Published August 11, 2022
Historian Shu Wan wanted to study more than people of the past: He decided it was time he experienced history in the making.
This new approach has brought the UB doctoral student to a new project documenting the experiences of Chinese-Americans living in Western New York during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In my oral history project, I want to talk about our struggle with racial tension and other issues influencing society, especially during and after the pandemic,” says Wan, a native of China. “I believe telling a story could really change our neighborhood.”
Wan arrived in “surban” Iowa — a term that means “suburban urban” — to pursue a master’s degree in history and library science.
But his academic path changed when a professor at the University of Iowa, Douglas Baynton, encouraged him to question his perspective.
“I didn’t think disability could be a subject for research. Before I came to the U.S., Chinese historians didn’t think highly of the experiences of people with disabilities,” Wan says. “After taking many courses about different types of disabilities, I told myself ‘OK, as a hearing person, I want to do something about this.’ I took great interest in the history of people with hearing impairments in childhood in the early 20th century.
“My story is really different from those who are typically interested in studying disabilities,” he adds. “Most have a disability themselves, or they have a loved one with a disability.”
Wan’s growing interest in the history of China and disability led him to UB to pursue his PhD. He was intrigued by the work of faculty in the UB history department, among them Michael Rembis and Kristin Stapleton.
And his time in Buffalo brought to light a common experience shared by Chinese-American communities hundreds of miles apart: tribulation.
Despite their different demographics, Iowa and Buffalo experienced the same two threats: the public health crisis of the pandemic and the racial issue associated with the pandemic.
“The project is still in the preliminary stages,” Wan says of his new research interest. “But according to the preliminary outcome of my research, I found that Chinese-Americans faced similar scenarios during the pandemic in both Iowa and New York, despite their differences. Politically, Iowa is a red state and New York is a blue state. The Chinese community in Iowa is much smaller. When I came to Buffalo, I noticed that it’s very culturally diverse.”
Wan’s efforts to educate the local community on the hostility faced by Chinese individuals during the pandemic earned him a $2,000 Public Humanities Grant from Humanities New York.
“I don’t want to just focus on a traumatic narrative,” Wan says, “but I’ve personally witnessed the increase of racial tension around the pandemic. I’ve watched a lot of my Chinese friends — Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans alike — become victims of racial discrimination. We’ve been told to get out of the United States, and we’ve been called an ‘Asian disease.’”
The COVID-19 pandemic is hardly the first time Chinese people have been discriminated against and harassed in America.
As part of his project, Wan also examined the bubonic plague epidemic that surged through San Francisco’s Chinatown from 1900-04, a collective tragedy largely ignored by the local government.
In his research, he compared the action taken by Chinese-American leaders during the COVID-19 and bubonic plague epidemics. In both instances, he found that political activists fought to unify communities and confront the social issues they were facing.
During the bubonic plague epidemic, “the racial tension was much worse than in contemporary society,” Wan says, noting the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years. “Yet, Chinese activists and political figures didn’t sit there and accept things as they were,” he notes. “They decided to try to change the local government and change the local perception of Chinese people.”
Wan’s work illustrates a famous Mark Twain quote: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” He says that although history doesn’t necessarily replicate the same circumstances, there are patterns that emerge over time. He seeks remedies that could break this cycle of racial tension, primarily due to misinformation, during crises in the United States.
“When studying history, we can take a lot of useful lessons from the past to help us solve the social problems in today’s society,” Wan says.
He plans to add an exhibit to his oral history project to showcase the full narrative of the Chinese community of Western New York.
“While I believe in the power of storytelling in solving social issues, documentation is not enough,” Wan says. “I want to arrange a display of the outcome of my research — of the story, of the photos, of what happened to Chinese immigrants and Chinese exchange students, like me, during the pandemic. I want to show people what we experienced.”
Wan would like to recruit two or three undergraduate students interested in the history of Asian immigrants in Western New York to work as research assistants. It would be a collaborative effort, with a stipend and training. Anyone interested can contact Wan.