioka strategically named their student organization the “Asian American Political Alliance” to increase the visibility of activists of Asian descent and consolidate their efforts. The term “Asian American” also pushed back against the usage of the Euro-centric term “Oriental” to refer to Asians in the United States, which holds racist and colonialist connotations. This episode from the PBS history show “Origin of Everything” further explains why the word “Oriental” is no longer used. Asian Americans claiming the words to describe themselves went hand-in-hand with being empowered to continue supporting civil rights efforts.  

During the 1960s, as African Americans continued to challenge institutional racism, Asian Americans came to reflect on their experiences, identifying how they also faced discrimination. Sharing the struggles to achieve ideals of freedom and equality for all, Asian American activists joined the Civil Rights Movement. Asian Americans also became inspired to speak out on matters specific to their communities, such as issues facing business owners and residents of Chinatowns across the country and the Vietnam War. Speaking out as an Asian American community was unheard of before, as reflected by the lack of an iconic representative. Furthermore, 1960s Asian American civil rights activism was significant because it signaled a shift from Asian Americans fighting for the right to be Americans, to fighting for their rights as Americans. One prominent example is Yuri Kochiyama, who was influenced by Malcolm X’s ideologies of self-determination and liberation, and who supported quality education for inner-city children, anti-Vietnam War protests, the development of Ethnic Studies programs. In an interview on May 19, 1972 for the radio station KPFK in Los Angeles, Kochiyama stated that Malcolm stressed needing to know one’s heritage and history to know which direction to go in; words the Asian American community heeded.  

Asian American students in California challenged curricula in institutions of higher education because, as was argued, research and teaching had for too long propagated stereotypes about AAPI education history and culture. They joined the Third World Liberation Front’s student strikes (TWLF) in 1968 at San Francisco State University and in 1969 at the University of California, Berkeley. A coalition including the Black Students Union and other student groups, TWLF demanded that the university establish new departments devoted to ethnic studies, hire more faculty of color, and enroll more students of color. At this time, the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) formed on the University of California, Berkeley campus, and AAPA branches soon sprung up on college campuses nationwide. Although the AAPA was disbanded in 1969, it played an important role in encouraging Asian Americans to take political action together. An Asian American identity was thus claimed. 

Vincent Chin

1982 marked a turning point for the pan-Asian identity and community. The decline of the industrial sector in United States starting in the 1970s, coupled with the early 1980s economic recession, created a bleak situation for jobs centered around goods producing industries. The unemployment rate for auto workers rose from 3.8% in 1978 to 24% by the end of 1982. Contrasting America’s economic slowdown was the rise of Japan, with its rising position in international trade and finance making it the world’s second largest economy. Behind this rise was the increasing competitiveness of Japan’s manufacturing industry, which was making major inroads into U.S. markets. Consequently, the fear of America’s “decline” fed into anti-Japanese sentiment during the 1980s as U.S. autoworkers blamed Japanese car manufacturers for the industry’s decline. In this climate of hostility, one man lost his life and a community was forever changed. On June 19, 1892, 27-year-old Vincent Chin was celebrating with friends at his bachelor party in Detroit, Michigan. Two white autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, mistook Chinese-American Vincent Chin for a Japanese, escalating a fight and eventually fatally beating him.  

Vincent Chin’s murder initially did not make national news. However, the lenient sentences handed down to the murderers, which included a $3,000 fine and three years’ probation with no jail time, outraged Asian American communities in Detroit, San Francisco, and across the country. They realized that if Chin’s murder could result in essentially scot-free outcomes, then it could happen to anyone of Asian descent. Asian Americans of all backgrounds supported the rallying cry “Remember Vincent Chin,” and Chin became an icon and represented a narrative that Asian Americans could identify with. The rise of protests and formation of new organizations, such as the American Citizens for Justice, convinced the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the case as a civil rights violation. Vincent Chin became the first Asian American victim prosecuted under the federal hate crime law. The Asian American civil rights movement thus led to the historic broadening of federal civil rights protection to include all people in America, regardless of immigrant status or ethnicity. The 1984 federal civil rights case convicted Ebens of violating Chin’s civil rights and did not find Nitz guilty, but Ebens was eventually acquitted. (See the United States Court of Appeals decision for the United States v. Ebens case in 1986 for more details on 1984 case and acquittal.) 

