How Southeast Asian refugees have fared in American schools

ALMOST ten years ago the first wave of Southeast Asian refugees arrived in the United States. The children were flung into US public schools, usually alone , without special counseling or English-language training.

In many California classrooms newly arrived Asian children were given a biology textbook and expected to begin using it immediately. They were told they couldn't graduate without passing a test on the United States Constitution and that they couldn't expect to get a job without a diploma.

How has this rugged experience affected them? And what does their experience teach us about US schools? This reporter put these and other questions to several successful Southeast Asian graduates.

Betty Nguyen arrived from Vietnam in 1975 at age 10, under the sponsorship of an Indiana family. ''The adjustment wasn't so difficult for our family,'' she recalls, ''because our mother had taught English in Vietnam. We picked up the American way more quickly in Indiana than others did on the West Coast because here there were no other Vietnamese to reinforce the old ways and language.''

Americanization came quickly for Miss Nguyen. She became a cheerleader in junior high, earned a 3.83 grade point average in her full load of advanced classes in high school, and is now taking chemistry, calculus, philosophy, and drama at the University of California, San Diego. She also works part time.

Today she has two major concerns. One is deciding whether or not to risk lower grades - which might hamper her admission to medical school - by taking more challenging courses. The other: helping her newly arrived father adjust to American social life.

Sorath Hangse's story is a bit different. He was 16 when he left Phnom Penh in 1975 in the first group of 200 Cambodians fleeing to the US. Plunged into an American high school with only four other Asians and with no knowledge of English, he was given a class schedule similar to any native-born senior: business law, physiology, accounting, algebra, physical education, and an English elective course in mythology.

''I was lonely and afraid to talk to the teachers because I felt shame for myself,'' he recalls. ''But I had to learn to be aggressive and ask questions.''

It took four months before his high school started offering an English-as-a-second-language class. With that help, he raised his grades to a B average, but still the problem of relating to Americans was great. ''I didn't know how to talk to them,'' he says. When I first saw American teen-agers kiss, I closed my eyes.''

His progress was steady, though. After two years at a community college, majoring in banking and finance, Mr. Hangse worked in a bank for a year and a half. ''I was never comfortable because of the pressure at the drive-up window. Everyone was in a hurry, and I had to work very fast and not make mistakes.''

He now works at a social service agency that helps other Cambodians enter the job market, and he takes college classes at night. In advising Cambodians, he speaks up strongly for social flexibility, encouraging diffident Cambodian women to learn office skills and all Asian refugees to think in long-range terms and to consider the US their permanent home.

The refugees arriving in 1975 had a much different experience from that of those who came to the United States four or five years later. Sheltered and sponsored by American families through church contacts, the earlier wave were generally well-educated, upper-class people whose children had attended French or Roman Catholic private schools and were already relatively Westernized.

The next major influx of refugees, com-ing in 1979 and '80, entered US school systems that were better prepared for them than for the first wave.

Mr. Hangse feels values differed between those arriving in 1975, most of whom had education on their minds, and the later arrivals, whose short-term thinking, he says, has led them to buy cars and televisions on credit. ''Then they have to quit school to pay them off just when they need school most,'' Mr. Hangse notes. ''I see many Cambodian students graduate from high school without being able to write a sentence. . . .''

Man Hua was part of that second wave. Arriving from Vietnam alone in 1979 at age 16, he was taken in by his English teacher as a foster child. Since then he has straddled the Asian and American worlds. Highly motivated and with the advantage of hearing English continually, Mr. Hua earned a 3.96 grade point average in high school.

Nonetheless, he has seen the generally high motivation of other recent Asian refugee students dwindle after their first two years here.

''With their breakfast assured, they're not so desperate to learn English,'' says Mr. Hua. In California, where settlement agencies have established Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Lao communities, adaptation to the way of life in America has been limited. According to Mr. Hua, ''They stay together, and they still don't know American food and culture. 'Spaghetti? What's it look like?' they say.''

Mr. Hua believes that school districts which have grouped all Asians together in special bilingual and English-as-a-second-language programs perpetuate the assimilation problem.

''If you put them all together, that ruins them,'' he says. ''They don't make friends with Americans, and, until they do, they will never learn English well.

Mr. Hua himself was given two hours of English-as-a-second-language, reading, and bilingual American history taught by a Vietnamese. Physical education and math were his only classes with Americans. ''I loved my classes with Americans. They always did such strange things, and I tried to figure out why.''

To diminish the social gap between Asian and American students, Mr. Hua feels teachers should explain more things about American culture. ''The biggest thing in American culture is football, and we didn't know how to watch it. But that was all Americans talked about, so I wanted to know. . . . Finally, an American explained a little of it, and now . . . I'm crazy about it. . . .''

In his second year of college headed toward a major in computer science, Mr. Hua has American and Vietnamese friends but still spends most of his time studying. ''I've got to try to catch up. This is American life in the fast lane. America is my country now.''

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