Talking about Chinese diasporas

History Ph.D. candidate Sarah Yu’s class transformed students into tour guides and podcasters as they honed their public speaking skills while learning about Chinese migration.

Penn history P.hD. candidate Sarah Yu sits at a table with a blackboard behind her, a laptop on the table showing a video of students
History PhD. Sarah Yu (left) taught a class this spring that looked at Chinese migration while helping students hone public speaking skills.

Not many Penn students have to give a presentation on a narrow street in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, trying to keep listeners’ attention as shoppers amble by chatting, scooters rev engines at stop lights, and anxious commuters honk at slow traffic. But students in history Ph.D. candidate Sarah Yu’s Chinese diasporas course did just that this spring, when they spent a day as Chinatown tour guides.

It was all part of Yu’s seminar, The Chinese Diaspora(s): Culture, Conflict, & Cuisine, 19th century to the Present, where students not only became tour guides but also podcasters, learning about migration and Chinese overseas communities, all while honing their public speaking skills with the help of Penn’s Communication Within the Curriculum program (CWIC).

“Having had Chinese Americans in the news so often in the past couple of years—because of COVID, because of the rise in hate crimes and even the lawsuits against Harvard—it has renewed ideas about what Chinese migration has meant for this country and others,” Yu says. “It’s a good time to do a course like this, and when the opportunity to work with CWIC came up, I thought, Why not make the course public-speaking oriented?”

CWIC is a program within the School of Arts & Sciences that connects undergraduates trained in public speaking with others across the school in need of assistance, from a public speaking-intensive undergrad course to assistance for graduate students in presenting research. The Chinese diasporas class connected with CWIC adviser Rodrigo Veiga da Cunha, a sophomore majoring in political science and economics from outside Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Students in Sarah Yu's Chinese diaspora's class stand in front of a mural in Chinatown
Students in history P.h.D candidate Sarah Yu’s (third from left) class about Chinese diasporas spent a day acting as tour guides in Chinatown. (Image: Courtesy of Yvonne Fabella)

He worked with Yu’s class of six students, first in pairs that were giving the tours of Chinatown together, then individually to help them prepare to interview their podcast subjects. 

While mostly focused on the Chinese in the United States, the seminar also drew comparative examples from Australia, Britain, and Southeast Asia, among other localities to which the Chinese migrated. Even though the current day “Chinese diaspora” is made up of diverse linguistic, ethnic, and class groups, its national place of origin was a unifying identifying feature, both internally and externally, throughout the history of Chinese migration, Yu says.

The class stops before it gets to contemporary history and way before the COVID pandemic, she says, but that is also because Yu wanted to give students leeway in their final projects, which consisted of interviewing people who work on broadly-defined Chinese migrant welfare for a podcast. 

“They could be artists, they could be lawyers, legal advocates, journalists, historians,” says Yu. “A lot of the interview subjects have talked about COVID. A lot of them have really thought about how we can understand today’s treatment of Chinese migrants with this historical perspective.”

The class headed to Chinatown in March after a unit on Chinatowns around the world, looking at similarities, differences, aesthetic elements, and what the designation of “Chinatown” means for business opportunities and smaller municipal governments. Three groups of two students took turns showing classmates and special guests around the community for 20 minutes each.

“There are a lot of things to consider in Chinatown. There’s noise, being stuck on a little street in Center City with people driving by. It’s not what we usually think of when we think about public speaking,” Yu says. “There’s always something that goes a little bit differently, and the students really brought a lot of energy. It was really fun to see their personalities come out when they were doing the tours.”

The oral assignments got the students thinking about how they could be better communicators, Yu says. “Those are going to be skills that they can take with them anywhere they go. These presentation skills are transferable skills.”

Olivia Loo, a junior majoring in philosophy, politics, and economics and in East Asian languages with a focus on Chinese, says she first looked into the class because it was relevant to her Chinese major, but the fact that it was also a critical speaking seminar sealed the deal.

“I’ve never taken a class where a lot of the assignments are based on speaking as opposed to writing or reading or tests,” Loo says. “It was a great opportunity to take a new format of class and was also in alignment with what I'm interested in studying. It’s really fun to study and learn in a different way.”

Students sit around a table looking at laptop computers
Students became tour guides but also podcasters in the course that focussed on migration and Chinese overseas communities.

Loo says it has been eye-opening to take a deep dive into Chinese American history, in terms of learning about the different motivations for Chinese people coming to the U.S., what life looked like when Chinese people first came here, how they spread out, and how communities established themselves around the nation.

“Most of my Chinese classes are policy or political science-oriented, learning about Sino-U.S. relations as opposed to talking about what being Chinese looks like outside of China today, and what it’s looked like over the past 150 years,” Loo says. “That’s been my favorite part of the class.”

Aimee Cheng, a senior studying finance at the Wharton School from Phoenix, Arizona, says she wanted to choose a class her last semester that would fulfill some personal interests.

“This class piqued my interest because it was like a critical speaking seminar and also because I come from a family who emigrated to America,” she says. “I wanted to learn more about history, particularly that aligns with my family’s.”

CWIC undergraduate advisers take a credit-bearing course in public speaking, which then guarantees them a spot as a CWIC adviser until graduation. The advisers get a chance to pick the classes they work with, and the Chinese diasporas class leapt out at Veiga da Cunha, not just because Chinatown is his favorite neighborhood in Philly, he says, but also because it gave him a chance to learn about a topic that was new to him.

Veiga da Cunha says he appreciated the challenges of helping the students prepare for the Chinatown tours. “It’s a very urban area; it’s hard to get your audience to focus on you with so many distractions. It was a very interesting challenge because most of my advising so far has been on formal presentations where people have PowerPoints and everyone’s just focused on the presenter,” he says.  

He also helped the students come up with a checklist of what to talk about in their podcasts as far as topics and questions and helped coach them to have a flow of conversation when in the studio.

Coaching people on public speaking is a win-win for all involved, Veiga da Cunha says.

“It’s really a two-way street, where everybody learns from each other,” he says of advising. “It’s a very rewarding experience.”

A major benefit of the CWIC program is becoming a specialist in an area that a lot of people struggle with throughout their lives, he says. 

“Everyone, from economists to scientists to professors, can get nervous and stressed out about public speaking,” says Veiga da Cunha. “We advisers do end up being more comfortable with that over time because of all the practice we’ve had through helping others.”