The Vincent Chin case helped transform a biracial discussion on race relations to be a multiracial one. It was a wakeup call to address anti-Asian bias and racially-instigated hate crimes. The award-winning 40-minute documentary Vincent Who? features interviews with key activists at the time, as well as a new generation of activists inspired to continue fighting for justice.  

 

 

Pacific Islander

By the 1980s, the U.S. Census Bureau grouped persons of Asian ancestry and created the category “Asian and Pacific Islander” (API). In 2000, the API category was separated into “Asian Americans” and “Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders” (NHOPI). The Federal Government defines “Asian American” to include persons having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent. “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander” includes persons having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands. 

The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s Our Stories: Digital Storytelling Initiative supports the dissemination and perpetuation of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Island cultures through the media arts. Through film, podcasts, mixed reality (VR/AR), and emerging media content platforms, the public can learn about Pacific stories and what it means to be Pacific Islander American.  

Present Day

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the two fastest-growing racial populations in the United States, projected to become the largest immigrant group in the country by 2055. Unlike other racial groups, most AAPIs are foreign born. Immigration is therefore a significant and relevant issue for AAPIs across the country. In addition, as the U.S. naturalization rates among the largest 20 immigrant groups has increased between 2005 and 2015, more attention has been paid to the AAPI voter base. The Pew Research Center discusses the latest demographic trends for Asian Americans. AAPIData also presents voting data for the AAPI community, and discusses voting trends in its Data Bits blog.  

As of 2019, the largest United States Asian populations are of Chinese, Indian, and Filipino origin. However, the AAPI population represent over 30 countries and ethnic groups that speak over 100 different languages. There is considerable internal group variation regarding issues such as poverty, health care, educational attainment, and English proficiency. Consequently, there have been calls to disaggregate data to better address the needs of the diverse AAPI community.  

Asian Immigration

The first Asian immigrants to come to the United States in significant numbers were the Chinese in the mid-nineteenth century. For most of U.S. history, Asian immigrants were portrayed as undesirable and a threat to Western civilization. Accordingly, Asian immigrants were ineligible for citizenship based on race and subject to the most severe immigration restrictions. One defining moment in U.S. immigration policy history was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Examine the origins, history, and impact of the 1882 law in this American Experience documentary film, The Chinese Exclusion Act. An accompanying Teacher’s Guide is also included. You can also learn more about the history behind the Chinese Exclusion Act and its legacies in sections below. 

 

 

EDSITEment’s Closer Readings Commentary on Everything Your Students Need to Know About Immigration History places Asian immigration in the broader context of America’s immigration history. Asian immigration remained at a trickle until the passage of the landmark Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Since then, Asian immigration has been on the rise, outpacing Hispanic immigration since 2010. 

The First Japanese in America 

The first Japanese national to set foot on American soil was a young fisherman named Manjiro who was to become influential in ending Japan’s centuries of isolation. Though Manjiro’s name and legendary life story is celebrated by the children in contemporary Japan, fame has eluded him on this side of the Pacific where he remains a footnote in American maritime history. 

On a routine fishing trip near their coastal Japanese village in 1841, Manjiro’s crew was cast adrift in a violent sudden storm. For a week they survived on icicles that clung to their frozen clothes before being washed up on a desert island three hundred miles away. There the crew subsisted on albatross until an American whaling ship out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, that had stopped at the island to take on sea turtles miraculously rescued them five months later. 

