Chinese refugees swarm Chung Hwa School

Chinatown distorts the type of people we are.

Jeannette Hsu Srbich, Tran Troung, Mr. Sato. Like every school principal I have ever known, Srbich walked with a brisk, clicky pace.
  • Jeannette Hsu Srbich, Tran Troung, Mr. Sato. Like every school principal I have ever known, Srbich walked with a brisk, clicky pace.
  • Image by Jack Yon

One bright Saturday morning this winter near the Black Frog restaurant in Southeast San Diego, a Volkswagen pulled off Forty-seventh Street and entered the parking lot of a modest and unadorned church. From the car issued children, all grade-school age, all Oriental, and their father, who was wearing a down vest, it was the kind of garment one associates with Colorado and the modem mountain man, but actually the quilted, sleeveless jacket is traditional for the Chinese, who wear them in layers depending on the cold. To a Chinaman, a blizzard is a six-coat day. What made this man’s coat so typically American, though, was the pointy styling of the cloth between the shoulders — the patch that tailors call the Western yoke.

The Praseuth family had a small store in a village in Cambodia selling clothing and other dry goods.

The Praseuth family had a small store in a village in Cambodia selling clothing and other dry goods.

Leaving their car, the family joined the other adults and children who were waiting in the church courtyard, some sitting on the long wooden benches in the shade of the olive trees, some playing handball against the cinderblock wall.

At 9:30 Jeannette Hsu Srbich arrived. Like every school principal I have ever known, she walked with a brisk, clicky pace, getting the show on the road. She greeted those who had gathered near the office door, which she opened to reveal a conference room with a great round table, postcards on the wall, and school supplies stacked on side tables and stored in cupboards. With receipt books out, she started collecting money for tuition for the winter quarter, then broke off to take a brass bell from the shelf by the door and walk, clanging, into the courtyard to start the three-hour school day.

One of the children in the courtyard, who was carrying a Charger blue-and-gold football, started running off to her class, then noticed me and said hello. I knew her: eleven-year-old Pauline Praseuth {pray-Sue), by birth a Laotian and now an American citizen. I returned the greeting while she hurried off to learn Chinese.

She knows Chinese, as a matter of fact; her family speaks it at home in Linda Vista. She is one of an unnumbered group of ethnic Chinese who have immigrated recently to San Diego under several nationalities: Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Thai. Her English is quite good. I'd given her an impromptu spelling test some days before and she’d gotten “nation" and a few other sly words correct before missing on “amateur" — I’d had to trick her with French.

I should say that she only speaks Chinese and was here at the Chung Hwa School of San Diego to learn to read and write it. The other eighty or so pupils in the private school, which since its inception in 1970 has been housed in the Sunday school classrooms and auditorium of the Chinese Community Church, come mostly at their parents’ insistence to learn to speak the language that their grandparents or great-grandparents once spoke, or to write that language, which by dint of sheer usage is the most common on earth, yet by no means the easiest.

The characters read, “Hundred years grow man.” This would mean, “It takes a hundred years to grow a man.”

The characters read, “Hundred years grow man.” This would mean, “It takes a hundred years to grow a man.”

The director of the school's governing board remained a while in the courtyard. Sylvia Young, with short black hair and very light freckles, and with a boyish manner of pocketing her hands in her trousers and rocking back on her heels, had formerly been principal at the school, and before that a teacher of Cantonese, and before that a full-time grade school instructor in the San Diego city schools. Born in Shanghai, she'd learned her fluent English here as a student, picking it up as a matter of necessity. She still feels that this is the way for Chinese to learn English. She said, “Sometimes as a teacher in the public schools I was supposed to teach Chinese kids in Chinese, because that was the language that they primarily understood. I didn’t like doing that; that wasn’t what they needed. But it was the law, so" — rocking back — “I did it."

