Into the Fold

By Sacha Zimmerman and Kristen Page


In Japanese tradition, the folding of 1,000 origami cranes can signify many things: luck, hope, peace, and more. In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage month, the Sidwell Friends Asian Students Association and the South Asian Students Association decided to soar a little higher: They enlisted students at all grade levels to handfold 1,000 cranes for each division. Now more than 3,000 cranes have been created to hang in each division next fall.

Crane-folding is a rich tradition at the School, though not on an annual basis. But for Brooke Bao ’22 and Rashi Gupta ’22, this year it was more important than ever to continue the tradition. “We did it when I was a fresh- man, and it was always a nice gesture,” said Bao, the head of the Asian Students Association at Sidwell Friends. “But this year, we wanted it to represent more and use it to show solidarity and support for the Asian community as a School.” So, all divisions received special origami papers, and across the campuses, students got to folding.

“Upper Schoolers are usually able to fold more than kindergartners,” said Gupta, the head of the South Asian Students Association. “So, we thought we’d help with their 1,000 cranes. But the Lower School has been folding much more than we thought; they’re really getting into it. The Middle School sent over two giant garbage bags that have at least 500 each. It’s brought us all together; it’s really good to see.”

Amid a disturbing rise in anti-Asian hate over the course of the past year, including more than 140 incidents in the DC, Maryland, and Virginia area, Sidwell Friends took AAPI Heritage Month as an opportunity to learn about and honor the role Asian cultures play in the School. The month kicked off with the 2021 John Fisher Zeidman ’79 Memorial Lecture with author and professor Erika Lee, who discussed patterns of anti-Asian sentiment across U.S. history. The month also began with the traditional Sidwell Friends iftar, the nightly meal that breaks the Ramadan fast, on May 1. Sponsored by the Parents of Asian Students and held virtually, the guest speaker was Tarek Elgawhary, an imam at the Islamic Community Center of Potomac and the co-founder and president of the Coexist Foundation. The Lower School also recognized Ramadan, which held a special assembly about Islam’s holiest month. Recordings of students asking and answering questions about Ramadan and Eid, the holiday that marks the end of the month, played not only to students but to grandparents, who were joining virtually for Grandparents Days.

On May 12, children’s book author and illustrator Grace Lin joined the Middle School 5th and 6th graders and the Lower School via Zoom for a special presentation. While her name wasn’t necessarily familiar at first to everyone, when an image of her book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon popped up on the screen, there were gasps and multiple murmurings of “I love that book!” Lin spoke about being the only person of color in the town where she grew up in upstate New York and how she wanted to suppress her Chinese heritage to better fit in with her white classmates. “I said, ‘Okay, I’m just going to pretend I’m not Chinese,’” she told the kids. “And I did a really good job of pretending.”

Things started to change, she said, when her mother put a book of traditional Chinese fairy tales on the bookshelf. (Lin said her mom knew that if she just handed Lin the book, Lin never would have read it; she had to find it for her- self.) In that book of Chinese fairy tales, she found stories she had never heard before—along with some disappointment. The book, unlike the beautifully illustrated books of Western fairy tales, largely lacked pictures and was printed on cheap paper, which made Lin feel that the stories of The Lady and the Moon and Lu-San, Daughter of Heaven were somehow worth less than Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. That stuck with Lin as she began her writing career, and when she  published Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, she insisted that it be printed on high-quality paper, with lots of lush, full-color pictures (which Lin also drew). “I didn’t want anyone who read my book,” she said, “to feel the way I did when I read those stories back then.”

The Asian Students Association and South Asian Students Association then turned to the Sidwell Friends community for the month-long “This Is Us” photo-essay project. Photos of smiling families, traditional dress, festive foods, and family heirlooms, along with brief descriptions of the photos, gave a glimpse into the wide range of Asian cultures found in the School community. “Because of all the anti-Asian hate we’re seeing, AAPI month has become more important,” Gupta said. “Even when we hopefully have more awareness and unity, it’ll still be there to be celebrated.” AAPI month will always be cause for celebration—and the cranes will always fly over Sidwell Friends.

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