CHAMPAIGN — In a virtual visit to University Primary School on Friday, a Chinese American author read from her latest picture book and shared how she grappled with feeling different growing up in a small Ohio town.
“I had fun as a kid, but I also remember feeling like I didn’t belong,” Andrea Wang said, showing a picture of her second-grade yearbook.
“I’m the only Chinese American kid in my whole class and actually in my whole grade.”
Wang said that being unique is “a wonderful thing, but sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. Sometimes what makes you different can feel like a bad thing, and I wanted to write about those feelings, to show kids that you’re not the only one who feels like that.”
The visit was part of a new Asian American Education Initiative organized by the University of Illinois College of Education and the UI’s Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies.
The initiative aims to increase teaching about Asian American history and bring more Asian American literature into classrooms.
College of Education Associate Director of International Programs Wei Liu said she and her colleagues were initially inspired by Asian American book drives that have popped up recently across the U.S.
“As educators, we noticed an absence of Asian-American history in the curriculum for K-12 schools, and we think and we believe one of the reasons we were having … racial discrimination and bias against Asian Americans is because we’re not teaching about Asian American history in schools,” Liu said.
“Many Americans don’t know this history, and Asian Americans themselves do not know their own history.”
The initiative’s first steps began this month with a talk on Asian American history and three virtual visits this week to local schools by Asian American authors.
In her visit Friday, Wang read from her latest book, “Watercress,” which tells the story about her parents spotting watercress in a ditch and the family getting out to pick it.
“I felt like I was the only kid whose parents made me pick food from the wild or ate things that didn’t come from a grocery store, and I was super embarrassed about it,” Wang said.
“Maybe sometimes you felt like you don’t fit in. I’ll let you in on a little secret: Everyone feels like they don’t belong at some point in their lives.”
After she learned about her mom’s experience growing up in China, Wang said she learned to appreciate the watercress.
She encouraged the students to be curious, and after she finished her talk, the students responded with several questions.
Wang gave the students writing tips, let them know her favorite food (chocolate) and how long it took to write “Watercress” (eight years, in fits and starts).
School director Ali Lewis said she was happy to host Wang for the Asian American Education Initiative.
“Her book is so important because it’s talking about difference. Instead of hiding differences, she’s talking about difference, she’s explaining how she felt as a kid to be different,” Lewis said.
“It’s really important to have authors and teachers and spaces in schools to talk about difference and to see difference.”
In addition to developing an Asian American history curriculum, Liu said the initiative hopes to continue the author talks next school year.
“We’re definitely going to continue to do that,” she said. “The kids absolutely loved it.”