Are you looking for a way to acknowledge Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month in your classroom? This post provides tips for celebrating inclusion in your classroom through short stories written by Asian/Pacific American authors this month and beyond.
While May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, it isn’t– nor should it be– the only month we can bring AAIP voices into your classroom. So, whether you’re here planning for May or are simply looking for more diverse authors to share with your students, I applaud you for your commitment to inclusivity and culturally responsive teaching.
The bottom line is that representation matters as the modern classroom becomes increasingly diverse. However, whether that stands true for you or not, we cannot deny the diverse world existing beyond the walls of our classrooms. Our students are the future of that world. Therefore, it falls on us, as teachers and role models, to expose students to the many voices of the American experience.
The Importance of Teaching Asian Pacific American Authors
Asian and Pacific Americans have faced a long history of hate and prejudice. Whether they are being viewed as the “other” or backed into a corner by stereotypes, their representation in media and literature is both limited and stale. As educators, we have an opportunity to change the conversation and showcase Asian Pacific American voices in a new way: through literature.
While I encourage you to include Asian Pacific American voices in your classroom throughout the school year, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is a great opportunity to take the conversations a little deeper– or, in some cases, start the conversation altogether.
Teaching During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
One of my favorite aspects of teaching works by Asian Pacific American authors is watching students’ understanding expand. While students are quick to think of Chinese, Japanese, or Korean perspectives, they quickly remember just how expansive the Asian continent is. Asian American voices also have roots in countries including India, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Vietnam, and many others. And, contrary to misconception, there is more to these cultures than their stereotypes.
As you accept the challenge of teaching diversity and tolerance, consider using the following short stories that shine a light on Asian Pacific American Authors.
The Best Short Stories to Teach During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month– and Beyond
1. “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu
I had to start with my favorite. Originally published in 2011, Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie” remains a popular read in the secondary classroom. The story is told from the perspective of 10-year-old Jack as he struggles to understand his biracial heritage while living in Connecticut during the 1980s. Liu creatively uses origami to explore the boy’s Chinese American identity. It’s a fantastic read that explores the themes of family and identity while taking the reader on a magical (realism) ride that is both heartbreaking and beautiful. By the end of the story, both you and your students will be in agreement that Lui has a great talent for expressing human emotion in so few words.
(If your students are begging you for more, consider Liu’s other stories in his collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories.)
2. “Crying in H Mart” by Michelle Zauner
What was originally published as a short story in the New Yorker has since been turned into a full-length novel. However, don’t let word count fool you. The original short story packs a big punch all the same. The true story follows the journey of grief the Korean American protagonist (Zauner herself) goes through in the wake of her mother’s death. Zauner skillfully explores her struggle to hang on to her Korean heritage as she walks the aisles of the ethnic supermarket, H Mart. The story is just as much about Zauner exploring her Korean heritage as it is about unifying human emotions of love, loss, and finding oneself somewhere in between.
3. Any story from Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart
Okay, so this one sort of feels like I’m cheating– but it’s worth it. The stories of Zhang’s Sour Heart offer a fresh perspective on the Chinese-American experience. Each story– told through the eyes of daughters of Chinese immigrants– explores themes of family, belonging, and finding oneself. These stories offer a vibrant glimpse into the experience of growing up as a second-generation Chinese American in New York. Students will be able to learn about the unique challenges faced by these narrators while simultaneously drawing parallels to their own adolescent experiences.
4. “The Difficult Path” by Grace Lin
Who doesn’t love a story that involves pirates and a brave underdog? Grace Lin’s “The Difficult Path” is a wonderful story that takes readers back to ancient China. I love this story for its creative expression of the power of literacy while simultaneously following protagonist Lingsi’s epic adventure. Inspired by stories of the real-life Ching Shih, a famous Chinese pirate, Lin crafts an engaging and unexpected story that explores themes of overcoming hardship and challenging gender norms. Middle-grade readers will admire protagonist Lingsi for her strength and determination as she fights for her freedom and even manages to outsmart a fleet of pirates.
5. “A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri has gained popularity since releasing her first collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, in1999. In her works, she explores the immigrant experience of Indian Americans. More specifically, “A Temporary Matter” gives readers a glimpse into the struggling marriage of the protagonists, Shoba and Shukumar. Lahiri unpacks the hardships in the marriage over the course of a string of mini blackouts, each time the couple digging deeper and deeper into their marital strife. This is a great story for exploring themes of love, loss, and human relationships. Additionally, it’s also a great story for exploring characterization and irony.
6. “The Space Between the Stars” By Geeta Kothari
It all begins with the death of an innocent fish. (No, really.) Kothari’s short story goes on to explore the themes of identity and assimilation as Maya, the story’s protagonist, struggles to find her place in the world and gain an understanding of self. Students read along as Maya’s focus shifts to examining her own life as she strives to figure out what she wants and where she belongs. Your students are sure to resonate with Maya’s struggles with self-doubt and self-acceptance. Overall, Kothari crafts a beautiful story rich with symbolism and figurative language, perfect for any classroom.