I took her to mean that kids whose native land is on the other side of the globe should learn English as soon as possible, even at the expense of history or math, because their native language here won’t do them much good. She went on to say that many of the Chinese children in San Diego have only the Chung Hwa School as a place for associating with other Chinese. In addition to teaching language, the school serves as a place where children can see their customs at work in a group. I offered that the school was perhaps a little like Chinatown in that way, and she agreed, adding, "Except there is no Chinatown in San Diego."

Victor Chain: "I quit, left China, took my family with me.” This was two years before the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949.

Victor Chain: "I quit, left China, took my family with me.” This was two years before the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949.

And who needs one? Reverend Karl Fung, the pastor of the church and a member of the school’s board, had told me, “We don’t really like to have a Chinatown, for two reasons: number one, it’s always a tourist attraction and it distorts the type of people we are. Everyone would think that all we do is run restaurants. And number two, Chinatown is historically organized around business, and yet many people have to live there, and so you have poor conditions, gangs, all that stuff." He paused for the right word. “It’s a ghetto."

In San Diego County, but in no particular neighborhood, live 8000 ethnic Chinese, according to the 1980 census. A more up-to-date estimate puts the figure at 10,000 and includes those who have come in the recent emigration from Southeast Asia. Most of them were technically Vietnamese, said Fung, but not many were the boat people who left Vietnam long after our Marines and Army did. “Old-timers,” he said, form by far the majority of the local population.

“I’ve been here twenty-six years,” declared Victor O. Chain, who had joined Sylvia Young and me in the shade of one of the courtyard’s trees. He looked to be in his sixties, and was wearing an immaculately pressed gray suit, a gray cardigan, and round spectacles. He had been a customs official in China for twenty-seven years, mostly around Canton in the southeast, but quit the service when he was ordered to leave his family and take a new post near Peking. “Leave my family?” he said with vigor. “No! I quit, left China, took my family with me.” This was two years before the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949.

Like Mrs. Young, he had once been the school principal; now he was its calligrapher, an artist-scholar. He had drawn the characters on the candle-red booklet that commemorated the school’s tenth anniversary. Translated literally, Chinese sounds ungrammatical. The characters read, “Hundred years grow man.” This would mean, “It takes a hundred years to grow a man.” And this is taken from the proverb which I would render, “A tree may grow in a decade, but a cultivated person is the work of ages.” Wordy. Of all things. Western scholars have admired the Chinese language for its inherent conciseness and vigor.

Prior to 1906 in China, a man who wished to enter government service, and thereby secure his family’s place among the gentry, would spend many years memorizing the classical texts in preparation for the state examinations. Most of the students were already of the gentry — Mandarins, they were called, which means public official — but many a poor man lifted his family into comfort by likewise passing the test. A village of peasants might hire a tutor for one or two of its promising students, in hopes that one might ascend to power and raise the fortunes of the whole community. In addition to government service, which usually brought with it the ownership of land, the gentry acquired wealth by dealing in rice, and by running pawn shops which in fact were high-interest banks. The public servant had a streak of the shop boss in him, and both appreciated the value of education.

“Three days,” said Chain as he thrust up three fingers and closed one eye. “Three days for the examination! Lock them up in a room. Bring in food, yes, but nothing more. They give you a title, and you write a composition on it. You have to sit down and not move for so many hours. Ohhhh ...” He was smiling; the glory of it all.

The examinations were done away with in this century, and even the dialect of the Mandarins, which used to be synonymous with official language, is now called the “common dialect,” to be spoken by all in the People’s Republic. But in effect it is still the dialect of the government.

The other common dialect is Cantonese, the one most often spoken by Chinese Americans. Both Cantonese and Mandarin share the same written form, but the former is pronounced with more syllables. It happens that some of the students here in the Chung Hwa School know only Mandarin and some only Cantonese; when in an assembly, Jeannette Hsu Srbich, the principal, tries to address the classes, she first uses one dialect and then the other, and finally, to everyone’s relief, breaks into English.

