Published May 11, 2021

By David Bearinger

Ting-Yi Oei

Ting-Yi Oei lives in Petersburg, Virginia. He is currently the Director of the Asian American Education Program founded by the organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Los Angeles. Since 2011, he has also served as Education Director for the 1882 Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based organization whose initial focus was to secure an Expression of Regret from the United States, apologizing for the Chinese Exclusion Acts and their impact on Chinese and other Asian Americans. That Resolution passed by unanimous approval in the House of Representatives and unanimous consent in the Senate in 2012.

 Since 2017, the 1882 Foundation has received two grants from Virginia Humanities, the most recent supporting development of an SoL-compliant “toolkit” designed to help Virginia teachers integrate the study of Asian American history and cultures into their classroom teaching. In a recent series of conversations, I spoke with Ting-Yi about his work, his personal story, and the role that Asian Americans have played within the larger history of the United States—and why this history is important for all Americans to know.

DB: Let’s begin by talking about your personal story and how your family came to the United States.

Ting-Yi: Like many immigrants and the children of immigrants, my story has partly been a search for identity. My father was Chinese; my mother was Dutch. My dad was born in Indonesia. His great-grandfather, whose name was Oei Tjie Sien, left China—Fujian Province to be exact—during the Taiping Rebellion in the 1850s.

It was a time when many Chinese were fighting to end European domination and overturn the ineffective and corrupt Ching Dynasty. So Tjie Sien went to the Dutch East Indies [Indonesia today]. Other Chinese were migrating to the United States, to California and the Pacific Northwest, hoping to find gold, or at least a better life.

Tjie Sien became a successful merchant and one of his sons, my great-grandfather Oei Tiong Ham, was even more successful, establishing an international trading company. 

DB: History causes people to migrate…

Ting-Yi: That’s right. Although my mother was Dutch, she happened to be born in the Dutch East Indies too, because of her father’s work. Her family moved back to Holland when she was eight years old; and my father’s family moved to Holland in the early 1930s. Ironically, the reason they moved was to avoid the Japanese who were making aggressive moves toward the Dutch East Indies. My mom and dad met during World War II, and her story is interesting too. She joined the Dutch Resistance against the Nazis, was captured, and spent the last three months of the War imprisoned in The Hague. My parents got married right after the War and moved to the U.S. with my older brother. I was the first one born in the U.S., in Rye, New York, and I have two younger sisters.

DB: What was that like for a young Chinese American kid, growing up in the suburbs?

Ting-Yi: Unconventional to say the least. I grew up in a solidly middle-class Jewish neighborhood and went to Horace Mann School. Most of the students there were Jewish.  There was a Chinese-American teacher at Horace Mann, and he was very concerned about young people holding onto their identity. I remember an assembly where we sang songs in other people’s languages. As different as we were, one thing we shared was that we all knew we weren’t part of mainstream America. And in a way, that’s still true.

DB: Explain what you mean.

Ting-Yi: Well, for one thing, even now there’s not a day that goes by when someone I meet doesn’t ask me: “What kind of a name is that?” My name identifies me. But this is interesting… my sisters were given European names—Monique and Elisabeth—but my brother and I went by our Chinese names, Ting Pau and Ting-Yi. So from the time I was very small, I identified more with my Chinese heritage than the Dutch.

In my 35 years of teaching in Virginia I knew of only one other Asian American history or social studies teacher.

Ting-Yi Oei

DB: So from suburban New York…

Ting-Yi: I went to Hamilton College planning to become a doctor and ended up changing my major to History because of the influence of an Asian Studies professor there, whose name was Ed Lee. He shocked me by telling me some things about my own family’s history that I hadn’t known before. It opened up a door for me to begin to look at my father’s family. My father died during my freshman year; so, unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to talk with him, once my interest had been sparked. But I was lucky to have Ed Lee as a teacher: this was before there were many Asian or Asian American Studies departments. 

DB: This eventually led to a stint as a Peace Corps volunteer…

Ting-Yi: Yes. In Jeonbuk Province in South Korea, a rice-growing region. It was the only agricultural-based program Peace Corps ever did in South Korea. We got ten weeks of training in Hawaii—how to raise hogs and plant vegetable gardens—and off we went.  The goal of the program was to keep Korean young people on the farms, working through 4-H clubs. This was from 1970-72.

Ting-Yi Oei in 1971 in South Korea, as a Peace Corps volunteer. Photo courtesy Ting-Yi Oei.

