My Mixed Heritage: Grandmothers' Views on Education

A series of memories juxtaposing family traditions of Chinese (Wong) and Southern (Fowler) roots. The purpose is to stimulate ideas and conversations about family memories and how they are constructed, modified, and passed on from one generation to another, within or across cultures.


Cheap white porcelain clanging at the table of the Chinese restaurant. Grandmother Wong leans back against her chair with a toothpick between her teeth – of course with one hand politely covering the front of her mouth.

“Grandmother Wong,” I begin to make conversation in Cantonese. “What did you like to do when you were young?”

“Oh, me?” she replied. “I would practice writing Chinese calligraphy. My teacher in elementary school was strict. She would hit us if we made one wrong stroke.”

“Oh yeah? You’re really good at calligraphy, Grandmother Wong. You really should teach me some time.”

“You’re crazy,” she’d retort, completely dismissing the compliment. “I just scribble. You know your Grandmother isn’t very smart. I only went to school until grade 6. I had to stay at home when the Japanese invaded China. I had to hide by the river when the soldiers came over. Remember to study hard. All my children and all my grandchildren studied hard. They’re all so smart.”

My Chinese grandmother is now 92 years old. She does morning exercises, walks faster than people 15 years her junior, and practices Chinese calligraphy in her spare time. Though she never progressed past an elementary school education, she raised her kids – like many Chinese parents – to study hard. Studying was a priority above all other activities. Though she couldn’t help my father with his school work, she often made one of his four older siblings help him. “Work hard,” she would say, “and you’ll be able to do whatever you want.” Her eldest daughter soon became one of the first women to earn a university degree in Hong Kong – and in mechanical engineering, at that. She then moved to the US to pursue a doctoral degree in chemistry. One by one, each of Grandmother Wong’s children moved to the US to earn degree after degree. For a woman of her generation and upbringing, she was relatively open-minded to send her children abroad.

Grandmother Wong was very talented in the kitchen. She cooked up feasts for the family, knowing which dishes each of her children loved best. She took great pride in her cooking and found a sense of purpose and contribution to the family through it. Though she always told her children (and eventual grandchildren) to study hard, she also understood that each of them had different talents and passions – like she did with her cooking. As such, she instilled a studious work ethic in her children in order to prepare them to pursue their passions. Her philosophy towards life and education have been intricately woven into the roots of our family tree, for which I am forever grateful.

“When you love what you do, you will do it well.” – Grandmother Wong
(如果你愛你的工作,你一定會做得最好、最棒!- 嬤嬤)


Grandma Fowler was born and raised in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Born to parents from Virginia, she was raised in a home where sofas were called “davenports” and vacuum cleaners were called “valcome cleaners”. People said that that was just the Virginian way of speaking.

When Grandma was a child, her mom sent her to a Girls Home where she was brought up and educated. Grandma absolutely loved learning and demonstrated a lot of potential according to the Head of School. Because of this, she was given a lot of responsibilities which taught her to value independence. Grandma breezed through elementary school and graduated from high school with excellent grades in 1955. She hoped to go to college one day to earn a Bachelor’s degree, though it was less common at the time for women to do so.

Grandma was married in 1956 and gave birth to her first daughter one year later. Education would have to sit on the back burner. She juggled many jobs through the first decade of marriage because Grandpa couldn’t keep a job. This added significant pressure on her and caused emotional stress. As a result, though she was an excellent student herself, she didn’t spend much time helping her kids with their homework.

Grandma believed in a different kind of education. Though it wasn’t entirely academic, she provided rich educational experiences for her daughters. Just like in the Girls Home, Grandma organized many hands on activities for her kids and the neighbors. She held knitting classes, taught piano, taught herself the guitar before teaching it to the neighbors…

“I vividly remember Mom taking us to peach orchards when the peaches were in season. Sometimes we’d go corn picking too and bring them all home. At home, we’d form this assembly line and can the corn. It was delicious,” my mom remembers.

