REACHING OUT TO THE YOUNG
By Winny Lin
Co-chair of South Bay Chapter, CA
For nearly all the four decades I have lived in the United States I have worked to share the wonders of Chinese culture with my fellow Americans, especially the young and their parents. My interest in continuing to explore ways to deepen the understanding of Chinese culture among Americans has only increased, since my husband and I moved to the Bay Area in 2014.
The resources for doing this here are abundant. We realized this years ago when we were just tourists in Chinatown, San Francisco. We felt nostalgic, curiosity, and fulfillment just by being there. We shopped the open market, took the free SF City Public Library walking tours, and learned about the tongs, alleys, history, from different tour guides. Now, Chinatown is a regular part of our lives: we found a barber, volunteered in Cameron House, attended First Presbyterian Church, ate in restaurants, found an old college buddy who now owns his own shop there, visited the Chinese-American Historical Society and walked the streets for miles.
I gradually realized that Chinatown offered an unparalleled opportunity to introduce others, both children and adults, to Chinese culture. What I needed was an opportunity to gather together a group with whom I could share my passion.
My opportunity came in June 2017.
How did I gather my group? I had been teaching a 5th grade class for several months. Through a pen pal program with students in China, I introduced the class to Chinese culture. Here is one letter from a Chinese student. Note how good the student’s command of English is.
My students were excited to learn bits and pieces of Chinese culture from their pen pal letters and from discussions with me in class. For example, they learned that Chinese eat zhong zi for Chinese Dragon Boat Festival. They enjoyed the story of Qu Yuan. On one occasion I brought a dozen boiled eggs to class, so my students could play the egg game like the Chinese had written about in a letter.
Another time, one of my students saw the figure 666 in his pen pal’s letter and he mistook that as sign of the devil. This gave me an opportunity to explain what Chinese think about numbers: 9, 8, 6, are considered lucky numbers, and 4 is not, because it sounds like “death” in Mandarin Chinese. Some buildings in China may not even have a 4th floor (like some American buildings do not have a 13th floor.) I was thrilled to have had a chance to discuss cultural differences.
What I really wanted to do was to take them to China. Of course, that was out of the question, but maybe the second-best thing would be to take them to San Francisco’s Chinatown.
So, what did I do? Shortly after summer vacation started, I contacted parents and invited them to bring their children on a tour to Chinatown. The ball started rolling. In the end to my surprise, 21 children and 12 adults showed up.
We gathered at a BART station. On the train into SF city, I passed out a list of things to my students to compare and contrast Chinese and American culture. We got off at Powell station, walked to the Dragon Gate through Union Square, and entered the largest Chinatown outside of Asia.
Everyone was so excited as you can see from our group photo in front of the Dragon Gate.
I happily welcomed the help of a teacher and a parent to map out routes, brainstorm ideas, and to determine where we could stop for something interesting.
On Grant Ave. some children bought some ‘poppers’, a kind of Chinese firecracker that one throws to the ground making a popping noise. The children were fully engaged and so excited. I encouraged them to pay close attention to what they were seeing and to share their observations with one another. They reacted just like I did all those years ago as they encountered another world, a world different from the western world that they came from, but one right in San Francisco. I wondered what was going through their minds, but I could see how engaged they were.
We stopped at Waverly Place and I pointed out that Amy Tan named one of her characters ‘Waverly’ in her famous novel ‘The Joy Luck Club,’. After that we visited Tin How Temple (天后廟), one of the oldest Daoist Temples in the US. Luckily one of the docents was giving a talk about the religion and the story of Mazhu, Goddess of the Sea and we listened in. That was absolutely a treat!
No tour of Chinatown would be complete without taste of China. We barged into a restaurant by Waverly Place and seated ourselves at three big tables, with all the children at one table. Some of these children had never had real Chinese food before, but they were ready to explore new taste sensations. The adults were more adventurous and tried dishes that the locals would have ordered. Then we walked to my favorite Chinese bakery on Stockton for dessert, egg tart or Napoleon.
By 2:00 PM some people had to leave to meet other commitments (e.g., baseball practice). As we were breaking up, I began to realize just how successful this cross-culture adventure had been. I could say goodbye to my favorite 5th graders and their parents knowing that we had, together, sowed some seeds that would germinate well into the future. Even now, when I run into the parents or students in town, they still talk about this experience
My passion continues. I am convinced that school curricula can be adapted to make cross-cultural learning fun and productive.
Since Chinese New Year is approaching Feb. 16 this year, I have started sharing “The Great Race” with younger K-3 students. It is a very cute story about 12 Chinese zodiac animals and they are responding well. I also work with 4th and 5th graders performing a skit of ‘The Story of Nian’ which explains the origin of Chinese New Year and involves the dragon, or Nian. It is easy to fit a fiction assignment into the writing curriculum and a project involving Chinese paper folding or paper cutting into an arts class.
Chinese culture has plenty to offer in the classroom. All it takes is a teacher ready and willing to do so.
I am very thankful for all these opportunities and resources that came my way.