Elementary school history books include virtually nothing about the story of Chinese immigrants who came to North America in the 19th century other than to acknowledge their labor in helping build railroads. Why did they leave their homes, and often wives and children, to come to these shores? How, and why, did so many of them work in family businesses such as laundries, restaurants, and grocery stores? What harsh racial discrimination, including exclusion laws, did they face? What were 'paper sons' and why did Chinese resort to this device? Why did Chinatowns exist and how did they serve Chinese and non-Chinese in different ways? How did they overcome huge obstacles to achieve the 'American dream' for themselves and their descendants, making significant contributions to their new homeland?
I had an opportunity in 2011 to present a class talk covering all of these topics, and more, in an hour to 5th graders at the Campus School at the University of Memphis. Students showed an active interest and I hope that the lesson I provided stimulated their awareness and curiosity about this ignored aspect of our history, and will help promote their understanding of racial issues.
One topic that fascinated some of the students was the discovery of poems etched on the wood walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station barracks by Chinese detained there, some for more than a month or two. I read several of these poignant and heart-breaking poems to the class. During the Q&A, one eager student asked where he could find the poems as he wanted to read more of them! That reaction alone made my day and I viewed it as one sign that my talk was a success!