My PBS Debut! On “Asian Americans,” Speaking Up and Our Legacies

I’m always haunted by the murder of my cousin Vincent Chin and his impact on the Asian American movement. I shared his legacy and that of his mother, my great-aunt Lily Chin, in my PBS debut (!!!), a digital feature for “Asian Americans”, a 5-hour documentary series (YouTube/Facebook/Instagram). More on teaching and “Asian Americans” below!

I can’t believe I am still “creating” and pushing out new work during this #COVID19 pandemic. Another thing I’m immensely proud of my latest interview in The New Republic about remote learning, speaking up as a teacher about how it has been extremely difficult trying to work around the inequities of public schooling before and during this pandemic. It has been shared all around by teaching communities online, and I hope has complicated the narrative around what remote learning and schooling looks like right now.

I have 12 students, and I have three paraprofessionals in my classroom. And in our class alone, we’ve had something like 13 deaths, among our students’ and staff members’ families. So it’s been a challenge trying to roll out assignments while also supporting the mental health needs of my students, their families, and staff: Is this assignment I’m pushing right now really important when my students’ relatives are dying or sick?

-Annie Tan, “I’m Teaching From Home and Don’t Know How Long We Can Keep This Up” in The New Republic, May 5th, 2020

I was asked this weekend, “How are you getting through this coronavirus pandemic?” My answer, among many others, is on a list (published yesterday) from HuffPost Asian Voices of 21 Asian American-produced media recommended by Asian American creators like me (!) for you to consume at home! I have read, heard, and seen a number of these recommendations, but I am particularly excited about Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings, which I just bought and can’t wait to dig into! Below is my recommendation for how I’m getting through this coronavirus:

“The Yan Can Cook Book” by Martin Yan and “Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen” by Grace Young

“My mom has always expressed her love, not through words lost in translation, but through food, whether through her Cantonese steamed fish with ginger and scallions, pork spare ribs with black bean sauce or soy sauce chicken. So, while distancing from Mom, when not getting takeout to support Chinatown restaurants, I’m learning my mom’s dishes. I remembered watching Martin Yan as a kid on PBS and whipped out his old-school ‘The Yan Can Cook Book’ to make those spare ribs. And I picked up ‘Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen’ by Grace Young, a chef who’s been chronicling Chinatown coronavirus stories, then picked up a whole fish from a still-open Chinatown seafood market and figured out, with Grace’s help, how my mom would make that fish. Last week, Mom came to Chinatown for her monthly trip to the Chinese pharmacy, bringing compliments on my WeChat fish photo and multiple containers of her soy sauce chicken. And I knew she’d always be with me.”

And now for the meat of this post…

On PBS’ “Asian Americans”

I finished watching the 5-hour “Asian Americans” PBS documentary series last night (which premiered this Monday and Tuesday on PBS and which you can stream free all #APAHM /watch on Amazon Prime), and just WOW. I knew a good number of larger themes in Asian American history, like exclusion and anti-Asian immigration laws, but the documentary series, particularly the 3rd episode “Good Americans” walked through the “model minority myth,” its use to attack non-“model” Black and Brown groups, and the subtle ways it was (and has) been used to subvert white supremacy, which is so nuanced, especially today. I watched an interview with Geeta Gandbhir, the director of the 5th episode “Breaking Through” that the theme of the last episode was supposed to be “Justice or Just Us?” That is a larger question, especially with the coverage of the Rodney King Riots and Latasha Harlin’s murder, that we have to grapple with as an Asian American community.

There was so much packed into the documentary (I also ended up live-tweeting the whole 5-hour PBS “Asian Americans” documentary series in a thread if you want to read it all!). The first two hours were more than many of us had learned in our K-12 education! Yet there are SO many stories that still need to be told. And we, Asian Americans, have to be the ones to tell them.

Stream “Asian Americans,” free all this May #AsianPacificAmericanHeritageMonth, and watch on Amazon Prime! After that, watch my PBS digital extra feature on the legacy of my cousin Vincent Chin and great aunt Lily Chin (also on YouTube/Facebook/Instagram).

Filming PBS’ “Asian Americans!

I was really fortunate to be able to film with Geeta Gandbhir, the director of the 5th episode “Breaking Through,” ever wise in questioning and thoughtfulness, over two days, one day interviewing in late June 2019 in a Brooklyn studio, and then a 2nd day in multiple locations throughout the Detroit area. From my knowledge, I was supposed to represent one of a younger generation of activist in PBS’ “Asian Americans,” but again you can’t fit all of Asian American history into 5 hours!

