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#31DaysIBPOC: Speaking Into Existence.

Many people have asked, in not-so-many-words, “Who are you to write a memoir?” I reply, “I’m writing the story I don’t see anywhere else. And, that I needed.” I’m honored to share, with the #31DaysIBPOC community and world, a draft memoir introduction I’ve been working on. Rest in power, George Floyd, one year ago today.


Draft Excerpt from Introduction of (working memoir title): Speaking Into Existence: A Daughter’s Journey Towards Teaching, Activism, and Her Family

June 2017

5th-grade graduation was looming, and I had to finalize one more thing for my students: what language class each of my students wanted to take in middle school. Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where I teach, is made up mostly of families from the Latinx and Asian diasporas, and while I hoped Chinese or Arabic would be available classes for my students’ families, only romance languages were on this list: Spanish, French, Italian. At least Spanish was a choice for my Latinx students; New York City schools was a long way from teaching the 600+ languages our students and their families speak. Including my own.

I went up to each student for their answers. “I’m going to learn Italian,” S, a Mexican student, responded. “Spanish is stupid.”

My eyes involuntarily teared up. I knew that feeling of shame and embarrassment too well. I had to interrupt it.

“S, what language do you speak at home?” I knew the answer, of course, after parent-teacher conferences:

“Spanish,” S replied.

I nodded my head. My next question was what I wished I had been asked in fifth grade:

“Does your mom know any English?”

“No—”

I was in. “Your mom only speaks Spanish, right? And how is your Spanish?”

“Um, I don’t know much.” S began to hunch inward, regretting that she’d said anything in the first place.

“Exactly!” and I continued: “So is your mother’s language stupid? Is your family’s? NO! What do you think will happen when you’re an adult and you can’t speak Spanish? Do you think you’ll be able to speak to your mom?”

“No—”

“Exactly! The research says your brain is primed towards learning languages in your early teenage years, not later, not as an adult, NOW.”

And without stopping I began to project my own experience onto S:

“I didn’t learn Chinese at your age, and I wish I did or got the chance to, because then I would be able to speak to my parents, and now I can’t speak to them.”

I didn’t stop to breathe as I emphatically pointed my index finger towards my face. “Learn your parents’ language because you don’t want to end up like Ms. Tan not being able to speak to her own parents!”

S looked like she was about to cry. I realized I had unloaded too much on her, so I stepped away to the next student, willing my body to calm down.

I’d made some iteration of this stump speech dozens of times: I was often the first teacher in my students’ lives to do so. But this time, for some reason, the speech stung.

It was the word stupid that got me. I knew that feeling too well.


December 2020

“Hey, isn’t it time for your Cantonese class?” Winnie shouted from the kitchen.

I looked up bleary-eyed at the clock. 5:58.

“It’s Wednesday, right?” I nodded, breaking my daze. I had just texted my students’ parents Monday night that, because of COVID-19 cases, school was closed in-person Tuesday, texted Tuesday night that we’d reopen in-person Wednesday, and just finished my round of texts that we had a snow day Thursday. I was exhausted.

“It’s really nice to hear you, your teacher and your classmates talking in Cantonese. I don’t really hear Cantonese anymore.”

“Yeah, I know. Me neither.” It was like Winnie was egging me on to go to class, even though I wanted to make an excuse again not to show.

“Ngo5 dei6 ho2 ji6 gong2 do1 di1 a,” Winnie replied.

“Yeah. We should.”

The only times I spoke Cantonese were in class, in Chinatown buying groceries, or with my parents. The calls started after I left home for college, and each day was the same: “Nee hak faan mee a?” In Toisan, or, more specifically, Hoiping: have I eaten yet?

“Sik6 zo2 la,” I wearily replied in Cantonese, the lingua franca of my Manhattan Chinatown but not my parents’ hoeng1 ha2 village languages. Cantonese is the closest language I have to my parents, a language I could at least grasp with a Cantonese romanization system called jyut6ping3, with 6 tones that would change the meanings of words if interchanged; sei3, the number four, was unlucky because if said like sei2, like a question, I was speaking of death.

Of course I know how to say my favorite Cantonese dishes, Mom shows her love through food, after all, but for the phone calls there are certain food words I’ve memorized for my dad: gaai1 for chicken, saai1 gaai3 lan2 for broccoli, faan6 for rice. Other words take longer to remember, if I knew them at all: faan1 ke2 for tomato, and I definitely don’t know how to say some other stuff in my fridge, like salsa, oatmilk, or pickles. And I’m still flipping words: a habit from childhood I never kicked is to say I want more jau4, oil, instead of zap1, sauce, something I still get ridiculed for.

I continued with the routine update: “My 5th-grade students were good today,” wanting really to say to my dad that no one turns on their cameras over Zoom and that I’m mostly talking to myself when I teach. But I don’t have the words to explain.

My dad and mom speak at least four Chinese languages: Cantonese, Toisan, Hoipingwa, and Mandarin, and are able to read, listen to, speak and write in Chinese characters. At home growing up, as with many Chinese immigrants my parents didn’t say much. But when they spoke they slurred their languages, so I mixed them up too. The ABC, American Born Chinese, kids in my Chinatown elementary school, didn’t know which Chinese languages I was mixing up, wouldn’t be able to understand me, then made fun of my accent and tones. I didn’t understand that then, though, why I was being mocked: I must have been stupid, so I stuck to English, the language I did know, not understanding that would put me worlds apart from my family. I only learned jyut6ping3 at 19, when I went to Hong Kong to study abroad, long after the shame had solidified in me, and long after languages were most malleable in my brain.

Even though my parents have been in America almost four decades, they never learned English, never needing it in the Chinese sweatshops, bakeries or construction companies they worked at. And even though I had my brothers, I was the one at the Medicaid and Social Security and doctors’ offices reading, listening, speaking, and writing in English, the only language I was fluent in, and using my meager Cantonese and bodily motions to translate back to mom and dad.

Mom figured out to use number words with the Arabic numerals scrawled in her checkbook to write checks and can make out maybe 50 written words in English, her English language levels similar to my Chinese language levels. If she or Dad really don’t understand something and us kids aren’t around to translate, Mom goes to a Chinatown social service center for help with English paperwork. Or takes a photo and sends it to someone on WeChat to translate.

Winnie, my oldest friend and now roommate, understood all this well: she didn’t speak Hoiping, but she was Toisan and spoke Cantonese, which I would find out maybe a decade after we first met in 4th grade. I looked back at her hopeful face as she marinated a black bean garlic pork dish. Suddenly I was grateful for her presence in this old Chinatown apartment on Broome Street, my childhood home, just two blocks from where Winnie grew up, and now our home together.

I reluctantly flipped to my Google calendar for the Cantonese Zoom class link. I knew, after taking graduate classes in 2014 to be an English-as-a-New-Language-teacher, that my brain is no longer primed to learn another language like when I was in sixth grade. Back then, Winnie and I took Spanish classes; we were focused on getting good grades, and so we actually learned how to conjugate and pick up Spanish vocabulary and sentence structures. I wasn’t wanting at all then to learn Chinese. Now both of us read more Spanish, a language which shares roots with English, than any Chinese language.

I got on the Zoom call, said “hello a Jaa-net” to my Cantonese teacher. Janet, who’s been forever patient in all the times I’ve been 20-30 minutes late to class, when I always leave mid-class to “use the bathroom” aka scroll through Twitter for a while because I can’t focus on the Cantonese I’ll never retain, when I promise to do the “homework” that will take 20 minutes to do which I don’t do, and say “haa6 ci3 gin3,” which sometimes I won’t because I’ll find some excuse to ditch class because of the pure exhaustion of teaching.

I know maybe 300-500 spoken words in Cantonese, those few hundred the ones I’ve held onto since childhood and the building blocks for the most basic communication with my parents. I know I need to learn at least 3,000 words in order to get fluent. Until recently, I didn’t know how to access the tools to get there: it’s only been in the past five years that Cantonese apps and dictionaries like Pleco have existed.

