Personal Perspective: Reflections on a Walk Through Chinatown

Lisa A. Lee spoke to Scholastic about culture and identity. Here are excerpts from her inspiring presentation. adapted by Virginia Adams Benham

By Lisa A. Lee
  • Grades: Early Childhood, Infant, PreK–K, 1–2

How important is connection to culture and community? What are the best ways to ground children in reality yet protect them from racist messages?

We try to protect children from racism that comes from the outside. But we also must consider what our children think on the inside.

DIVERSITY ISSUES ALWAYS seem to come home. There is always more to learn, and as I think about issues of race, language, and culture and their connection to identity development, I never have to look far for lessons.

From many angles, my cousin Bob and his wife have "made it." Third-generation Asian Americans, they are raising two young girls in the suburbs surrounded by all the advantages that come with education, hard work, and the "American Dream." Except when the girls' teacher counted on them to celebrate Chinese or Japanese holidays, diversity issues seemed far away. The girls seemed happy, well-adjusted, and liked by their friends.

One day, we happened to go to Chinatown. Walking along, the girls commented, "Ooh, the food is smelly here. The Chinese people talk funny." Bob was surprised that his daughters didn't know the common Chinese name for cha sui bow, a popular steamed pork bun we'd eaten as children.

Not surprisingly, Bob and his wife were concerned that the girls were losing a connection to their ethnic culture. Did the girls feel proud to be Asian Americans? Were they beginning to internalize subtle biases about being Asian? Should Bob and his wife, as parents, worry about the distance that their children seemed to place between themselves and the "Chinese people" who were different from them?

Earlier this summer, I was speaking to an early childhood teacher who is an African-American mother. Reflecting on how issues of diversity impacted on how she raised her son, she said, "I don't know what happened to my child. From infancy, I raised him to be comfortable around people of diverse backgrounds. I protected him as much as I could from the racism which exists. I told him, 'You can be anything you want to be in this country.' And then when my child went to college, he came back with a new awareness. All of a sudden, he was BLACK!" Another mother, a Latina who was also an early childhood educator, said the very same thing. All of a sudden her daughter came back from college, and she was "more Latina than I was. She asked why I didn't raise her more as a Latina. Now she even works for the Latino community."

Together we reflected about how many parents of color share similar struggles. How important is having a connection to culture and community? What are the best ways to ground children in reality and still protect them from racist messages that may push them away from positive self-identity?

At one child care center, 40 children spoke nine different languages. One day their teacher realized that all the children in her program were speaking English not only to the teachers, but also to their families. Worried about possible loss of the children's home languages, she made a concerted effort in her classroom to recognize language. Each day, she would ask the children who spoke another language, "How do you say 'good morning' in your language?" And throughout the day she would ask, "How do you say this in Spanish? In Japanese? In Chinese?"

Soon all the children took pride in knowing words from many languages. She felt positive that the children began to value the ability to speak many languages. However, one morning, as the children were saying "good morning" in the nine different languages, a white boy, whose home language was English looked puzzled. When asked what he was thinking, he replied, "I don't have a language."

As an early childhood educator, I think about this story a lot. What does it mean for a child to think that he doesn't have a language or to think that everyone else is "special"? Will he grow up envious of other cultures, not realizing that he too has a culture? What harm do we do when we send messages, perhaps unconsciously, to a child that his way of speaking is the only "normal" way?

All of us must tangle with the issues of race, language, and culture as we raise the next generation of children. From the family of color with the advantages that come with economic security, to the family whose white child grows up thinking he doesn't have a language--and from the parent of color who wants her child to grow up "to do anything and be anything" to those of us who grew up in a world where we were the "normal" ones-- we all have lessons to learn.

Often we think that it is our responsibility as parents and as teachers to protect children from the racism and bias that come from the outside. Perhaps some of the most important work is to concern ourselves with what our children think on the inside.

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