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A Kid's Guide to Asian American History: More than 70 Activities

A Kid's Guide to Asian American History: More than 70 Activities

by Valerie Petrillo

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Hands-on activities, games, and crafts introduce children to the diversity of Asian American cultures and teach them about the people, experiences, and events that have shaped Asian American history. This book is broken down into sections covering American descendents from various Asian countries, including China, Japan, Korea, Philippines, India, Vietnam, Laos,


Hands-on activities, games, and crafts introduce children to the diversity of Asian American cultures and teach them about the people, experiences, and events that have shaped Asian American history. This book is broken down into sections covering American descendents from various Asian countries, including China, Japan, Korea, Philippines, India, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Topics include the history of immigration from Asian countries, important events in U.S. history, sidebars on famous Asian Americans, language lessons, and activities that highlight arts, games, food, clothing, unique celebrations, and folklore. Kids can paint a calligraphy banner, practice Tai Chi, fold an origami dog or cat, build a Japanese rock garden, construct a Korean kite, cook bibingka, and create a chalk rangoli. A time line, glossary, and recommendations for Web sites, books, movies, and museums round out this multicultural guide.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A supremely useful book."  —The Virginian-Pilot

"Offers an exciting way for parents or teachers to teach kids about their own heritage or the culture of those around them."  —Parents Express

The Virginian-Pilot
A supremely useful book.

Children's Literature
Written for students in second through fourth grades, this book encompasses many different components of Asian American history. It is overflowing with a wealth of information that retells the story of each group’s entrance into North America, their cultural beliefs and how they have been challenged by the laws, wars and biases of the American people. Not always accepted as equals, Asian Americans helped to create and defend this country. Today, many Asian Americans are a part of our most elite in society. From Tiger Woods to Vera Wang, the impact these Americans are making in our culture continues to be significant and vital. The author not only details how Asian Americans have been incorporated and accepted in our American culture, but also gives us a glimpse into the past and present traditions passed down through the generations. Includes crafts, recipes and facts from which children can form their own opinions. This book is a treasure trove--dive in and enjoy. Reviewer: Kimberly O’Meara

Product Details

Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date:
A Kid's Guide Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
11.00(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.64(d)
Age Range:
7 - 9 Years

Read an Excerpt

A Kid's Guide to Asian American History

More than 70 Activities

By Valerie Petrillo

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2007 Valerie Petrillo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61374-037-8


From East to West

Who Are Asian Americans?

Asian Americans are as diverse as the vast country we live in. They are Chinese American descendants of the gold rush pioneers who work as stockbrokers on Wall Street, and they are restaurant workers in Chinatown who arrived only weeks ago. They are Korean greengrocers and Asian Indian software engineers, Filipino business owners and Vietnamese fishermen, Japanese students and Cambodian writers. Many are American citizens. They are all an important part of the world's only nation of immigrants, the United States of America.

It takes a certain type of courage to leave what is comfortable and secure for the promise of the unknown. When the first Asian immigrants reached America by boat, they must have thought that they were entering another world. They left countries that had been devastated by famine or war and they were pulled to the United States with promises of jobs. When they arrived they were confronted with a confusing new language, different foods and customs, exhausting work, prejudice, and the loneliness of knowing that an entire ocean separated them from their families.

The Voyage

The first Asian Americans typically came by steamship, and the trip took weeks. They usually bought third-class tickets in steerage (below decks quarters) because they were cheaper than buying first- or second-class tickets. Beds were bunked in tight rows and there was little fresh air or sunlight. Steerage passengers were allowed on the deck in fair weather, but if there was a storm at sea they were sent back below. They suffered from gut-wrenching seasickness and hunger. Disease spread rapidly because they were living in such close quarters. The conditions on board were unsanitary — there were no bathrooms, there was no clean water to wash, and they had to eat a meager diet of rice and water.