“Come,” said Chain, reaching a hand with noticeably long, clean nails into his pocket and taking out a package of mints. “Come, I’ll give you a tour of the classes; we start with beginning Mandarin.”

It was a long room with the remnants of Christmas decorations drooping between the ceiling lights, and with children seated at four long tables, exercise books open in front of them. The pages were ruled into squares as in booklets ready for Green Stamps. The instructor, who had been six years with the school, went from one table to the next, standing at the head and holding up a white sheet of paper on which simple Chinese characters were written from top to bottom. She led them through the drawings stroke by stroke, counting aloud yi, er, san, sz, wu, lyou: one, two, three, four, five, six. Then she led them through the pronunciation of each character’s sound in the four Mandarin tones. Each tone would give the sound a different meaning.

At the last table were two familiar faces: Pauline and her younger brother Tim, she with glasses, he with silver-tipped teeth. Pauline said hello, and Tim looked up, then down again at his workbook. She wasn’t shy; she’s comfortable almost anywhere, and indeed has been around a bit.

Their mother, Pat Praseuth, had explained one day at her apartment that one great benefit of sending her four children to the school was to prepare them for whatever might come their way. She wants the children to learn English in public school, to speak Chinese at home, to write it at private school, and to practice Laotian with their playmates on the lawns of their Linda Vista housing project. For nothing in her own Laotian childhood could have hinted at what was ahead in her life. Here she was as a young adult, her husband unemployed, earning her own living and her family’s living as an English-Laotian translator at Kit Carson Elementary School, and residing in a neighborhood of manorial barracks, parked cars, and utility wires traversing one another across the desert-blue sky.

How did it happen? She remembered Hawaii: they arrived on the first of July, 1976, three days before the Bicentennial. Her husband, Paul, found work as a fry-and-grill man at Burger King, then quit to learn auto mechanics at Honolulu Community College, while she chanced into a job on the sewing line at Sea Breeze garments, making the proverbial Hawaiian shirt. They lived in an apartment on Liho Liho Street, within walking distance of the beach and the clifflike hotels.

Thailand: the refugee camp. An open shed they shared with forty-nine other families; thirty sheds within the compound. One pot of water per person each day. Tim, the newborn, diarrhetic and crying at night beneath the mosquito net the family had rigged between boxes on the bamboo-matted floor. Paul opened a stand to sell clothing, food, and soft drinks to the other refugees in the camp. At night they heard the bursting of artillery between Thai forces and the Pathet Lao.

Bangkok: the family’s first stop after leaving Laos. Paul found work as a travel agent but it wasn’t enough to support the family, which lived on its savings.

Vientiane: their home, the Laotian capital. Paul had a travel agency in his own name. Pat was a teller at the Lao Commercial Development Bank. While she worked, the four children were cared for at home by a Laotian country girl. They had a second home in the country. They retreated there on Friday evenings and returned to the city on Sunday. Bordering the house were stands of banana and bamboo, and beyond, carefully tended groves of mango and guava.

“We bought the land and built the house because I was born in Laos, and my husband was born in Laos,’’ Pat said in the living room of her Linda Vista apartment. “We really thought we were going to live in Laos forever.”

There was a knock on the door and Pauline, who'd been sitting on the honey-plaid couch next to her mother, jumped up to see who it was. She lifted an empty carton of Hamm’s beer which was taped over the mail slot in the door, and seeing that the caller was a friend of her mother, let her in. The woman noted that Pat had a visitor and retreated to the kitchen.

How did Pat find life here in the United States, as one who’d never dreamed of leaving her homeland? She said, “In Laos we didn’t have to work so hard; it’s harder here for us. But it’s good here for the children. They have opportunities. We want them to learn everything. You never know.” Tony, their fifth-grader, was just advanced to a program for talented and gifted children at Kit Carson School, and their eldest, Jacklyn, takes advantage of a busing program to attend Wangenheim Junior High in Mira Mesa, and at the Chung Hwa School has been placed in intermediate Mandarin.

