Celebrating Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month: Individuals share stories, trials. Junior Sydney Cook and Chinese teacher Yanan Vrudny

Junior Sydney Cook


Junior Sydney Cook

Chinese American junior Sydney Cook has grown up celebrating her Chinese culture while at the same time enjoying many American traditions.

Aspects such as food and her grandmother’s influence have helped Cook understand her Asian roots. “I see my grandmother a lot,” she said. “I think a lot of connecting with my Asian culture is pursued by things that my grandmother brought into my life.”

Being multiracial, Cook finds it difficult to balance both of her identities. Presumptions people make about her have also made it hard for her to feel seen in both identities. “I feel like there have been assumptions made on both sides,” she said. “I get a lot of assumptions about being too Asian or being too white, and I feel like I’m never enough.”

Cook perceives a difference in how she is viewed compared to her non-Asian half-siblings. “Even though they’re much younger than me, I think how much is expected from me academically versus them is very different,” she said.

Cook wants to embrace and explore more of her Asian heritage. “I think that my Chinese heritage has made me feel more of a [desire] to be part of a bigger community,” she said. “There’s such a rich culture and history [there], but I just haven’t been able to connect with it as much as I’d like to.”

Her experience living in Palo Alto has made her feel safe as an Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) individual, unlike in other places. “Sometimes I go to other places in state or out of state [where] I feel a lot less comfortable just because there’s no one that looks like me,” she said. “Things that normally don’t make me stand out [here] will make me stand out a lot [elsewhere].” Still, within different parts of California, such as Los Angeles (LA), where Cook’s father lives, her experience has differed. “There have definitely been times where even people that I’m close to in LA have treated me very differently and made a lot of assumptions [about me].”

Despite her U.S. History class doing some research on the history of minority groups, Cook would have liked to further explore AAPI countries. “We do talk about immigration of AAPI people into America, but it’s in more of a past tense rather than current,” she said. “I would probably feel more represented if we put more of an emphasis on what is currently going on with the AAPI community and how they are being treated in America.”

Although Gunn’s history classes have covered some Asian history, Cook has felt the most represented in her theater classes. “[Theater teacher] Kristen Lo has dedicated herself to making sure we tell a very diverse selection of stories, including Chinese folklore and plays highlighting Asian characters,” she said. “It was really cool for people to be able to read from plays that normally schools might be afraid to put on.” Along with studying the classics, such as Shakespeare, Gunn’s theater curriculum also explores a more modern and diverse selection of plays including titles such as “The Great Leap” by Lauren Yee.

The communicative and inclusive environment that Lo fosters contributes to Cook feeling more represented on campus. “The content Mrs. Lo creates has really allowed people to learn more about other people’s cultures and their own cultures,” she said.

Although she has at times been frustrated with the lack of AAPI history in school curriculum, Cook is thankful to be surrounded by a supportive community. “I feel really lucky to be [here],” she said. “There’s such a big AAPI community at Gunn and there’s also a lot of people who are mixed, which has made me feel more comfortable in both identities.”

— Written by Safina Syed.


Chinese Teacher Yanan Vrudny

A young woman in her late twenties arrives in California in hopes of pursuing her dream career. She is aware of the difficulties she may face, but she is willing to dedicate herself to her goals and put in the necessary effort.

This woman is none other than Chinese teacher Yanan Vrudny, whom students call Zhang Laoshi. Vrudny teaches Chinese 1, 2 and 3, as well as advanced placement and honors classes. Originally born in China, she moved to the United States when she was 29 years old.

Vrudny moved to the US to pursue teaching. Her initial dream was to become an elementary school teacher.

Vrudny experienced pressure because the cultural shift and assumptions people sometimes made about her affected her pursuit of teaching. “I realized I didn’t know any American nursery rhymes,” she said. “Growing up in America, it’s natural for you to remember. But I didn’t know any of them, and since I wanted to be an elementary school teacher, I would go to the library and bookstore just to through a lot of children’s books. I read books [such as] “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” [as well as] other childrens’ books.”

At graduate school pursuing a teaching credential, Vrudny’s ethnicity was also foreign to the community that she lived in. “Back then, I lived in San Diego,” she said. “Locally, [at that time], there were not many Chinese or Asians taking teaching credential programs. I was the only Asian in my program and I was very excited to have graduated.”

After graduating, Vrudny worked as a substitute teacher in the San Diego area. “I showed up in front of the office ten years ago,” she said. “I greeted the front desk lady who said, ‘Hello,’ and [she] asked me, ‘Are you here to pick up your kids?’ She thought I was just an Asian parent, when [really] I was the substitute teacher.”

The novel culture was also a new experience for the students too. “It was a Hispanic-speaking neighborhood and many of the kids had never seen an Asian before,” she said.

To celebrate Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, Vrudny has made a template of a Padlet for her students to explore AAPI heritage. The Padlet requires students to find out the location of each culture. Vrudny has already added the categories of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Korean heritage to the Padlet. She will have her students add more cultures to the Padlet and do research for each heritage. “[The students will post] the products, practice and perspective of the culture,” she said. “I would also like to have them find a short video clip about [each] culture. I want students to be able to compare their cultures because they’re all so different, and discover similarities and differences.”

Vrudny hopes for more students to learn about AAPI heritage in the future. “I hope that we can explore more in terms of geographic areas and how many cultures are represented,” she said.


—Written by Michelle Koo.