I still can’t believe I was filmed for a PBS documentary (especially since I first learned about Vincent Chin through ANOTHER PBS documentary) even if my interview wasn’t included in the final cut of the documentary. I am constantly thinking about the legacy I want to leave for my students and, hopefully, my children one day, and hope this feature helps others also consider their legacy.

On the first day of filming in late June 2019, I shared my experiences growing up in Chinatown, how that led to me becoming a teacher, and how it’s important for my students and students of color to see themselves represented in their school buildings. I spoke on my work with CAAAV, which has been leading anti-racist housing and language justice-oriented tenant work for my Chinatown and for communities around New York City, and which was founded after the Vincent Chin case. I also spoke about CAAAV’s courage on and my advocacy during the Akai Gurley and Peter Liang case (which is how Renee Tajima-Peña, series producer on “Asian Americans,” knew my work in the first place), and how that writing led me to move back to New York City. While all of that didn’t end up making the digital feature or the documentary, I’ll continue amplifying those stories where I can (and actually doing some work around their karaoke fundraiser the rest of this week!) What DID end up in there was my story that I first shared at a Moth SLAM and then the Moth Radio Hour: I’m glad that story will continue to be amplified and that people will be inspired to fight on.

On the 2nd day of filming in July 2019, I was toured around by Helen Zia (!!!) for a whole day. Helen Zia was one of the lead activists on the Vincent Chin case and has since served as one of my idols and mentors through my life. We first visited Vincent and Lily Chin’s house, where my great aunt would make food for all the organizers- Lily had worked in the back of a restaurant and knew just how dirty the food could be back there, so she didn’t want the organizers fighting for her son to be fed that food. We walked over to the office where Vincent was supposed to start as a draftsmen, which was just blocks away, so he could be a good son to his mother Lily. We actually went into the Ferndale Public Library to use the bathroom and, on a whim, to see if any of Helen Zia’s books were in that branch- to no avail.

Helen and I filmed in front of the Ferndale plaque commemorating Vincent Chin’s death and legacy, then had lunch in the location formerly known as Golden Star Chinese Restaurant where Vincent Chin used to pick up shifts and where Asian American organizers, such as Ronald Hwang and Jim Shimoura, Asian American lawyers in Michigan back in the 1980s, organized to fight for justice. (I wish the digital feature had shown some of Helen’s, Jim’s, and Roland’s stories together, but, again, “Asian Americans” only had five hours!)

We went to the former McDonald’s site where Vincent Chin tried to run away from Eben and Nitz, where Vincent’s skull was bashed into the pavement with a baseball bat, and for which Ebens and Nitz never served a day in jail. And we bought flowers and brought them to Vincent Chin, Lily Chin, and David Bing Hing Chin’s graves at Forest Lawn Cemetery.

Of course, right at the end of the day at the cemetery, it began raining, and it felt right, like something new was coming. It was a long day, 9am-6pm, and full of emotion and rawness. I will never forget that day, knowing just how much work it took to build an Asian American movement, and how much more we have to build.

Watching the documentary now, I KNOW there are SO many stories that were missing- you can’t fit all of Asian American history into 5 hours. And so, we have to tell them. NO one will tell our stories for us. Without Lily Chin’s organizing and activism, no one would know Vincent Chin’s name today, and I take that with me every day. That’s why I’m dedicated to writing a book about my family moving forward, because no one else will. And that’s why I continue writing, and storytelling, and doing all the activism and organizing in the forefront and behind the scenes to make our society better.

For the last time, stream “Asian Americans,” free all this May #AsianPacificAmericanHeritageMonth, and watch on Amazon Prime! And, after that, watch my PBS digital extra feature on the legacy of my cousin Vincent Chin and great aunt Lily Chin (also on YouTube/Facebook/Instagram).

Rest in power, Vincent and Lily. Thank you for fighting for all of us to be able to tell our stories.

Thanks for reading,

Annie

On Teaching Now: New Podcast and A Call for More Teacher Voices

Wow, we teachers are on week 7 of COVID19-induced #remotelearning. It’s been hard, to say the least. I talked about it on the Warriors of Education Podcast with fellow NYC teacher Karen Sarah Watson about how pandemic disaster crisis-induced distance “teaching” is going. See more, my thoughts on Teacher “Appreciation” Week, and reflections, below:

I took a mental health day today from work, the first break since school buildings closed March 16th- we NYC teachers have been going nonstop with remote learning since school buildings closed March 16th.

