Monday, February 25, 2013

A Strange Valentine's Day

 ©  Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, Feb 25 2013

On Valentine's Day this year (which I forgot), I had a strangely racialized experience. My husband and I used to halfheartedly celebrate the holiday when we were a younger, newer couple. But over the years we've come to feel it doesn't hold much significance for us. So we often forget it. And truthfully, neither of us is offended. I suppose that's what can happen when you've been together over a decade. Anyways. I walked into an acupuncture appointment that morning. My provider is Chinese, from China. She tries to help me practice my Mandarin. She asked me a question in Mandarin which I didn't understand, then translated to English, "What are you doing later today?" The question was unusual because she never asks me about my plans for the day. I was confused and told her so. She elaborated further. In Mandarin. Again I didn't understand. Again she translated. Something along the lines of, "What are you doing for Valentine's Day?" I was like, "O! Uh...nothing. What about you?" She laughed. Told me (in mixed Mandarin/English again) she was working but she'd texted everybody "Happy Valentine's Day." I was definitely disoriented by our short conversation. Complete moment of bicultural weirdness. Here I am, the half-Taiwanese American, being schooled in my own culture by a Chinese immigrant. I should say, she was totally well-intentioned. There was no animosity at all. She just assumed I remembered the day's significance. She seemed confused that I was confused. And the language barrier didn't help. Very bizarre.

And I sort of chalked it up to that. Just a short, brief, bizarre conversation in passing. Until later that day. When my son came home from Chinese preschool with a huge box full of valentines, candy and a heart cookie he'd made in class. His other English-speaking (liberal) preschool, as far as I know, didn't celebrate the holiday in any largely noticeable way. At that point I couldn't help but pay attention. I suppose I laughed a little to myself. Sighed. Shook my head in - I don't know, bemused resignation? For weeks I debated whether this experience was even blogworthy. But at last I decided to write it up because it kept coming back to mind. On the one hand, it was very sweet watching my son excitedly show his "treat box"; the valentines given by friends. It brought back memories of doing the same during my own childhood. And what kid doesn't like getting candy? On the other hand, I didn't send him to Chinese preschool to learn about his American heritage (which he is inundated with every day of his life, every time he steps out the door - for better or worse). I sent him there to learn about his Chinese heritage but the school sometimes seem hellbent on being American. My son has told me about learning numbers. But when asked if his teacher counted in Chinese - he said no. He also recounted singing "Twinkle, Twinkle" in English. Which annoyed me to no end.

I was very specific about looking for a Chinese immersion environment for my little guy. I am familiar with the research and know that I don't need to worry about his English language skills. He will gain those naturally at home and in society at large. I also know that if he is to gain any sort of proficiency in another language, he needs full immersion. Despite these facts however, several Chinese preschools I contacted felt it extremely important to advertise the bilingual nature of their classrooms. They seemed to think I would be concerned about his English abilities. When I let them know I was disappointed about too much use of English, they quickly justified its use by claiming the non-native speaking kids sometimes get confused and need a little help. One Chinese preschool I considered late last year has a full hour of English language instruction in the morning by a specially hired English teacher. They claimed it was because they didn't want the children to "fall behind." We're talking about 3 to 5 year olds here, by the way. Typically American children don't even begin focusing on reading and writing until kindergarten. There is much research now that supports the importance of play as central in early learning curriculum, discouraging too much emphasis on early literacy as developmentally inappropriate.

And so I find myself led back to reflecting on assimilation yet again. A theme that has been a constant in my life (being the daughter of a Taiwanese immigrant). In this case I think about the way it stubbornly persists through the generations, beginning with the youngest members of our society; diluting and disrupting the transmission of other cultural heritages that have so much poignancy and meaning for our youth and their families. I sense much regret on the part of older immigrants that their children and grandchildren have less and less knowledge of their mother and fatherlands. Yet at the same time, so many immigrants continue to adopt mainstream culture at the expense of their own. Though we have asked my mother-in-law repeatedly to speak to our son in Japanese. She frequently defaults to English. Thinking maybe she felt self-conscious speaking Japanese around us, we offered to drop our son off at her home once a week. She wasn't interested and said the good news was we still had "plenty of time." As the multiracial mother of a multiracial child living in America, I sometimes rely heavily on immigrants to teach me and my family something about the heritage we've lost through this assimilation. Yet its power persists in the form of a vicious feedback loop where even today incoming immigrants sometimes can't offer the full richness of their native cultures to successive generations of monoracial and multiracial Asian Americans because they are so worried about being "American" enough themselves.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Segregating John Stanford's "International" School

 © Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, Feb 2 2013.

