When I conceptualized the project “Little Dragons for a Better World,” funded by PJSA’s Mini-grants projects, I had only been a freelance teacher of writing and poetry for half a year. I graduated during the pandemic, and as I was job hunting without much luck, teaching writing seemed to find me. It was a nice surprise; I started with only one or two students, and soon a small community grew out of their networks. Because of the nature of organic networks, many of my students were Chinese Americans, and soon enough I had students in Taiwan as well.
During this time (late 2020 early 2021), the Chinese-American identity seemed to be undergoing a national conversation for the first time in a while. My students were hearing the news of violence, of racism, of politicians who blatantly blamed China, but many were unsure how to approach the topic of race, violence, and politics. In fact, most of us Chinese people in this time frame tend to put our heads down and focus on working hard on our own lives. We often joke about how Chinese people are the least “團結”(united), especially compared to Koreans or Japanese communities. This means that often Chinese-American children tend to be less aware of how they are connected to larger social movements or dynamics, and also less conscious of how they can make an impact in that fabric.
Personally during this time, right after my education at Swarthmore College, I was feeling a deep sense of urgency and responsibility. The world felt like it was imploding; the ugliness of the world was rising to the surface like an oil spill on water and I found myself calling everything into question. Everything needed to be dismantled and reshaped. I was turning to thinkers like Angela Davis and Grace Lee Boggs and craved for revolution, for action, for change.
So “Little Dragons for a Better World” was a project born out of these two sentiments, one my own observation about the children I was teaching and another out of my personal yearning to address the revolution. The aim was to create a summer camp inspired by Grace Lee Bogg’s Detroit Summer, to expose Chinese-American children to environmental and social issues, and giving them an opportunity to realize that they do not only have a voice in these larger fabrics, they also can make an impact with that voice. Although the original idea of a summer camp was not fully realized due to many factors, I was able to give lessons on Chinese-American history, Asian American and Black American connection and history, endangered animals and plant-life interactions, as well as zero waste in relation to a local incinerator with the plan created.
Through my conversations with these children my own views changed immensely. My intensity softened. My hard edge that craved a total revolution, that viewed everything to do with our late-stage capitalist world with a feeling of despair, became much less bleak. The children all have a strong sense of right and wrong, but they also have a strong sense of what is important and a reminder that we have the power in choosing what world it is we want to live in. Which is to say, we are in control of the narrative we choose to live in daily, and it simply depends on what colors we want to use to paint our life. Teaching children taught me that yes there are problems, but it doesn’t mean we sink into despair. Yes everything exists in a system that is both violent and heinous, but what is important is how we choose to live and exist in the day to day. In Buddhism, the lotus is an important symbol for the way it rises out of murky waters pure and clean. The children I’ve had the privilege of teaching have been like lotuses, not only pure, but purifying the waters around them.
Below are three writing samples from the workshop on Chinese-American history. Young students are not often asked directly about how they feel or what they think about more serious issues in the world. I was surprised at the expression of anger and sadness, as well as the sharp intuition about what is right and wrong present in the students’ works. It was rewarding to see these children expanding their own understanding of themselves and placing their own story against a bigger backdrop. Each student was allowed to choose their own direction on what they wanted to focus on and what kind of writing they wanted to do, and together we planned, workshopped and edited.
Cadence Liu, 12
There is no way out,
I try to shout,
But no one answers,
I wonder if I will get cancer,
These officers force us Chinese to clean floors,
We only eat twice a day,
My sight is always grey,
I wonder what my family is doing, away.
I look to see who is happy,
But everyone only sits quietly.
Nights are always cold,
Sorrow fills my body,
Just like everybody.
We are always waiting,
To hear the slap of the whip,
I have to have grit,
Or else I will slip.
For Cadence, what stuck out to her was the treatment Chinese people received at Angel Island. Angel Island was an infamous immigration station for Chinese families immigrating to the United States between 1910-1940. Officers were trying to deport as many Chinese people as they could, so they would interrogate the immigrants with difficult questions and forced them to live in harsh conditions.
Choosing to use the first person to write a poem from the perspective of someone who was stuck at Angel Island showed me how she directly sensed a connection with the narratives of Chinese people. She empathized and imagined what it might’ve felt like. As I was teaching, I was careful not to fall into the trap of “victimhood” and wanted to ensure that students did not walk away feeling a sense of weakness, or perhaps worse, a sense of entitlement to better treatment. My goal was simply for students to understand the history, and in that way perhaps celebrate strength. Cadence did that especially in the end when she writes the lines “I have to have grit/ or else I will slip.” She highlights endurance of Chinese-Americans, and she highlights strength despite the hardships.
Derek Meng 10
I think that anti-Asian notions are ridiculous because some non-Asians are being very mean to Asians for no particular reasons.
I feel sad about Asians being discriminated against and now I feel even sadder because there has been some violence towards Asians. An anti-Asian act is what happened in Atlanta, U.S. where eight people were killed. Six of them were mothers who were all Asian descendants including four who were Korean. This action caused indignation towards anti-Asian groups or people to appear in the media. Other actions similar to this include Asian elders being targeted by people in big cities. Some of these actions were caused by the former president because he said that coronavirus is a Chinese virus. This statement got racist people to become more angry at Asians and particularly at Chinese people. I think that this is very, very unfair for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (a.k.a AAPI) because they are being discriminated against and they are being attacked. This is very unfair and many people also know how it feels to have no rights. After black people were freed from slavery, they were still attacked and discriminated against. Black people would think ‘Oh, I do not think it is right to hurt these people because my ancestors were also treated similarly. I do not want that to happen to anybody else so I should treat everyone like my friend.’