I wonder when I will have time to practice my Cantonese, given how exhausting teaching is, because I don’t have a lot of time left. Every day I wonder when my next relative will pass, another relative whose stories will not be passed onto the next generation. I think about how many stories I will never know, because I don’t share the same language as my grandmother and my cousins and aunties and uncles. And parents. I will never know fully how my parents got to America, where my extended family ended up, the time family spent in China and Vietnam and America and elsewhere.

What’s the use? I’m never going to learn enough to talk to my parents, let alone read the Chinese newspaper. So what’s the point? Jau5 me1 je3 jung3 a?

Even if I spoke the languages, though, would my family even tell their stories? I found out by pure accident, after all, while watching a PBS documentary, that I am related to Vincent Chin, a man murdered by two white men who shouted anti-Asian sentiments at him, whose murder led to an Asian American movement, and whose legacy pushed me to be the activist I am today.* Even if great-auntie Lily, Vincent’s mother and my great-auntie, were alive, would I be able to get her story, of how she fought back, how her words and courage led to that movement?

But then again, that one family story, what I know of it anyways, changed my life. I knew the power of stories, that’s why I began telling stories in the first place. And, if I could find out more, maybe another story could change someone else’s life.


After Cantonese class, I check my phone and see a bunch of texts from parents about the snow day.

“Ok muchas Grasias buenas noches” with a sleepy emoji.

“De nada,” I reply.

“Gracias por todo,” another parent texts.

I sit back, readying myself for another remote day. The building may be closed, but school is always on.


Later I get a call from one of my students’ parents. She speaks to me in Toisan, and I speak back, my Toisan broken.

“Nee hai hoisan a?

Keoi ho hoi seem a, keoi ho zung yi nee doo keoi lo sloo a.

Keoi ho seung hok zung moon a.”

I’m the first Toisan teacher her child’s had.

She is so happy I am her teacher.

She really wants to learn Chinese now.

I breathe.


*If you’d like, you can listen to me tell this story “Remembering Vincent” for The Moth. Then come back for the memoir one day when it is published! Thank you so much for reading.


#31DaysIBPOC: Celebrating the teacher voices of Indigenous, Black, and People of Color This May! Hosted by Kim Parker and Tricia Ebarvia

*This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Narin Ramani (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).

Today I resigned from teaching.

Annie holding a glass of frothed oat milk with a design of an apple and the words “teacher off duty” signifying her resignation from teaching.

The seeds of this email were planted on April 5th, 2020: “I, Annie Tan, am resigning from the DOE effective September 1st, 2022.” 

April 5th, 2020 was when Kimarlee Nguyen died of COVID. Kimarlee’s death shook me to my core. Kimarlee was 33, the same age I am now, and was an Asian American writer aspiring to write about her family’s experiences, just as I do. And, like me, Kimarlee was a New York City Public Schools teacher. Kimarlee was among 87 educators in the NYC public schools system who died from COVID, that we know of. Although I did not know Kimarlee, I have many, many friends who did, including fellow writers who took classes with her and fellow teachers who taught with her. 

I should have gotten the chance to know Kimarlee. And I very much could have shared Kimarlee’s fate. Kimarlee’s death shook me, and I realized a number of things.

One, I would continue doing everything in my power to keep people safe from COVID and be able to live their lives. When it came time to return in-person to schools, educators, parents, students, and community members organized, rallied and protested for safe school conditions. I spoke with basically every New York City publication, then some mainstream and national ones, and was interviewed constantly to get the word out on COVID school safety. I and the MORE-UFT Caucus surveyed over a thousand NYC educators and publicized the findings. I know, by amplifying information throughout the pandemic, I helped people make schools safer.

Secondly, I was reminded life is short, and I must, like Kimarlee, make moves and write. I had written some very important pieces in my life, but Kimarlee was prolific, writing bravely, vulnerably. Kimarlee was where I aspired to be: writing regularly while also maintaining her full-time job teaching. She was working on her first book, which would never come. That propelled me to get serious and write my book.

And I wrote. I signed for virtual writing classes. After I had finished ten-hour, sometimes 12-hour days, somehow I wrote. I wrote so much about my family and our legacy, buoyed by the love and support from my storytelling over the years. By December 2021 I was about two-thirds done with my memoir and over 100,000 words in. By that time we were all back in school in person, and I wrote while continuing to advocate and teach in a windowless classroom Fall 2021.

Then, Omicron. I think at one point 30 or so staff at my school were out sick. We could have and should have gone remote after the Winter Break. Instead, we returned to classes in person in January. Again we were forced to rally, protest, and speak to show what was happening.  At least 100,000 students were confirmed to have tested positive for COVID in January alone. More than half of my class was out sick then. 

This, this was what finally broke me. I stopped writing. Despair hit.

For over a decade I’ve fought with my unions and with colleagues for better working conditions and better learning conditions. I’ve fought against budget cuts, time and time again. I’ve gone back to not just finish my masters in special education but to get an English as a New Language certification, because like Kimarlee, like myself, most of my Little Village, Chicago, and then Sunset Park, Brooklyn students were first-generation Americans, immigrants or kids of immigrants. I’ve comforted students through crises. My love for the kids and my want to improve my teaching craft to better kids’ lives kept me in the classroom.

But there’s so much now taking away from us being able to do our jobs, and from being healthy and sustainable. In eleven years in the classroom, I’ve never been more irritable, impatient, fearful, sad, and frustrated than this school year (and I never thought any year would be worse than my first year teaching!).

I’m not okay. Most K-12 educators right now are not okay.

Our kids are not okay either. They’ve needed socio-emotional time with our community. They’ve needed arts and music programs, which are currently being cut. They need time to play at recess, not just for 15 minutes, and have physical education multiple times a week. I’m not here to give my students standardized tests in windowless classrooms and at least nine times a year to feed a flawed learning loss narrative. It’s been heartbreaking to hear our kids ask for more, me having to say we don’t have that, then made to feel that I wasn’t doing enough. 

But it’s not our fault. We don’t have the counselors and social workers or staff or time or resources to get the kids what they deserve. And that makes me the saddest, that our leaders won’t do these things and proactively help kids. We just let them get sick. We talk down to them like their experience doesn’t matter. We don’t protect them from mass shootings.

Everyone in our society is trying to move on, but far too many are trying to pretend nothing happened. I am not ready to move forward, and certainly not like this. And if this system won’t allow us time to rest and heal, I’m going to have to take it for myself.

My principal, assistant principals, students, and staff were sad to see me go but understood fully why I was leaving. Many teachers who I’ve told this news to have told me they can’t afford to leave but would if they could right now. I can afford time off precisely because I have no debt, no kids, have savings from working over a decade, and I have access to my husband’s health insurance (oh yeah, I got married in March, a week after NYC mask mandates lifted).

I am not sure yet if I will return to teaching.  (For those wanting to know logistics, I can rescind my NYC schools resignation within five years and hold onto my sick days, salary steps, and tenure.) It is so hard being this heartbroken over the only career I have ever considered.  Maybe with some time, I will have recovered enough to come back.

What I do know is that I’m excited for a break, to focus on writing and finishing this memoir, and to take on part-time jobs. (I’ll be working at Yu & Me Books in Chinatown, Manhattan August 2nd and 9th, come say hi!) I just created a speaking engagements page on my website and am open to providing keynote speeches and presentations. I would love to connect with other writers also working on books, especially memoirs. I would also love to know what other roles that you think I might be amazing at: I’ve never really considered a career outside of teaching, so if people have ideas it would be much appreciated!

Kimarlee Nguyen, you are not a martyr, and we will not treat you as so. Just as my cousin Vincent Chin’s life has shifted my perspective on this life, you have encouraged me to chase after my dreams. Sadly, life is too short to do otherwise. May you, Kimarlee, and the million-plus Americans who’ve died of COVID rest in power. May your memory be a blessing. And remind us all too.