“I am central,” said Victor Chain with minted breath as he led me from the beginners' Mandarin class and continued his tour of the school. “That’s what the characters said — the ones the teacher was holding up. The character ‘central’ could also mean ‘middle,’ so she’s probably teaching them to write, ‘I am middle-country people.’ That means, ‘I am Chinese.’ That’s what we call China, you know, ‘the middle country.’ ”

The Chinese thought their country was the center of the world, where foreigners came, and went away changed. In the advanced Mandarin class, one of the three students had fair skin and brown, wavy hair. She hunched over her book while the other students, a boy and a girl, teen-agers like herself, lounged beside theirs. The teacher seemed to be asking questions on the text in front of them. “They’re talking about the national holidays in China,” Chain told me. The teacher asked about a Chinese holiday that was similar to our Fourth of July. Ten-ten Day, said the brown-haired girl, the tenth day of the tenth month of the year was independence day. Her answer was swift and mumbly, like a native's.

“What are you doing here?” I asked her a few minutes later at recess. She said she’d lived in Taiwan, and that her name was Molly Graessle, and that she was the daughter of a U.S. Navy captain whose career had taken him to Taipei when she was three years old. Her mother felt that as long as she was learning to talk she might as well pick up another language at the same time, and so she sent her to an all-Chinese nursery school. Three years later, when the family settled in San Diego, Molly needed to catch up on her English, but as soon as that was done she enrolled at the Chung Hwa School and took tutorials from Taiwanese students whom the Graessles boarded in their home. She returned to Taiwan last summer to refresh her feel for the language, and was told not long ago by the chief of the Chinese section at the Army’s language institute in Monterey that her Mandarin is coming along nicely, even if her accent is noticeably Taiwanese. And so she is, at fourteen, blessed among adolescents: she is very good at something. Although she is in other ways normal — braces, piano lessons, Jazzercise, an acolyte at church, a Siamese to her tomcat older brother.

The Chinese community subsidizes its school. The tuition of forty-five dollars for the three-month term falls short of the overall cost, so the governing board must make up the difference. The fundraising is carried on quietly: a word here and there to friends around town. Dr. Irene Chang, the founder of the school, has carried the appeal back to friends in her native Hong Kong. In asking for money, the board’s underlying point is that the school is not just an institution but a service, a source of values that are particularly Chinese. It is a form of help, even for those who think they don't need it, or especially for those who think they don't.

After the recess I went to the office, where I found Sylvia Young, the board director. 1 asked her if her two sons had enjoyed coming to the school when she was a teacher here. She slowly released a smile. “I think they appreciate it now,” she said. They are undergraduates at UCSD. She said that partly because of the school, the boys have a better understanding of Cantonese, and moreover, a deeper understanding of their Cantonese parents. It makes all the difference, she said, when they can appreciate their old culture, the Chinese, in contrast to the one that all of us now live in.

“There are videotapes now in Chinese,” she said. “You can rent them at a store across from Woo Chee Chong market on Convoy Street. And a little while ago we were watching a show — it was about a family in China in 1911, a drama made for Hong Kong television — and in it two people were having an argument. Now, when my husband and I argue, we don’t howl at each other. Some American people, I don’t know, they howl when they argue — at least they do on Archie Bunker. But when we were watching the video, two women were really going at it, but without raising their voices. One of them said to the other, ‘If I give you this picture, it will be like setting a pretty little flower on a pile of . . . uh . . . steer manure.’ She didn’t howl. She didn’t actually call the other person a pile of steer manure, but that is exactly what she meant. You see? The boys saw that on television, and they could see a little of what the parents were like. Maybe we’re not as square as they think we are.”

I said parents are always as square as their children think they are, and she laughed. “Well — maybe so. Anyway, it’s great to have videotapes in Chinese now. We have the Vietnamese to thank for that; before they came, there were no videotapes and no Chinese movies. Now we have both.”