 About 15 years ago, John Stanford became head of Seattle Public Schools. He had a vision. Recognizing the demands of a global economy and an increasingly diverse student body, he proposed an international language school. Key components included: proficiency in English and at least one other language, global perspectives infused into all areas of study (rather than being “add-ons”), and partnerships with parents, community leaders, and international sister schools. His vision led to Seattle creating a network of international schools, featuring immersion programs and curriculum that prepare students to be globally competent in the 21st century. The first, John Stanford International School (elementary), opened in 2000 with two immersion tracks, Japanese-English and Spanish-English (Asia Society).

International public schools, now seen across the nation, are a huge departure from trends of the recent past which discouraged multilingual learning based on the assumption that it would be confusing for young children. Implicit in this assumption was an insidious message about assimilation to mainstream culture through fluency in English and abandonment of native tongues. Immigrant parents were led to believe their children would suffer, be slow, or “dumber” than their monolingual counterparts. Many Americans today are all too familiar with our history of educational pressure to conform, and can easily recount personal and painful stories about loss of heritage language and access to culture.

Research on dual language development has grown substantially since the 1970s. We now know there are actually many cognitive benefits for young children simultaneously exposed to more than one language. These children have greater brain activity and denser tissue in areas related to memory, attention, and language. They have performed better on measures of analytical ability, concept formation, cognitive flexibility, and metalinguistic skills. Evidence also suggests that children who continue to learn academic concepts in their native language while gradually learning English outperform academically and socially children who are immersed in English-only programs (

So did John Stanford lay the foundation for global elementary education in Seattle? Not quite. In her long awaited second book Can We Talk About Race?, Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D., alarmingly spotlights the slow resegregation of our nation’s schools over the last decade. She shows how a series of recent legislations reverting school assignments to neighborhood have led to the undoing of much achieved by Brown v. Board of Education. Given that much of the U.S. is still severely divided across racial lines when it comes to housing, schools have naturally fallen back into segregated patterns. Seattle is no exception. After a decade of other unsuccessful efforts to desegregate its schools, Seattle School District instituted mandatory busing in 1977. reaching its racial-enrollment goals 3 yrs later. However the District ended busing in 1989 and the racial balance at Seattle schools began to unravel. In 2007 Seattle parents played a pivotal role in legislative resegregation in the Supreme Court case Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No.1. The Court prohibited assigning students to public schools solely for the purpose of achieving racial integration and declined to recognize racial balancing as a compelling state interest. For years, Seattle parents had been given wide latitude to pick and choose schools for their children. In June 2009 however, Seattle Public Schools adopted a new student assignment plan reverting to a community-based approach, sending students to schools closest to home. The plan was phased in from 2010-2011 (The Seattle Times).

2010 Census results indicated that more than a third of Seattle residents were persons of color. This population grew 26% from 1990-2000, and 32% from 2000-2010. The largest non-White racial group in Seattle is Asian and Pacific Islander living predominantly in the South end (International District, Rainier Valley, Beacon Hill) and outside the city in parts of Bellevue, Redmond, Kent, Bothell, Auburn, SeaTac and Maple Valley ( Despite these statistics, John Stanford’s visionary first International School and Japanese immersion program, is located in North Seattle, Wallingford. A predominantly White neighborhood. Originally parents from all over the city could apply to John Stanford. Children with Japanese heritage were given priority. But since the district reverted to neighborhood assignment, only students within the assignment zone may attend. According to the School District’s own annual reports (before 2010) and school reports (2010-), while John Stanford’s Asian student body remained constant at about 23% from 2004-2010, its White student body grew from 41% in 2004 to 56% in 2009/10. When the neighborhood school assignment was phased in from 2010-2011, John Stanford’s White student body jumped up to 61% while it’s Asian student body dropped to 13% (though 10% newly identified as multiracial and some may have been part Asian). This racial demographic shift certainly doesn’t reflect what is happening in the city at large. When I called the school to confirm, an impatient woman curtly told me that the drop in Asian attendees was not true and that the school had just added a kindergarten class. When I told her my own son has Japanese heritage and I was interested to apply, she told me I couldn’t because we didn’t live in the zone.

Is John Stanford International School teaching students to be globally competent in the 21st century? Or is it teaching them racial exclusion and preferences of old?

This article may also be seen on RacismReview