My Remarks on Vincent Chin’s Murder 40 Years Ago Today

Today, June 23rd, marks the 40th Anniversary of my cousin Vincent Chin dying from fatal wounds sustained June 19th, 1982. I spoke on behalf of my family this Sunday at the Vincent Chin 40th Anniversary Remembrance in Detroit. You can read my speech below, watch the livestreamed video of the ceremony at the 24:18 mark, and see Detroit Free Press coverage with photos.

For context, one week before he was to be married, Vincent Chin was beaten to death in Detroit in 1982 by two white autoworkers who blamed Japanese auto companies for the loss of American jobs. The two men paid $3,000 and didn’t serve jail time for killing my cousin. Vincent’s mother, my great-auntie Lily Chin fought back and started an Asian American civil rights movement which popularized the term “Asian American.” Vincent Chin’s murder was the first Asian American case to be tried in a federal civil rights case in America and was a landmark in Asian American and American history.

My Speech at the Vincent Chin 40th Anniversary Rememberance Interfaith Ceremony, Sunday June 19th, 2022

Today marks the 40th Anniversary of our cousin Vincent Chin’s brutal killing and death. My great-auntie Lily Chin’s life changed forever, my family’s lives changed forever, and our communities were changed forever.

My family came from China, many dozens of children, parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, to various parts of America to make better lives. We sent for our families, we sent back money and resources, and we showed our lives with letters and photographs. Us in the younger generation vowed to love and support our elders too.

That was what my great-auntie Lily Chin wanted, her husband Bing wanted, and their son, our cousin, Vincent Chin wanted. 40 years ago today, Vincent was ready, with his then-fiance and his widowed mother Lily, to make that American dream happen, to be married in a weeks’ time, and build their family.

Vincent and Lily would never have that chance. Instead, 40 years ago today Vincent was taken from us, in an act of hateful and brutal violence. This, for our family, has been hard to bear. Lily’s sisters, including great-auntie and my grandmother, and their children, supported Lily through grief and anger. I can only imagine what my family and what our community witnessed and carried as they attempted to ease the tremendous trauma and burden Lily carried. I say imagined because I was born seven years after Vincent was killed and after Lily fought, in trial after trial, and finally lost, in that case for justice. 

I never got to know Vincent. Most of my family moved to America after Vincent was killed and did not get to know Vincent either. Most of us standing here, and most of us listening, never got to know Vincent.

What we do know about Vincent, we know because Vincent’s mother Lily spoke up, hundreds of times, over and over again, to tell Vincent’s story. My great-auntie showed the world Vincent was right when he said his last words: “It’s not fair.” When Vincent was killed, less than one percent of Detroit residents were Asian. My great-auntie had to speak. She said aloud, when so many were afraid, “I want justice for my son.” She never wanted any mother to go through what she had.

Lily was able to do all this with so much love and support. I thank my family who stayed with Lily and stood by her side, and that include Helen Ziawho my great-auntie Lily considered a goddaughter and who my mother says I should call auntie. And I thank all the community members and organizations here and who stood forty years ago today who supported our family. While we lost the civil rights case, we won a much broader community that stops others from meeting the same fate Vincent did and builds power for all of us.

The story of my cousin Vincent and my great-auntie Lily Chin is often framed around loss and trauma. But we must remember all that Vincent and Lily gave to us. People have told me Vincent was mischievous as a child, outgoing and lived life fiercely. I was 12 years old when Lily passed away, so I did not know her deeply. My cousins who did get to know her say Lily was funny, made fun of them, would be a matchmaker and was kind. She was humble and apologized. She said things like they were. She always wanted to give back to the people who loved her, whether through food or something she knitted. She loved our family fiercely, and did everything she could to fight for justice so other families could live theirs. I am sure some of those or all of those qualities went to her son Vincent who I’ve been told was mischievous as a child, was outgoing, and lived life fiercely. He wanted so badly wanted to give his mother and then-fiance a growing family and home they wanted to build together. 

As we face yet another wave of anti-Asian hate, it is easy to despair. I’ve often thought, in hard times, in times I feel hopeless, “What Would Lily Do?” (I’ve even considered tattooing that on my wrist, WWLD, but know my parents would hate that, so I won’t.) When I was younger, and even now, I haven’t always known the way forward. Then I think of Lily and how, in her way, she led us. Lily said, “Our skin color may be different, but our blood is the same.” That blood runs through my veins. And that blood runs through all of us. 

Thank you, great-auntie Lily, for everything. Because you fought, because you spoke up, we will forever know Vincent Chin’s name. Cousin Vincent, while many of us never got to meet you, you will never be lost to us. And we will never forget to make this a better world. On this 40th Anniversary of your murder, cousin, I promise we will live our lives fiercely, love our family fiercely, fight for the life you should have had, and for the life you and your mother Lily wanted for all of us here. 

My Statement on the “Hold Still, Vincent” Podcast:

In April, when Gemma Chan announced the “Hold Still, Vincent” podcast based on a screenplay by Johnny Ngo, Helen Zia and I waited patiently for an email or call about the story of Vincent Chin, my cousin, and Lily Chin, Vincent’s mother and my great-auntie. My family has been contacted by almost a dozen projects wanting to make Vincent Chin’s story and Asian American history known, and I have been happy to share all that I can. However, I did not expect this podcast to drop in full Wed. 5/26 without any such contact. To my knowledge, no one in my family was contacted about the podcast or film project, and Helen shared Thurs. 5/27 she was never contacted even though she is voiced by Kelly Marie Tran in the podcast. After public outcry and backlash, I was contacted by the podcast producer Mary Lee Sat. night 5/29 right before A Major Media announced they would disable the podcast temporarily; Gemma Chan reached out yesterday 6/1 as well. After listening to the podcast, I spoke with both Gemma and Mary today 6/2, and shared what I would have said if I had been reached out to prior to production.

I shared with Gemma and Mary, and hope to share with screenwriter Johnny Ngo and directors Aaron and Winston Tao, the impact of Vincent’s murder on my family. I don’t speak for my family, but many members of my family have said they do not want to be involved in Vincent Chin projects because they do not want to be retraumatized. Journalists over many decades have hounded my family for more sob stories, specifically from Lily Chin, my great-auntie, may she rest in power, who already gave so much of her labor, gave press photographs that have still not been returned to my family, was constantly reminded by the cameras of her dead son Vincent, and, after our family lost the last trial, moved to China. How do you trust others to tell Vincent’s story after all that? I said my family doesn’t speak of Vincent’s murder because it hurts us all too much (and, as I’ve shared publicly, I found out my family history through a PBS documentary of all places because it’s so much). However, many times, even against my family’s wishes, I have spoken publicly about Vincent.

I wanted to give the podcast “Hold Still, Vincent” a chance, but I and many of my friends and family members were immediately triggered by the title, “Hold Still, Vincent,” completely traumatizing given that my cousin Vincent Chin was literally held down by Michael Nitz while beaten by Ronald Ebens. I listened to the first episode to fictionalized accounts of how my cousin Vincent may have sounded with his then-fiancé Vikki and my great-auntie Lily. Then I listened to a scene with a lion dance, which never happened, that overlayed the beating of drums with my cousin simultaneously beaten to death by a baseball bat. Perhaps these fictionalized events may not have appeared in the screenplay or podcast if my family or Helen were reached out to; I will never know. I have spoken to a number of my family members who’ve shared similar objections, although, again, I do not represent my whole family. I also do not represent the Chin estate: Helen Zia, who my great-auntie Lily regarded as a daughter, does.