In essence, my bandwidth is shrinking, it’s been really hard to focus on anything for more than a few minutes, and I’ve been definitely demoralized and unmotivated, to the point where friends are worried about me constantly venting about how HARD teaching is right now. While I’ve been able to do my work remote learning, I’ve had a low-grade numbness on the top of my head for weeks, and was struggling with insomnia, both due to anxiety related to all this.

It’s easy to feel isolated about being a teacher right now, especially when all around us there’s disaster striking us during this pandemic. One issue has been that there have been SO FEW VOICES public about how hard teaching has been! A lot of teacher friends and reporters (yeah, I’m talking to them thanks to my teacher tweets) have noticed the lack of teachers speaking up right now. I think it’s because we’re all so busy and tired and demoralized to even be able to put words to the page. We literally changed the face of teaching here in NYC in under a week, with no plans or constantly shifting plans from our Department of Education or Chancellor to guide us. My friend attempted a metaphor: “How can I fish without the hook?” It gets closer to the idea that teaching doesn’t work remotely in so many ways: it’s done in-person, and to try to recreate what we teacher professionals have in our brains and hearts onto an online platform is too much.

I’ll try to sum up my remote learning days in one sentence: I basically put up assignments, supports for those assignments through videos and other visuals, online, for kids to watch and then complete tasks, via quizzes or responses, look through and plan lessons from curriculum that’s from the last-minute test prep books we received and the online curriculum we have left, check in that students are logged in, while also dealing with student tech/literacy/language/device/financial/unemployment/mental health/family issues, being tech support for students/families/colleagues while also being tech support for myself, attending staff meetings, having Gov. Cuomo or the Mayor or Chancellor or the Department of Education change things on us with short notice (Zoom?), cancel our Spring Break with less than a weeks’ notice, with no certainty that we’ll be forced to work through summer and be forced to go into school buildings when schools reopen before things are safe, ON TOP of working gently with families dealing with pandemic issues where students and their families have dealt with COVID19 deaths, AND, the highlights of my days, having twice-weekly Google Meets chats with my students where we just catch up and build a community together.

Remote learning is completely different from teaching. Remote learning is NOT teaching.

As you might imagine, it usually takes 45 minutes or so to explain remote learning in depth to the friends and people who will listen.

And remote learning? It really sucks.

I haven’t had any time really to think about how to make this funner and more engaging for my students- there’s just no time to plan. And it’s so hard to stay motivated. And so, mental health day to just write and rest and reflect.

So on top of how hard it’s been to try to teach, us teachers are breaking. We’re being gaslighted in believing we don’t deserve raises or to be paid well when we have a pandemic (right now we’re only being compensated for 4 of the 7 cancelled Spring Break days we worked), and we’re giving ourselves because we want the best for our students. Here’s how I was feeling last week:

It is really hard to stay motivated around remote learning when we shifted our whole entire industry in a matter of days, with no rest, with little to no guidance from the city on how to do this, working nonstop to make sure Google Classrooms, a platform neither I nor the students have ever used before, is running, and when we’ve gotten no rest time from this. On top of all the financial losses and death tolls our community is suffering right now, WHY are we focused so much on productivity?

AND, schools are about to be decimated, on top of all this: NYC’s Mayor, despite the HUGE digital divide and inequity that’s been exacerbated by remote learning and COVID19, proposed $827 million in education cuts! That will devastate schools moving forward, with little chance of us getting that money back into classrooms for many years. And it is very scary. Asking us to do the impossible: doing much, much more with much, much less.

ON TOP of all this, people are talking about opening up NYC schools in September, but frankly I don’t see it happening. We have overcrowded classrooms and small school facilities as is, where multiple schools are sharing the same cafeteria, auditorium, and gym, and where classrooms, like MINE, don’t have windows! Here’s another tweet on my feelings on said topic:

What a Teacher Appreciation Week, right teachers?

ALL of my students miss school and want to be back, and admitted they never thought they would utter those words aloud. But they shouldn’t come back to school like this. I don’t know the solutions, but I do know it’s important to actually listen to the teachers on the ground right now and make them stakeholders for decision making. (Yes, the linked article is written by a non-educator, but still very much rings true)

——–

That’s why it was so refreshing to talk to a fellow NYC teacher a few weeks ago about this pandemic disaster crisis induced distance remote learning mess that we’re in right now. Karen Sarah Watson is the creator of the documentary Warriors of Education and just formed a new podcast of the same name. I spoke about also trying to grieve for Chinatown and the anti-Asian racism happening now, and admitted something about my current class of students that no teacher should ever admit freely, haha.