DB: What were the most important things you learned from this experience?

Ting-Yi: Humility. Humility and the respect for another culture that almost always comes from living someplace else. I also quickly learned that I had nothing to teach the Koreans. But they were teaching me. 

DB: So you came back to the United States…

Ting-Yi: Yes. And I was offered a job as the Korea Desk Officer for the Peace Corps. I thought I might transfer to the State Dept., which wouldn’t have been difficult, but by that time I knew I wanted to be a teacher. So I spent another year and a half with the Peace Corps and then enrolled in the M.A. in Teaching Program at Brown University. I got my first job in Fauquier County, Virginia, and I began teaching “junior high,” which was what Middle School was called in those days. Social Studies, World History and Geography, and Civics.

DB: Did you thrive in the classroom?

Ting-Yi: [Laughs] No. At least not in that first year. But I decided not to quit, the second year was much better, and in my fourth year, I was named Teacher of the Year. And then I transferred to South Lakes High School in Fairfax County and spent the next 20 years teaching there.

DB: What do you remember most?

Ting-Yi: Actually, I remember the time away. I spent a year in Scotland on a Fulbright Exchange Fellowship; and then another year in the Dominican Republic. Later, I had a Fellowship, working in the Teaching Tolerance Program at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama.

DB: What was it like for you, living in the Deep South? 

Ting-Yi: Well, my wife, Diane, who uses her English surname, flew down first and easily found a realtor and a house in a nice neighborhood. When it came time to sign the contract with my name, Ting-Yi Oei, all of a sudden the house was no longer available.  When Diane asked the realtor to help her find another house to rent, he refused and said he would no longer work with her. They hadn’t met or even seen me but I guess they made some assumptions. This was in 1995. We had to settle for an apartment.

DB: What did you take away from that experience, at S.P.L.C.?

Ting-Yi: As just about everyone knows, Morris Dees was a charismatic figure, and by then the S.P.L.C. had pretty much bankrupted the Klan with legal action. It was an exciting time to be there, working in Civil Rights. I wrote an article on Asian American kids who were having difficulty navigating high school. I wanted to give a voice to these students. It was a complicated place, Montgomery. When we were driving down, there was a billboard that said: “Montgomery: Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, Birthplace of the Confederacy.”

DB: You had school-age kids at the time. How did they manage?

Ting-Yi: In my son’s junior high school there were two sets of ballots for Homecoming Queen: one for the white kids and the other for the black kids. My son, whose name is David, asked the teacher which one he should vote for since he saw himself as neither one or the other. He identified as multi-racial. The teacher told him he could vote with the “white” ballot. I challenged the school authorities: I said, “This is 1995, you’re a public school, how can you still be dividing students by race?” The answer they gave me was a deflection. They said: Homecoming isn’t being run by the school; it’s being run by Parks & Rec., we just hand out the ballots. They were dodging responsibility. There wasn’t much I could do.   

DB:  I want to shift gears for a minute and ask about your work with the 1882 Foundation. How did you get involved?

Ting-Yi: Well, I met a man named Ted Gong (the founder and current director of the 1882 Foundation) and through him I learned about the Chinese American Citizen’s Alliance, which is one of the oldest Civil Rights organizations in the country, founded about the same time as the NAACP. He told me he was leading this effort to get Congress to apologize for the Chinese Exclusion Laws. By the time I joined, in 2011, the effort was well along. The research had been done and the Resolution had been drafted.

DB: What happened once the Resolution was adopted?  The 1882 Foundation had accomplished its purpose.

Ting-Yi: The focus shifted then to education and outreach, which is where I really began to get engaged. Among other things, we had started a “Talk Story” project in D.C.’s Chinatown.  It started out by featuring the voices of people who remembered, who had lived the experience of being Chinese in the nation’s capital.  But it’s evolved now to include book and author talks and other kinds of events. The D.C. Humanities Council has supported it. And 1882 still works to preserve the personal stories—memories; and to commemorate historic sites and events.

DB: Can you give me an example?

Ting-Yi: The Summit Tunnel in California, the site where Chinese labor was used most extensively in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.

DB: Why is this important, beyond commemoration?

Ting-Yi: To take the railroad as an example, each year the U.S. Department of Labor honors individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to American labor. And partly as a result of work by the 1882 Foundation, the Department honored Chinese laborers for the first time in 2014. It’s working against forgetfulness. It’s bringing attention and recognition that are long overdue. We want all Americans to know that the American story includes Asian people.

