ERIC Identifier: ED366673
Publication Date: 1993-12-00
Author: Huang, Gary
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban
Education New York NY.
Beyond Culture: Communicating with Asian American Children and
Families. ERIC/CUE Digest Number 94.
In recent decades, migration waves have brought to the United States large
numbers of Asians and Pacific Islanders (API). Well over two-fifths of all
nonamnesty persons admitted in the U.S. in 1991 were API (Barkan, 1992). The
trend of increasing API immigration is clear: the API portion in the U.S. total
immigration steadily grew from the 1972's 28.7 percent to 1985's 44.2 percent
(Barkan, 1992). Consequently, API student enrollment has been increasing
drastically. In 1979, 217,000 enrolled 8-15 year old APIs were identified as
language minorities; by 1989, the number had reached 547,000 (National Center
for Education Statistics, 1992). With their drastically different cultural
backgrounds, API children's schooling poses a challenge to educators and the
Cross-cultural communication is a fundamental issue in education for APIs,
since they have distinct communication norms that are significantly different
from those of native born Americans and other immigrants. Problems in
communication between education professionals and APIs, if not thoughtfully
dealt with, may evolve into conflicts between APIs and the education
institution. Polarized school performance, psychosocial maladjustment, and gang
activity among Asians are indications of such conflicts (Trueba, Cheng, &
To explore the complexities of communication with API children and their
families, this digest describes the overt and covert dimensions of the various
API cultures, and discusses APIs' socioeconomic background and life experiences
that affect their communication behavior. The goal is to help practitioners
improve communication with APIs and, thus, more effectively educate API
THE API COMMUNITY
There are three general ethnicities
within the API community: (1) Pacific Islanders, mostly Hawaiians, Samoans, and
Guamanians; (2) Southeast Asians, largely comprised of Indochinese from Vietnam,
Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Burmese and Philippinos; and (3) East Asians,
including Chinese, Japanese, and Korean (Trueba, Cheng, & Ima 1993).
Not only do these three large groups differ in sociocultural traits, but
subgroups within each group often differ as well (see, for example, Trueba et
al., 1993; Cheng, 1989; Rumbaut & Ima, 1988).
It is important not to generalize an understanding of one group to another.
For example, the Vietnamese and Hmong, though both Indochinese, differ in their
basic cultural patterns. The Vietnamese, many with a Chinese ancestry, have a
sophisticated literate culture and strong abilities to adapt to the market
society; the Hmong have no written language, nor skills that are easily
applicable to American labor needs. Educators must identify such differences to
devise appropriate communication strategies for teaching and counseling APIs.
API CULTURES AND COMMUNICATION
differentiates culture into overt and covert dimensions (Hall, 1977); both are
crucial in determining communication behavior. The overt or open culture refers
to clearly identifiable cultural components such as religion, formal language,
and values and norms explicated in philosophy or folklore. Covert or hidden
culture, on the other hand, is defined by the unconscious behavioral and
perceptual patterns resulting from daily social learning.
Values and norms embedded in language,
religion, philosophy, custom, and social organization forms, such as family, are
important variables affecting APIs' behavior. Historically, under the influence
of Chinese Confucianism, East Asians developed complex literate cultures and
cohesive family organizations. The history of Southeast Asians reflects both the
Chinese tradition and Indian Buddhism. Of the Pacific Islander groups, each has
a history of struggle for cultural preservation against colonial oppression, and
holds a unique and rich tribal cultural heritage (Treuba et al., 1993).
BELIEF SYSTEM. Cultural contrasts are, of course, sharpest between APIs and
American mainstream society. APIs think about social institutions such as school
quite differently from American educators. APIs see teachers as professionals
with authority over their children's schooling; they believe that parents are
not supposed to interfere with school processes. Some APIs, therefore, regard
teachers who seek parent involvement as incompetent (National School Public
Relations Association, 1993). Educators then must explain, patiently, that
parent involvement is a tradition in American education.