“One time, when Mom needed a bookshelf but didn’t have the money to buy one, she sewed clothing for a woman and traded them in for a bookshelf. She taught herself to upholster furniture and make beautiful curtains which she did for pay. She learned to make lingerie just like you buy in a store. She even knows how to change the oiling in a car!”

My Grandma is a very smart and determined individual. Education didn’t have to come from the institution of school, it came from the family, the community and the rich learning experiences that were instilled in her daughters. Now in her late 70’s, Grandma continues to learn. She enrolls herself in community college classes and seems to always have her hand at something new. For my college graduation, she gave me a beautiful ceramic bowl that she had painted and made in a pottery class. How very grandma.

“Never stop learning because life never stops teaching.” — Unknown

Dual-Language Programs Expand in NYC Schools, Bridging Cultural Barriers (Radio Show Feature)

Featured in Radio Show published by Colin Marston in Uptown Radio

Back in January, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña launched 33 new Pre-K dual language programs — classrooms where the curriculum is taught in two different Languages. The De Blasio administration has pushed hard for these programs in New York City — where around a quarter of 3 to 4 year-olds learn English as a second language. And this new approach is changing the way communities understand cultural differences. Our reporter Colin Marston has more.

It’s an early Thursday morning here at the Preschool of America in Flushing, Queens and dozens of 3 and 4 year olds are flooding into their classrooms. But this isn’t your average pre-school class. Here students are learning about wind in English, followed by rainbows and colors in Mandarin.

“We have the Chinese New Year theme, so we will talk about Chinese stories,” said Yimei Li a student teacher here at the preschool, which already has a dual-language program. Like a teaching aid, she bridges the gap between Mandarin and English learning, and leads Mandarin instruction. The difference here is that literacy is taught through content. Sometimes that means talking about leprechauns.

“Last week we have the lucky leprechaun and then we don’t have the leprechaun in China so some children couldn’t understand the leprechaun but then we will compare, we will compare Chinese fairies and the leprechaun,” said Li.

Yet it goes so much more beyond the pot of gold and a fiery dragon. These programs are reinventing how Americans think about cultures different then theirs. Dual language programs are leading the shift from the dominant world language model, where Spanish or French is taught for 45 minutes, to an immersive one that includes learning about magnetism in Hebrew or Renaissance art in Italian. They’re teaching kids a different set of skills in a globalized world.

“Intercultural competence is kind of the big thing. It’s being able to navigate different cultures, being able to take perspective, to understand where people are coming from,” said Kevin Wong. He studies the importance of how early childhood language skills set them up for success.

“So I think that this is where a lot of this happens, in the school, in elementary schools, you know starting young.”

But the implementation has been tricky. Dual language challenges a lot of norms about American education. There’s the fact that many teachers don’t speak two languages, especially when it’s a language much less common than Spanish or French. There’s standardized testing, which often fails to take into account the experiences of bilingual learning.

And the fact that there’s no one clear idea of what dual language is. David Rogers, Executive Director for Dual Language Education of New Mexico explains.

“These programs are growing so quickly and in so many different parts of the country that we have to sit down and say where do we need to reach consensus on definition and terminologies?”

In New York, there’s the issue of classrooms not having an equal ratio between English language learners and their native speaking counterparts. Andrea Sanpietro, the education director of Preschool of America, sees this issue play out first hand.

“Because of where we’re located we usually do get a lot of Asian American children wanting to enroll in our program.”

But not enough native English speakers.

“We do want to encourage that multiculturalism. And we don’t have a perfect 50-50 mix of course, but we’ll have some children of a different background,” said Sanpietro

Even with these issues, dual language is here to stay. Instead of having immigrants lose their native languages to enter American society, dual language programs argue against seeing identity as a zero-sum game. By 2044, the US will be a minority-majority country, with a polyphony of different voices. In an age of bans, borders, and populist rhetoric these children here in Flushing show a different future of cultures learning together.

For Columbia Radios News, I’m Colin Marston