Written by Anna, Fall 2023 NCAAT Youth Ambassador
American history is a required part of high school for all students in North Carolina. Yet, for the 300,000 Asian Americans in NC, we wonder: is this our history? Is this truly our history, in a nation as diverse as America, when few to none of the important figures look like us? The existing curriculums that teach US history fail to represent the rich tapestry of Asian American history, leaving countless students questioning their place in modern American society.
Amidst this gap in knowledge, one student in Wake County has taken it upon herself to bridge this divide. Meet Akshara, a high school senior, whose personal experience in AP United States History (APUSH) has ignited a desire for change. Partnering with her history teacher, Akshara has taken the lead on the Asian American Oral History Project at her high school, through which she hopes to preserve oral recollections from individuals with a myriad of experiences and illustrate the underappreciated impact of Asian Americans on the course of history.
So, tell me about the Asian American Oral History Project.
It’s an initiative that we started along with Mr. Richardson [Akshara’s AP US History teacher] to create awareness of Asian-Americans and American history. It started from my final project for APUSH, [where] we had a final project in the past where we could present on any topic and I chose to present on Indian-Americans. But what’s funny was there was nothing in our APUSH textbook about Indian-Americans at all. Literally, the only thing that was there was about Pakistani-Americans, not even Indian-Americans. My final project’s message was that we need to incorporate so much more Indian-American knowledge, information and history into an English curriculum because we literally don’t learn anything about them.
There’s so many of us, especially in North Carolina, especially in Raleigh, in Wake County, there’s so many Asian-Americans in the schools who are learning about history. My final topic was about that. My school teacher was like, Why don’t we start this initiative? He had an idea about the initiative earlier and he said, ‘Do you want to lead this?” I was like, “Sure.” That’s how it started.
Basically, what we wanted to do… In my final project, I included two interviewers from people who came here in the ’60s. That’s where it started. He had an idea of doing an oral history project, which is basically interviewing Asian Americans in the Triangle region to publish their stories and make other people aware. But what we’re also trying to do is include this history in our curriculum. In spring, we’re going to work to include all this history that we’ve gained into our curriculum. For example, into science, into music, presenting more Asian American music from Asian American composers, history, of course, English by studying more Asian American written poems and all that, for example.
Asian Americans is a very broad subject area. So we actually have divided our oral history project into specific sections such as cultural, religious, political, and educational issues and all of that. I recently wrote a poem, and so in this case, that’s what we’ve been doing. Right now, I’m mostly monitoring the people who are doing interviews, and we look to get as diverse perspectives as possible. It ranges from interviewing politicians to restaurant owners to cultural leaders to religious leaders.
What kinds of experiences are you hoping to encompass in this project?
Since I already did two of my interviews in the spring, actually, it was very different from what I expected. I expected to hear like, “Oh, I went through a little bit of racism. People would call me this, and that,” or something like that. Not too big, not nothing at all, but not too much. But what’s funny is I got that. I thought I would get something in the middle, but I got two extremes, which was so funny to me because I didn’t even expect it.
The first interview that I did, the person said they never experienced even the slightest bit of racism. I believe they lived in Vermont. That time, they were accepted so well. They even, for example, they even were invited to schools to talk about their culture and all of that. It was so different from what I expected. Then the other person I had talked with was really targeted at school. They were called so many slurs and they were racially… Not segregated, but really mistreated at school, especially verbally in being called brownie [a derogatory term for Indian-Americans]. It was very interesting to me that I got two extremes when I was expecting to get a single, very mild experience. But I assume we will get a spectrum of experiences because a lot of people have gone through so much.
It also depends on where they lived as well. In the South, especially, I’m not sure what I’m expecting. I really don’t expect anything because when I went with an expectation, I got so many different answers.
Do you think it’s important for people to know about their histories? What can we learn from them?
It is definitely important to learn about the history of the cultures in this area, because for some people as Asian-Americans, we’ve lived without knowing all this culture and how much people have done for us. Because I always wondered, like, ‘How am I able to not yet experience anything that’s tragically affected my life in the sense of racism?’ I always think about how grateful I am to the people who lived here before me, who had to go through that. They worked so much to eradicate all of that just so we could live here. Not eradicate because technically, there’s still some going on. But they’ve gone… They’ve experienced so much. It doesn’t happen to us as much anymore because of them. That’s the main reason why I did my project, back in APUSH.
Who do you hope to reach, and what kind of impact do you hope this will have?
Well, the target audience, I guess, is everyone. It would be Asian Americans especially, because we want them to learn about their history, but everyone, because everyone needs to know about Asian American history since it hasn’t been spoken about at all in our history books. Even in the news, we don’t really see a lot of Asian American history. We do see a lot of events that are happening now, but there’s nothing about history and how what people have done before has have impacted us. I want everyone to be educated about that.
But impact, like I said, is to make sure there’s more Asian American history in our textbooks, in our classes, everywhere. We want to include Asian American authors, composers, scientists, and more in our curriculum to bring awareness to what they’ve done. Not just Asian American, because it could be people of other Asian identity as well. Any Asians, and incorporating more of their work into our curriculum so we can learn more about the different viewpoints that we get from them as well.
The Asian American Oral History project at Akshara’s high school plans to present its collections in an event in May, and integrate Asian American culture and history into education for the future to come.
Anna (she/her) is a high school senior from Cary, North Carolina. She has a passion for dance, particularly ballet and Chinese dance, and is interested in biology and orthopedic medicine. As an NCAAT Youth Ambassador, she hopes to harness the power of media creation and deepen her connection with the Asian American community’s efforts for activism.