With more Indochinese youngsters entering schools weekly and with all sources indicating that the numbers will double, some school districts have embarked on ambitious programs to assimilate this new wave of immigrants into the educational system.
These districts are responding to needs created by the wide cultural gap by educating their staffs in the Eastern religious concepts and cultural traditions which produce markedly different behavior in Indochinese students.
Some 18,000 Indochinese have settled in San Diego, where the climate is similar to their homeland. To help school staffs and student leadership groups, the San Diego Unified School District has produced a television program, "Indochinese Cultural differences." In it, Dr. Mai Van Tran, assistant director of the Los Angeles Indochinese Service Center, who was a mental health counselor in Vietnam for 10 years, traces behavioral differences apparent in the classroom to basic religious concepts.
According to Dr. Tran, the realities of God, man, and the universe, which in Western thought are separate and distinct, all blend together and overlap in the Eastern mind.
One result is that all people feel a part of one societal and natural whole, one family, if you will. As a consequence, kinship terms are often assigned by sentiment rather than by bloodlines. Merging of individuals into a universal entity, therefore, makes it very difficult for the teacher to get accurate individual test scores. The automatic response of Indochinese students is to help each other on homework and even tests, despite teachers' admonitions to "do your own work."
Whereas Western thought is relatively linear, with each element distinct and each question having a direct response, Eastern thought is circular, with all issues interrelated and most communication indirect. Language, as a reflection of culture, serves to avoid confrontation rather than encourage directness. Hence, as the TV program points out, the giggling or smiling that is often sparked by a sharp directive from an American teacher is not belligerence, but embarrassment at the directness of the communication.
The tendency to avoid confrontation creates a different classroom protocol. Indochinese students rarely approach their teachers directly with a question. A traditional Vietnamese saying is:
"What the teacher says cannot be refuted." The confused student who softly replies "yes" to the question "Do you understand?" is not shy or frightened, and may not understand at all. He simply does not want to imply that the teacher was unsuccessful or incompetent in teaching any lesson.
The Eastern hierarchy of persons places the teacher above the parent and just below the king. When a king dies, he is mourned for five years, a teacher for four, and a father for three. This high degree of respect, together with the natural desire to avoid confrontation, produces a passive learning style. Students prefer to ask and help each other when they can, and do not participate in classroom discussion such as we know it.
This is not to say that there is no interaction between students and teachers in Indochina. On the contrary, a strong sentiment exists between them. Students look upon their teachers as intellectual parents, and a teacher's love for his students may be expressed by severe discipline, including beating, just as well as by frequent picnics with them on holidays.
Although moral education is done by the family, including older siblings, the relationship a child has with his teacher is one of the first major experiences in which the child practices the values instilled at home. Indochinese students will rarely call their teachers by name. For them, the appellation "teacher" calls up the respect and love stemming from the traditional hierarchy.
Of course the idealistic picture of quiet, receptive, and respectful students is, unfortunately, subject to corruption as they learn that spontaneous behavior or unsolicited communication unacceptable in their homeland is acceptable here.The smiling "thank you" that comes when homework assignments are given is less frequent four or five months after their arrival here than during their first experiences in American schools. They learn all too quickly that the old standard of reputation as a measure of success is not as highly regarded here as in their countries.
Dr. Tran sees some home problems as students, through their exposure to young Americans, become acculturated at a faster pace than their parents. The amount of trust traditionally felt by Indochinese parents when they "give" their child to the school has been shaken when their children adopt the more casual and spontaneous mode of behavior seen in their American counterparts.
When children return home from school and do not bow their heads, or when they do not ask permission to leave the house to go to school or to visit their friends, the parents think that they are learning bad manners at school.
Dr. Tran urges school counselors to consider that the real people they must counsel are the Indochinese parents or relatives with whom the children live. He states that a major counseling task must be to encourage parents to let their children be Americanized "for the children's sake," while still preserving their cultural heritage in the home.
He cautions teachers and counselors to be aware of the numerous pressures facing these students as they adjust to their new life. He cites the trauma of sudden loss of homeland, roots, and family (magnified by the traditions of ancestor worship); the memory of war atrocities, guilt, and remorse for leaving behind loved ones; loss of sociocultural identity; unavailability of jobs commensurate with previous training and skills; anxiety about the future; and the more obvious language barrier as factors that make their adjustment difficult.