Young Manjiro caught the attention of William Whitfield, the captain of the ship, who adopted him as a son and renamed him John Mung. John Mung/Manjiro was invited to continue on the whaling voyage, eventually returning to America to be fostered to adulthood and educated in English and navigation in the Captain’s hometown of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Manjiro’s journey from the shores of Japan to continental United States is just one of the subjects captured on the timeline of Manjiro's life

Manjiro’s remarkable arrival in America presaged a life of drama and courageous adventures. His life is documented in an online exhibit from the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Pacific Encounters: Yankee Whalers, Manjiro and the opening of Japan. After many further exploits on land and sea, Manjiro managed to get back to his beloved homeland a decade later. Although he was charged for leaving the country, Manjiro was redeemed and elevated to the status of samurai. He was also allowed to chose a surname. Manjiro took Nakahama, the name of his birthplace. He went on to serve as a translator/diplomatic consultant during the Commodore Perry standoff (see the EDSITEment-reviewed resource: Black Ships and Samurai). Continuing to act behind the scenes as a political emissary between Japan and the West, Nakahama Manjiro went on to become an esteemed professor of English and navigation. 

Manjiro chronicled his own life in an autobiographical account, Hyoson Kiryaku, Drifting toward the Southeast: A Story of Five Castaways, told to the shogunate upon his return to Japan in 1852. Direct students to the materials at the Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society site, where they will find further biographical accounts of his life. Note that American presidents have made references to Manjiro

Chinese Railroad Workers & Chinese Exclusion 

Chinese immigrants first arrived in the United States during the 1850s to try their luck at the California gold rush. Civil unrest and poverty in southeastern China encouraged many Chinese to migrate. Despite California placing a high monthly tax on all foreign miners, Chinese miners had no choice but to pay to keep mining. 

After the gold rush ended, some Chinese immigrants remained to work as farm laborers, in low-paying industrial jobs, or on railroad construction. The Central Pacific Railroad actively recruited Chinese laborers to do the grueling work of deep cuts and boring tunnels to conquer the granite wall of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The NEH-funded project, Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, seeks to give a voice to the Chinese migrants whose labor on the Transcontinental Railroad helped shape the physical and social landscape of the American West. This project offers detailed responses to key questions, high school lesson plans, and fully transcribed oral history interviews with 40+ descendants of Chinese who participated in building the Central Pacific Railroad. The Smithsonian Transcontinental Railroad initiative also tells this great story of human grit, danger, opportunity, and the American West. The Smithsonian initiative focuses on how the diversity of workers building the railroad brought new values and traditions to the United States that helped change the nation. EDSITEment’s lesson plan on The Impact of the Transcontinental Railroad explores similar themes, asking: How did the Transcontinental Railroad affect immigration, labor, and the environment? 

The question of Chinese immigration entering the national political scene in the late 1870s alluded to President Arthur eventually signing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This act suspended Chinese immigration for ten years and declared Chinese immigrants ineligible for naturalization. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first immigration law passed in the United States to exclude a group by specific national or ethnic origins. It was renewed in 1892 with the Geary Act and made permanent in 1902.  

During the exclusion era Chinese American intellectuals did not remain passive, criticizing the derogatory characterization and treatment of Chinese in America. The NEH-funded New-York Historical Society’s exhibition Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion offers classroom materials that give an overview of the life story of the first Chinese-American, Wong Chin Foo, on pages 45-47. Chinese immigrants also used the American legal system to expose loopholes in the U.S. immigration system. To better enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act, the United States decided to build the Angel Island Immigration Station.

Angel Island Immigration Station

When thinking about immigrants arriving on America’s shores, the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed at the statue’s base often come to mind: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” (See the EDSITEment lesson plan, The Statue of Liberty: Bringing “The New Colossus” to America, for a discussion on Emma Lazarus’s sonnet and the statue’s symbolic meanings.) Emma Lazarus’ words idealized the immigration experience for European immigrants who entered through Ellis Island Immigration Station on the East Coast. However, on the West Coast, from 1910 to 1940, the majority of immigrants arriving at Angel Island Immigration Station received a much colder reception. The majority of immigrants crossing the Pacific came from Asia, not Europe. Many were from China and Japan, but immigrants from the Philippines, the Punjab, Australia, and Latin America also arrived at Angel Island. The classroom materials accompanying the New-York Historical Society exhibition, Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion, gives a brief comparison between the treatment of immigrants at Ellis Island and Angel Island on page 50. The location Angel Island was ideal to stem the flow of Chinese immigrants into the American west. Remote from the San Francisco mainland, Chinese immigrants could not communicate easily with family and friends in San Francisco and acquire necessary witnesses for their immigration applications. Therefore, the process could take weeks and even months, so immigrants at Angel Island were detained much longer than immigrants at Ellis Island. 

