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South Valley Journal

Cultural education key to connection

May 10, 2021 11:14AM ● By Jet Burnham

These banners were created for the schoolwide Chinese New Year celebration. (Photo courtesy of Amanda Conklin.)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

The key to preventing hate crimes against Asian people, such as other communities have experienced recently, may be as simple as cultural education.

Hsiu-Ying Yang, a Chinese dual-language immersion teacher at Oquirrh Hills Middle School, believes students benefit from language immersion and world language programs which expose them to different cultures.

“I told my students, you don't need to like them, but you need to understand different people coming from different cultures; they have different perspectives on life, they have different customs and celebrations,” Yang said. “If we have mutual understanding, that will help this society become a more united one.”

Yang said when there is no understanding of the cultural norms of Asian people, there is hatred and contention, as seen in some cities where Asian people have been harassed for wearing masks by those who don’t understand their cultural differences: when Asian people have a cold or the flu, they wear a mask; when Americans have a cold or the flu, they stay home from work and school.

Yang believes the sentiment of Nelson Mandela, who said, “When you talk to a person in their own language, you speak to their heart, not their mind.”

“If a student can learn the language, if they like the language, they like the culture, it brings connection—the heart is for connection,” Yang said. “So we try to open another world for our students to explore. And I always tell my students, use your heart first, because your heart is more powerful than your mind.”

At Oquirrh Hills Middle School, it's not just the Chinese DLI students, whose curriculum includes cultural education, who participate in cultural activities, crafts, celebrations and international pen pal exchanges.

All students were invited to write letters to students at a sister school in Xing Xiang, China, a relationship Principal Donna Hunter arranged while on a tour there two years ago.

When she met with the principal there, she found they shared the same goal: to prepare their kids to make a difference in the world. To do that, Hunter said her students need a wide range of experiences.

“These kids have got to know that there is a big world out there,” she said. “The more exposure they have to positive, good things that are out in the world, the better prepared they will be to get out of here and make a difference in the world.”

The two schools exchanged letters and videos last year. School librarian Paula Butterfield spearheaded a project to collect 200 letters, which were mailed in October.

Seventh grader Gracie Nielsen, a DLI student, felt confident enough in her language skills to write her letter in Chinese.

“I wrote down what I like to do, what my favorite sport is, and my favorite foods,” she said. She also asked what they would do if they came to America and told them what she would do if she could go to China.

There has been no response from the Chinese school, and Butterfield said, at this point, she doesn’t expect to hear back from them at all.

Yang suspects the letters got held up by the Chinese government so she arranged for a pen pal exchange with GueiRen Junior High in Taiwan for her eighth and ninth grade DLI students this semester. It’s an opportunity for them to practice their language skills and learn how to format a Chinese letter. But writing the letters is also just a meaningful real life experience that’s not just about the grade, Yang said.  

“We decided we need to make more international friends, so our students can have an authentic experience by connecting with another community in a native language speaking country,” Yang said. “It's a real-life experience, it’s why you learn the language, because you can broaden your world by getting to know friends and their culture.”

The two schools have exchanged individual letters and video messages and have sent each other videos of after school activities and cultural celebrations.

During Chinese New Year, OHMS hosted a celebration with activities and crafts for the whole student body.

Chinese culture is also highlighted, along with French and Spanish cultures, during World Language Week, held each year in February at OHMS. Students learn dances and sample food from the different countries and participate in activities—breaking a pinata, watching a movie in French, and making Chinese origami.

Every month, any student who is interested can participate in after school Chinese culture activities such as Chinese yo-yo, painting, calligraphy and paper cutting.

Yang, who is from Taiwan, moved to the U.S. 10 years ago to teach in Utah’s DLI program. She loves that her students are curious and excited to explore. She tries to balance the language lessons with creative, hands-on cultural activities. 

“We need to balance, because the linguistics is something working on the mind, but the projects, the culture, is something from their heart,” Yang said. “I want them to connect with their heart.”

She gives students a choice in how to learn or demonstrate proficiency in a skill.

“You need to give them the things they want to do, and they will connect to their heart and the heart is more powerful than their mind, that's my belief,” she said.

The after-school activities OHMS provides are taught by Amanda Conklin, known as Su Ma Ma, who is from Taiwan. Conklin started as a mother volunteering to read Chinese stories in her daughter’s class to support the DLI program. She now runs a nonprofit business, providing cultural enrichment activities for teachers and students in Chinese language programs in several states. She also hosts international cultural exchange tours and summer camps for students.

For more information, see Su Ma Ma Chinese Club on Facebook.