Building Relationships in a Bicultural World

Annie Mai is an educational consultant who hosts a weekly radio program for Vietnamese parents in California's Garden Grove Unified School District. In 2009, she was featured in a story about her radio show by the Los Angeles Times. Annie came to the U.S. from Vietnam as a child, and has a special perspective on the challenges that ELLs — and their parents — face.

In this exclusive interview with Colorín Colorado, Annie describes her experiences adjusting to life in America, what her parents went through once they arrived in a new country, how the Garden Grove Unified School District's radio program has transformed parent participation in her school district, and what the parents in her district really want to know about the U.S. educational system.

Coming to the U.S. from Vietnam

Tell us about your experiences when you arrived in the U.S. as a child.

I arrived in the US in 1979 after living in France for two years. Our family was part of the first wave of Boat People after the fall of Saigon in 1975 at end of the Vietnam War. Upon arriving to the US, my parents had to start anew, working hard to adapt to life's many changes of learning a new language, going back to school to gain a new trade, and being caretakers in the midst of all the unease of dramatic change.

I did not speak English when I came here; however, I learned the language and became literate within six months of living in the US. More than anything, this was a survival skill I had to attain in order to find success in school, make friends, and assist my parents in the day-to-day translation of the English language. There was only one other Vietnamese child in my second grade class and she served as my translator. I was tired of having other children make fun of us when we were speaking in our native tongue. I was frustrated of being so different. So I listened, memorized, and mimicked everything I heard in English. Since I was already fluent in both Vietnamese and French, the transition to English was not as demanding for me.

What was it like to be the only Vietnamese student in your class?

I knew I was different in the way I looked. I wanted to be like everyone else and tried my best to fit in with the other children. However, there were always instances when other children reminded me that I was indeed not like them. And thus began my inferiority complex. I would barely whisper when asked to read aloud, hoping the teachers would finally realize not to call on me again. I was afraid to fail in any capacity when it came to my academic abilities. And this followed me into adulthood, until I learned how to let go of the fear to enjoy the journey.

Did speaking English mean that you had extra responsibilities in your family?

Yes. I realized early on that I had responsibilities beyond those of my peers whose parents spoke English fluently. As stated before, I had to assist with all of the translations during any parent engagement activity within the school setting, since community liaisons speaking Vietnamese were not common during this time. I supported my parents in filling out necessary documents and paperwork, and I acted as the relationship builder between our family and that of American neighbors within our community.

I know for certain that all children from Vietnamese families during this time period experienced the same expectations as I did, and some still do when new immigrants enter the U.S. That said, other aspects of my childhood were nothing out of the ordinary.

Did the way you saw your parents change once you came to the U.S.?

I recognized that my parents sacrificed a lot and worked many hours to provide for our family. Even though I was only 8 years old when we came to the U.S., I knew that my parents' life changed significantly from when they lived in Vietnam. My father was a successful executive in Vietnam and my mother was a socialite. We had servants, chauffeurs, and a complete staff to manage our everyday life.

We came empty-handed to the U.S., and my parents had to do everything. I saw in my parents the determination and hard work of building a new life at middle age. I noticed that their once privileged lifestyle changed to one of simplicity and sacrifice. I noticed the tension and frustration they experienced as they tried to navigate in an English-only society when their language skills were so limited. I saw opportunities pass them by because of this challenge. I witnessed all of these changes at a very young age and took it upon myself to be a good student to please them and bring them happiness, as that really was a true source of joy for them — my success in school.

What was your high school and college experience like?

My teenage years were focused on being accepted by my American peers. At that age, I believed this to be critical to my survival. I took my academic work for granted and thought I could allow it to maintain on its own without much effort taken. That was the natural pattern for me up to this point. To my unfortunate realization, I did not possess the necessary skills to overcome the challenges that came with the coursework that were becoming greater in complexity and rigor. I was a great disappointment to my parents when top universities did not accept me into their schools.