At Angel Island, immigrants were held in sparse barracks, with men separated from the women and children. Many of the detainees looked for ways to stay busy during their time on Angel Island. Photojournalist Lydia Lum documents oral histories to remember the individual experiences of Angel Island detainees and their families. In addition, the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation’s Immigrant Voices Oral History collection has a growing archive of personal stories from detainees. One popular activity at the station was writing poetry. The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation’s lesson on Angel Island Poetry demonstrates how history and culture can be integral to our understanding of poetry. This lesson draws from the book, Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, which records 135 poems written and carved into the barrack walls on Angel Island. The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation also features an article about a lesson on Angel Island developed for a third/fourth grade class: “Teaching about Angel Island through Historical Empathy and Poetry.” 

Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants were measured by a stricter standard than others. After passing medical exams, they underwent a grueling interrogation by a Board of Special Inquiry. The development of “paper sons” and “paper daughters” fueled the development of such interrogation. In an attempt to circumvent the discriminatory legislation, many Chinese falsely claimed that their parent was an American citizen. They were able to do so because the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire destroyed the city’s municipal records in 1906. Immigration “slots” were given to or bought by would-be entrants who were not really the children of U.S. citizens. Some of these claims were legitimate, but immigration inspectors increasingly became suspicious of the legitimacy of Chinese immigrants’ documentation, resulting in protracted, exhaustive interrogations. They quizzed detainees and their sponsoring relatives in detail on their family history, their homes and their villages. Some questions included: What is your living room floor made of? How many houses are in your village lane? How many steps lead up to your house? Chinese immigrants thus spent months committing to memory minute details, because any discrepancies prolonged the questioning or put the applicant and his family at risk of deportation. Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation’s curriculum guide, Interrogation of Immigrant, gives students an opportunity to experience what the immigrants went through and felt during their interrogations on Angel Island. 

Between 1892 to 1954, over twelve million immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island. Between 1910 and 1940, one million immigrants entered the United States through Angel Island. Their migration histories and experiences demonstrate the diversity of American immigration experiences. The documentary Carved in Silence presents an account of the Angel Island experience of Chinese immigrants, highlighting the emotional and mental anguish many Chinese felt. America was both an inclusive nation of immigration and an exclusive gatekeeping nation.

Yellow Peril

The Chinese Exclusion era and the gatekeeping ideology behind Angel Island demonstrate the idea of the “yellow peril.” A fashionable phrase in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, yellow peril refers to Western fears that “barbaric” Asians, in particular the Chinese and Japanese, would invade their lands and destroy Western civilization. Media played a big role in propagating this fear, emphasizing Asians’ “exotic” features and associating them with malevolence and undesirability. The popular fictional villain character Dr. Fu Manchu personified the idea of the yellow peril.  

Due to its alliance with China in the Pacific War, the United States ended the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943; yet the idea of the yellow peril remained alive. Angel Island stopped processing immigrants, but was used during World War II as a temporary internment facility for Japanese and Americans of Japanese descent, deemed “enemy aliens.” The yellow peril label would transform into the “model minority” label after the Immigration Act of 1965. This act enabled skilled immigrants and persons seeking political asylum to enter the United States, resulting in an influx of highly educated Asians and Asian refugees. Immigration and Ethnic History Society provides a summary and informative timeline on Asian immigration, as well as a lesson plan on the changing characterization of Asians and Asian Americans from 1886 to 1987.  