7. “War Years” by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Okay, so technically, this is a chapter in Nguyen’s short story collection, The Refugees. But it’s a good one and is beautiful and powerful all on its own. The story is centered around an unnamed thirteen-year-old boy and his family after fleeing war-torn Vietnam. Despite seeking refuge in the US, they cannot escape the lasting impacts of war. Loosely based on the author’s real-life experience, the story explores the struggle of rebuilding one’s identity in the wake of tragedy, highlighting the human experiences that bond us together regardless of our differences.
8. “Two Kinds” by Amy Tan
In her story “Two Kinds,” Tan explores the complexities immigrant children face when it comes to their parental relationships. The story follows June as she struggles with her mother’s high (and strict) expectations. After June works hard to not become the piano prodigy her mother wanted her to become, the mother-daughter relationship becomes a symbol for finding oneself amid a sea of others’ expectations. Perhaps my favorite part of this story is that it manages to explore the unique challenges of immigrant parent-child relationships while still remaining relatable to all teens.
9. “Rules of the Game” by Amy Tan
On the surface, Tan’s “Rules of the Game ” explores what happens when a child doesn’t see eye-to-eye with their parents. Upon taking a closer look, one will discover the underlying tensions between a Chinese-born mother and her American-born daughter. Furthermore, this story unpacks the power struggle between young Waverly and her mother, using chess as a metaphor for strategic moves both make in an attempt to get what they want. Like Tan’s other stories on the list, students will find this story both engaging and relatable.
10.“Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan
This story is a short yet impactful recollection from Tan’s childhood. In an attempt to impress her childhood crush, Tan recalls playing down (or, in some cases, totally rejecting) her Chinese heritage. Over the course of this short short story, Tan manages to relay a powerful lesson in taking pride in who you are and where you come from. While its short length makes it perfect for middle school classes, high schoolers love the story all the same. Regardless of which grade level you teach, “Fish Cheeks” is an accessible story that serves as a springboard for meaningful discussions around owning one’s identity.
Continuing to Acknowledge Diverse Voices
While this post is meant to highlight the works of Asian Pacific American authors, the goal of diversity is much greater. Therefore, as you continue your hunt for powerful and engaging stories by diverse authors, consider the power of short story collections too. Often anchored by a unifying theme, these collections are a great way to explore connections across people of varying backgrounds and perspectives. The following collections include of a slew of diverse voices, all coming together for the sake of more diverse literature:
- Flying Lessons & Other Stories edited by Ellen Oh is perfect for middle-grade readers.
- The Hero Next Door edited by Ellen Oh is another great collection for middle schoolers.
- A Thousand Beginnings and Endings edited by Ellen Oh and Elise Chapman takes a new approach to East and South Asia folklore and mythology.
- Come On In edited by Adi Alsaid brings 15 voices together to highlight the young immigrant experience.
- Fresh Ink: An Anthology edited by Lamar Giles even includes a one-act play and a short graphic novel.
- Together, Apart is a collection of diverse love stories in the modern (read: pandemic) world.
Beyond Short Stories
Why stop at short stories? Whether you are looking to pull excerpts from a novel or simply add them to your shelf for students to read, here are some YA novels by Asian Pacific American authors your students are sure to love:
- Love from A to Z by S.K. Ali
- Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
- The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan
- When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
- Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman
- To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
- Love, Hate and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed
- Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo (historical fiction that your students will love)
- The Other Side of Perfect by Mariko Turk
- American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (great for graphic novel lovers)
- Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean
Why Representation Matters for Your Students
It doesn’t matter if you’re engaging your students through short stories, full-length novels, or anything between. What does matter is that you are exposing your students to a variety of literary voices that can serve as both windows and doors to the human experience. Regardless of size, shape, color, and origin, we are all unified by our humanness. And what better way to help students discover that truth than through literature.
Whether students find solace in a character similar to themselves or find an unexpected connection, it’s giving them exactly what they– and this world– need: a heightened sense of compassion, unity, empathy, and understanding. Exposing students to diversity through literature is a powerful and poignant way to teach tolerance. And what a wonderful goal this is for every month of the year.
Honoring Asian Pacific American Authors In May and Beyond
As you can imagine, this list is far from exhaustive. We have been given the gift of a plethora of diverse voices in modern literature. However, due to outdated curricula and white-washed literary canons, it’s up to us to bring those voices into our classrooms. While Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is a great place to start, I urge you to continue celebrating diverse voices in literature all year long.
Whether it’s a title or author mentioned in this post or one you’ve discovered on your own, continue sharing. Share them with your students. Share them with other teachers. Heck, come back here and let me know what titles I should add to my list! One of the most important jobs we have as educators is to continually acknowledge the many faces and voices of the American experience.
We are standing on the edge of an opportunity to raise awareness, respect, and tolerance in our classrooms and beyond. And while the short stories mentioned above are fantastic reads, they open the door for even more powerful conversations that can help shape our students and their understanding and appreciation of the diverse world around them.