Warriors of Education Podcast, Annie Tan

“Today I talk to Annie Tan about her work and how she’s adjusting to remote teaching. Annie is an elementary special education teacher in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where she teaches primarily Chinese and Latino youth. She is a storyteller and activist featured in The New York Times and The Moth. Find her on @annietangent and http://www.annietan.com” Listen here or wherever you get your podcasts!

Thank you for reading, and for hearing a teacher’s voice. Please speak up if you’re a teacher right now. We need your voices.

Annie

Two New Podcasts & NYCAASC Keynote feat. Annie!

This week, I was honored to speak with friends and college students. I recorded 2 podcasts: with Plum Radio and Class Time with Kenzo Shibata, and also did a virtual keynote speech for NYCAASC, the NYC Asian American Students Conference (what an honor!), all of which you can access RIGHT NOW! More, including links, below:

Despite the stuff I’m doing above, I am not pushing productivity (I’ve had to unlearn ableism as a special education teacher, now in my 8th year teaching, wowza), especially as so many people, including my students, are going through losses and trauma right now during this coronavirus pandemic. I’ve also been trying to do at least the minimum to get through the drudgery of #remotelearning, exercising for the 1st time in weeks, making masks out of old tees and new recipes, working with teachers to #FundNYSchools, and trying to keep my spirits up during this time. Speaking to friends on their podcasts and to NYC Asian American students this week were helpful in that.

I, like most of my friends and students right now, have been at much less than capacity lately, but it’s my community of people and supports who have gotten me through. I am grateful to be employed right now and to be able to give to different causes and mutual aid. If y’all need help, reach out. Think through who your pod is right now and do some mapping- your people need you and you need them. And, it’s more important than ever to speak up for community and against the injustices happening now. I hope you all are finding ways to preserve your mental health and make your change right now.

 

 

Thanks Dolly and Joey of Plum Radio for making this beautiful cover art for the episode!

 

 

The title “Same Blood, Different Skin” comes originally from a quote from my great-auntie Lily Chin, mother of Vincent Chin, who originally said, “The skin is different, but the heart is the same.”

 

 

Shaoxing Cooking Wine rig + stack of board games we set up together + recording podcast audio with my Zoom H5 to make Instagram Live happen!

Plum Radio Podcast: First up, I had SUCH a great time talking Sunday 4/19 with Dolly Li, fellow Brooklyn Technite and host of Plum Radio, talking about Chinatown, teaching, and how the case of Vincent Chin, my cousin, and the current coronavirus outbreak are just two waves of anti-Asian sentiment throughout American history. (Dolly helped me figure out how to use a Shaoxing cooking wine bottle + a stack of board games to make a video rig for the Instagram Live last Sunday while I recorded audio with my Zoom H5 recorder for the podcast!) You can listen to the Plum Radio Ep. 3 “Same Blood, Different Skin” now wherever you get your podcasts!

Class Time with Kenzo Shibata: Tuesday 4/21 was THE hopeful conversation I needed and I think we all needed! I spoke with my friend and fellow Asian American teacher organizer, Kenzo Shibata, alongside Jaya Sundaresh and Samuel Kao about THAT racist Joe Biden ad and the current state of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) politics today. We dive into losing Bernie Sanders as a candidate, the terrible hellscape this coronavirus pandemic has created, and how we’re going to help each other get out of it with mutual aid, organizing, being with each other. You can find the Class Time with Kenzo Shibata episode “That Goddamn Racist Biden Ad with Annie Tan, Jaya Sundaresh, and Samuel Kao” wherever you get your podcasts!

annie-tan-nycaasc-keynote-2

NYCAASC (NYC Asian American Students Conference) Keynote! Saturday 4/25 I was so fortunate to join Asian American students as one of NYCAASC’s Keynote Speakers and be able to share my Crushing the Myth story of seeking out my family history on my own terms and, in the process, finding my Asian American groove, then getting to answer questions! It was such an honor, as I was, back in the day, once a college student attending NYCAASC! So proud to be in such good company as a keynote speaker for NYCAASC with Angel Pai, host/model/business owner and Calvin Sun, ER doc/world traveller, and to be speaking amongst the likes of Angel Yau, fellow storyteller, Jerry Won, podcast host of Dear Asian Americans, my district assemblyperson Yuh-Line Niou, who’s a badass, to name just a few! Thank you, NYCAASC, for having me!!! You can watch my NYCAASC keynote on Crushing the Myth’s Facebook Page, where it streamed live starting at around 15 minutes in (some of the workshops were running a bit late, so I’m basically ad-hoc hosting before everyone joins in, hah!).