Model Minority Myth

The umbrella term “Asian American” has been an important political identity for peoples of Asian descent to fight for their civil rights. However, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are often more likely to identify with their national origins or ethnicity, than by race. This is because they have been viewed as a homogeneous group with generalized experiences, as exemplified by the “model minority myth.” In the wake of the Watts Riots and emergent Black Power Movement in the 1960s, Asian Americans were deemed the “model minority,” solidifying a picture of Asians as an industrious and law-abiding group that accordingly achieved a higher level of success than the general population.  

Despite attributing positive stereotypes to Asians, the model minority myth is harmful because it discounts the racial discrimination minorities have faced. For example, William Pettersen’s influential 1966 New York Times story, titled “Success Story, Japanese-American Style,” put African Americans and Japanese Americans at odds. Under the assumption that both groups’ experiences with injustice were the same, African Americans were expected to conform to the “pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps" immigrant narrative Asian Americans seemingly epitomized. This expectation discredited the lasting legacies of slavery, discrimination, and systemic racism. In effect, the model minority myth has created a rift between Asian American and African American communities, as demonstrated by the L.A. riots in 1992

The model minority myth assumes Asians to be universally successful. However, aggregated data for AAPIs overshadows the great diversity in experiences among different ethnic groups, including migration history, socioeconomic status, and political status. As the Washington Center for Equitable Growth shows, ethnicities in the AAPI population represent both ends of the achievement spectrum with respect to educational attainment, household income, and employment rate. For example, as a group, AAPIs have the highest share of college graduates, surpassing every other racial group by wide margins. Yet this high level of educational attainment is attributed to only a select group of Asian Americans, such as Taiwanese, Asian Indians, and Malaysians. About 13 of these U.S. ethnic and racial sub-groups have lower educational attainment rates than the U.S. average, including peoples of unspecified Micronesian, Bhutanese, Hawaiian, Vietnamese, and Burmese origin. Therefore, it is important to dismantle the model minority myth to acknowledge the diversity of AAPI experiences and cultures. 

AAPI Cultural Legacies

Lunar New Year

Lunar New Year is one of the most popular holidays celebrated across Asia and other places with Asian populations. While called Chinese New Year or Spring Festival in China, Lunar New Year is called Seollal in Korea, Tet in Vietnam, and Losar in Tibet. Not all Asian communities officially observe a singular New Year holiday, and some Lunar New Year celebrations do not have a set date since they follow the lunar calendar. East Asian celebrations (excluding Japan) usually take place in late January up until mid-February. These celebrations include traditional activities such as exchanging red envelopes or silk pouches containing money, setting off fireworks, cleaning the house, eating traditional foods, and holding parades with colorful costumes. 

 

 

The EDSITEment lesson plan, Lions, Dragons, and Nian: Animals of the Chinese New Year, encourages students to learn about the origins and festivities of the biggest holiday in China. Another EDSITEment lesson plan on the Animals of the Chinese Zodiac introduces students to the Chinese lunar calendar. Thus, students are given an opportunity to engage in interesting, craft-oriented activities that encourage them to become curious about other cultures’ customs and traditions. 

Hawaiian Music

Music has always been an important part of native Hawaiian culture and for the Asian and the Pacific Islander communities that make up a majority of the population of Hawaii. In early Hawai’i, mele, or chant, remembered myths of gods and deeds of powerful people with drums and dancing. Sailors, explorers, and migrant workers influenced the development of new forms of native music in Hawai’i. Smithsonian Folkways’ Na Leo Hawai’i page explores different aspects of and influences on Hawaiian music. It also lists audio recordings, and the Music of Hawai’i playlist offers more selection. Hawai’i has also influenced music around the world, especially having a notable impact on the music of other Polynesian islands. In Smithsonian Folkways’ lesson on Island Soundscape: Musics of Hawai’i, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea, elementary school students can discover the island cultures of the South Pacific and their musical expressions with songs, crafts, and games.  

One Hawaiian musical genre, slack-key guitar, is well known worldwide. The 2017 Smithsonian Folklife Festival featured Hawaiian musician Ledward Kaapana, master of the ukulele and ki ho’alu (the slack key guitar). You can read the Festival’s blog post, Legend and Legacy: Hawaiian Slack-Key Guitar with Ledward Kaapana, to learn more about the history of the slack-key guitar and about Ledward Kaapana. Both contemporary and traditional musical styles still thrive in Hawaii.  