DB: Is this an Asian American story, or an American story that includes Asian people?  Or does that matter?

Ting-Yi: The tendency has been to compartmentalize various groups of people, and to do that by devoting certain months on the calendar to give special recognition: Asian and Pacific American History Month is just one example of this. But the way I’d answer the question is that we have to begin looking at our history in a different way. Because this really is the story of America, of all these different streams coming together, and it’s still happening. I was impressed by the way Virginia chose to observe 1619; by how inclusive it was; and Asian Americans were part of that—in the “New Virginians” exhibit that was produced, for example. [“New Virginians” was a collaboration between the Library of Virginia and Virginia Humanities.]

DB: We hear a lot about the “culture wars.” And one of the earliest battles was over the Enola Gay exhibit that the Smithsonian produced. It asked some uncomfortable questions about whether it was really necessary to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; whether there was racism at the bedrock of that decision; if the U.S. would have ever decided to use “the bomb” on Germany, for example.

Ting-Yi: I started teaching high school in 1975, and in some ways it’s become much more difficult to teach about certain topics today than it was then. Things are more polarized. In the late ‘70s, I used to have my students role-play an imaginary trial in which Harry Truman was being prosecuted for war crimes, precisely because of what you’ve just raised. It was a hugely popular exercise; the students took it very seriously and I don’t remember that any parents objected. Certainly, the school administration didn’t. But that probably would not be possible today. There would be pushback.

I also used to teach using Mao’s “Little Red Book.” I couldn’t do that now.

DB: The project that Virginia Humanities supported is a toolkit for teachers. Why did you think it was important to produce something like that now?

Ting-Yi: Look how much Virginia has changed in the past fifty years. It’s not the same Virginia I came to in 1974-75. The first apartment we rented in Fairfax County had no Asian residents in the entire complex. But there’s been a surge of immigration that started with the refugees from Indochina in the mid-1970s. The largest Filipino community in the Eastern half of the United States is in the Norfolk area. There are large concentrations of Mongolians and Bangladeshis in Northern Virginia; Vietnamese; Bhutanese in the Richmond area. Thousands of Chinese are coming to Virginia as college and university students and many end up staying here, starting families. It’s important that we, as educators, connect with the people we are serving. We need to understand what differentiates them; that not all Asian people are the same. It’s unfortunate when diverse people get put into a single category.

DB: But you also said in an earlier conversation that you have no problem with the term “Asian American.” How do you square this with the need to understand how all Asian people are not the same?

Ting-Yi: A lot of it is generational. Older people, maybe those who are 55-60 or older, tend to identify very closely with family and support networks that are centered around their national identity. They maintain more traditional ways. They may speak their native language at home. Younger people tend to see a common identity. What separates Indians from Pakistanis, for example, may not be as important to them. 

I think every minority community struggles with identity—with self-identification. This has been one of the critiques of Asian Studies departments at the university level: that they are too much focused on silos instead of what unites people.

DB: So what do you hope a teacher in, let’s say, deep Southwest Virginia, will gain from having this toolkit? How will it help her in the classroom? How will it help her to relate to her Asian students and their families?

Ting-Yi: Most of the organizations I know that have produced curricula on Asian Americans have seen it as an add-on, and teachers are already overloaded for the most part; they don’t have time to teach something else. What we’re trying to do with the toolkit is to offer resources that will help integrate Asian American studies into what teachers are already teaching.

DB: Can you give me some examples?

Ting-Yi: Sure. If you’re teaching about women’s rights and women in government, it helps to know that the first woman of color to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives was Patsy Mink, a Japanese American from Hawaii. If you’re teaching about Plessy v. Ferguson and the challenges to it, you can begin with the case of Gong Lum v. Rice coming out of Greenville, Mississippi. A Chinese family challenged Plessy at the state level in 1924—and won. The lower court decision was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1927; but it’s still an historic challenge. After the Civil War, Chinese labor was brought in to replace slave labor on many Southern plantations. I could go on.

DB: I remember you also had some examples closer to home. 

Ting-Yi: Right. Like Ted Gong’s mother—who was turned away the first time she tried to come to the United States “because her ears were wrong.” At Angel Island [in California; an immigration processing center for new arrivals], U.S Immigration and Customs was using Chinese who were already here as translators, interviewing people as they arrived, to make sure they were who they said they were, asking questions like, “What kinds of crops did you grow in your village?” Ted’s mother tried to pass herself off as a distant relative named Lola. There was a photograph of Lola, but Ted’s mother’s ears didn’t match the ears of the girl, Lola, in the photo, so she was sent back to China. So now the term “paper son” or “paper daughter” [someone who enters the country illegally, using false documents] becomes a real human story that, once you hear it, can be hard to forget. Especially when they’re the stories of people we know. The toolkit is designed to help teachers uncover these stories too, and bring them forward.

