Isabelle Pan portrait

Written by Isabelle Pan

Isabelle Pan is a secondary teacher. She is of Chinese heritage, grew up in France and England, and has studied in Scotland and California. She is from besea.n, Britain’s East and South East Asian Network, and is also working for MA Consultancy. Her interests are in equity in education, promoting books by authors of marginalised backgrounds to young people, and dance. She can be found at @readingwith.misspan (Instagram), and @mspanlanguages (Twitter)

For 3  of the 5 East and South East Asian Lunar New Year festivals, New Year’s Day was on Sunday 22 January this year (Spring Festival, Seollal and Tet), with some countries celebrating for 2 weeks until the Lantern Festival. To bring awareness to the festivals, besea.n (Britain’s East and South East Asian Network) published some Lunar New Year school resources which are culturally sensitive and accurate, and include lesson plans, assemblies, reading lists and form time resources to schools. 

In my own school, I presented 3 assemblies, to Years 7, 8 and 9. These were my 1st assemblies ever in my teaching career. Needless to say, I was terrified in the leadup to them.

I had thought about doing assemblies on East and South East Asian (ESEA) cultures before, but though I may be a teacher who presents to 28 students a lesson 5 times a day, and a dancer who has often got up on stage in front of hundreds, speaking to a room of 300 young people for ten minutes was a little too daunting. I avoided materialising this idea, for fear of students being disengaged, or worse, racist.

Naturally, I was hugely nervous on the day. But what surprised me was how, as soon as I spoke into the mic, my nerves faded away. Being able to stand in front of an accumulated total of 900 students, to share with them the traditions of the 5 LNY festivals as well as my own family’s celebrations, and to see students engaging with the topic – this has been such a joy. 

The assembly talked through the similarities between the 5 festivals as well as the unique traditions of each festival. Lunar New Year festivals in East and South East Asia mainly come under the following five types:

  1. Spring Festival –  China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Brunei, Macau
  2. Tết (Tết Nguyên Đán) – Vietnam
  3. Seollal – South Korea, North Korea
  4. Losar – Tibet
  5. Tsagaan Sar – Mongolia 

In the assembly I also spoke about the growing tendency for the festivals to be more inclusively referred to as Lunar New Year (rather than just Chinese New Year) as an umbrella name for the five festivals, and to reflect just how many communities celebrate the festival. In addition, I featured photos and videos of my family celebrating in London but also my uncles, aunts, and cousins celebrating in China. There are many misconceptions about LNY and so the goal of my assembly was to give a fuller, clearer, and more sensitive view of the five festivals. 

I was touched by the positive reception these assemblies had. Afterwards, students and staff congratulated me on the assembly, told me what they learnt, asked me more questions about LNY, and students I didn’t know greeted me and wished me a happy Lunar New Year in the corridor. One colleague told me ‘thank you for your assembly, it was really informative. I have a Korean guest staying with me and now I know to wish her a happy new year this Sunday’. Children told me ‘Miss now I know we should call it Lunar New Year and not Chinese New Year’. 

I staunchly believe in decolonising our education systems, and the way the students (and staff) responded to this assembly is just another piece of evidence that such a change is desired and needed by our students. Young people want to learn more about a variety of cultures – it interests them, it enriches their minds, challenges them to think critically, and builds connection and empathy.

For the students and staff I presented to, this was only 1 assembly. It will not completely overhaul their belief systems. Even on the day I wrote this post, 2 students made ignorant comments with regards to East and South East Asian cultures, in front of me.

The effect such comments have on you does not disappear, but as a teacher you learn to take things less personally. It is still disheartening to hear such comments, but it reflects more on the other person than on you. And it also highlights the fact that education about ESEA cultures and communities is just so dire in this country. The education about ESEA communities in our system needs to exist – I cannot even say it needs to improve, as something needs to exist before it can be improved – in order to challenge anti-ESEA attitudes.

Though schools may occasionally speak on racism in PSHE and assemblies, the nuance is not yet there in many schools. Even when discussing anti-Black racism, I have seen resources that contain traumatic images or videos, triggering Black students who may be in the room. And painfully for me as an ESEA educator, I’ve noticed that issues facing ESEAs are often missing from resources about racism.

I wouldn’t say it’s the duty of ESEA people to speak up, as there shouldn’t be that kind of burden, but I also think change will be so much more powerful with ESEA communities believing we can take up space and speak up for ourselves in schools. 

Equally, non-ESEA colleagues are also crucial. A colleague in the Y8 team, who is not ESEA, is the one who had convinced me to do the Y8 assembly, then convinced me to do the Y9 one, and then I thought, ‘I might as well do the Y7 one too’. I’m grateful for her encouragement and her belief that this was an important topic.

Throughout my career, students have always asked me “Miss, where are you from?” I never told them as I didn’t know what they would do with that information, and this fear heightened with every racist experience I had in school. But with these assemblies, I finally very publicly shared stories from my Chinese heritage and family. I was proud of my Chinese heritage. 

My nerves which come with talking about ESEA cultures or even showing photos of ESEA faces will not simply fade away with delivering one assembly, because young people (and adults) will continue to make ignorant comments. But I feel increasingly better-equipped, motivated, and empowered to help young people overcome prejudices towards ESEA communities, and hope that there can be a movement to decolonise our education system, so that future ESEA educators and students can be publicly proud when talking about their ESEA heritages.