For Children, Family is Culture

After writing my blog on the tourist approach to holidays in the classroom and reading the comments, I was inspired to have a conversation with 4C’s Debra Chin. She had enough to say on the subject to write a blog of her own…

As a mom who is raising two American-born Taiwanese/Chinese children in the mid-west, I do my best to pass down my family’s traditions and partner with schools to enhance my boys’ exploration of their heritage.  When they were little, I fostered their learning with an environment where they could continue experiencing our family culture and language through many daily activities. They went to the weekend Chinese language school. They learned to play Kong-Fu and lion dance. I took them to all of the Chinese festivals, walking from stand to stand, hoping they would learn about the culture where they came from.

When my parents lived in Cincinnati, I took the boys to their home during the Chinese New Year,  following our family traditions to have them worship our ancestors. They would Kou-tou to dad and mom (juniors do a kou-tou to their elders to respectfully express their gratitude or wish elders happy new year; in our family, kou-tou consists of two bows in kneeling positions) and respectfully receive the red envelopes from them (red envelopes are mainly presented at social and family gatherings such as weddings or on holidays. The color of the envelope symbolizes good luck and is supposed to scare away evil spirits. Inside of the envelope, money is placed as a gift).

Despite my efforts to include aspects of Chinese culture in their lives, one of my boys wrote a poem about his family years later that shocked me. I thought for sure he was going to mention something about the Chinese New Year, but I was so surprised to read of the many other experiences that he had embraced! He wrote, “ I am from a kitchen with awesome smells of big, juicy watermelon slipping in my throat, and cheesy, sausage pizzas… I am from a family full of laughing Thanksgivings ripping turkey from each other… I am from a family with terrific Christmases with lots of presents in enchanting wrapping paper….”

What children have experienced about their family culture could be very different from what we might expect.  My boys have not witnessed a so-called real life Chinese New Year. The loud sounds of firecrackers and dragon dance are foreign to them, as are many of the other things that we have seen in the media about the Chinese New Year.  Having a theme about Chinese New Year in their preschool program based on what we might learn from books or media, thinking that would support their family’s culture, would not be relevant to their experiences. Other preschool children might develop misconceptions about the cultures that are foreign to them . As Kim stated in her blog, a celebration that is merely a “generic understanding of a culture communicates to children that all Jewish people must do this, or there’s only one way to celebrate Christmas or Kwanzaa. It’s not accurate, and it’s not developmentally appropriate.”

What my boys remember about the holidays is what we have been doing here in Cincinnati.  We gathered together with our friends who came here as foreign students; they had no family around, so they joined my husband and I and our children. We took turns hosting potluck parties. That’s what the boys remember, these holidays with friends. Chinese New Year is just another school day for them.

Some first generation families celebrate differently than families in their homeland, and every family is different.  I agree with Kim that “a better way to enrich your program with culture is to find out what holidays the families of the children in your program celebrate.” In a comment, Jenni suggested that  “you might include a book whose primary topic is not the holiday celebration, but in which the celebration occurs.” This is a meaningful way to integrate cultures into everyday experiences for young children. Through this type of learning environment, children are encouraged to share and explore their family’s culture as well as those of their friends.

What an honor to learn from each of you. Have a great new year!