Promoting Asian Culture at School

Part of my collection of Asian stories

Part of my collection of Asian stories

Danny started Kindergarten in the fall and a couple of people involved with the PTA asked me to be the Asian American Liaison for the PTA.  I just didn’t think that a white person would be welcomed to be the liaison for Asian parents at school, so I declined.  For one thing, Asians don’t all speak the same language and no one person can speak for all Asian cultures.  I thought it was a job better suited for an Asian person.  They have a African American Outreach Coordinator and an Hispanic Outreach and although I don’t know the people, I think they are probably African American and Hispanic respectively.

But things changed when I went to the February PTA meeting.  They were approving changes to the budget and I was looking at the line item for promoting Asian  culture.  They had allowed $400 and since there was no one identified to chair the committee, they took away the money from that committee to use it elsewhere.

In class, Danny learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. in anticipation of the holiday. And February was  African American History Month and at the PTA meeting, the Vice principle talked about some of the projects that the school was doing to learn about famous African Americans.  I am happy that the school is doing this to promote African American History Month.   But at the same time I became concerned that nothing was scheduled for learning about Asian culture.

I moved into this neighborhood before I met my husband and before we adopted Danny.  Looking back a the demographics that Montgomery County Public Schools posts, back in 2003 the school had almost 15% Asians and now ten years later, that number has dropped to about 7%.  So Asians are moving out of our neighborhood and I don’t think I can say that they are all moving for the same reasons.  Some of the reasons may have to do with being closer to family, or where their children attend Saturday or Sunday language school.   I have to go to Rockville to go to a Chinese grocery store.  Our local Asian grocery stores in this part of the county are mostly Korean but there are few other smaller stores for Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian as well as Filipino. Maybe it has to do with test scores at the schools where they would like to live, versus the test scores at our local schools. There are many Asians now in Rockville, Gaithersburg, Germantown, North Potomac, Bethesda and Potomac.  And those schools are perceived (right or wrong) to be better than our schools. And maybe it is just more comfortable to be around more Asians.  I’m sure each family who moved did so for personal reasons, but I am reporting how it has affected the demographics at our school.

Here we are with fewer Asians at our school.  And out of the Asian parents at our school, apparently no one has been the Asian Outreach Liaison for at least the last 3 years.  It has been a position without a voice.

I spoke with the president after the PTA meeting about my concern there was nothing being done for Asian Culture.  Between emails and our chat, I ended up volunteering to promote Asian Culture at our school.  They changed the title of my position from “Asian Outreach Chair” to “Asian Culture Chair”.   That new title sat much better with me than Asian Outreach.  I do try to reach out to Asians in our school community and the ones I have talked to seem genuinely glad I have taken on this post. And the PTA returned the $400 to use for promoting Asian culture in this academic year.

With $400 budgeted I was hoping to have some Asian performers come, but the cheapest one (and the one who I really wanted — a storyteller) was $600 for two performances.  The chair of the Arts and Culture committee immediately said I could have the $125 that they had left in their budget, and with $75 to go, I was pretty sure we could figure it out.  But after checking with the agency, I found out my favored performer is not available right now and other Asian cultural performers were $800.   Four hundred dollars is a far cry from $800, so I gave up on the idea of getting a performer for this year.  And thought that perhaps we could get an Asian performer every 2 years.

May is Asian Pacific Heritage month and time is flying by as I try to help get something going for that month.  I had a bunch of ideas, but in the end I think I will end up spending the money from the PTA on buying more books for the library, folktales and books about Asians.  Our school has something entitled “Drop and Read”, where on Thursdays they drop everything and read.  In February, the classrooms dropped everything and read about Black Americans.  I’m hoping in May classes will Drop and read Asian folktales and stories with Asian characters.

But it is all so complicated.  I have one teacher on board of our little committee, I’ll call her Mrs. H.  She is my son’s kindergarten teacher and has a connection to Asian culture through her parents living in Japan and Korea although she is not Asian herself.  There is at least one other person who is going to be on this committee, but nothing can be done until after the MSA (state tests) testing which takes place in early March. So it will be April 3rd before we can consider meeting.

And you can’t just buy books for the school.  Each book has to be approved (now this is where it gets fuzzy — either by the librarian or by a committee).  And then each book suggested has to be checked against some lists of banned books.  I don’t foresee that there will be any banned books, but that is interesting.  I would like to see a list of banned books, but the librarian said she had to go to several sources.

Someone on a local forum said that their school had each class pick an Asian country and then decorate their classroom door with facts and images of that country.  And each classroom would be responsible for learning different facts about the country (population, geography etc.) and putting that information on the door decoration.  Then someone would videotape a student for each classroom explaining what they learned about the country and describing the door.  And then the videotapes would be played before the school in a school assembly.

I was hoping to do that this year, but I have given up on that due to the fact it will be early April before I can meet with the teachers.  I may not even be able to order the books before May, but that doesn’t mean the school couldn’t still do Drop and Read with the books they already own.

I have looked in the school library and identified all the books about Asian countries and cultures.  Luckily this is all online, so I could do that from the comfort of my computer.  And then I will meet with an ESOL teacher who will hopefully tell me what countries the students at school represent.  (But again nothing can happen until after Spring Break.)  I am going to try to fill in the library’s collection with fiction books that are either Asian folk tales or are stories about Asian people.

The library has huge sections on Japan and China, so it is the smaller countries that I am going to try to work to buy books for.  Their Vietnam section actually has quite a few books, but about half of them are about the Vietnam War, so that doesn’t count in my mind. They are usually stories about Americans during or after the Vietnam War.  But countries like Cambodia only have three books on the shelf about the country or a folktale from the country.

I have looked in the school directory to see if I could figure out where the last names of the families were from, just to get a sense of different Asian populations.  I know from those I have met on the playground or walking my child to school or at International Night, that there are children with parents from China, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, and Pakistan.  I am sure there are more countries.  I found quite a few Vietnamese names in the directory, but then again, maybe it is only that I can recognize Vietnamese names, like Nguyen, Tran, Trang and things like that.  But you could not look at Danny’s name and have any idea that he is Vietnamese.

Do you have a favorite Asian Book or Asian folk tale. I am taking suggestions to the teacher and librarian.  I will probably buy off of Amazon, but am happy to buy used and out of print books too.  I have found a wonderful Indonesian tale, The Dancing Pig, which is out of print but available used online.  I’ve gotten quite a few books out of our local county library to read. Luckily our county library system has more Asian books to select from. They even have a staff of people who buy books in foreign languages from unusual sources.  I only know this because I was talking to the children’s librarian at a local library and I asked about some of the Vietnamese language books.  It turns out that I had never looked in the Vietnamese language picture books selection because I thought it would all be in Vietnamese.  But a substantial number of these picture books are in Vietnamese and English, so I got some of them out to read to Danny.

How does your school celebrate Asian Pacific Heritage Month.  I would love to get suggestions. I will post the books we bought (or considered buying) when that all gets done.  I’m sure I will find many more books that I want than we can afford for $400.

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