My parents did not possess the skills or knowledge to guide me during this phase of my life. I was left to my own accord to figure out what I needed to do to get into a college. My parents had too much faith in me and I lacked the maturity to value the importance of attending college. I knew there was an expectation to do so, but I did not invest the time or energy to extend myself. I was too focused on being a part of the "right" groups at school and attaining a certain level of popularity, which I succeeded in doing.

College came and went. Since I so deeply embarrassed my family by not being accepted to acclaimed universities, I opted for the community college route and reapply at a later time. When acceptance letters came for transfers, I was indeed able to reclaim some dignity for my family by being accepted into top schools. In the end, I chose a smaller UC to stay close to home and learn in a more intimate environment. This was reflective in my insecurities of not being enough and being fearful of failure.

I completed my undergraduate studies in 3 years to prove to my parents that I was indeed worthy of their acceptance. College allowed me the freedom to come into my own. I reaped the benefits of my diligence and perseverance. I had high marks and built some wonderful relationships with my professors. However, there was always a part of that lingering inferiority left behind from my younger days of needing the acceptance of my friends, of wanting so badly to just "fit in." The sense of personal acceptance did not come to fruition until much later in my life.

How did you come to "accept" your identity within American society?

This was a gradual process, one that took years with many ups and downs in the journey. And it is one that continues to evolve over time. There were many wise teachers who guided and supported me, who walked along with me. The essence of how I came to embrace my identity had to do with when I realized how to navigate within a bicultural/bilingual world that truly defined my whole existence.

I learned to accept what I could control and let go of what I could not. I learned to live in the moment and appreciate life's challenges as learning opportunities for growth. I learned to celebrate joyful moments, no matter how simple they are. I learned that being Vietnamese-American is "cool" and it gives me opportunities to empower others who also live within a bicultural/bilingual world. I learned that I have much to contribute from my history and there is no shame behind the struggles of my past. They truly define my character and power in being human.

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who is a world-renowned Buddhist monk, author, peacemaker and scholar played an important role in shining light to bring more clarity to my life. Dr. Martin King, Jr. nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize for his peacemaking efforts during the Vietnam War. His lifework demonstrated to me that being "different" is a gift, not a hindrance, and that we need to live a courageous life to be true to who we are.

ELL Family Outreach Through Radio

Fast-forwarding a bit, tell us how the radio program got started.

The radio program of "Youth and Education" began at the request of Vietnamese parents in the Garden Grove Unified School District (GGUSD) in Garden Grove, CA. The school district is committed to providing parent education opportunities to increase parental involvement as research demonstrates how this impacts student achievement.

The Office of Community and Parent Outreach within the school district hosts quarterly community outreach sessions for the Vietnamese community where topics such as Gang Awareness, Drug and Alcohol Prevention, Parent Advocacy, Communication within the Family, etc. are shared to empower families to become more engaged in the school system.

From these sessions, parents asked the district to consider creating a radio show to disseminate information to a wider audience to reach more parents and families, as some cannot physically attend the meetings due to work obligations. The school district listened to the parents and approved the radio show. This was how it all began.

How did you get involved in the radio show?

Dr. Debbie Youngblood, who is Executive Director of K-12 Educational Services, asked me to be involved in this project. I am an education consultant for GGUSD and one of my main responsibilities is to produce the radio show. I was a former teacher and curriculum specialist for the district, but left full-time work once my children arrived, so this was a good way for me to stay involved.

We have been able to build a team of people to support our radio show. The Department of K-12 Educational Services oversee the program and the Office of Community and Parent Outreach directly serves the families. Our team consists of the following people:

  • Dr. Debbie Youngblood: Executive Director of K-12 Educational Services
  • Mrs. Teri Rocco: Supervisor of Office of Community and Parent Outreach
  • Mrs. Linh Bui: Secondary counselor who serves as the weekly host
  • Mrs. Teri Nguyen: District Community Liaison who is the weekly moderator of the show
  • Ms. Tami Tran: District Community Liaison who supports translation for the radio script and English speaking guests

What kinds of guests do you have on the radio program?