It is not my role or my family’s role to block other’s storytelling: I want my cousin Vincent Chin’s name and story known. Gemma and Mary both made clear this was a project solely to tell the story of Vincent Chin and Asian American history, not meant to profit, and that any proceeds would go back to Asian American communities, which I trust will happen. However, due diligence should have been paid, which would have been the respectful and bare-minimum steps to reach out to Vincent and Lily Chin’s family, to Vikki’s family, and to Helen Zia who are alive and can speak for themselves. As a storyteller, I know seeking truth is hard and takes time and labor. But if we’re to tell the stories that matter with integrity, we have to do the work, and that means reaching out to those most impacted. As South African disability rights activists said, “Nothing about us, without us, is for us.” I implore the producers and writers of the podcast to apologize with the truth of what happened and make amends with integrity. I hope Hollywood and storytellers everywhere take this lesson on what diversity, representation, and stories should and should not look like.


*I previously shared comments about the “Hold Still, Vincent” podcast with Jenn Fang of Reappropriate Fri. 5/28 and also on a Twitter thread Thurs. 5/27.

Send AAPI Love; Remembering Vincent Chin.

The Atlanta murders jarred us: I spoke with Michael Moore’s podcast yesterday on anti-Asian violence, my family’s legacy, and how to be positive/proactive and send AAPI love (donation links at the end of this post). Many too have asked, so below is the full transcript of my Moth story “Remembering Vincent” Chin. Thanks for listening/sharing.


Remembering Vincent (Listen to this story on the Moth)

By Annie Tan

My mom has a nickname for me, 八 a baat6. In Cantonese, it means busybody, curious, always asking questions. It’s kind of got a negative connotation.

And I had to suppress that curiosity, asking all of those questions, because when you’re born a kid of immigrants, you’re taught a guiding set of principles on which to live on. Keep your head down. Learn English, go to school, get good grades, go to college. Marry yourself a nice Chinese husband. Have kids, buy a big house for yourself. And keep quiet.

And so these are all the things I learned, and everyone around me believed them, because I was born and raised in Manhattan’s Chinatown, which is bustling with Chinese immigrants and kids of immigrants like me. My mom worked odd jobs in sweatshops, and in Chinese bakeries, my dad worked six days a week as a construction worker, and when he’d come back on Sundays, me and my brothers would take turns massaging his back. While doing all of this, I’m also trying to grapple with being both Chinese and American. And so I’m in fifth grade, watching a soccer match with my parents. And it’s the US versus China. And I asked my dad, “Who are we rooting for?”

“Of course, China.”

“But we’re here in America?” I thought.

I couldn’t ask that question though, because when you’re growing up here, you know that in that tiny Chinatown apartment you’re not supposed to speak up, because you’re just going to cause a ruckus.

But I found my ways to figure out this identity issue. When I was 13, I was so excited to watch a PBS documentary all about me: “Becoming American: The Chinese Experience.” Before that, I’d only seen three people who looked like me, Jackie Chan, Trini, the Yellow Power Ranger, and Mulan a cartoon character.

So I’m so excited to watch these last 20 minutes, which talks about people marching and protesting, people who look like me! They’re holding clever signs in English. They’re chanting in English. I’ve never even seen anyone in Chinatown march before for anything! What was so big that all of these people would go on the street and risk their identities and their lives?

They were marching for this man named Vincent Chin. Vincent Chin in 1982 was a Chinese American man who was beaten to death. He was beaten to death by two white laid-off auto workers who assumed he was Japanese during the auto workers crisis in Detroit, where Japanese companies were booming, and people thought, the Japanese were stealing their jobs. They fought the guys, chased Vincent Chin, and beat him to death with a baseball bat at his bachelor party. Instead of going to his wedding, his wedding guests went to his funeral instead the next week. The two guys who killed Vincent Chin never served a day in jail and paid $3,000 for this man’s death.

And so all of these groups of people: Chinese people, Korean people, Japanese people, Filipinx people were now saying, “If this could happen to this guy Vincent Chin, this could happen to any of us.” And so they began to rally together. And for the first time for many of them, they came together under the term “Asian American.”

Asian American. I never heard that term before, and Vincent Chin must have been so important if he had brought all of these groups together.

So my mom happens to walk into the room as I’m watching this documentary. And I’m thinking she’s about to yell at me for being lazy on the couch, and she points the screen she looks up and in Cantonese says, “That’s your family.”

What?!

I have all of these questions. Who is he? How is he related to me? Was he like a cousin of a cousin of a cousin? Have I ever met him? No I haven’t met him, because I wasn’t born yet in 1982. But I’m wondering, like, what happened?

I look up at my mom’s face and there’s just pain and anguish in her eyes. She didn’t look like she had wanted to tell me this, but I think she felt she had to tell me.

How could I ask all these questions? How could I ask about a murdered man in our family? I had nothing to say at that moment and I just decided: I’m not going to confront my mother about this. I don’t want to hurt her.

So I decide to do research. I started looking up articles online. I find out there’s a documentary called “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” I look at all the New York Public Library branches and I can’t find a single copy. But luckily, when I was a freshman in college, the Asian American Alliance screens the movie.

The movie featured heavily Vincent Chin’s mother, Lily Chin. Lily Chin went all over the nation and on the Phil Donahue show crying out, “I want justice for my son.” She’s featured at her house in the suburbs of Detroit feeding her relatives, making fun of the relatives and making jokes, trying to set up the filmmakers with boyfriends. And she was speaking in my native tongue Toisanese. At some moments during the documentary you could see Lily Chin trying to hold back her tears, because at the sight of the cameras she was always reminded of her dead son Vincent Chin.

And I couldn’t help but cry myself, because this woman looked so much and sounded so much like my grandmother, my maternal grandmother. And she was rallying and she was protesting. She was nothing like any of the Chinese woman I’d ever seen before.

And I thought to myself, I have to find out who Lily Chin is, because if Lily Chin is indeed my family, and she’s related to me, then I, I have an example in my family of someone who spoke up. I could be a 八 baat6 again, to be a busybody curious and be proud of that, you know?

So now I’m like, I have to find out who Lily Chin is and I had to find out who Vincent Chin is. So I go to the only place where I think I’ll get a full answer. The city where Vincent Chin lived and died, Detroit. I took an eight-hour Megabus to Detroit. My friend picked me up, and I asked her if we could go to Forest Lawn Cemetery, to see Vincent Chin’s grave. She drives us, and we find Vincent Chin’s name on a tombstone, Lily Chin’s name on a tombstone, and Lily Chin’s husband’s name on a tombstone.

They’re no longer ghosts: they’re right below my feet. And I’m finally going to know how these people are related to me, and why this means so much to me.

I go the next day to my relatives’ house. We’re eating 12 dishes of meals, I’m looking through 30 photo albums of my family. I see pictures of my mom and dad with matching perms in the 1980s.

And so I asked my relatives, “Can you help me make a family tree? I want to know more about my family.”

So we start with my grandmother’s line. My grandmother had a brother and nine sisters. My great-auntie said, “The second sister on this list is Lily Chin.” So now I know Lily Chin is my grandmother’s sister, Lily Chin is my mother’s first auntie and Vincent Chin is my mother’s first cousin.

So I asked my auntie, “What happened to Lily after Vincent died?”

She tells me. “Well, when Vincent died, Lily was all alone in Detroit. So your grandmother and I, Lily’s sisters, flew to America from China to support her. Your mom and dad had married in China so your dad came soon after. They all found work in New York. And that’s how your family ended up in Manhattan’s Chinatown.”

I thought about this for a while.

My grandmother had brought my parents to America from China, which had a one-child policy at the time, and I am the second child of three.

If Vincent Chin had not been killed, Lily Chin may never have been alone in Detroit.

My grandmother may never have flown to America to support her.

She may never have brought my parents to America.

And I may never have been born.

That knowledge made my life now precious to me. And I only knew this because I dared to be a 八 baat6: curious, asking questions after 10 years of trying to find this answer.

And so every single day of my life now I march on. Just like Lily Chin marched on, just like the thousands of people who marched for my cousin Vincent Chin.

But that message as a kid that lesson I learned so well, to not speak up, it’s always in my head. I constantly have to stop that voice, that voice that tells me, “Don’t go on that bullhorn Annie. Don’t go to those protests, don’t write those articles. Don’t fight for your special education students.”

