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LaGuardia Archivist and Linguist Find New Perspective for COVID-19 Asian Oral History Project 

Byline: Irene Gashurov/staff writer, OLS.

Thomas Cleary.
CUNY Professor Archivist Thomas Cleary

A successful collaboration between assistant professor archivist Thomas Cleary and linguistics professor Tomonori Nagano at LaGuardia Community College will ensure the pandemic stories of the college’s Southeast Asian and South Asian students will be preserved while, at the same time, providing a wider lens onto this Asian community that is often known only by stereotype.

Tomonori Nagano.
CUNY Linguistics Professor Tomonori Nagano

The co-operation between these two academics-turned-oral historians is through LaGuardia Library’s “COVID-19 Asian Oral History Project” project in which they worked together to incorporate students’ stories into the library’s archives during this momentous period. 

LaGuardia’s involvement began in the early days of the lockdown with Nagano checking in on his bilingualism class students to see how they were managing. Like most people during the lockdown, the students talked about the isolation and uncertainty commonly felt at the time. In other ways the reactions of the Asian students to the crisis were different. The Asian students at LaGuardia, who were from mostly from South and Southeast Asia, talked about the disruption of contact with their families abroad and the dearth of public health information for their communities in their native languages—Bengali, Nepali, Tagalog, Tibetan, and Urdu. Nagano began recording their stories on video. “The purpose was not to solve a problem,” he said, “I wanted to listen to them and see what issues they had.” 

Poster of Asian woman with blue lipstick and colorful earrings. The words I still Believe in Our City written on bottom.
“I Still Believe in Our City” by Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya

When Cleary learned of Nagano’s work, he saw a chance to document an Asian population that had largely been missing from LaGuardia’s archives. “I wanted to give them representation so that our archives fully reflect our students,” said Cleary. In Fall 2021, thanks to a PSC-CUNY Grant, the team began work on the “COVID-19 Asian Oral History Project,” a video and multimedia archive of pandemic stories. Two research assistants, Mariana Lopez de Castilla and Joyce Ma, with backgrounds in oral history and community organizing, conducted the video interviews.  

Like discoveries that come about when someone finds something they were not looking for, the Asian Oral History Project revealed something essential about the lens of race. When separated from class, religion, education, and immigration status, race alone was too narrow to understand the students’ experiences and their basic humanity. Starting out, the team had assumed that because the pandemic hit people of color harder, the students would want to talk about race. Some had experienced Asian hate, others did not. Mostly they talked about shock, coping, along with their hope and aspirations, what they had done to help their community, and what was important to them.  

“We need to consider more than just race,” said Nagano of the project that defied expectations. “It’s always some interaction with something else.” He said the team will pursue their future oral history work through the lens of intersectionality, a concept referring to the complex way that different forms of discrimination crisscross and affect people. 

The Asian Oral History Project has completed 30 oral history videos thus far. “We still see the need to provide Asian students the space to speak about their experiences, especially with the increase of attacks we are seeing. At the same time, we are widening the focus of the project to students from all backgrounds and identities,” said Cleary. They are working with different community organizations, like the Queens Memory Project, a community archiving program at Queens Public Library and Queens College, and involving more people and communities in creating their own public record. They are opening the project to all CUNY students and hope to combine the online exhibit of video recordings, images, and essays with public programming.  

“We enjoy building bridges between isolated components,” said Nagano of their work. “We like doing interviews and discovering missing links.”