These actions are rooted in history because when Chinese people came to the U.S. they were being discriminated against. Chinese immigrants came to America looking for jobs so that they could support their own family. This is because of Japan and western countries. So the Chinese government gave away land to other countries. This left little land in China for people to live on and work. When Chinese immigrants first came, they were hired at jobs and were paid little money. They worked hard and saved most of the money they received. White people saw that the Asians were getting rich and Whites were not, so they protested. They said that the Asians were stealing white peoples’ jobs, but Asians were not. The government did not bother to look further into this case though. Instead, they said that Chinese immigrants were to be deported. Later, other Asian immigrants came to America including Japanese and Korean immigrants. Some of these immigrants were deported from the U.S. and all were discriminated against. After many years, laws changed and some Asian immigrants were allowed to come back to the U.S., including Chinese. These Asians immigrants had to be quarantined on Angel Island. They were asked very private and stupid questions that the immigration officers do not even know. For example they asked: “What is the name of each of your family members?” and “What are the names of the villagers you live with?” If they could not answer they were imprisoned in a wooden house and later deported. I think that the wooden houses were very squalor. Asians who resisted were whipped at. These people were treated abysmally. I think that Americans should accept everyone and understand that it does not matter what type of race you are, it is not like Asians are aliens from the other side of the universe.
In conclusion, I think that anti-Asian notions are ridiculous. Things that we can do to be nice is to stop anti-Asian notions and respect Asians. Instead of treating them poorly, treat them like your friend. If we can apply this to everybody in this world then life would be peaceful!
Derek, who is 10 years old, chose to write an essay that discussed his thesis “I think that anti-Asian notions are ridiculous.” He reacted the most strongly to the news and current events of that time. I appreciated how straightforward he is with expressing his anger, frustration and sadness. To him, this is simply “all ridiculous” and he is absolutely correct. It was refreshing for me to hear a perspective that was so simple and to the point when it came to these discussions.
Derek tied all of the historical ideas together and showed how it tied into current events. Interestingly, he mentioned how he thinks the treatment of black people in America’s history would inform black people’s treatment of Asians as another minority group. I thought this was interesting, since he is beginning to seriously draw the connections of race relations in America. I only hope that this is more true in the world. Derek also learned a lot from his family, and his sense of history is strong.
Derek was straightforward in his reaction, and straightforward in his suggestions to all, and I think it’s an opinion worth sharing. As he said: we should treat everyone like our friend.
Chinese American Food
Chloe Chen 12
They took our culture’s food
and twisted it into American culture.
They called this
Chicken n Broccoli dish,
Chinese food. But it’s not,
All those take-outs you go to?
they aren’t even selling
authentic Chinese food. If you
Chinese food, you should go to China.
All the restaurants
take-outs just make their food,
call it a day
and sell it to their customers like it’s
They market it.
and twist it into our society
and play it off like they didn’t just take our culture.
Now i’m pretty sure
most of the things
in a Chinese restaurant/takeout aren’t even real Chinese food.
Americans winded our culture into theirs
and expect us to stay silent. But no,
we deserve more recognition. Imagine you just immigrated
and your culture is just chiseled
and fit into American land without credit.
You walk into
a takeout store
and are surrounded with
all these smells and food you’ve
The smell of spices
in the air
surround you as you walk in.
It wafts into your nose as you experience a new scent.
You wonder what these foods could be,
tangy smell of chicken.
Bright yellow noodles approach your sight
as the waitress walks out of the kitchen doors.
The oily noodles glisten while the waitress walks by,
Her hair slicked back into a
as she hurries
around the restaurant
orders to impatient customers.
You look and overhear her speaking
to a customer
What was this language?
It was Vietnamese,
All of this
Is a show of
“China” and “Chinese food”
You soon realize how unfair and sinister this act feels.
They took our culture’s food and twisted it into American culture.
They expect us to stay silent, but no
We deserve more recognition.
In class we had an amazing discussion where Chloe began to realize and react to her own personal experiences. It may also come from the fact that she has a more distant relationship with her Chinese heritage. Her emotion was indignation. This poem comes from her frustration at how “China” is packaged and sold. In some ways this indignation could also be seen as a reflection of her own frustration at how these are the ways she was being exposed to her own heritage.
What is fascinating about this poem is her repetition of the fact that “they market it [the ‘Chinese food]” and how “they took our culture’s food and twisted it into American culture.” A part of me wonders how she feels about herself, as someone who is growing up in America without a strong connection to Chinese language and culture. I also found it fascinating that she focused on this idea of the Vietnamese waitress in the Chinese restaurant. She points at the constant blanketing of Asians as similar and therefore the same.
In the end she says “this is a show of “China… They expect us to stay silent, but no/ we deserve more recognition.” I find her dismay at China as put on show extremely prescient, for it points at the strange fetishization of Chinese culture as well. Amongst the more blatant violence, hatred, and racism, there’s also this craving for “Chinese foods.” She ends with the idea that “we deserve more recognition,” implying not this kind of recognition, but another kind, a more authentic kind. I often wonder what that would look and feel like and I know that many other Chinese-Americans feel the same way.
Throughout these classes, conversations and writing assignments we all added to the narrative as well. Now here we are, small pockets of young Chinese-Americans who are learning from one another and discussing what we feel, what we wish for, and how we can grow too. To me, this is a hopeful image, and I wish it is for you too!