And I tell that voice, every single day. No, I have to. I have to fight.

Because my cousin Vincent Chin didn’t die for nothing. My great-auntie Lily Chin did not go all over the nation and speak out for nothing.

And I was not born for nothing.


Please send Asian American Pacific Islander organizations doing the work on the ground some love right now by donating or volunteering time:

NAPAWF: National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum
Asian Americans Advancing Justice
CAAAV Organizing Asian American Tenants
Red Canary Song
SWOP Brooklyn
DRUM NYC
Flushing Workers Center: Twitter @FlushingWorkers
Welcome to Chinatown
Send Chinatown Love
CACF Coalition of Asian Children and Families
18 Million Rising

And PBS’ Asian Americans is a five-part series that is free to stream right now. Learn your Asian American history! (And watch my clip with Helen Zia from the series)

On the Shoulders of Giants.

Free Minds Free People Conference, July 2013.
Photo Credit: Sarah Jane Rhee.

I first met Karen Lewis July 2013 as a new member of the Chicago Teachers Union and excitedly stood for the above photo. I met Corky Lee two summers later at NQAPIA 2015, where I nervously thanked him for taking iconic photos of the Vincent Chin case, which I’ve used to piece together family history.

Both those humans, over the years, have been friends to me, sharing news, positivity, warmth, and wisdoms won. We’ve sat and stood in celebratory moments, in marches, at parties, dances, weddings. We’ve nodded heads in knowing quiet at protests and rallies. And we had our quiet moments where we just talked and talked about everything.

Karen and Corky both knew to listen intently, to be present, and to share. They tried to know everyone they came across, really know them. They were warm, funny, cranky, fierce, opinionated, protective, loving.

They cheered on my fights, whether for more for my students, for my colleagues, for my growth with my family and history, and just for my life.

They wanted more for us. To leave this earth better than it was before them.


When I lived in Chicago, I’d see Karen leading always, with that quiet knowing, wisdom earned from years teaching and living on this earth. She knew what to say and when. She always asked: “Does this unite us? Build our power? Make us stronger?” which became our organizing cries. Those words run through my head always and remind me to do better, be better. Is this for our students, and for the schools they deserve? She reached out when things were rough, asking me how I wanted to fight back, and knowing I’d find my way. I loved her for that, that she took that time.

Karen, as the President Emerita of the Chicago Teachers Union, led this Red for Ed movement, was our icon, our beacon of light, and made our lights shine across the world, so that each and every educator knew they had power and leverage, the courage to fight back for the schools our students deserve. It was not scary to say aloud Black Lives Matter or to tax the rich or demand housing for all, because those statements were just true and real.

I will never forget the tens of thousands of us marching the streets of Chicago, all in red, fighting for justice. The red lives in my blood now, forever reminding us we have the power to fight back.

On the cusp of a 2012 Chicago Teachers Union Strike. Powell Photography.

Karen would have been mayor of Chicago if it weren’t for the brain cancer. I’ve done a lot of canvassing, but none as easy as getting Karen on the ballot for Chicago mayor in 2014. (I once went on a CTA Western Bus and filled up my page with signatures in ten minutes.) It was such a heartbreak when Karen had to drop out: she would have done so much good as Mayor, but continued to fight the brain cancer for years after, succumbing last night to it.


When I moved back to New York in 2016, I immediately kept bumping into Corky Lee in Chinatown, a place he loved so much, and where his funeral procession drove through this Saturday. Corky was everywhere, whether helping Chinese Americans learn their genealogy, their history, exhibiting his photos of Asian American history spanning 50 years, or just chilling at Silk Road Cafe, looking at photo prints or old rolls of film for more of Asian American history to unlock. You never made plans with Corky: he was just always there. He WAS our Asian American Photographer Laureate, documenting our histories and our lives.

I don’t have any photos with Corky because he was always there taking the photo (In fact, after the 2015 NQAPIA dinner, he messaged me, “Spent all too much time photographing that there was little or cold food left on table……”). Corky had so much more he wanted to do. But, he made sure the ABC, American Born Chinese, generations like us knew about important events, knew our history, and put things in context. AND he linked us to each other. He made sure we would be tied to one another long after he was gone.

Corky Lee’s funeral procession, Feb. 6th, 2021.

Corky shouldn’t have died of COVID19. We’re approaching half a million deaths to COVID19 and we’re pretending like everything should go back to normal when it’s not normal and will never be normal again.


We stand on the shoulders of giants, giants who paved the way for us to be where we are today. Who knew what justice meant, who were imperfect human beings who loved and fought fiercely. Who continue to remind us everyday to fight back, hard, for a better world.

May your memory be a blessing, Karen.

Rest in power, Corky.

We love you and will honor your legacies.

3 Days Into NYC School Reopening and It’s Clear: Schools Are Not Safe

NYC schools staff have been back in classrooms this week without students and it’s clear: we’re not ready to reopen NYC schools. I wrote much of this statement on behalf of MORE-UFT: Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, a caucus of my teachers union UFT. The original statement can be found here.

3 Days Into NYC School Reopening and It’s Clear: Schools Are Not Safe

September 10th, 2020

In our first 3 days back in the school buildings, NYC schools staff have witnessed conditions and situations that confirm what we knew all summer: that we must have fully remote learning until NYC schools are safe and fully funded.

Just three days into staff reporting back to work, we were horrified to hear about at least 16 schools where staff tested positive for COVID-19. Teachers at MS88 reported that they were not given this information immediately, contact tracers did not reach out to staff who were in contact and exposed, and staff were asked to report back to work this morning. This is unacceptable for our schools, and could have easily been avoided through allowing staff to report from home or through mandatory testing for all staff. This a preview of what will happen when students report on the 21st, again without any required testing beforehand. It is clear that our city does not have the capacity to sufficiently test all school community members and, instead of seeking to remedy that, they are forcing school staff and students into fatally decrepit school buildings.  Many members have taken “priority” DOE tests at NYC Health + Hospitals and still haven’t received results in a weeks’ time or, worse yet, have been told their tests have been lost. Meanwhile, there are likely many more staff members who have worked in school buildings the past 3 days, who are unknowingly positive for COVID-19 and may be unwittingly spreading the virus among coworkers. These cases occurred in school buildings as staff completed in-person professional development virtually, looking at computer screens, which could be done from any location with an internet connection. 

Staff without medical accommodations for remote work reported into school buildings starting Tuesday, many not seeing the “50-point” checklist agreed upon by the DOE and UFT prior to the return to schools. Schools received building ventilation reports the night before staff were supposed to return, and members are rightfully concerned that these ventilation reports don’t measure air change rates, but only whether supply/exhaust fans, windows, and air conditioners exist or are operational in rooms. According to the NYC DOE’s own inspection reports, over 13,000, or 57% of, school bathrooms are inoperable at this time due to ventilation issues. In the same vein, NYC DOE conducted 1,400 building ventilation checks all within a span of a week, further raising questions about the quality and thoroughness of building inspection reports. As industrial hygienists and lawyers have informed us, we must demand this information especially to stop the spread of an airborne virus during a global pandemic. 

Members also report they’re not getting the agreed-upon PPE, temperature checks, and supplies needed to maintain safe conditions. Depending on schools’ conditions and the goodwill of principals, some schools opted to start virtual professional development outdoors, and others conducted PD completely remotely from the safety of members’ homes. We applaud those choices to protect staff while knowing piecemeal protections at individual schools do not stop the systemic issue of putting bodies into unsafe school buildings. It should not be left up to individual schools to take common-sense measures to limit risk to their staff.  All staff should be able to participate in virtual professional development and meetings from home. 

The return to school buildings laid bare the inequities and funding issues we’ve had in our schools for decades, as we see photos, videos and emails from UFT members about broken bathrooms, broken sinks, broken windows propped up by binders for little ventilation, air vents covered with packing tape, mouse droppings, and dead cockroaches. If our schools can’t fix the sinks and maintain basic sanitation, how are we to trust that rooms will truly be deep cleaned each night and PPE supplies will be consistently provided?