Some of the comments on my NYCAASC Keynote & Q&A on the Zoom chat, which I’ll treasure, and as a reminder that I don’t have to suffer from my imposter syndrome:

  • 🙌🙌🙌 Preach on the feeling of isolation but realizing we have each other and our world is so much bigger.
  • Yay, Annie!!! Woo hoo!!
  • wicked!!
  • W A O
  • very powerful!
  • It was very inspiring and motivating
  • felt that abt how learning about histories gave us hope
  • That was incredible!! Thank you for sharing your story with us!
  • thank you for sharing this! sobering reminder that our families may never tell stories because they are too painful to relive
  • Something that so many Asians deal with is vulnerability and affection, and it is due to being overworked and worrying about the future under fear and panic, patriarchy, silence of womxn and not being able to be themselves since there is so much oppression and tradition, so essentially breaking free from trauma, facing fears and healing is what will bring light to the community

I am so proud that I’m still standing, and we’re still standing, and we’re creating art and virtual gatherings and finding ways to be in community with one another through all this. The students and kids are all right, that we have to open ourselves up right now as the world is closing in and closing down. The kids are who are getting me and teachers through remote learning right now. We gotta do right by them, and continue speaking out for em. I hope you all have a wonderful week, and continue learning, being in community, and speaking out.

Annie

Listen and Watch Annie This Week!

In times of #COVID-19, I’m doing two virtual shows this coming week! THIS Sunday 4/19 at 4pm watch Annie be interviewed on Dolly Li’s Instagram Live Page for the Plum Radio Podcast! Then Saturday 4/25 at 4:45pm watch Annie as one of the (virtual) keynote speakers for the New York City Asian American Student Conference! (NYCAASC)! Anyone is welcome to watch over Zoom!

More below:

This Sunday on Plum Radio@bydollyli talks to Annie Tan, an NYC public school teacher, Chinatown native, and activist who’s been inspired by the legacy of her cousin, Vincent Chin. Vincent was a young Chinese-American man who was murdered in 1982 in a hate crime fueled by anti-Japanese sentiment and high unemployment across America. What can we learn from the death of Vincent Chin, and what does history tell us of what comes next with rising Anti-Asian xenophobia? Tune in at 4pm ET on @bydollyli’s IG account.

Crushing The Myth is excited to present a FREE line-up of amazing Asian American speakers to be the keynote program at NYCAASC‘s annual conference AMPLIFY, Saturday April 25th via Zoom link from 4:45pm-5:45pm.

Speaker #1 – Annie Tan, “How I Got My Asian American Groove Back”
Speaker #2 – (To be announced)
Speaker #3 – Calvin D. Sun, “Following Your Dreams Is Too Long Term For Me”

NYCAASC (pronounced NIGH-sack) is an organization dedicated to bringing students from all throughout New York City together to educate and encourage them to think critically about Asian/Pacific Islander American issues such as gentrification, diversity in media, and more. We hope to empower APIA students to enact change within their respective communities in lasting and meaningful ways.”

About Annie

My name is Annie Tan, and I am a special education teacher, storyteller, writer, and activist based in Chinatown, New York. The first thing people notice about me is my warmth and enthusiasm: I have a lot to say, hence my nickname “Annie Tangent.” I focus on issues around growing up Asian American and as a kid of immigrants, teaching, teachers unions and public education, and organizing for a better world. My work has been featured in The New York TimesHuffington PostEdutopia, and the Moth Radio Hour. I am currently working on an epic book about my family and Asian American history.

I am available for speaking engagements and storytelling events. I keynoted the Museum of the City of New York’s “Teaching Social Activism” Conference in May 2019, have performed as a storyteller and speaker with the Moth Mainstage and other shows, and I have also hosted shows and fundraisers. As a full-time special education teacher, I speak outside regular school hours.

You can find me on Twitter and Instagram at @annietangent. To contact me, email at annietangent@gmail.com or fill out my contact form!