Thank you, Aunt Oi-Yee

My Aunt Oi-Yee Tsang Lau passed away on Thursday, July 2, 2020

Aunt Oi-Yee was the person in my life who helped me discover the joy of learning. Not just because she was a public-school teacher and a school counselor. She was natural educator. Her demeanor, her openness, her patience, and her ability to see the best in a person are all things that helped make me an educator too. Aunt Oi-Yee started her teaching career as a New York City public school teacher in Chinatown in the 1960s. Forty years later, I would follow in her footsteps to start my own teacher career as a New York City public school teacher. If it weren’t for my Aunt Oi-Yee, I don’t think I would have ever seen education as a real career path.

Growing up, I never had any teachers who looked like me. To this day, I don’t think I have ever had an Asian American teacher or professor. Knowing that my Aunt Oi-Yee was a classroom teacher and then later a school counselor impacted me tremendously. I could visually see myself orchestrating a classroom full of young minds, engaging in the joy of learning every day because I could see my Aunt doing this, and thereby I could see myself doing it. Representation matters. Even today, I am often told by my own Asian American students that I am the first Asian American teacher or professor they have ever had. And I wonder how my life would have been different without Aunt Oi-Yee in my life as a role model. I probably would have succumbed to anti-teacher rhetoric, positioning teaching and education as noble but unrealistic professions because of the low pay and lack of professional respect.

Much of the work I do as an education scholar involves reading. A lot. From a young age, I always loved reading. And this is because of Aunt Oi-Yee. As a child, I have so many memories of boxes of books showing up at our house. Aunt Oi-Yee, through an educator affiliate program, managed to get us an entire set of World Book Encyclopedia’s in our house, along with the annual updates!  She also got us other volumes that World Books published too, such as the Disney Goofy’s World of Sports series. So much of my understanding of the world involved pouring over those encyclopedias.

But most importantly, Aunt Oi-Yee did not just introduce me to school-based literacy, she also opened the door for other forms of storytelling. Aunt Oi-Yee routinely sent me my cousins David and Eddie’s old books. They had grown up in late-70s New York City. They held knowledge about popular culture I found fascinating: art house films, early computers, punk rock, and most importantly, comic books.

I still remember a box showing up at my house filled with reprints of the classic Marvel comics cannon. Trade paperbacks that reprinted the first runs of Fantastic Four, the Amazing Spider-Man, the Avengers (I thought they were so boring), the original X-Men, and the Giant-Size X-men run which introduced the new X-Menteam (my absolute favorite of the bunch). I read and re-read those comics, learning so much about 1960s and 1970s New York, seeing the world through the fresh energy of comic books! The stories so wild, the art so zany and fluid, the themes so simple yet so deep. And best of all, I know understood the humble origins of these characters that popped up in cartoons, on my lunchbox, and in popular culture. Like, I knew how Ben Grimm was originally pitched, a street-wise New York kid who became an astronaut but was continually taunted by his old friends in the Yancy Street Gang. I saw the power in characters like Storm, not just a humanized god, but a Black, female superhero. And most of all, I got to learn about the high school version of Peter Parker, the everykid just trying to help his Aunt May and do the right thing.

So much of my own life’s journey stems from these influences from Aunt Oi-Yee. I became a teacher. I became an academic scholar. I became a storyteller. All due to this amazing woman who happened to be my mom’s older sister. 

Rest in power, Aunt Oi-Yee. 

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