Already with the cases announced yesterday, we’ve witnessed the same lack of transparency from the NYC Department of Education that we saw in the spring and summer regarding supplies, funding, safety, and logistics to make reopening schools in-person safe. We demand rapid transparent communication about cases within school buildings to keep us safe. 

What we have said all summer about school reopening has reared its ugly head, and we’ve only had 3 full days as staff doing virtual professional development in school buildings. We demand that professional development and learning continue fully remotely according to our Health Justice Agenda and that we delay reopening until schools are safe and adequately funded.

We encourage all UFT members to JOIN US for our general meeting, this weekend, and fight back against this unsafe school reopening plan. Choose either time: Saturday 9/12 at 12 pm or Sunday 9/13 at 2 pm.

This Labor Day, Remember What Matters.

I’m disheartened that, with countless dealbreakers and after countless statements by educators, parents, students, principals, CECs, and elected officials, even with an in-person delay of Sept. 21st, that NYC schools in conjunction with my weak teachers union UFT is STILL ramming through an unsafe, unfunded schools reopening plan. We won’t give up the fight, though.

We’ve been rallying and speaking up and marching to stop this unsafe reopening plan which we educators know is a failure. We know that it’s our leaders who need to step up for what matters: our lives. And it’s clear that, without funding, our communities will continue to suffer.

We will not die for this economy. We demand so more from our leadership and for our communities.

Rally Against Unsafe Reopening, 8/20/20. Photo Credit: Josh Pacheco

Below is a speech I gave today at Columbus Park in my hometown Chinatown, a park I played at as a child and continue to gather in as an adult. Much love to you all this Labor Day, and thank you for reading:

Labor Day in Chinatown #AsiansForAbolition, Columbus Park, 3pm

Annie Tan

This Labor Day, I am unmoored. We’re all reeling from the effects of police violence on our communities and the effects of this global pandemic on all our lives.

I am a special education teacher, and I am proud to be born and raised right here in Chinatown. I wanted to give a triumphant speech today. But I had a tough time writing this speech this week because, as a teacher, there is not enough time in the world to grieve and rage at the fact that my boss, the Department of Education, does not care about my life or my students’ lives. At how Mayor de Blasio, just weeks ago, dismissed and walked away from Patrick Mock of 46 Mott, Patrick who gave out hundreds and hundreds of free meals to Chinatown residents over the course of the pandemic.

To our leaders we’re props to reopen the economy. We’re supposed to prize the economy, money and capitalism. To work harder and harder to earn our housing, food, health insurance, education. And if it doesn’t work out for us, we’re supposed to blame those who took It from us, instead of targeting the capitalist system that divides us from one another, that won’t give people what we need.

Is it working out for us? NO. It is this wrong thinking and anti-Asian sentiments that led to the economic collapse of my Chinatown months before this pandemic hit New York City.

And, it is this kind of thinking that led to the murder of my cousin Vincent Chin. Vincent was murdered in 1982 in Detroit, at the height of an autoworker’s crisis there where Japanese auto companies were being blamed for the loss of American jobs. The two white men thought my cousin was Japanese and beat him to death with a baseball bat.

For years after that Vincent’s mother, Lily, my great-auntie, went all over the nation to speak up for justice. Because my great-auntie knew what mattered most: our humanity. Lily didn’t care that US auto companies were cheating the American public and purposely building terrible gas-guzzling cars to sell. No, my great-auntie Lily cared about her son’s life, about Vincent’s laugh, smile, his spirit, that he was going to be married the following week, that he was about to start a new job, and have a beautiful family. And all of my family and the wedding guests went to Vincent’s funeral instead.

We lost the case, because a white judge decided the white men who killed my cousin Vincent Chin weren’t the type of men you send to jail. Because white America had never met Asian Americans like me and didn’t empathize with our lives. We lost the case, and my great-auntie and my family lost faith in the American justice system.

We KNOW this system is broken for BIPOC people and has been for a long time. We KNOW this system does not prize human lives.

Instead of being divided by it, we have to come together. I will never forget the image of Jesse Jackson standing next to my great-auntie Lily Chin and fighting for justice. My great-auntie’s efforts launched protests and an Asian American movement. Asian Americans who look like me today, never forget the struggle it’s taken to have our political identity. Our lives matter, AND we know: all lives don’t matter if Black Lives don’t matter.

We stand here this Labor Day because our fight won weekends, sick days, holidays, living wages, and time for folk to rest. But we need much more during this pandemic and beyond. We need investment in our communities and resistance. Our government won’t invest in us, otherwise we would’ve already defunded the police, not defunded education, and we would have already taxed the rich to fund Chinatown and all New York City communities. Otherwise we wouldn’t be forcing educators and students back into unsafe schools and no funding. We would have gotten justice for my cousin Vincent Chin, and for all the victims of violence and murder.

Thank you to the mutual aid efforts of groups like Welcome to Chinatown who supported restaurants and sent food to our essential workers this spring, Think Chinatown who built barriers and platforms for outdoor dining, and Dumplings Against Hate, providing interest-free loans towards Chinatown businesses. Thank you to everyone who’s donated time and money to truly make Black Lives, and thus all lives, matter. We must fight back in solidarity and know what matters most: our humanity. Thank you.

NYC: We Must Stop an Unsafe School Reopening.

Quite bluntly, if we open NYC schools now with the NYCDOE’s plan, people will die. That simple. The schools plan is a logistical nightmare, our school buildings have crumbling infrastructure, our schools have been defunded for decades, and there’s no money for resources. Educators like me want to be back in-person, but not like this.

We haven’t mourned the dead yet. We haven’t sat down and reckoned with the harm, the violence, the inequity done to our communities.

1 in 2,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. Over 1 in 400 New York City residents died of COVID-19. COVID-19 is impacting Black and Latinx NYC communities hardest.

At least 79 NYC schools-based staff died of COVID-19, and many of those were paraprofessionals who are majority people of color.

In my small classroom of 12 students, 3 paraprofessionals and myself, we had 14 deaths of family members and friends during the pandemic. As of now, and from what I know.

No one needed to die. We could have stopped all this.

And we just keep chugging away, like none of this death and destruction happened, is happening.

DURING A GLOBAL PANDEMIC!

I’m not putting 1.1 million students and their families in more danger, and I’m not putting my colleagues and our communities in danger, especially WHEN WE DON’T HAVE TO. When there are other options! It’s our moral and ethical imperative to keep each other safe right now.

Especially with NYC schools’ haphazard plan with a million logistical, budget, infrastructure, and staffing questions, especially in the midst of a hiring freeze, statewide education cuts due to the pandemic, and decades of defunding schools.

The NYC schools plan is reckless, and there are too many unknowns, like what do we do for students with disabilities? English learners? Even as simple as, what remote platform will students be using since most of a student’s time will still be remote learning from home? (There should be ways to support students of the highest need, but there are ways to do that without bringing all 1.1 million students, schools staff, and their families into school buildings and putting us in danger). Other schools have come up with more comprehensive plans, and specific schools have called to be fully remote only to be rejected by the DOE.

I’m not the only one highly skeptical and distrusting of the NYC Dept. of Ed. “plan.” Yesterday, due to all these questions and safety issues, principals from District 15 wrote a letter calling for the DOE and Mayor to delay school buildings reopening. This afternoon, the principals union came out today with a statement to delay school building openings. Shortly after, my teachers union, the UFT, the largest teachers union in the country, came out with a weak 4-sentence response supporting the principals’ position.

Will this kind of movement be enough to stop an unsafe school reopening plan? I hope so. There is so much at stake if we can’t stop this.