Today, steamships have largely been replaced by airplanes for immigrants who come to the United States. The journey is kinder — without the risks of disease, seasickness, and hunger — but it doesn't guarantee a welcome mat, and such a quick trip makes it harder to prepare yourself mentally. A long sea trip physically separates you from your homeland. You have time to think about the home you are leaving; and the country for which you are bound. For immigrants coming by airplane, breakfast in the Far East and supper in the United States can be a sudden change.

Pack an Immigrant Trunk

For the early immigrants, their whole lives had to be packed into a single trunk and brought to America. Most immigrants never returned to Asia. In packing the trunk they had to decide what to bring for practical reasons, things like clothing and pots and pans, and what to bring for sentimental reasons, items such as family jewelry, photographs, and letters. This activity will help you imagine what the process was like for those who had to leave so much behind.

What You Need

Acrylic brown paint


Heavyweight cardboard box with removable top (the box that computer paper comes in works well)

Items you would choose to bring if you were to immigrate to a new country: money, clothing, religious items, pictures of your family, a favorite blanket, books, clothing, a childhood toy, etc.

What You Do

1. Paint the top and bottom of the box with the brown paint. Two coats may be needed. Let dry.

2. Fill the box with what you feel you will need for the journey ahead.

3. Think about these questions: What did you leave out? Did you include any items that tell someone who you are as a person? Any that reflect on your culture? Discuss this activity with someone else and detail the items each of you included in your box. What would the other person pack? Are his or her choices different from yours? Why?

Create a Japanese Folding Fan

The first Japanese immigrants who came to America aboard ships usually brought folding fans with them. The folding fan was created in Japan, then spread to China and eventually to the rest of the world.

Japanese folding fans were traditionally used by both men and women as accessory items. They were used for decorative purposes, as well as for keeping cool. Historically the samurai (members of the ruling warrior class in Japan) used fans made with separate iron pieces (also called "ribs"), and royalty had their own special folding fans. Fans were also preserved on screens as artwork. There are special fans for the Japanese tea ceremony, for a form of Japanese theater called Noh, and for traditional Japanese dance. Fans, like designer pocketbooks today, often told about the social or economic class of their owner.

Historians study these fans in order to understand the culture of the time and learn what the immigrants valued. They do the same with other items that the immigrants brought with them. These types of artifacts are being collected by places such as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York.

What You Need

1 piece 18-by-25-inch wrapping paper with wilderness designs (or paper with your own designs drawn on it)


What You Do

1. Fold the paper in half the long way with the design facing out. Keep the folded part on top.

2. Fold the paper accordion style, back and forth.

3. Staple the ends together at the bottom. Now you're ready to keep cool with your fan.

Angel Island

The first stop for many Asian immigrants entering the United States was called Angel Island. It was a processing center for immigrants in San Francisco, California, that opened in 1910. A similar center, Ellis Island, processed mostly European immigrants on the East Coast, in New York City.

Unlike on Ellis Island, where most immigrants were usually admitted to the country within hours, on Angel Island immigrants were detained for days, months, even years. At the time, the nation feared that too many Asians were entering the country, so they made entering the country as difficult as possible. Immigrants were subjected to hours of interrogation, and often imprisoned without cause.

Angel Island was closed in 1940, but the scars of what Asian immigrants endured there are scratched on the walls in Chinese poetry. The Angel Island Immigration Station has been preserved as a museum in honor of Asian immigrants. The poems are still visible on the walls.

Here is a poem by a Chinese immigrant who was detained at Angel Island:

    There are tens of thousands of poems on these walls
    They are all cries of suffering and sadness
    The day I am rid of this prison and become successful
    I must remember that this chapter once existed
    I must be frugal in my daily needs
    Needless extravagance usually leads to ruin
    All my compatriots must remember China
    Once you have made some small gains,
    you should return home early

— Written by one from Heungshan

From Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910–1940 by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung

Although the poem is bleak, there is still a tone of hopefulness, of the good that is to come. It is this spirit, this hopefulness and confidence in the promise of America, that continues to draw people from all over the world.


