Equity & Diversity Opinion

A Contradiction Of Cultural Conservatism

By John G. Ramsay — September 26, 2001 4 min read
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Mao Vang is telling me why she loved translating The Paper Crane into Hmong. This children’s picture book, written and illustrated by an American and telling a Japanese folk tale, is, she insists, “about the inner good that Hmong people truly believe in.” Vang explains: “The ideas in The Paper Crane are important to our culture. You treat everybody with kindness. You give them food, even when they cannot pay. You do not shun the old and frail. You treat them with kindness. You don’t laugh. You treat them with care and love.”

What role can and should immigrant parents play in the education of their children?

She is reminding me of the book’s story. She’s retelling it, so that I understand what moved her so deeply as she worked on the Hmong Translation Initiative for the Minnesota Humanities Commission: “The restaurant owner does not have to give the old man food, but he does. The owner believes in himself and his work, even when the highway bypasses his restaurant, and customers stop coming. He feeds the old man, ‘serves him like a king,’ even though the old man has no money. That is how I grew up.”

Mao Vang grew up in Laos at the end of the Vietnam War. Her clan traveled under severe distress before reaching refugee camps in Thailand. Her lessons about kindness and strangers were hard- earned, and have left an indelible impression. “When Hmong move from village to village, they are greeted by other Hmong who prepare a visitors’ area by their fireplaces for their guests,” she says. Through her translation, Vang has created a visitors’ area of sorts for The Paper Crane. She’s welcomed this guest, this Japanese tale told and illustrated by American Molly Bang, and created a warm place for it in the lives of Hmong families.

Since arriving in Minnesota in 1980, Vang has learned the role of interpreter well. Her teachers in the St. Paul public schools often pulled her out of class to interpret for newly arrived Hmong children. Yet now, as I listen, she’s hesitating, searching for words, uncertain how to summarize her thoughts about what this book means to her. I hear the cultural interpreter’s tone in her voice: “It is like the golden rule.”

We both listen in silence to how that sounds, and it doesn’t sound quite right. What she means is something more selfless and gracious than “do unto.” What she means is someone with more flesh and dignity than “others.” What she means is something Hmong that Americans don’t really have a word or phrase for. When was the last time you heard an American, educated and straight-faced, use the expression “filial piety” in a sentence?

One style of cultural conservativism is boisterously pro-family, and yet decidedly ambivalent about the bilingualism and multiculturalism of immigrant families.

Vang, the translator, identifies with the restaurant owner in the book who makes room in his heart for the poor and alone. She admires his sense of duty, his willingness to set aside his own hardships and sacrifice for the old man. Her community-based translation teams overcame their own set of steep odds, recruiting funders and persuading publishers. They have produced four other children’s picture books for use in the humanities commission’s Motheread/Fatheread program. More books are scheduled for publication. Vang calls the translation project “the greatest thing I’ve done in my life.”

But for Vang, the cultural interpreter, the project lives at another, deeper level. It is about the cultural place of the old man, how he represents the wisdom of clan and family elders. It is about the importance of parents in the education of the young. Her hope for the books she translates is that they will create more reading moments for Hmong parents and their small children. The point of the translation project is to bind generations through literacy and the intercultural values in children’s stories. And to do so in both Hmong and English, so that families can explore what parts of experience their languages express, and what parts they leave untouched.

The obvious question Vang’s work raises for me is this: What role can and should immigrant parents play in the education of their children? With our nativist history and melting-pot ethos, the United States has never been notably receptive to this question. There is one style of cultural conservativism that is boisterously pro-family, and decidedly ambivalent about the bilingualism and multiculturalism of immigrant families. This, I think, is the contradiction of cultural conservatism: its opposition to the culture of deeply and reverently conservative families.

Who in mainstream culture is prepared to embrace what immigrant educators have to teach?

Nathan Glazer has written a book called We Are All Multiculturalists Now. Yet, he explains the title in these guarded terms: “The expression ‘We are all multiculturalists now’ harkens back to others that have been pronounced wryly by persons who recognized that something unpleasant was nevertheless unavoidable; it is not employed to indicate a wholehearted embrace.” The demise of bilingual education in California as the result of the passage of Proposition 227 is being watched closely. And even though there has been no detailed analysis of the data, the slight uptick in the standardized-test scores of bilingual children again this year will, no doubt, lead to more calls to do away with bilingual curricula altogether.

The more interesting question will be harder to answer: Who in mainstream culture is prepared to embrace what Mao Vang and other immigrant educators have to teach? She is fashioning a vision of family learning in which parents and kids serve each other as literary and moral companions. She is challenging us to live against the grain of our testing and credentialing culture. She is daring us to join her as she honors the wisdom of Asian cultures by giving it gorgeous and intimate expression in children’s picture books. It’s a powerful and inspiring vision—if and when we’re ready for it.

John G. Ramsay is the Hollis Caswell professor of educational studies at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. He lives in Northfield with his wife and their three sons, and serves on the Northfield school board.

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