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Using Literature to Eradicate Xenophobia: One Educator’s Response to COVID-19

By Thu Anh Nguyen
 | Apr 14, 2020

multiracial group of students
“No one cares where you’re from.”

Such a short phrase, and yet so damaging. In one of my first years teaching at this school, some students had left an anonymous note on my desk. The note was two pages full of hurtful and racist language, but what I remember most was that particular sentence.

In the weeks and months since COVID-19 appeared, many worse racist things have been said and actions taken against those perceived to be in the Asian community. Asians have been physically harmed and verbally harassed. Every time I read an article about these incidents, or heard about them on the radio or in the news, I kept remembering the note left on my desk, that no one cares where I’m from.

If they actually cared, if they understood, then their empathy would not allow such cruel behavior and words.

I started to wonder how I might make people care about where I’m from, how I might address the xenophobia and racism against Asians since the COVID-19 disease was publicized as the “Chinese virus” and blamed on the Asian community. Books, for me, have always been an answer to challenging questions. Reading widely about the various Asian experiences is more important now than ever.

I have spent much of my time as an educator concentrating on providing mirrors to my students so that they can see their identities reflected in the works that they read. Right now, I am also very consciously making sure I include Asian voices and perspectives to provide windows to non-Asian readers so that they develop the empathy necessary to recognize and combat xenophobia and racism.

Luckily for all of us, there are so many good, complex, and contemporary books for all ages about the Asian experience. I have taught Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese (Macmillan) to middle and high schoolers. Students love the graphic novel format, and the perspective of the young Chinese narrator allows readers to explore common microaggressions and racism committed against Asian students.

Yang also recently released Dragon Hoops (First Second), and it has been a huge hit with my middle school sports-loving students because of its basketball theme. Even if they are not Asian, students can relate to the Asian main character in this book through the lens of sports, and that ability to connect is the first step in understanding where someone is from.

Just three months ago, when things seemed much simpler, a seemingly lighthearted book was published by HarperTeen, and I devoured it. Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen is about a Taiwanese girl who grows up in the United States and is sent by her parents on a summer pilgrimage to Taipei to learn about her heritage. The “Loveboat” experience is famous among Asian Americans and is similar to pilgrimages in other cultures such as Birthright Israel trips. In the 414-page novel, it’s not until page 351 that the main character realizes the racism that her family has had to endure. Once she has that realization, she and her friends can’t help but talk about all of the stereotyping they too have endured.

I think it’s crucial that the book doesn’t even touch the topic of racism until it’s mostly over. By then, you have gotten to know the characters. You have laughed with them, and at them. You have sympathized with the teenage experience of wanting to set out on your own while feeling held back by your parents. You have fallen in love with the characters, and so you are ready to be sad when they are sad. You are ready to be outraged when someone makes fun of the way they talk. Your ears are more open to hearing the multiple stories of how Asians have been mistreated through the specific examples of how the characters have been mistreated. That is the beauty of the literature: It opens us up more so that if we have not experienced something, it allows us to imagine experiencing it.

As I was writing this piece, I was working from home while trying to keep my own young children occupied. My 7-year-old son was reading Bao Phi’s A Different Pond (Capstone Young Readers). It’s the subtle and beautiful story of a father and son who go fishing together. As they sit quietly and wait for fish, the father talks about growing up in Vietnam, a different pond from where they are now in the United States. We so often live in our own worlds, unable to envision what it is like in others’ landscapes. It is as if we are fishing from different ponds.

This is a time for more understanding. Cultural literacy is about fluency in another culture, its customs and beliefs; it is understanding gained through literacy. In A Different Pond, the father tells his son stories so that at the end of the book, when he’s drifting off to sleep, the boy “will dream of fish in faraway ponds.” The boy is now able to do what he had not been able to before, which is to imagine his father’s world.

Literacy in Asian culture, when so many people are misunderstanding and harming each other, is vital. We must continue to read stories that reveal to us the truths of others so that we can know where we are all from, and care for each other with more kindness and grace.

Recommended reading (in order of reading level from youngest to adults)

  • Drawn Together by Minh Lê (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
  • A Different Pond by Bao Phi (Capstone Young Readers)
  • Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang (First Second)
  • Butterfly Yellow by Thanhhà Lai (HarperCollins)
  • Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park (Clarion Books)
  • Frankly In Love by David Yoon (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Reader)
  • Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen (HarperTeen)
  • I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir by Malaka Gharib (Clarkson Potter)
  • The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai (Algonquin Books)
  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Penguin Press)

Thu Anh Nguyen teaches sixth grade at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC., and writes and performs poetry.

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