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In search of a better life

By HOLLY ATKINS
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 14, 2002


Wonders of Florida

Cultural Diversity: Asian-Americans

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If you've been following this series, you already understand the problem with labeling people. You know that referring to someone as Hispanic or Middle Eastern, for example, may be simple and convenient but can also present all sorts of problems.

Can you say that your friend Hamir, from the Middle East, is an Arab? No. His family is from Iran, not an Arab nation, and is therefore Persian. You know that Carlos' family members all speak Spanish at home and only recently moved to the United States, but he tells you they have always been U.S. citizens. You find this confusing, but Carlos explains that they are from Puerto Rico, and Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States.

This week we'll be focusing on another extremely diverse group: Asian-Americans. Often this characterization is extended to include other groups of people, and the term Asian-Pacific Islander-Americans is used. Both of these broad labels attempt to place into one category people from more than 29 distinct subgroups who differ in language, religion and customs.

The four main groups of Asian-Americans are East Asian, such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean; Pacific Islander, such as Filipino and Hawaiian; Southeast Asian, such as Thai and Vietnamese; and South Asian, such as Indian and Pakistani.

Meet Wingham Chiu

mapWingham Chiu, "Sammi" to her friends, has just celebrated her third anniversary of living in the United States.

On Nov. 26, 1998, Wingham Chiu and her father, Yatsing, her mother, Siuken, and her brothers, Saikit (Harry) and Saicheong (Steven), boarded an airplane and left Hong Kong to join other family members living and working in Tampa.

Sammi, an eighth-grader at Ferrell Magnet Middle School, says that her parents came to America in search of better job opportunities. After the British government returned control of Hong Kong to China, many people lost their jobs, including Sammi's father.

This was not the first time Sammi's parents had left the security of home in search of a better life. Yatsing and Siuken were both born in China but escaped to Hong Kong. It took Siuken three attempts before she was successful in leaving China in a small boat, swimming part of the way.

Like the other kids we've met, Sammi says that life as an Asian-American has its ups and downs. School is a breeze for Sammi, who says that her teachers in Hong Kong helped prepare her for the work she does now. According to Sammi, schools are easier in the United States.

Sammi also likes all the extra attention she sometimes gets because people want to know how to speak Chinese.

mapWhat she doesn't like are the incidents of racism she has encountered. Sammi says that she's been in local department stores and salespeople have ignored her to help "other white people with nice clothes, and people who are pretty. I did not speak English at all and people have a hard time understanding me. I still struggle with the correct words to use," Sammi says.

Tradition

We asked Sammi about some of the special customs and traditions she and her family have brought with them from Hong Kong. She says that honoring old people is very important in her homeland.

"In Hong Kong, we did not celebrate kids' birthdays, but we celebrated older peoples' birthdays. For birthdays, the whole family goes out to dinner to honor the older person. The sons and daughters must pay for the entire bill. The older you are in China or Hong Kong, the more respected you are," says Sammi.

"When there is a funeral, the son pays for everything, and he sets the direction for the entire service. For weddings, the bride wears red instead of white. The man who is getting married goes and picks the bride up at her house, and he has to pay lots of money. The girls helping the bride will let him in after he pays. They do not get married in churches; they get married in restaurants usually and invite people."

We also wondered how her parents' rules and expectations were different from her classmates', and if this makes it difficult for her at times. Sammi says that her parents are very strict.

map"Every night the children cook and wash all the dishes. Our room must remain clean, and we have to keep our house clean all the time. If we leave stuff out, it gets taken away.

"I am not allowed to go out with friends, but I can go out with anyone in the family. I am not allowed to spend the night at anyone's house. If I'm out with the family, we all have to be home by 11 p.m. -- even my dad does!" she says.

"My brothers and I have to keep the yard clean, also. Saturday and Sunday are chores days! Whenever guests are over, we have to pick up after them and clean up after them.

"All of this bothers me because my friends do not have to do all of this. But I do not talk back to my parents. My parents taught me not to fight or argue with anyone. Keep our grades up. Always help others."

Books that promote understanding

According to Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, of the 66,000 new students in Florida this year, about half were foreign-born. This nationwide trend is expected to continue, so that by the year 2020, one of every two students in the United States will be a person of color.

Understanding and respecting people from different nations and cultures is a growing necessity for all Americans. One of the best ways to do this is through books you can find by searching one of these library Web sites:

www2.nypl.org/home/branch/teen/MoreBooks.cfm -- From the New York Public Library. Click on "Around the World in Books" or "East Meets West."

www.infopeople.org/bpl/teen/asian.html -- Berkley Public Library Teen Services, fiction featuring Asian-American characters

www.mpl.org/files/readabou/yaasian.htm -- Milwaukee Public Library, books about Asian-Americans and the Asian-American experience

Information from radio station WUSF-FM 89.7, the Smithsonian Institution's Web site, Education Week and ERIC Clearinghouse was used in this report.

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-- Holly Atkins, a National Board Certified Teacher, is the language arts department head at Bay Point Middle School in St. Petersburg.

Atkins, who has been a resident of St. Pete Beach nearly all her life, has been an instructor at the Poynter Institute's Writers' Camp and is the proud teacher of local and national award-winning student writers.

About Newspaper in Education

The St. Petersburg Times devotes news space to NIE features throughout the year, including this classroom series. The Times' NIE department works with local businesses and individuals to enrich the classroom experience by providing newspapers, supplemental guides and educational services to schools in the Tampa Bay area. To let us know what you think about this series or to find out how you can become involved in NIE, please call (727) 893-8969 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 8969. For past stories, check out www.sptimes.com/nie and click on the Kids Only area.

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