Sometimes, the contrast of belief systems is profound. Without knowledge
about the culture of APIs, school personnel cannot resolve problems. A telling
example is the school's response to the killing of five Cambodian children by a
gunman in Stockton, California, in 1989 (for a detailed account, see Treuba et
al., 1993). After the tragedy, the greatest fear of the Cambodian community was
not of the recurrence of killing, as school personnel supposed and painstakingly
tried to assuage, but the haunting spirits of the dead. In their native
religion, people cannot resume normal routines until the spirits of the dead are
comforted and settled down. Therefore, the Cambodians refused to send their
children back to school until the school officials, as advised by a Cambodian
consultant, performed a folk religious ritual to release the spiritual burden of
Even the seeming compatibility in values and beliefs between some APIs and
mainstream Americans can hide serious obstacles to effective schooling and
emotional well-being for Asian children. Like middle-class Americans, East
Asians, particularly Chinese, highly value formal education. They often consider
their children's schooling directly related to the family's integrity: high
achievement brings honor and prestige to the family, failure brings shame (Shen
& Mo, 1990; Lee, 1989). The intense pressure upon children to succeed often
generates intergenerational conflicts and psychological difficulties for
children. Many API children suffer from test anxiety, social isolation, and
impaired self-esteem because of their mediocre school performance (Shen &
Mo, 1990). Another source of family tension is the communication barrier between
predominantly Asian language speaking parents and predominantly English speaking
children (Power, 1990). Educators should, therefore, be sensitive to aspects of
Asian cultures that provoke student stress and conflict and help students deal
with their negative feelings.
Asians' entrenched belief that psychological distress is a manifestation of
organic disorders (Kleinman & Good, 1985) significantly affects their
children's psychosocial well-being. Parents have difficulty accepting concepts
such as learning disabilities and depression. In their idioms, a person who,
using the vocabulary of Western psychology, is "depressed" is either physically
sick or simply lacking motivation. Psychological distress and psychiatric
disorders are often seen as shameful to both the individual and the family
(Kleinman & Good, 1985). To help parents understand their children's
problems, therefore, educators have to be very thoughtful in their explanations
of the reasons for their problems. They need to make it clear that psychosocial
problems are not a source of shame, and, regardless of different cultural
expressions of the problem, cooperation between the family and the professionals
can solve them.
LANGUAGE. Language differences, with obvious implications for schooling, are
striking between APIs and American mainstream society. In California, Southeast
Asians have the highest rate of limited English proficiency students among all
API groups; the rate is even higher than that of the Hispanic population (Ima
& Rumbaut, 1989). This is probably the case nationwide. A unique barrier to
schooling for some Southeast Asians (rural Laotians, Hmongs, and Montagnards
from Vietnam) is their lack of exposure to any writing system prior to
immigration (Treuba et al., 1993). The language barrier may be compounded by
other psychological or physical problems such as learning disabilities and
hearing impairment. It is necessary, therefore, to distinguish language
differences (characteristics of learning English as influenced by the native
language) from speech disorders (language difficulties resulting from mental or
physical disorders). Particular attention is needed to identify hearing
impairment--a disability that seems highly prevalent among Southeast Asian
immigrants (Yoshinaga-Itano, 1990).
Whereas overt culture consists of
established behavioral patterns that can be explicitly identified and studied,
and, hence, are relatively easy to understand, covert culture is much more
subtle, but regulates one's daily life unconsciously. Learning how to talk and
walk, how to move one's body and make facial expressions, and most of all, how
to think and feel, is so deeply ingrained in humans that they are rarely aware
of these processes. Certain long- established institutions (e.g., school) and
daily behaviors are taken for granted, as if there are no alternative ways to
live. In fact, however, all social institutions are artificial and many
behaviors are learned. Every culture has its unique, deep-rooted dimensions that
become entrenched in the human brain (Hall, 1977).
TIME. Unconscious culture also involves the conception of time. Southeast
Asians and Pacific Islanders have a polychronic time (P-time) framework, in
contrast to Western monochronic time (Hall, 1977). P-time allows different
social interactions to happen at the same time. M-time demands a linear
scheduling of events. Teachers may be irritated when API parents come late for
an appointment without an apology, or offended when APIs are inattentive to what
they have to say. Because Asians perceive time as a simultaneous process, they
are not aware of the linear scheduling of teachers' time. Similarly, some APIs,
such as the Hmong, believe time per se can solve problems better than human
intervention. They reason that one should not push hard in haste, but, rather,
let events run their own course (Treuba et al., 1993). An understanding of such
a different notion of time may help teachers facilitate interaction among
parents and staff.