AAPI Poetry

Cultures use different types of poetic forms to convey ideas and messages. Thus, students can analyze poetry to enhance literary analysis skills and learn about a different culture. The greatest epic poems in the world include the Ramayana, which is featured in the EDSITEment lesson plan, Lessons of the Indian Epics: The Ramayana. The Ramayana is the story of Rama, the crown prince of ancient Ayodhya, and an earthly incarnation of the Hindu god, Vishnu. He is also the hero of the poem, whose focus is the epic telling of Rama’s quest. Students are given an opportunity to read an abridged version of the Ramayana to explore the ways in which the story of Rama contains epic poetry elements. (See EDSITEment plan, A Story of Epic Proportions: What makes a Poem an Epic?, for an introduction to the epic poem form). Additionally, students can explore Hindu culture and the concept of dharma by examining the characters of the Ramayana through this EDSITEment lesson plan: Lessons of the Indian Epics: Following the Dharma

On the poetry front, China has a rich heritage as poetry is highly regarded in Chinese culture. The T’ang dynasty (c. 600-900 CE) fostered a cultural boom in China, considered by some to be the peak of classical Chinese culture. Asia for Educators, an EDSITEment reviewed web source, provides an introduction to Tang poetry. In the EDSITEment lesson plan, Lu Shih – The Couplets of T’ang, students can learn about one of the classical forms of poetry that got its start in the T’ang period: lu shih. By analyzing a lu shih, students can also think about Chinese philosophy’s influence in the development of lu shih poetry.  

Perhaps one of the most well-known poetic forms among your students is haiku. Haiku stand out with their simple, yet personal and highly sophisticated form. K-5 students can learn about the rules of haiku and develop ideas to compose their own haiku in the EDSITEment lesson plan, Can You Haiku?. 6th-8th grade students can delve into the history of haiku to learn about Japanese culture, before creating and sharing original haiku poems in the EDSITEment lesson plan, The World of Haiku. Haiku not only became popular during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), but also ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Like haiku, ukiyo-e woodblock prints were an art rooted in everyday experience. For a lesson extension on haiku, students can compare the types of scenes evoked by haiku with the scenes portrayed in ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Ukiyo-e.org database provides digital prints from the early 1700s to present day that your students can view. EDSITEment also provides a lesson plan, Life in the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Prints and the Rise of the Merchant Class in Edo Period Japan, for you and your students to investigate the ukiyo-e prints and what they tell us about Japan during the Tokugawa period. 

Contemporary poets writing about immigrant heritage in the United States include Chinese-American Adrienne Su. One of her works is featured in the EDSITEment lesson plan, “Peaches” by Adrienne Su, where she describes her experiences growing up in the state of Georgia as the child of immigrant parents. Students have the opportunity to reflect upon the complicated identities many Americans, including their classmates, grapple with, and think about the connections between food and identity.  

To learn more about Asian American poets, Poetry Foundation has provided a collection of poets, poems, and articles exploring Asian American culture. Poetry Foundation also offers a collection on Pacific Islander Poetry and Culture to explore the history and aesthetics of the Pacific.  

AAPI in Media and Film

Asian American and Pacific Islander representation in mainstream media has recently been on the rise. In 2020, the Korean thriller Parasite became the first non-English language film in Oscar history to win the award for Best Picture. During the same year, The Farewell star Awkafina became the first woman of Asian descent to win a Golden Globe Award in a lead actress film category. Other recent films like Crazy Rich Asians and Moana brought more attention to portraying different cultures in Hollywood.  

However, AAPIs have historically remained largely unseen in film and media, and have been cast in supporting roles or as stereotypes. Below we recognize a few Asian American individuals who have made vital contributions to American culture, and whose stories may be new for you and your students. 

Kintaro (Sessue) Hayakawa

"My one ambition is to play a hero." 