I thought of a Chinese family I’d met not long before, who had come from Vietnam, and it occurred to me that they were the kind of people that the school ought to reach, according to its own ideal of preserving values as well as language, and yet wasn’t reaching. There were six children in the family, five daughters and a son. His name could be rendered in English as Tom. He is a junior at Hoover High School and works two or three nights a week at Jimmy Wong’s Golden Dragon restaurant in Hillcrest. He is good-looking and wears his hair like Bruce Lee, longish in back, and in the three years since he’s been in America has been in a crash course to assimilate this culture.

“He’s out, out, out all the time,” his mother said to me once at dinner, circling her hand slowly to emphasize vagueness and nothingness in the same motion. To hear him tell it, he’s just living a normal life. A friend of his has a videotape player and whenever they can scrape a few dollars together, they rent a movie to watch in the afternoon. “We watch all kinds of stuff,” he said. “Everything: Star Wars." He plays video games at Clairemont Bowl whoever he can get a ride up there from his family’s apartment in East San Diego. For sport he plays billiards at the Hoover Center across from the high school, or badminton in the Federal Building in Balboa Park. His goal in life is to be an Air Force pilot, and yet he feels indeterminably unqualified for it. “They probably don’t take other people,” he said, meaning a noncitizen like himself. “Besides,” he added, “I don’t know if I'm tall enough.”

Tom’s English is excellent, easily the best of any I heard in his family; Chinese is the language of the home. At one time he studied Chinese writing and culture, but hasn’t had the time, opportunity, or money to continue since coming to San Diego. He was born in a village in Cambodia where his family had a small store selling clothing and other dry goods. By the time he was seven, the fighting between Cambodian forces and the Khmer Rouge had intensified to the point where the family moved to the capital, Phnom Penh. There his father hired a Chinese tutor to teach the children at home, since the long-established school in the city had been closed by government decree. Capitalizing on latent and widespread dislike of the ethnic Chinese, who tend to dominate commerce in Southeast Asia, the government had declared that only Cambodian could be taught in schools. Chinese-speaking people, the argument went, were likely to sustain a divided loyalty between anti-Communist Cambodia and the People’s Republic.

“If you went to Chinese school they would kill you,” said Tom. “It was like this: They liked the Chinese people, but they just didn’t want you to learn Chinese, so we learned it at home.”

From Phnom Penh the family went to live with an uncle in Saigon, and from there they immigrated to Malaysia as boat people, and thence to San Diego. Tom’s father teaches the youngest daughters some Chinese at home, but otherwise the learning of Chinese in the family has stopped. I asked Tom why no one had looked into the Chung Hwa School, and one of his sisters piped up, “Too lazy.” And Tom said, “I really don’t know.” “There’s a funny thing about this school,” said Jeannette Hsu Srbich as she was totaling the income of tuition at her desk, just before the classes let out. “We seem to have two kinds of people: the children from Taiwan whose fathers are engineers, and the kids from here whose fathers own restaurants. We have a whole lot of restaurants here.”

Sitting next to her was Pat Praseuth, smiling politely in agreement. Her husband Paul was outside on a bench in his Western-yoke jacket. I asked him if it were a hardship for him to send his four children to private school while he was unemployed, and he said it was, but that Chinese was an important language for the future. I asked him why, and he said, “China’s big.” I thought at the time that he hadn’t understood my question, and let his answer drop.

“What are your plans for the future?” I said.

“I'm making contact with a friend to go to Los Angeles,” he said.

“To work as an auto mechanic?” “No. Maybe wholesaling. Something like that. Wait and see.”

“Have you tried to go into wholesaling here?”

He shook his head. He said there were many more Chinese people in Los Angeles.

“Ah,” I said, “there’s a huge Chinatown there.”

He nodded. Then Mrs. Srbich came into the courtyard, ringing her bell, while most of the children had gotten the jump on her and were heading for the parking lot. The Praseuths gathered their children and drove away in their Volkswagen.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader

Comments

Log in to comment

Skip Ad