Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Where's My Tea Cakes? Missing (Hi)stories of Resistance for AAPI Children

Tea Cakes for Tosh [image source]

by Sharon H Chang

A few weeks ago I read a book with my son that I just can't get out of my head. Tea Cakes for Tosh by author Kelly Starling Lyons and self-proclaimed artistrator E.B. Lewis is about an African American boy named Tosh, his beloved grandma Honey, their treasured visits together, and her tasty golden tea cakes; a recipe from his great-great-great-great grandma Ida who was a plantation slave. But more poignantly and importantly, this book is about the way an elder connects a younger member of her community with his ancestors and passes down a history of resistance through stories and food, a human love of things simple and profound.

Tosh loved when his grandma Honey baked her golden tea cakes. The cookies smelled like vanilla mixed with sunshine. The taste warmed his heart, just like Honey's stories of courage did. "Long ago, before you and I were born," Honey always began, "Our people were enslaved"...In a blink, her words carried him to another place and time. Tosh saw tiny white clouds dotting an endless field. He saw people picking cotton, heard their prayerful songs. In the plantation kitchen he saw sweat running down a woman's face.

Grandma Ida."Some days [she] made a few extra, just the right size for hiding in her pocket. 
She risked being whipped to give the children a taste of sweet freedom." [image source]

It is child-directed resolution that ultimately leads Tosh to powerfully embrace/claim the story of oppression and resistance of his people. Honey gets older and her memory starts to go until one day she can't remember how to make the tea cakes or tell about grandma Ida at all. After moving through confusion, concern and then sadness, Tosh finally resolves out of deep love to make the tea cakes for Honey and tell the story himself. It's at that moment we readers understand something so significant. The torch has been passed. Though the older generation may have forgotten, the younger generation has not. 

Studies have shown this type of racial learning is not uncommon in the Black community. Certainly out of necessity (i.e. survival in a stubbornly racist world which especially targets dark skin) but also I think because African Americans have become admirably strong in their solidarity with now many prominent, well-known activists and civil rights leaders binding/representing their continued resistance and pursuit of equality. What got me when I was reading with my son though, and why I still can't get the book out of my head, was an empty-kind-of-angry feeling. And a burning handful of hot questions. Does the AAPI community, which has also long suffered its own (sometimes similar, sometimes dissimilar) forms of discrimination, do this for its children? That is, do we offer them activists and social justice champions they can racially relate to? Do we pass down (hi)stories of oppression and resistance? Do we encourage them to claim their past and give them tools to fight for the future?

I certainly didn't grow up with any notable sort of AAPI history and/or resistance learning (and I meet plenty of other AAPIs all the time who tell me the same) though I've bumped into race enough to write a blog about it. I can name more Black leaders than I can Asian ones. Is it because I have a Taiwanese immigrant father and white mother who didn't (don't) know the history or is that just an excuse? Is it all on them anyway? I didn't learn much in school either. Does the silence have anything to do with the persistent myth of the model Asian minority which performs well and never voices dissent (which is why it performs well)? And how do all these questions shift as we consider the mixed racial cultures/histories of our mixed race Asian children?

As I was sitting with these questions feeling kind of pissed off, I realized I actually HAD read another book recently that did exactly what I think children with AAPI ancestry need more of. Fish for Jimmy by muralist, author/illustrator and teacher Katie Yamasaki is the true story of a Japanese American family interned during WWII and the incredible bravery its oldest son shows breaking out of camp to find comfort food (fish) for his deeply depressed younger brother. Yamasaki has explained in several interviews that her family was greatly impacted by the internment. In an interview for Creative Wisdom Art, Spotlight Jan 2013, she described further how this impact became the inspiration for a children's book:

When I was growing up, the internment was never taught- this huge piece of history that my family and thousands of other families lived through, was never brought up in school. As if it had never happened. Like the murals, I feel like books are another platform for communication, a way to tell a story that hasn’t been told before. I’ve always known, as long as I can remember, that this needed to be a story.

Fish for Jimmy [image source]

There are striking parallels here with Tea Cakes for Tosh. Just like Lyons, Yamasaki shares AAPI oppression and resistance history with children through relationships they can connect with (familial love), a medium they understand (storytelling) and something concrete they enjoy (food). A main difference here however is that while one is a reminder to never forget, the other is more about starting to remember in the first place. I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say (hi)stories of resistance and history in general have long been missing from the AAPI childhood. Of course there are exceptions (and I stand in admiration of those parents who've managed to do different), but silence is an especial challenge for the Asian American community and has become something at the forefront of AAPI fight for change. Let's give our children their rich history, include them in our struggles to be heard, build our solidarity too, and hopefully one day introduce the world to some more amazing and diverse leaders.


  1. Hi Sharon, thanks so much for sharing. I discovered your blog only recently and look forward to every new post! You yourself have a real talent for storytelling that makes these issues accessible to your readers. I especially appreciate the research and studies cited (for further reading, but also just to know that someone's done research on this...) and the nuances and subtleties you manage to tease out. Thank you!

    So what's your take on why AAPI history and fight for social justice doesn't feature almost at all in public/AAPI consciousness? In your opinion, is it as simple as that there just wasn't/isn't that much Asian dissent and activism?

  2. Appreciate you reading fisings! Thanks for the comment.

    I think the reason why AAPI histories of resistance don't feature much in the public consciousness has everything to do with the US racial construct and its racial myths. Discrimination against Asians has typically revolved around ideas of foreignness and being alien. Subsequently, the Asian American community has felt great pressure to assimilate to prove their Americanness. This has often meant sacrificing cultural ties in service of accommodating the mainstream. Emphasizing one's Asianness in that context could be seen as threatening an AAPI child's success growing up in the US. The model minority myth is also powerfully impactful here. The idea that AAPIs are doing well and thus must have no problems is part of reinforcing our current racial hierarchy (if some people of color can make it, why can't they all?). This myth of ease shrouds Asian Americans in silence at the same time it seems to convince us that there's nothing important to talk about.

  3. Kelly Chung says it incredibly well in her Nov 29 piece for China Daily