COMMUNICATION. Another covert cultural dimension is described as high-context
versus low-context communication (Hall, 1977). High-context communication does
not require clear, explicit verbal articulation. It relies on presumptions
shared by people, non-verbal signals (e.g., body movement), and the very
situation in which the interaction occurs. Low-context communication, on the
other hand, involves intensively elaborate expressions that do not need much
situational interpretation. While it is doubtful that the communication norms of
any society, or even individual, are totally high- or low-context, API cultures
are more high-contextual, and Anglo American society is more low-contextual.
Like other low-context cultures (Hall, 1977), APIs, particularly East Asian
Americans, are typically polite and even submissive in social encounters, but
when a dispute persists, they may suddenly become very hostile without providing
warning signals. This happens because of the unconscious cultural conflict
between low-context and high-context cultures. APIs, used to their high-context
communication and, thus, constantly "tuned" to the moods of the other
conversants during interaction, expect the others to be similarly sensitive.
Westerners, who only pay attention to what is explicitly said, however, often
ignore nonverbal cues. In an attempt to reach closure, and hearing no verbal
disagreement and not noticing the nonverbal Asians' hesitancy, American
professionals may move quickly toward resolution of the matter at hand. Then,
when the Asian Americans finally explode in anger because they can no longer
tolerate the conflict and are upset that their nonverbal messages were not
received, the Westerners are surprised.
In conversations, Asians unconsciously favor verbal hesitancy and ambiguity
to avoid giving offense (Kim, 1985), and they refrain from making spontaneous or
critical remarks. Their body language is characterized by repeated head-nodding
and lack of eye contact (Matsuda, 1989). The Japanese are notoriously unwilling
to use the word "no" even when they actually disagree with others (Wierzbicka,
1991). This is also generally the case for other Asian groups, such as the
Vietnamese (Coker, 1988). When Asians try to translate their norm of sending
indirect messages during a discussion into English, a language they have
difficulty mastering, their efforts are often misunderstood or ignored.
Misinterpretation of APIs' verbal and nonverbal expressions occurs because
neither APIs nor teachers are aware of the mismatched hidden dimension in
communication. Too often, a discussion proceeds as if everyone is in accord
until finally the API is asked--and refuses--to demonstrate approval by signing
an agreement (Matsuda, 1989). APIs expect teachers to understand their concerns,
confusion, and hesitance, whereas teachers take APIs' head-nodding, smiles, and
verbal assent as clear indication of consent. Particularly enigmatic to teachers
is some APIs' smiles (Coker, 1988), which express confusion and embarrassment
far more often than pleasure. When dealing with API children in particular, it
is important to observe them patiently and carefully, and to take into account
the specific situation in which the interaction takes place, in order to
understand the meaning of their smiles (Coker, 1988).
API BACKGROUND AND LIFE EXPERIENCE
Socioeconomic status and
immigration history, often related to cultural differences, jointly affect APIs'
communication and schooling. Moreover, APIs' socioeconomic background is as
complex as their cultural background. Immigrants from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and
Hong Kong are more likely to have a middle-class background. Southeast Asian
refugees, on the other hand, were mostly rural villagers or the urban poor
before they migrated, although APIs from the same region may differ in
socioeconomic background. A middle-class family background often fosters
intellectual flexibility and self-direction. APIs with such a background have
less difficulty interacting with teachers. In contrast, fatalist beliefs and
rigidity in thinking are more common among poor APIs and those with rural
origins. These APIs face tough problems in communicating with school personnel.
The joint effect of cultural differences and social background may polarize
APIs' school performance, with some excelling, others failing (Treuba et al.,
In addition, Asian Americans born in the U.S. differ from Asian immigrants in
their communication with mainstream educators (National School Public Relations
Association, 1993), with the latter having more problems. Among immigrants,
those who had traumatic experiences in war or refugee camps have more
difficulties in communication (Ima & Rumbaut, 1989). Such life experiences
can profoundly influence children's reaction to the new environment.
SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTITIONERS
To understand other cultures, it
is necessary to "transcend the limits of individual cultures" (Hall, 1977, p.2).
To communicate effectively with API children, educators have to analyze their
own cultural unconscious to bring out the unseen differences; they should
critically examine their own values, beliefs, learning styles, and communication
behavior (Cheng, 1989). By examining the peculiarities of their own behavior,
educators can better appreciate that any foreign or "exotic" communication
patterns, just like their own, are learned, reasonable ways of interacting.
WITH COMMUNITY ORGANIZATIONS IN THE U.S.
Grassroots organizations of APIs
provide strong support to families and children. For instance, in Southern
California, Asian Americans have extensive networks through churches and ethnic
organizations (Treuba et al., 1993). School personnel should take advantage of
these community organizations to access and help facilitate communication with
families and parents.
Care is the key to understanding. Immigrants who utter flat
imperatives often are seen as rude or dumb by native English speakers; in fact,
APIs simply do not command the elaborate indirectness of English (Wierzbicka,
1991). Only through careful interaction with children and their families, and
close collaboration among teachers, special educators, and health professionals,
will it be possible to accurately identify problems and work together to solve
The following suggestions for education professionals, drawn from a set of
guidelines for speech pathologists (Matsuda, 1989,) may help avoid a
communication breakdown with APIs:
Establish the professional's role and assume authority.
Reach consensus by compromising.
Address immediate needs and give concrete advice.
Respect API cultural beliefs and incorporate them into teaching.
Be patient, and consider periods of silence opportunities for reflection on what
has been said.
Provide clear and full information, such as what will be provided by, and is
expected from, each participant in the discussion.
Be attentive to nonverbal cues.
Comprehensive information about students' backgrounds is
indispensable, including native language, cultural environment, educational
history, school experience, health conditions, and family and other social
support systems (Cheng, 1989). Because of many APIs' experience with
authoritarian systems and a tendency to avoid self-disclosure, they are wary of
officials and may withhold information from school personnel. Care and patience
are, again, necessary for obtaining information.
Tips for communicating with APIs include individual rather than group
meetings, oral communication rather than written memos, and "phone trees" among
parents themselves (National School Public Relations Association, 1993).
For many API groups the family has a dual function: social
support and social control (Treuba et al., 1993). Among immigrant families,
however, these functions sometimes conflict and create tensions. Tradition
demands that the young obey the elderly, but in daily life, English literate
teenaged APIs often serve crucial roles such as the English interpreter and
participants in family decision-making. Both children and parents have to
struggle with this role conflict. Thus, parent involvement in children's
schooling should be cultivated in a way that not only enhances schooling, but
also reduces tension in the family. One way to bring parents into the school, to
help them understand how teaching and learning takes place in the U.S., and to
bridge the generation gaps within families, is to offer a family literacy
project that helps parents and children alike become proficient in the English
language. An increasing number of Federal and state programs are funding family
literacy projects, and the California Department of Education is hosting a
conference where project coordinators can share information in early 1994
("Family Literacy," 1993).
STEREOTYPES OF APIS
Most API students are not academically gifted. The "whiz
kids" stereotype, often applied to East Asian children, may put unnecessary
pressure on students, resulting in emotional distress and school failure (Shen
& Mo, 1990). The stereotype of docile API children may also hurt them. Some
teachers do feel uncomfortable when they meet assertive Asian students, because
their "out of character" manner contradicts the stereotype. Teachers should work
to transcend such stereotypes and treat each student on an individual basis.
EVALUATION OF CHILDREN
As discussed earlier, API children may be
misdiagnosed as having behavioral or physical disorders because of their
communication difficulties. Conversely, precisely because of communication
difficulties, APIs' behavioral and health problems may be concealed from
teachers. Here, language differences, cultural knowledge, learning or behavioral
disorders, and physical health problems may be related to one another. To
disentangle the individual problems that often have underlying connections,
educators need in-depth cultural understanding, meticulous information
gathering, and interdisciplinary collaboration.
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