A Conversation with Annie Tan

Can you introduce yourself to our readers?

My name is Annie Tan, and I am a special education teacher, writer, activist and storyteller! I was born and raised in Chinatown, Manhattan and am based here in New York City. 

What inspired you to choose your field of work?

I have wanted to be a teacher since I was six. I am a child of two Chinese immigrants who did their best, but like many immigrant parents, my parents couldn’t help with school since they do not speak English and were exhausted and overworked. I cried for most of my early childhood, until the first grade when I met my first grade teacher Ms. Sheridan. We shook up heavy cream until it turned into milk and butter, put honey on graham crackers, popped kernels into popcorn, and I loved learning. I knew then the power of a teacher, and I wanted to make kids feel as good as I did.

As I went through more schooling, I realized just how segregated and unfair things could be, which furthered my resolve to be a teacher, especially for kids of immigrants like me.

While doing well in school, at 13 I happened to watch a PBS documentary on TV, Becoming American: the Chinese Experience. From the documentary, I first learned about a man named Vincent Chin who was murdered by two white Auto workers, assuming he was Japanese and blaming him (and Japanese companies) for the auto crisis in Detroit in 1982. I was amazed to see so many people who looked like me fighting in the streets for justice, many calling themselves Asian Americans for the first time. I had never heard the term Asian American before and thought it was amazing to see these protests. My mom then came into the room, saw Vincent’s photo on the screen, and informed me he was our cousin, and that his mother Lily Chin, who led the campaign for justice, was my great auntie. From then on I knew I wanted to follow in my family footsteps and fight for justice.

What has been your favorite moment teaching special education?

Many of my 4th- and 5th-grade students have gone years without being able to read or write in English. English is truly an unforgiving language with so many different spelling patterns that don’t have follow-through (look at the “ough” sounds in “tough,” “thought,” and “though.” It’s brutal!) But with a lot of focus on writing, phonics, practice, and doing, I slowly see the wheels turning for reading. I have taught many students how to read and all of them, when they pick up a foreign text and are able to read them aloud, have SUCH confused looks on their face. Seeing those confused looks is THE best.

Has teaching students with disabilities given you a new perspective on life? If yes, how?

Being a special education teacher is like being a detective. I love helping kids figure out how they function best and to self-advocate, all while not being a “savior.” But we are not taught these skills in school: oftentimes students are just forced to do whatever a teacher says or to follow a curriculum and lessons that aren’t engaging. We can’t just keep on with status quo and go on “as normal.” I’ve learned to let my students take the lead and follow them.

I thought I was my parents’ retirement plan, so I was a hyper-able overachieving student, borne out of necessity from a scarcity mindset. I thought when I started teaching that it would be enough to love my students and want to save them, but in my first year of teaching I floundered because I had learned to just hustle and finish assignments rather than slowing down, working smarter, and listening to people.

I learned from my students that, as much as I advocate for them, I also need to take care of myself, advocate for my own needs as well as theirs, find my own strengths and use those toward good.

What kind of teacher can I be towards healthy, sustainable, and joyful students if I don’t know how to live that kind of life myself? I had to learn to let go of expectations that didn’t matter and focus on what was really important, something that the students and I would decide together.

As a teacher of kids with immigrant backgrounds, I’ve learned also it’s not too late to learn and love my own family’s languages and heritages. I see how proud my students are of being who they are, something I wish I had as a child myself. I do my best now to share my own experiences with my students so they hold onto their home languages and heritages. 

What is one thing able-bodied individuals can do to make the world more accessible for those who are disabled?

We really need the world to be more accessible in general! Elevators help everyone, ramps help everyone, visuals and pictures help everyone! So many spaces right now are just completely inaccessible to so many people. Many people also come with invisible disabilities, such as not being able to read or not speaking in English, and we really need to take the lead of disability rights activists and advocates to make spaces more accessible. 

How does your work as an activist intersect with your work as a teacher?

During this whole pandemic I have been advocating for accessible school conditions for my students, including remote options, devices, Wi-Fi, provisions of masks, windows, you name it. At this point, I have probably been quoted by every single New York City news source on safer schools conditions. I have been working with like-minded educators in MORE-UFT, the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, for years to make student learning conditions, our educator working conditions, more just and healthy for all of us.

Unfortunately I’ve also had to be an outspoken advocate against anti-Asian hate, telling and retelling my family’s story of losing our cousin Vincent Chin and the movement for justice to show that this anti-Asian violence is not just recent phenomena but has existed for centuries in America (and across the world).

I think a lot of our curriculum in classrooms is focused so much on what other people have done in the past, but not so much what we can do in the present to change things. I met a student who spoke at their first press conference on Saturday that they could and should continue to be an activist.

The only thing you have to do to be an activist is to act. And I hope I am imparting that lesson to others, to act. 

What is the most difficult thing about writing a memoir?

I was first drawn to tell my stories publicly after Trump was elected in fall 2016, feeling like women and kids of every immigrant diaspora had to speak up against what Trump was about to do and the xenophobia in America. Over five years, I found that many of my stories revolved around my relationship with my father and wanting to be close to my family. That has pushed me in so much of my life and is the guiding light of our story, finding a way to come back to family and the people you love. Honestly, most of my challenge is making time to write. I have spent 32 years putting the needs of others before myself, and it is incredibly hard to finally focus on my own needs. Being a teacher during the pandemic has also been draining, with so many unsafe and changing school conditions. But I have to allot time in order to finish my memoir. My goal is to finish a first draft by the end of 2021. 

What advice would you give to our readers who want to start working in activism, but don’t know where to start?

Volunteer with a local group. Go with a friend. Look up organizations doing good work that you believe in, or just go and see if you can volunteer in some capacity. I’ve learned so much about myself by doing. I’ve learned I am a people person, I can talk to anyone because I’m an educator, I can be a greeter and welcomer. I’m happy carrying things, knocking doors, phone banking, there are so many ways that you can help, and so many opportunities to help. You learn by doing, and you learn with practice.

What is one piece of advice you would give to your younger self?

Don’t be so hard on yourself. I wish you didn’t feel like you had to work so hard for everything. You are going to get yourself sick if you keep going and don’t take care of yourself. Please take breaks and allot time for rest! As said on your phone case, “Be kind,” not to others, but to yourself, and grant yourself compassion and grace.


Fun Rapid-Fire Questions!

Guilty pleasure TV show:

I am currently finishing the third season of The Circle! I am so happy to see some genuine players in this game, and to see players generally safe during a pandemic in separate solo apartments!

Favorite thing about living in NYC:

I love all the different foods I can get, especially in Jackson Heights, Queens! Tibetan, Nepalese, Indian, Mexican, and so many others I have to try soon! And, I always get the southern Chinese cuisine I want!

If you could eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be:

My favorite food is mango salsa, with a good ripe mango cut up into pieces and a good pico de gallo mixed in. I guess I would pair that with an amazing ceviche, although I don’t want to contribute to carbon emissions and climate change, so the ceviche would have to be vegetarian!

Annie Tan is a special education teacher, activist, writer and storyteller based in Chinatown, New York City. Annie fights for her students, public education, teachers unions, tenants rights, and Asian American issues, working to organize a better world. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Huffington Post, The New Republic, PBS’ documentary series Asian Americans, and twice on the Moth Radio Hour. Annie is currently working on her first book, a memoir. You can follow Annie’s work at annietan.com and @annietangent!

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

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