— Kintaro Hayakawa

Kintaro Hayakawa, known professionally as Sessue Hayakawa, was a Japanese immigrant who became one of the highest-paid actors in 1910s Hollywood and achieved international stardom. Frustrated with being constantly typecast as the villain and forbidden lover, Hayakawa became the first person of Asian descent to own Hollywood studio. He still faced racial barriers, especially related to anti-Japanese sentiment during World War I and World War II. 

In the four-lesson EDSITEment curriculum unit, The Road to Pearl Harbor: The United States and East Asia, 1915-1941, students can explore through contemporary documents the rise of animosity between the United States and Japan beginning in World War I and continuing over the next two decades. The rising tension in the international sphere influenced the domestic front, so the attack on Pearl Harbor marked a defining moment for anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States. The EDSITEment lesson plan, Turning the Tide in the Pacific, 1941-1943, allows students to discuss how anti-Japanese sentiment affected the way the Pacific War was fought. One major consequence was the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans, whose civil and human rights were violated on the grounds of military necessity. The EDSITEment lesson plan, Japanese American Internment Camps during WWII, gives students the opportunity to use primary sources to learn about the motives behind incarceration and encourage them to imagine the difficult questions of loyalty incarcerated Japanese Americans faced.  

Overall, Sessue Hayakawa left a lasting legacy in Hollywood, especially for Asian Americans. His life story is mentioned in the NEH-funded PBS documentary Asian Americans.  

Anna May Wong

“Success is not a jewel that you can purchase and keep for your entire life. On the contrary, the brightest star can fall down at any time and fade away into dust.” 

— Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American Hollywood movie star and producer, the first Chinese American actress to gain international recognition, and one of the most influential style icons of her time. This 11-minute video from NEH-funded Unladylike2020 traces her life, career, and impact as she encountered racism and stereotyping in the roles she was offered, to eventually find a way to flourish as an actress on her own terms starring in 60 films. Besides the video, the resource also includes discussion questions, vocabulary, teaching tips, and an in-class activity for students to learn about Wong’s place in Hollywood history and how she was impacted by important events in American history, like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and anti-miscegenation laws. 

Sabu Dastagir 

Sabu was the first Indian actor to make it big in British and American cinema during the 1930s-40s. He was best known for doing adventurous and wildlife roles. In 1944, he became an American citizen and joined the United States Army Air Forces during World War II, to eventually become one of Hollywood’s most-decorated war heroes. He was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. 

Tyrus Wong

“If you can make a painting with 5 strokes instead of 10, you can make your painting sing.” 

— Tyrus Wong

Born in Guangzhou, China, Tyrus Wong and his father immigrated to America in 1919, never to see their family again. From the moment of his arrival in America as a nine-year old boy to be detained on Angel Island for a month, to his entrance into the film industry as “in-betweener” animator for Disney studios, Wong faced racial discrimination. American Masters: Tyrus shows how he overcame a life of poverty and racism to become a celebrated painter, a Hollywood sketch artist, and ‘Disney Legend.’  

 

 

Tyrus Wong’s unique style–melding Chinese calligraphic and landscape influences with contemporary Western art–is found in everything from Disney animation Bambi and live-action Hollywood studio films to Hallmark Christmas cards, kites, and hand-painted dinnerware. He has been an inspiration for other artists, designers, and filmmakers. 

Students can learn about Angel Island and the Chinese Exclusion era through Tyrus Wong’s life. In this short profile, Tyrus Wong shares his memories of Angel Island and its impact on his life. Paper Son: The Inspiring Story of Tyrus Wong, Immigrant and Artist, is a picture-book biography of animator and artist Tyrus Wong for young audiences. 

AAPI Experiences and Civics Education

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have also played an important role in American civil rights and civics history, and in redefining the “American” identity. Below are important cases concerning Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that exemplify their civic engagement.  

