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Connecticut mandated AAPI history in schools. Meet some of the state’s Asian residents

Dr. Henry Lee, Taiwanese American forensic scientist, center in red clothes, and Attorney General William Tong take photos with a family celebrating the Lunar New Year on Jan. 22, 2023. "You're gonna be an attorney general some day," Tong said to one of the children at the celebration.
Yehyun Kim
CT Mirror
Dr. Henry Lee, Taiwanese American forensic scientist, center in red clothes, and Attorney General William Tong take photos with a family celebrating the Lunar New Year on Jan. 22, 2023. "You're gonna be an attorney general some day," Tong said to one of the children at the celebration.

More than 170,000 Connecticut residents are Asian. Beginning in 2025, Connecticut’s public schools will be required to teach Asian American and Pacific Islander history, thanks to a bill passed by the state last year.

CT Mirror photojournalist Yehyun Kim and reporter Katy Golvala interviewed and photographed one person from each of the U.S. Census Bureau defined 21 Asian ethnicities in recognition of the new law.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Katy Golvala to discuss her multimedia series written with Yehyun Kim, “A Diaspora in Focus,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Katy, you say Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. and projected to be the largest immigrant group by 2055. About 170,000 of them live in Connecticut. However, this is a diverse group of people. What did you find when you started to highlight Connecticut residents with Asian roots?

KG: Yeah, so the idea behind this project, which Yehyun Kim, our photojournalist really led the charge on, was that last year the legislature passed a law to make Asian American and Pacific Islander history a part of public school curriculum here in Connecticut. And so she thought, how can we add to that as journalists? So that will go into effect in the 2025 school year. And in advance of that she wanted to profile one person, one Connecticut resident from each Asian ethnicity.

It's extremely diverse. And I think that's what you realize, when you look at everyone together. I mean, there are common themes, political and economic forces that either push people out of their home countries or pull people to the U.S. We heard a lot about navigating and negotiating identity as immigrants as well. But each person's individual story is so diverse. And I think that just speaks to the diversity of the continent itself and the diversity of the Asian Americans here in Connecticut.

WSHU: Let's look at Attorney General William Tong. He's the most prominent Asian American in Connecticut. What's his story?

KG: Yeah, sure. So I think Attorney General Tong has spoken about his story publicly. His parents were Chinese immigrants. And we talked to him a lot about the Chinese restaurant that they owned that was really the focus of his childhood. So when he was young, he and his sisters spent afternoons and evenings, as his parents were working, kind of entertaining themselves in the parking lot. He talked about how they would play, pushing each other in groceries carts from the nearby grocery store. And as he got older, he worked there. And he prides himself on his Chinese background.

But he also talks about how it was a point of contention growing up within wealthy circles in West Hartford, he went to a private school in West Hartford, and he talked about that feeling of difference that he always felt. And how to a certain extent, even though he is one of the highest ranking Asian American elected officials in the country, he still feels a piece of that difference.

WSHU: I thought it was quite interesting, the way he talked about the separation they felt at the kitchen door between clientele that came in to eat and those of them that worked in the kitchen.

KG: Yeah, he said he remembers looking through that square window of the door that separates the dining room from the kitchen and feeling as if there were a fundamental difference between himself and his family working in the kitchen, and the people who were eating in the dining room.

WSHU: He also had an interesting story about when he was campaigning for attorney general and seeking the support of people he thought would naturally be his supporters, and one particular attorney, a woman that he called…

KG: That woman ended up telling him that she was very impressed with his track record, but that he just didn't look like what she thought of when she thought of an attorney general. And I think it's an interesting reminder that, you know, he even pointed out, this woman was from a certain political party, she was highly educated, and he didn't expect necessarily for racism to pop up in that phone call, but it did. So I think it's a good reminder that these sentiments still exist in places where many people would assume they don't and I think it's also a good reminder that regardless of how high you climb in particular, and Attorney General Tong's experience, you can still feel that sting of racism.

WSHU: Well, Attorney General Tong is of East Asian descent, but you also profiled some South Asians who are also a huge diverse group of people. In particular, you highlighted Kamrun Nahar. Could you tell us about her?

KG: Yeah, so Kamrun actually immigrated here from Bangladesh. She was in the Branford school system. She was in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, and she was the only native Bengali speaker in those classes. There were other people who spoke Spanish, for example, but she basically had no one to go through that experience directly with. So she said it actually helped her learn English faster. She said she had no choice because she was alone in that effort, that she just, she had to do it faster.

WSHU: A lot of the people that you profiled seem to be quite happy being in Connecticut. Could you just tell us why? I'll give you an example, there was a Japanese American, she grew up in Japan, and came here in her 20s. She's now in her mid 40s. And she feels a lot more comfortable here than she did when she went back to Japan because she felt it was very crowded.

KG: People enjoy the slow pace of life in Connecticut, the relatively reasonable cost of living, and the good education system. That's a reason we heard from so many people, they came here for their children's education. But you know, people also talked about the very real challenges. A lot of immigrants, particularly refugees, talked about how for low-income immigrants, you know, they don't feel like the country is necessarily built to support them. And many people talked about the racism that they feel. So I think as there are many beautiful and complicated situations, there are multiple truths. And I think multiple truths, even within single individuals. There is a lot about their life in Connecticut that they enjoy. And there's also a lot that is complicated about negotiating to different homelands.

WSHU: What is the feeling about teaching Asian American and Pacific Islander history in schools in Connecticut?

KG: It's interesting that you ask that, it actually wasn't one of our specific questions, but maybe in retrospect, it should have been. But I think that what we heard from many people is that they don't necessarily feel like their Asian identity was seen, or sometimes they were themselves actively trying to hide it in certain ways. And so I think that just the teaching of Asian American and Pacific Islander history in public schools is an important way to bring the Asian American experience to the mainstream, to the forefront.

WSHU: Was there anything that particularly struck you as you did this story?

KG: Yeah, I think what struck me is just how little I learned in school about Asian American history. You know, we have one man from Laos, who served in what's referred to as the secret war. So we're taught in schools about the Vietnam War. But actually, while the Vietnam war was going on, the United States government was also funding fighters to defeat communism in Laos. We also heard from Arunan Arulampalam, who's a candidate for mayor of Hartford, his family fled Sri Lanka at the beginning of Sri Lankan Civil War, and that lasted over 40 years.

We learned about Bhutan efforts to have a one nation, one people policy where they were figuring out how to get rid of and send people away who were not from the ethnic majority. And there are all of these histories and stories that I was so unaware of before starting on this project that now I know about, that can teach us so much about why and how immigrants end up in the United States. And it's just very exciting to think about the prospect of students in Connecticut public schools, who unlike me, will learn this history moving forward.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Fairfield County. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.