DB: How deep does Chinese history go in this country?

Ting-Yi: Well, there are accounts of Chinese people in North America in the late 1700s and early 1800s. When people think about Chinese in America, they usually think first about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. The Railroad was completed in 1869 and it couldn’t have been done without 20,000 Chinese laborers, making up 80% of the workers on the western end. And then they weren’t even included in that classic photograph of the two locomotives meeting. When it was finished, the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Acts barely thirteen years later, in 1882. 

Historic “golden spike” photo at Promontory, Utah.
Descendants of Chinese Railroad workers reenacting the “golden spike” photo. Photo by Corky Lee.

To understand the Chinese-American story, we need to understand the dynamics of what was going on in the Far East in the mid-nineteenth century. The Chinese who came here, many of them, were fleeing civil war and dire prospects at home. Many of them who came here, literally, had imagined America as the “Gold Mountain”—as “Gum San.” Instead, they became a tool for securing Manifest Destiny.

DB: So why haven’t we been taught this? Why don’t we know?

Ting-Yi: The answer is complicated. For starters, there’s an overlay of what is and is not acceptable to teach; of what is and is not admissible as part of the American story. It’s been difficult for Asian Americans to crack that wall, to find a way in. Opportunities to tell our stories have been scarce. Also, many Asians—I know this is sometimes used as a stereotype—can be reserved, quiet, not wanting to call attention to ourselves. And finally, there have been very few Asian teachers in the school systems, and only a tiny fraction of those teach social studies.

DB: So you were kind of unique in that way, or at least unusual.

Ting-Yi: I’ll tell you this. In my 35 years of teaching in Virginia I knew of only one other Asian American history or social studies teacher. As a student, you need people for whom your own story resonates.

What we’re trying to do with the toolkit is to offer resources that will help integrate Asian American studies into what teachers are already teaching.

Ting-Yi Oei

DB: What other kinds of resources are available if I want to know more?

Ting-Yi: There is a surprising wealth of information out there if you know where to look and really want to find it. The U.S. House of Representatives has a trove of documents.  The National Archives. The Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center. The 1882 Foundation is not a repository, but it has access to many resources that would be useful.  And the Asian American Education Program has more than fifty lesson plans.

In Virginia, the Library of Virginia is beginning to comb through its collections, and has already found some important material. William and Mary, George Mason, there are other sources. The problem is, it takes time—which is not something the average teacher has—the time to do independent research. The emphasis that Virginia Humanities places on personal stories is also very important, a model in some ways.

DB: Is there anything different about the present moment, as we’ve all begun to focus on anti-Asian bigotry and violence?

Ting-Yi: Asian Americans have always challenged unjust laws and practices; we have a history of doing that. Chinese workers went on strike for equal wages on the Transcontinental Railroad. We’ve used the legal system and the courts in ways that are surprising. We need to understand that history, we need to recognize the achievements.  Resiliency has defined us. And so we need to educate others about our stories. But we also need to educate our own community—to make sure our children and grandchildren understand why they should be proud but not be satisfied.

DB: Hasn’t this always been true?

Ting-Yi: My own case is a good example. I didn’t know very much about my Chinese heritage. I was trying to assimilate, and it was maybe easier for me in some ways because my parents were Chinese and Dutch. More recent Asian immigrants—post-1990—are unlikely to know the history they’re stepping into. Except for the occasional law student, how would they know about Gong Lum v. Rice? It often happens: new immigrants are focused on succeeding. Ironically, it’s their kids who sometimes insist on learning about the past.

DB: You’ve used an interesting term to describe Asian Americans in the U.S.

Ting-Yi: Acceptable but not accepted.

DB: Have you felt this in your own life?

Ting-Yi: Unfortunately, yes. I’ve faced racial discrimination in my professional life—everything from having my name made fun of in professional settings to being denied promotions. I even filed a lawsuit over one of the incidents; but these cases are very hard to prove in court.

DB: Are you hopeful?

Ting-Yi: I think things may be changing, at least there’s a new kind of awareness that history is complicated; and that we’re all part of this great American story. Hopeful, yes.  But there’s an urgency now.

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