Nguyen: What talking to students about AAPI Heritage Month taught me
Campbell Union School District Board President Richard Nguyen reads to students in 2017. Photo courtesy of Richard Nguyen.

The entire fourth and fifth grade classes of Castlemont Elementary wait for me to speak in their school cafeteria. This year I get to give talks to six schools about Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. But it is the students who will reinforce the importance of advancing diversity and inclusion.

Making an easy-to-understand presentation for little kids is hard enough, but keeping their attention for 45 minutes is harder. My strategy: Explain the need for AAPI Heritage Month via personal stories that are hopefully relatable to elementary school students.

I harken back to the old days when I was a kid. There were not many movies or stories with AAPIs as heroes or leaders. There was only one Disney animated movie with an Asian main character, “Mulan.” Growing up the lack of AAPI visibility made me question my place in society.

I tell students how fortunate they are now to have more diverse stories available to them. They cheer when I ask if they have seen movies with AAPI lead characters, such as “Lilo & Stitch,” “Moana,” “Up” and “Big Hero 6.” Students also tell me to watch “Turning Red,” as well as “Raya and the Last Dragon.” I promise to watch them.

Another way I encourage kids to celebrate diversity is through food. I recall being teased when I would bring delicious seaweed strips to school as a student. But then I mention a few years ago I had lunch with some seventh graders at Rolling Hills Middle School. A student pulled out a bag of seaweed strips to the delight of his diverse group of friends, who all asked for some. Times have changed.

We talk about the different Asian cuisines they could try. At Marshall Lane Elementary, several non-AAPI first graders tell me how they tried sushi or pho for the first time, and it became their favorite meal. One student says she would ask her parents to try pad thai after I describe it.

My hope is sharing personal stories with each other will encourage kids to explore and embrace diversity—not just AAPI but all cultures. Sometimes it is hard to tell if these talks are having the intended impact. The Q&A portion is usually dominated by questions about my favorite color, video game or class.

But after my talk at Blackford Elementary, a teacher emails me, noting a kindergartener finally felt comfortable to reveal to her classmates that she can speak Vietnamese. Words cannot describe how meaningful it is to help an insecure child be proud of their identity.

That incident reminds me that even if students do not remember the details of my talk, at least they will remember interacting with the first Asian American to serve on their school board. They talked with their school district’s president, who they learned is the son of Vietnamese refugees. Hopefully, my visits allow students to expand what they think is possible for themselves and others.

I am grateful for this opportunity, because diversity and inclusion are not necessarily valued in other places. Some states have banned racial discussions in schools. One Ohio school district even canceled Diversity Day against the wishes of its students. Fortunately, Campbell Union School District (CUSD) values diversity and strives to advance equity and inclusiveness.

Considering the students’ young age, I purposely kept my talk celebratory. I was pleasantly surprised when older students knew about historical discrimination. Students at Sherman Oaks—our Spanish bilingual immersion school—informed me they had learned about the French colonization of Vietnam.

Fifth graders at Rosemary Elementary told me there were historical laws in California restricting Chinese Americans from owning businesses. They explained these discriminatory laws were out of fear that Chinese Americans would replace the white businessowners.

With the increase in AAPI hate crimes and the replacement theory currently prevalent within the Republican Party, we need a more educated and empathetic society to combat racism. These students give me hope.

Their knowledge showed me elementary students are capable of learning history, even when the past is shameful. More importantly, they can identify and articulate why discrimination is wrong. I am thankful of CUSD teachers and staff for skillfully empowering students with knowledge and heart.

As AAPI Heritage Month ends, I want to share another message I told students. You can celebrate diversity year-round, so explore different cultures and heritages. Read books and watch movies that tell diverse stories. Try different cuisines. Ask friends about their backgrounds and share yours.

But as the elementary students reminded me, we are capable of more. So, I encourage you to learn more about discriminatory laws and attitudes that continue to harm our society. Have thoughtful discussions about solutions. Speak out against racism and discrimination. Advocate for policies that create a more just and inclusive society.

AAPI Heritage Month is not just a time for celebration. It is also a call to action.

Richard Nguyen is the first Asian American to serve on the school board and as president of the Campbell Union School District. His opinions are his own.

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