Today, in Sunset Park, where my students and their families live, where my school is, positivity rates for COVID-19 rose to almost 7%. Sunset Park is a neighborhood where the majority of residents are Latinx and Asian and where half of the population in the zip code 11220 make less than $50,000. The mayor says he’s doing a huge contact testing and tracing protocol in the neighborhood, but that’s too little, too late. It’s clear we don’t have the testing and tracing protocols in place to have prevented the spread in my students’ community. I can’t imagine what the spread will do to my school’s community if we were to reopen my school building September 10th.

I’ve spent most of my summer reading news constantly, writing, talking with reporters and community members about the schools reopening plan, and organizing with other teachers to get the resources and funding that our students deserve and to stop schools reopening if unsafe:

“I think every single one of us who’s going to be in the school building is going to be extremely anxious,” said Annie Tan, who teaches 5th grade special education in Sunset Park.

Tan, who declined to say what school she works at, added that multiple students in her class have had family members pass away from COVID-19.

“I’m not letting them go through that again,” Tan said. “It’s not happening.”

“Teachers and Parents March Against NYC’s Plan To Reopen Schools,” by Caroline Lewis, Gothamist, August 4, 2020

How can we trust the Department of Education will have systems in place for all 1,800 schools? When we don’t even have a nurse in every school? Or a counselor, or social worker?

I can’t even begin to tell you the conditions of schools buildings:

“My students’ bathrooms up till the beginning of March had broken sinks had no soap,” said Annie Tan, a special education teacher in Brooklyn. “How can I trust that all these safety protocols will actually be in place when schools reopen?”

“Teachers Push Back Against School Reopening Plans” by Meghan McCarty Carino, NPR’s Marketplace, July 2, 2020

(After writing this blog entry two years ago, a friend mailed me 90 rolls of toilet paper and eight gallons of soap! Hah! Thanks Cynthia!)

How can we trust the Department of Education to provide what schools and students need when we’ve been defunded for decades?

To actually reopen safely this fall, New York schools would need a lot more funding. There is just no plan that is feasible right now given the budget cuts. My school’s whole budget has been slashed. We have no money at all this year for materials. And keep in mind that we already didn’t have enough soap in our school in early March; we had broken sinks in our students’ bathrooms. Last year I had to buy my own air purifier for my windowless classroom. Schools have been defunded for decades, and that’s led to crumbling infrastructure, even cockroaches and rats crawling around some people’s classrooms.

“I’m a Teacher in New York. I’m Doing My Job by Fighting an Unsafe Reopening.” by Annie Tan, as told to J.C. Pan, The New Republic (August 5, 2020)

And how can we trust the DOE when they botched cases in March and refused to close schools?

Simply put, we just don’t trust the NYC Dept. of Ed to protect us. We don’t trust them to do all the safety protocols needed to prevent mass spread of the coronavirus across the city. Fixing all 1,500 school buildings’ ventilation? Windows, for that matter? Having student self-check their temperatures before coming into school buildings?

I went further in my interview with New York Magazine writer Keith Gessen, saying we can’t put the onus on our students, their families, and our staff, of deciding whether or not to come into school, deciding whether we want to take the risk of getting infected and possibly spreading COVID-19 to our families and communities:

Annie Tan, a fifth-grade special-ed teacher in Sunset Park, shares the same fear. “I want to be back in school when it’s safe,” she says. “But I also don’t want kids to feel in a year’s time that their presence killed someone. I honestly think that’s going to happen.”

“What Will The First Day Of School Look Like?” by Keith Gessen, New York Magazine, August 3, 2020

People keep talking about the socioemotional health and wellbeing of students. I want students to see others in person and know full well students need to socialize in order to learn. But what kind of socialization will kids have, sitting 6-feet apart from one another, desks all faced forward, not being able to leave the classroom for 5+ hours, eating lunch at their desks DURING instruction, with no recess? Wearing masks all day? Will students be able to hear me, hear others, with their masks on? And yes, all this is part of the “plan” right now.

Can we protect student mental health when there will inevitably be COVID-19 spread? From inevitable deaths due to that spread?

AND, when there are COVID-19 cases, and WHEN there is community spread, some student or some staff member will inevitably feel it’s their fault for bringing the coronavirus to their communities. And WHEN there is death in NYC, we won’t have time to mourn, just as we haven’t mourned the too-many NYC Dept. of Education employees who passed of COVID19.

A prerequisite of student learning, of educators being able to teach, is to feel safe and to BE ALIVE.

And teachers have been gaslit and made to feel crazy about bringing up all the concerns I’ve been talking about for the past two months.

All of this falls on our “leadership”: our mayor, our governor, our schools district, our union leaders. No one is leading. No one has plans that are workable. All of that’s been laid bare now, and we’re all dealing with that impact:

It’s been quite an emotional ride this summer. A lot of educators are going to be resigning, retiring, or taking unpaid leaves this year if we go back in-person to school buildings without the proper safety measures. I know a few already who have.

And, I’m going to say it: like many teachers, I’ve had to weigh seriously for the first time whether to leave this profession that has shown so clearly during this pandemic doesn’t love me back.

I am still hopeful that we won’t be reopening in-person this fall, and that we’ll have time to plan for student learning. Remote learning was terrible because we didn’t have planning time, but I’m hopeful we can stop an unsafe reopening in time for some professional development and time to collaborate on robust, good remote learning. And provide the Internet, tech, and other needs our students and their families need. (While, you know, also providing healthcare and cancelling rent and paying people to stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19 and other sensible things that would kill less people)

And, I’ll be fighting like hell for the next month to stop this unsafe schools plan. Last Monday, August 3rd, the National Day of Resistance Against Unsafe School Reopening, I marched with other educators, students, families, and organizations who are feeling the exact things I’m feeling right now. I’m still talking with reporters and even going on radio shows with other educators to stop reopening. We will continue marching and rallying and acting because we have to, until an unsafe school reopening is successfully stopped.

New Jersey schools got the option today to go full-remote after teachers refused to go in, citing health conditions. Last week, after a 500-car caravan and threatening a strike vote, Chicago teachers won and will be starting their school year full-remote.

We teachers on the ground have been leaders in a vacuum of leadership. And I have faith that we will win and stop an unsafe school reopening.

It’s time to fight back and organize.

March for the Dead, Fight For The Living.

Practicing Black Lives Matter & the Intergenerational Work.

On Friday 7/3/20 I participated in my first protest since George Floyd, a counter-protest: we Asians For Black Lives responded to an All Lives/Police Lives Matter Flushing rally. As we work on what BLM and abolition work means, I’ve read/reread a piece I wrote 2 years ago for BLM At Schools NYC as an affirmation.

Annie Tan - Chinatown 2017
At a rally against the Omer Fast/James Cohan art exhibit, Fall 2017.

Practicing the Intergenerational Work, by Annie Tan, Jan. 23rd, 2018

In Manhattan’s Chinatown, I grew up around anti-Blackness. I heard comments in Cantonese like, “Don’t hang out with that black kid,” “That Spanish kid is a bad influence,” and “Don’t bring your black friend home.” It was a given for me that first-generation immigrants and their American-born kids had different views on Black people in America.

My friends and I thought it pointless or didn’t have the courage to confront anti-Black racism in our families. “They’re set in their ways,” my friends said. On top of this, many in my Asian American community, even if they didn’t explicitly exhibit anti-Black racism, were silent on Black Lives Matter. With my experiences growing up and as a Chinese and Asian American educator with Chinese, Latinx, and Arabic students, I am constantly grappling with how to address and counter anti-black racism.

intergenerational

The Movement for Black Lives believes that all people can contribute regardless of age. The BLM intergenerational principle states, “We cultivate an intergenerational and communal network free from ageism. We believe that all people, regardless of age, show up with the capacity to lead and learn.”

If all people are capable of leading and learning, could my parents, my grandparents, my uncles and aunties and cousins, learn, too? Could they, too, confront and unlearn anti-Blackness?

———-

Recently, the Asian American community was forced to confront anti-Blackness and its relationship to American society when Akai Gurley, a Black man, was shot and killed by Chinese American NYPD officer Peter Liang in November 2014. A little over a year later, in February 2016, Liang was found guilty of second-degree manslaughter. Liang became the first NYPD police officer to be convicted for a line-of-duty shooting in over a decade.

