A&S Class in Asian American History Connects Students to Their Heritage, Probes Origins of Hate

By Richard LeComte

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Carrigan Wasilchenko was adopted from China through Holt International and grew up as an Asian American in Powell County, Kentucky. Thanks to the opportunity to pursue a liberal arts education at the University of Kentucky – and to take part in a new class that looks at the history of Asian Americans – she was able to see how her story fit into the mosaic that is the United States.  

“Growing up, I always tried to fade into the whiteness of my community, and I was just kind of afraid because I didn't know, first of all, what it meant to be Asian,” said Wasilchenko, who recently graduated from the College of Health Sciences and will enter UK Medical School in the fall. “In your teen years, everyone has an identity crisis: ‘Who am I? What do I stand for?’ I always felt uncomfortable saying I'm Asian. Even though I’m from China, I felt I wasn’t Chinese. But this class really helped me to see I am an Asian American.” 

The class, HIS 351 Asians in America, is the first course on Asian American history to be offered at the University of Kentucky. It promises to be a key part of the UK College of Arts & Sciences’ Race and Ethnicity requirement, which starts in Fall 2021. Akiko Takenaka, associate professor of history, put the class together with an eye toward presenting the full spectrum of Asian American experiences in the United States, including those of intercontinental adoptees like Wasilchenko.  

“I realized the need for this course with the rise of anti-Asian hate due to the pandemic,” Takenaka said. “The only other course on Asian America that I am aware of is a course on Asian American music that was offered in Fall 2018. 

“The course content is chronological, but I started with contemporary issues so that the students would know why we're learning this,” she said. “The first unit covered not only COVID and anti-Asian racism, but also 9/11 and anti-Muslim racism. In that unit, we also talked about what it means to be Asian right now.” 

When the class was under way, a mass shooting that killed six women of Asian descent occurred in Atlanta. Takenaka tried to place that crime in context for her students. 

“When the killings in Atlanta happened, I took some time to talk more about the intersection between gender and race, and to place the American tendency to objectify and hyper-sexualize Asian women into historical context,” she said.  

Takenaka states in her syllabus that one of her goals in teaching the class is to demonstrate “the global dynamics that come into play in the study of modern history,” particularly in the United States. The class takes on such topics as: 

  • Chinese immigration to North America in the 19th century, including their participation in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. 
  • The Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred immigration from China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 
  • The “yellow peril” anti-Asian movements in the 20th century as well as the internment of Japanese Americans who lived on the West Coast during World War II. 
  • The change in immigration laws in the 1960s to allow more Asians to emigrate to the United States as well as the effect of the Cold War on Asian Americans.
  • Contemporary issues surrounding the idea of a “model minority” as well as transcontinental adoptions from East Asia through charities.  

Her students found much of this material new – and fascinating.  

“Very often, I get responses like, ‘You know, I thought I knew American history,’” Takenaka said. “'I took U.S. history in high school and middle school, but I learned none of this.’” 

The background she gives students in Asian American history helps students understand anti-Asian sentiments today. She also wants to introduce students to the wide variety of Asian American experiences: As in all lives, nothing is typical. 

“We read some chapters from a memoir by a Vietnamese American woman who fled Saigon with her family when she was a baby. She wrote about her childhood in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and her efforts to assimilate into White culture as a daughter of refugees,” she said. “That, too, is a kind of Asian American experience that I wanted my students to know about.” 

One of the topics Takenaka takes up in the class is the post-Korean War efforts of U.S. evangelical groups such as Holt International founders Bertha and Harry Holt to sponsor adoptions of children in Korea, China and Vietnam to parents in North America. She found that the topic hit home for a couple of her students, who had been adopted from Asia.   

“The Holts just happened to watch a documentary film about babies in orphanages in Korea,” she said. “They decided they had to do something about this. International adoption at the time was complicated. Each adoption required the passage of an individual bill. By lobbying local representatives, Mr. Holt was able to get the ‘Holt Bill’ passed. He adopted eight babies from Korea. He then set up an international adoption agency, which currently is called Holt International.” 

As an adoptee, Wasilchenko found that this aspect of Asian American experiences helped to place her own life as a successful student and future doctor – the stereotype of the “model minority” and the experience of micro-aggressions – into perspective.  

“Eastern Kentucky is a very rural area,” she said. “There's not a whole lot of diversity; not to say there aren't some diverse folks there because there are. But sometimes I tried to hide my diversity. I felt like people would say, ‘Oh, good job, Carrigan, but of course you're going to do well on that: Look at you.’ People around me would have these high expectations of me just because I was Asian.” 

Classes like Asians in America are necessary for just that reason: They help students throughout the University learn about their heritages; give them essential backgrounds to current events; and help them to learn about the similarities – and differences – in the immigrant experiences in the United States. 

“There are many people whose ancestors had these experiences of being the ‘other,’ whether it be Irish immigrants or German immigrants or Italian immigrants,” Takenaka said. “German and Italian immigrants, for example, had experienced discrimination because the earlier settlers couldn't understand their language. But at the same time, because their physical features were similar to the earlier settlers, it was very easy for those immigrants to gradually blend in. But for Asians, the situation is different. Because of how we look, we are typically considered the ‘other’ regardless of where we are born, or how long we have been here.”