Teaching Interior Chinatown — With Appropriate Supports

By Administrator RSS Mon, April 10, 2023

Early in our Interior Chinatown unit, my co-teacher and I talked to our students about the idea of interior and exterior — an important contrast that structures Charles Yu’s novel. What did we mean by interior and exterior? In the book, the interior is associated with lived experience, personal perspectives, and a deep understanding of self. The exterior is associated with stereotypes, outsiders’ views, and playing a role. Our students got it immediately.

We teach a class in English and Asian American Studies at Central High. My co-teacher, Ken Hung, is an Asian American teacher with roots in the Asian American communities of Philadelphia. I’m a white, short-term contractor with the School District of Philadelphia who writes and evaluates curricula as a freelancer. Our course is offered to 11th graders. Most of our students are East, South, or Southeast Asian. Other students in the class are Black and brown, and a few students are bi- or multi-racial. 

In the summer of 2022, long before Interior Chinatown was announced as the choice for One Book, One Philadelphia, we decided it was the first book our class should read. While we were teaching Interior Chinatown in English class, we were teaching a unit on Philadelphia’s Chinatown in Asian American Studies. In this unit, we covered the historic resilience and resistance of Philly’s Chinatown community, as well as the current threat to the community posed by the 76ers arena. Our lessons on the history of Philly’s Chinatown also served as a window into the larger story of Asian American oppression, as well as Asian American struggles and movements across the US. We identified Interior Chinatown as a text that was in meaningful conversation with important ideas in Asian American Studies. These ideas include the history of exclusion laws, the model minority myth, intersectionality, and the relationship between Black American and Asian American communities. We also saw Philly’s Chinatown reflected in Yu’s; we recognized the love present in a community’s interior spaces, wholly separate from the gaze of tourists or speculators.   

In our class, we emphasize belonging, empathy, and joy. But we also know that Asian American students, statistically, have major experiences with racial trauma. According to Stop AAPI Hate, 62% of Asian Americans report they or a family member experienced overt or covert discrimination. One in four Asian American young adults report a PTSD diagnosis.

We taught Interior Chinatown for three months, from October to December. The book is a rich text, so there were plenty of literary topics to cover. But the experience of teaching Interior Chinatown was so much more than teaching satire, screenplay form, or tone. More than anything, the book spoke to our students’ interior experiences — their experiences of family, love, and joy — but also their experiences of trauma.

So, when our students found out Interior Chinatown was going to be the One Book, One Philadelphia selection, they had plenty to say about it. Here are some of their thoughts.

“It’s important to consider [Asian American] lived experience,” said Nabilah. “Many students in this class are Asian and have Asian experience.”

Daisy added, “And even for us, the book was hard to understand.”

The students were also clear in their guidelines for how, and in what contexts, the book should be taught.

Benise said, “With summer reading, you can’t have discussions. Also, we did a lot of setup of the book. We watched interviews with Yu. Having discussions in class helped a lot.”

Leila said, “I think this book should be taught, but definitely not as summer reading. It is hard to understand, so it shouldn’t be tossed in as a summer book. The screenplay form is difficult to understand without support, and it’s also satire.”

Other students were concerned the satire would be misunderstood, and maybe even weaponized against Asian American kids.

Leila also noted that she’d learned about satire the previous year, in 10th-grade English. However, she said, without direct support from a teacher, students “will think it’s a racist book because they haven’t had that instruction.”

Daisy agreed. “If they don’t know it’s satire,” she said. “Some students will take it well, some not.”

Some students focused on the fact that Interior Chinatown isn’t just a satire — it’s a satire of the ways US media and culture stereotypes Asian Americans. On the surface, these stereotypes might seem funny or ridiculous, but many of the book’s stereotypes are connected with harmful rhetoric that’s often paired with anti-Asian hate or violence.

For example, “Kung Fu Guy,” which plays a major role in the novel, associates Asian Americans with some mystical, exotic place or time — a place that isn’t the US, and a time that isn’t now. This, in turn, draws upon another stereotype: the perpetual foreigner. The perpetual foreigner stereotype has been around for as long as Asians have been in America — that is to say, from the founding of the country. It depicts Asian Americans as outsiders and aliens, regardless of where they were born or how long they have lived in the United States. And stereotypes like the “Asiatic Seductress,” associated with women characters in Interior Chinatown, draw upon the hyper-sexualization of Asian women. That hyper-sexualization, in turn, is linked with violence against Asian American women; for example, many Asian Americans see a direct line between “Asiatic Seductress” stereotypes and the 2021 Atlanta spa shooting.

Nabilah recognized the importance of creating a context for these stereotypes and the slurs that appear in the novel. “If students don’t know the context of the book,” she said, “they will think it’s OK to say certain slurs. They also will think that the stereotypes in the book are true.”

Most of our students supported the book being taught to 11th or 12th graders across the School District of Philadelphia. However, they were adamant that it should be taught with the support of teachers, during the school year, rather than being given as summer or independent reading.

Sandy emphasized the importance of historical context, saying, “We also covered history [in Asian American Studies] such as the Chinese Exclusion Act. This book should be taught in its historical context. It shouldn’t just ‘check the box.’ It shouldn’t be used as summer reading just so the school can say ‘Oh, we have an Asian book.’”

As a white teacher, I feel so grateful for all the students in this class: the ones I’ve quoted here, and all our other students. More than anything, I appreciate the way they’ve shared their interior selves — honestly and bravely in this conversation, and in many other contexts throughout the year. We adults often make exterior assumptions about youth: that they can’t be decision-makers in their education, that they’re lazy, and that they don’t think deeply. And yet our kids show up every day, proving that wrong.

If you’re a teacher or administrator considering teaching Interior Chinatown, I hope you’re hearing what these voices — the interior voices of BIPOC youth — have to say. Listen to the themes that emerged from this discussion: support, context, lived experience, and discussions. You should also consider students’ families and larger communities, particularly these stakeholders' experiences with trauma and harmful stereotypes.

Teaching Interior Chinatown can be an amazing experience, but the book should be taught during the school year — not as independent or summer reading — with the support of a caring teacher. We certainly plan to teach it again, using many of the strategies we used this year. Teaching the book intentionally during the school year allowed us to spend a lot of time before the unit centering the students and their lived experiences in order to build a trusting, caring classroom community. We’ll also continue to frame our teaching of the book with an understanding of the trauma students have endured, as well as the joys and resilience they experience in their home communities. This, in our opinion, is the only way Interior Chinatown can be taught. Because more than anything, our students deserve safe spaces where their interior selves — their lived experiences, their personal perspectives — can be explored, seen, and celebrated.

This is a guest post written by Rachel Toliver, a freelance curriculum writer who works at Philadelphia Central High.

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Will the webinar on April 20th recording be available at a late date and how can I access it?
Joyce Nagata - West Chester pa
Thursday, April 20, 2023

Hi Joyce! The webinar was recorded and will be posted to the Free Library's Author Events YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/@AuthorEvents
Bridget - Parkway Central Library
Friday, April 21, 2023