The Akai Gurley and Peter Liang case divided the Chinese community. Many believed Liang received unjust treatment as a Chinese American officer; had Liang been white, many thought, Liang would likely not have been convicted. Others thought that other police officers, such as Daniel Pantaleo in the Eric Garner case, should be prosecuted just as Peter Liang had.

A few days after the guilty verdict was rendered, 10,000 Asian Americans, predominantly Chinese Americans, rallied in Brooklyn in support of Officer Liang. Protestors came for different reasons; some called for accountability of all police officers involved in fatal shootings, and others wanted a lenient sentence for Liang.  Some protesters brought signs reading, “One Tragedy, Two Victims,” asserting that both Liang and Gurley were failed by the justice system.

As with the Liang verdict, many found the Brooklyn rally divisive. The rallies in support of Peter Liang were organized and attended by many Chinese immigrants whose first language is Chinese. Some of my cousins had gone. Many, including myself, saw the divide in opinions as falling on generational lines, with older people supporting Liang and the younger generation tending to see the need for justice for Gurley.  Many in the Chinese community felt this rally was empowering, and others saw it as dividing ourselves from other communities.

I thought, How could 10,000 mostly Chinese people be rallying for an officer who killed a man? How would this rally look to the black community, to Akai Gurley’s family? I was dumbfounded.

Some in my community had compared Peter Liang to an important icon in Chinese and Asian American history. That “someone” happens to be my second cousin: Vincent Chin. Vincent Chin, mistaken as Japanese during a height of anti-Japanese sentiment, was murdered in 1982, and his killers, two white men, never served jail time. Chin’s murder led to a pan-Asian civil rights movement in the 1980s, a movement unparalleled since. Some who rallied for Peter Liang saw Liang’s guilty verdict, like Chin’s murder, as yet another case of an Asian American being robbed of justice. I did not see Liang’s guilty verdict this way and was furious at the comparison.

Two days after the Brooklyn rally, I wrote and published a piece on Medium asking my community to consider what it meant to support Officer Liang. I wrote partly out of empathy for Gurley’s family and for my Chinese community, but mostly I wrote out of anger. I refuted this comparison, stating,

“Vincent Chin has far more in common with Akai Gurley than with Peter Liang.”

I then called for justice for Akai Gurley and his family.

When I wrote the article, I didn’t think anyone in my family would read it, as it was in English and most of the elders in my family only speak Chinese. Within three days, tens of thousands of people had read and circulated my article, now on Huffington Post, and commented by the hundreds. My family inevitably heard about my article and read my words, as snippets were translated in Chinese newspapers like World Journal.

My family was furious at me for a number of reasons, the largest reason being that I had brought our family into a heated political conversation around police accountability and anti-Black racism by invoking our relative Vincent Chin’s name. Vincent’s mother, Lily Chin, spent years fighting and never got justice for her son’s murder- why should we fight then, or be political?

My family asked me to take down the article, which I didn’t want to do, and couldn’t do even if I wanted to. After a week or so, the controversy died down, but the rift within my family was clear and present.

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In retrospect, how could we as Asian Americans tackle conversations about race as important as Black Lives Matter when Asian Americans often feel invisible? Asian Americans make up 18 million people and are the fastest-growing demographic in the nation, yet issues such as povertyimmigrationlanguage accesshealthcaremental health, and anti-Asian racism get very little airtime and representation in the media. With this context, why would elders talk about Black Lives Matter when we as a community have so many other struggles to fight against?

That is why I think so many people rallied for Peter Liang that day. Liang, to those rallying for him, represented the invisibility and struggles that Asian Americans identified with. Peter Liang was supposed to be an example of the American Dream, yet, in my opinion, was scapegoated and left behind by the New York Police Department. To be clear, these issues do not excuse Liang for his role in Akai Gurley’s death. As I wrote in my article, “[Liang] may have been unaware he was complicit in a system of injustice that preys on Black lives, yet he voluntarily operated in that system.” To many, the Peter Liang case represents both the brutality of Asian American invisibility and the systemic injustice toward the Black community. But, while Peter Liang was not a victim, many in the Asian American community saw him as such- and why wouldn’t they?

What seemed missing for everyone was a shared understanding of systemic racism. If we all understood the history and complexities of racism in this country, we might have understood Peter Liang’s role within the police institution more clearly. We might have better expressed condolences and supported Akai Gurley’s family. And we as an Asian American community would have to face our own complicity in our anti-Blackness, struggles against the model minority myth, and how we might benefit from anti-Black racism.

If we don’t have these conversations, minds and hearts can’t be changed. We need to be willing to talk about these issues with those closest to us.

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As more people were killed in 2016 police shootings, notably Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, hundreds of Asian Americans came together to create intergenerational resource for our community. Rumors swirled that the killer of Philando Castile was an Asian American police officer, and many worried the divisions of the Peter Liang trial would play out once again. Christina Xu, an ethnographer in Brooklyn, tweeted and asked Asian Americans to start drafting letters to our parents around Black Lives Matter. Xu opened a Google drive document, which hundreds of people contributed to, and Letters For Black Lives was formed. The letters were translated in over 30 languages and customized for different groups of people.

The goal in 2016 for these Letters for Black Lives remains today, according to this blog post on their website:

“[to speak] empathetically, kindly, and earnestly to our elders about why Black lives matter to us. As many of us are first- and second-generation immigrants ourselves, we know first-hand that it can be difficult to find the words to talk about this complex issue, especially in the languages that resonate most with our elders. Our hope with this letter and its translations is to make it easier for people to craft their own starting points, and serve as a first step towards more difficult intergenerational conversations about race and police violence.”

One quote from the letter particularly strikes me in the way it ties Asian American first-generation immigrant struggles and the struggles Black people face in our society today:

“you’ve suffered through a prejudiced America, to bring me closer to the American Dream. But I hope you can consider this: the American Dream cannot exist for only your children. We are all in this together, and we cannot feel safe until ALL our friends, loved ones, and neighbors are safe. “

The Letters For Black Lives campaign was inspiring and gave hope that the Asian American community could and would hold in solidarity with Black Lives. You can read the full letter in English, access audio recordings in different languages, find translations and more at the Letters For Black Lives website.

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The Black Lives Matter movement has forced many non-Black people of color, like myself, and our communities to consider our relationships to anti-Black racism. What is our relationship to the Black Lives Matter movement? Do we accept anti-Black racism as something to fight, and do we accept the Black Lives Matter movement as valid? And, if we accept those two things as valid, how do we confront anti-Black racism in our own communities?

The Letters For Black Lives campaign bridged generational, cultural, and language barriers while speaking to communities with love and acceptance. This philosophy was in stark contrast with the anger I used while writing my own piece. In order to build our own communities, we cannot come into the work just with anger, but come with the hope and understanding that everyone is capable of learning and leading.

This means we have to learn and lead as well. As teachers, we do the work with our students, but I know now I have a lot of work to do in my own community.

As a teacher, I trust in my ten-year-old students, so shouldn’t I trust in my community? It was too painful to realize I was fighting racism and other systemic injustices in my classroom but that I didn’t have the courage to face the same issues within my own family and community.

I knew what I had to do. As a direct result of this work, two summers ago I moved from Chicago back home to my hometown, Manhattan’s Chinatown.

I am working now to build within my own community. I am trying hard to build with my parents and family, which is incredibly difficult with our cultural and language differences. But, as the Black Lives Matter principle espouses, everyone has the capacity to lead and learn. I take Cantonese classes and speak with Chinatown tenants who face eviction and harassment.

I have a lot to learn from my elders, and my elders, hopefully, will learn from me, too. And, in time, hopefully we will lead together for a more just world for everyone. Justice, after all, is not “just us.” I’m so excited for the world we kids and elders organize and build, together.