Chinese Americans

When you think of the Wild West days you probably think of gold miners and cowboys. Did you know that the Chinese contributed a great deal to the development of the West? They worked in the gold mines, on the transcontinental railroad, on the sugarcane plantations of Hawaii, in the creation of California's farmlands, and in general they provided a vast labor force to a growing country.

Chinese Americans are the largest Asian American group in the United States. Starting in the late 1840s thousands of Chinese, mostly men, left their homeland in order to find work to provide for themselves and their families. When gold was discovered in California in 1848, it attracted hundreds of Chinese sojourners (soh-jurn-ers). A sojourner is a person who leaves home to seek fortune in another place, with the intention of returning home within a short time.

Ticket brokers handed out colorful leaflets in Chinese seaports, encouraging farmers to come to America with promises of plentiful jobs and streets lined with gold. The name that the Chinese used for California was Gam Saan, which means "Gold Mountain." The way these poor farmers were able to afford the high fare to cross the ocean was through the credit-ticket system. The farmer was given a ticket by a broker in China, and when he began to earn money in America he would pay the broker back along with interest (additional money).

Immigrants began their trip by traveling by junk (Chinese sailboat) across the Pearl River Delta from Guangdong (a province of China) to Hong Kong or Macao. From there they traveled to America by means of an American or British steamship to San Francisco, California. The trip was difficult, lasting one to two months. The Chinese followed hordes of Americans as well as other foreigners to California for gold. Hopeful miners staked claims in places where gold was likely to be found. To stake a claim meant to hammer a wooden stake into the ground and declare that you owned the gold mined there.

In the gold mines, the Chinese were treated unequally from the white miners right from the beginning. The best mines were usually claimed by white men, and only when the mines had been picked over were the Chinese allowed to go in and mine.

Even so, the thoroughness and patience of the Chinese led them to have moderate success at mining. The easy way to mine for gold is to drill through the ground for it, but this requires the purchase of expensive equipment. The Chinese practiced a more economical but painstaking form of mining called placer mining, in which you sift sand and water to find gold nuggets and dust. The Chinese worked in cooperative groups and devised clever methods to find small pieces of gold that had been left behind. In China, many had learned how to build dams and change the direction of streams and rivers. This valuable knowledge helped them find gold that was previously underwater.

Some of the Chinese mining groups became successful enough to form companies and purchase the land they mined. Concerned that they were losing income to the Chinese miners, native-born Americans became jealous and fearful of them. Speeches were made and newspaper articles written that fostered these fears in others. Eventually the state of California responded by enacting a law that required foreign miners to pay a heavy tax to the state each month. The purpose of the law was to eliminate competition from all foreigners engaged in mining and to discourage Chinese immigration to California. This made it almost impossible for the Chinese miners to earn a decent living.

In the early years, many Chinese immigrants also became farmworkers. The Chinese made great contributions to California's success in farming, even though most of them worked as tenant farmers. Tenant farmers have an arrangement with landowners who let them farm the land in exchange for part of the profits. Chinese farmers used irrigation techniques (watering methods) they had learned from farming along the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers in China, and transformed thousands of acres of California swamps and marshes into profitable farmland.

In Hawaii, the Chinese were responsible for the development of rice as a crop. We can thank Ah Bing, a Chinese immigrant to Oregon, for producing a new type of fruit that we know as the Bing cherry, and Lue Gim Gong for developing a frost-resistant orange that became vitally important to Florida's success in the citrus industry. Despite their demonstrated abilities, the Chinese worked for half the amount of pay that white workers earned.

In the years following the gold rush, many Chinese chose to leave California for other parts of the United States. They worked as farmers, factory workers, railroad workers, fishermen, miners, laundry workers, and merchants.