We have educators from GGUSD in their areas of expertise, community members who are experts in their field (doctors, police officers, psychologists, etc.), teachers, parents, and students within the district.

What do you think is making it work so well?

The show is demonstrating success primarily because the parents value the information presented. In addition, the Vietnamese community within Orange County utilizes radio programming as one of its primary sources of receiving news. Thus, a natural listenership was built fairly quickly.

Even though this show is sponsored by GGUSD, its content is quite universal in serving the educational needs of all students and their families. The show provides a forum for parents to share their experiences, ask questions to often complex and confusing educational mandates and initiatives, and learn how to be pro-active in supporting their children in all facets of the educational experience — both academically and socio-emotionally.

Who is listening to the program?

Parents and families of GGUSD and surrounding school districts within Orange County, Los Angeles County, and the Inland Empire, as well as out-of-state listeners who are able to access the show via the internet as provided by Radio Bolsa, the radio station which broadcasts our shows. They learn about the show from their family and friends who listen to the show in California.

Educators from varying levels of expertise within the field as well as Vietnamese students wanting to learn more about their cultural roots and native language are also listeners of the show.

What kinds of things do the parents want to talk about?

One of our most popular topics have been on anything that relates to college, such as assessment requirements (PSAT & SAT), financial aid and scholarships, required course work (A-G requirements), and advance course work (Honors & AP classes). Parents are also interested in learning about Gifted Education as well as Special Education issues.

What are they most confused/concerned about?

They are often concerned about how to communicate and stay connected to their children who they feel are losing the Vietnamese language and cultural experience. They are confused about their rights as parents within an American school system, they don't know what questions to ask at school meetings, and they don't know how to assist in areas such as homework.

What are the challenges facing Vietnamese students?

The challenges facing Vietnamese students continue to be that of parents' expectations not matching that of the students' interests and areas of strength, along with the lack of parental involvement and participation at students' extra-curricular activities functions, such as musical concerts, club debates, academic competitions, and sporting events.

Has anything surprised you while you've been working on the show?

More fathers are participating, and the struggles of single parent households in trying to provide a balanced support environment is a frequent topic. In addition, grandparents are taking on parenting duties without the necessary language and cultural knowledge of mainstream America, which is an important topic to discuss with families.

What are some differences between Vietnamese and American schools that have come up on the program?

The Vietnamese school system is based on the cultural values of not questioning authority, which means that nobody should question teachers or administrators at the school. Parents give the school complete trust and respect in educating their children. The instructional delivery is also reflective of this cultural value, in that students are expected to receive teachers' lectures, study and memorize their content and then demonstrate mastery by successfully completing an assignment or exam with high marks.

In the American school system, the parents and families are encouraged to participate and volunteer at the school. Parent input is often required and welcomed. Classroom instruction has more of an inquiry based approach to learning, where students' input, ideas, and contributions assist in guiding the learning experience. There are various learning modalities implemented and students' learning styles are identified where any deficits are addressed through intervention programs.

Are there ways that schools can improve their efforts to engage Vietnamese families?

GGUSD has a very effective model of building parent involvement to reach parents from different opportunities. There are many elements that are part this model, includings community outreach meetings with language support in the primary language, parent communications that are translated into the primary language when appropriate, the district's multilingual tele-parenting communication tool, community liaisons who speak Vietnamese at most schools, the district Vietnamese radio show, and a parent task force.

Are there any other cultural considerations that would improve Vietnamese family outreach on behalf of schools?

It is important to encourage parents to join the team by focusing on what they can contribute and not their language skills, to welcome them by showing a true interest in valuing their cultural heritage (Tet celebrations, world cultural and food fairs, etc.), to have native speakers assist when necessary, and to have parenting classes in the native language.

Even if schools can't put on a radio show, how can they use the local/ethnic media to involve parents more actively?

The schools can reach out to the surrounding community and create partnerships with businesses and media outlets to promote their events; they can also ask for support for school projects and goals to build on student achievement.


You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact [email protected].
Donate to Colorin Colorado


Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.