United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898) is significant because the Supreme Court ruling determined that the 14th Amendment granted birthright citizenship to all persons born in the United States, regardless of race or nationality. Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco, but his parents were immigrants from China and not eligible to become United States citizens under the Naturalization Act of 1790. After visiting his parents in China, Wong was denied reentry into the U.S. in 1895 under claims that he was not a citizen. With support from the Chinese Six Companies, Wong fought his case all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, which ultimately decided that besides limited exceptions, a child born in the United States to parents of foreign descent is a citizen of the United States. American Experience’s clip on United States v. Wong Kim Ark explains the historical context behind the case and discusses its important legacy. 

The Supreme Court decision to affirm Wong Kim Ark’s birthright citizenship as granted by the 14th Amendment became relevant during Japanese internment. The United States War Department made efforts to try to force Nisei (“second generation”) to choose their U.S. citizenship and renounce allegiance to a foreign government, or be incarcerated or deported. United States v. Wong Kim Ark determined that the United States could not deny Nisei their citizenship, so the Renunciation Act of 1944 allowed Japanese American internees to renounce American citizenship to be deported to Japan. What did loyalty mean to Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during WWII? EDSITEment’s lesson plan, Japanese American Internment Camps during WWII, explores this question, along with the legacy of internment. Library of Congress’ illustrated StoryMap Behind Barbed Wire: Japanese-American Internment Camp Newspapers chronicles the stories and experiences of the interned Japanese American community through an engaging examination of the newspapers they produced. 

After President Franklin Roosevelt issued an Executive Order to forcibly remove peoples of Japanese ancestry from areas deemed critical to domestic security, Japanese American Fred Korematsu refused to leave his home in San Leandro, California. Korematsu v. United States (1944) became another landmark case in which the Supreme Court held that the compulsory exclusion of citizens during times of war is justified for national security. In 1983, federal courts overturned Korematsu’s original convictions, but the Supreme Court has not had the opportunity to overturn the 1944 decision in an official way. The Bill of Rights Institute lesson plan, The Presidency: Constitutional Controversies, asks students to use case background and primary source documents concerning the Supreme Court case of Korematsu v. United States to assess the Supreme Court’s decision. 

Yuri Kochiyama was a prominent Japanese American activist whose work in the 1980s to redress and give reparations for Japanese Americans influenced the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The United States House of Representatives’ History, Art & Archives website provides an informative, historical essay on the “Long Road to Redress” that looks at the legislative discussion and workings behind the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. 

The events leading to Japanese internment revealed an important, underlying question: What does it mean to be American? In the 1920s, two cases demonstrated a legal and popular understanding of American citizenship as being associated with “whiteness.” In 1915, Japan-born Takao Ozawa filed for United States citizenship after living in the United States for 20 years. However, in Ozawa v. United States (1922), the Supreme Court upheld the rejection of his application for citizenship on the basis of his race. At the time, only “free white persons” and “persons of African nativity or persons of African descent” could naturalize. After the Ozawa v. United States case, Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian Sikh man, identified himself as Aryan when requesting naturalized citizenship in the United States. However, his request was denied, and in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923), the Supreme Court upheld the denial, arguing that Indians did not meet a “common sense” definition of white. This court decision would lead to the denaturalization of about fifty Indian Americans. Thind’s story is also mentioned in the NEH-funded PBS documentary Asian Americans

It was not until the Luce-Celler Act of 1946 in which Congress allowed Indian and Filipino nationals to acquire U.S. citizenship through naturalization. Other AAPI groups eventually received that right as well, and in the past decade naturalization rates have been comparatively high in AAPI communities.  

Asian Americans have also fought for civil rights in education. Before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling of 1954, students of color had to attend separate schools from white students. Despite the U.S. legal doctrine of “separate but equal,” schools for students of color were chronically underfunded and of lesser quality. In 1924, a nine-year-old Chinese-American named Martha Lum was prohibited from attending a school in Mississippi for white children because she was of Chinese descent. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Mississippi’s Supreme Court ruling that Martha Lum was not allowed to go to the school for white students, expecting her to find a school for students of color outside of the district. Although the Lum v. Rice (1927) case further upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine, it showed how Asian Americans engaged in the American public sphere for their rights.