The first Chinatown emerged in San Francisco as the result of the gold mining boom. It was a place where mostly male Chinese immigrants lived in crowded rooms in tenements (low-cost rental apartments in the city that are often run-down and barely meet basic living standards) that looked over busy streets and alleys. Over the years Chinatown grew from a simple mining town in the 1850s to a family neighborhood and tourist attraction after World War II.

Chinatowns in San Francisco and Sacramento, and then in New York, Boston, Chicago, and other cities in America, mimicked life in China. Walking through the streets you could hear the sounds of Chinese with its high and low tones, see the men with long braids called queues (kyooz), and smell the cooking aromas of ginger and garlic from restaurants with names such as "The House of Many Fortunes" and "Great Prosperity."

There were scribes, or professional letter writers, who could write in Cantonese and address the letters properly so that the men, many of whom could not read and write in their own language, could communicate with their families in China. The letters to these wives left behind always spoke of promises to return to China. Letters from their families back home often pleaded or demanded that the men return, something few could ever afford to do.

In Chinatown they could read newspapers in Cantonese, gamble in the many gambling houses, linger over tea, and buy familiar Chinese foods such as roasted duck, salted fish, sea cucumber, pickled plums, and shark's fin soup.

If sick, they would visit the herbalist, who recommended age-old Chinese remedies. As families settled in Chinatowns, many Chinese Americans worked in the factories, laundries, and restaurants. In their free time they attended Chinese plays at the opera houses, meditated in Chinese temples, and sent their children to Chinese schools to learn Chinese.

Today you can still visit Chinatowns in cities across America. It is very enjoyable to take a tour of the city, enjoy an authentic Chinese meal, and shop in the many stores that offer beautiful framed calligraphy, statues of Buddha, tea sets, fans, incense, Chinese porcelain, jade, and 24-karat gold.

Grocery stores in Chinatown are busy, bustling markets where people yell their orders in Chinese to butchers and fish sellers, where shelves are stocked from floor to ceiling with imported Chinese foods such as dried cuttlefish, duck's feet, dried seaweed, pig snouts, whole fish, live frogs and turtles, and a spectacular selection of teas. Outside, boxes and baskets of bok choy, Chinese broccoli, bitter melon, lo bok, and other Chinese fruits and vegetables spill onto the sidewalk.

Chinese bakeries are sprinkled throughout Chinatown, where delicious aromas from moon cakes, pork buns, sticky rice cookies, and red bean paste cakes waft out to the street.

In Chinatown there is something for everyone. It's like visiting a slice of China right here in America.


Many Chinese Americans are Buddhists and attend Buddhist temples. Buddhism began in India in the fifth century B.C.E. and spread to many areas of Asia and the rest of the world. Its founder is Siddhartha Buddha, a Hindu prince. Buddhism is based on the teachings of Buddha, which are called the Four Noble Truths. The truths are that life is suffering, that ignorance and desire causes suffering, that understanding this (called finding enlightenment) leads to nirvana (nir-vah-nah), an end to suffering, and that by following Buddhist teachings you can learn the way to achieve nirvana.

Chinese Clothing

The formal clothing and dress of the early Chinese immigrants was very beautiful and ornate. Chinese Americans looked very different from the typical American at the time. A man wore a silk jacket and trousers, with an American gray or black felt hat with a rim (raised edge that goes around the hat) and a low crown (the top of the hat). On his feet he wore white stockings and cloth shoes that had cork or pigskin soles.

The men wore their hair in long queues, braids that stretched down the length of their backs, and kept the top front part of their heads shaved. They had been forbidden to cut these braids while living under Manchu rule in China, and eventually it became the Chinese style. The Manchus were nomadic people from the north of China who took over the capital of Beijing from the Han people in 1644 (most of the people living in China were Han) and set up the Qing Dynasty, which lasted for 250 years.


Excerpted from A Kid's Guide to Asian American History by Valerie Petrillo. Copyright © 2007 Valerie Petrillo. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Valerie Petrillo is the author of Sailors, Whalers, Fantastic Sea Voyages: An Activity Guide to North American Sailing Life.

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