Asian Parents Find Schools an Education

Like many other residents, Peter Chen settled in San Marino in large part for the schools.

Chen, a mental-health professional who moved from Los Angeles in 1980 with his wife and two daughters, was born in China. He and his family are among the estimated 1,500 Asian residents who are changing and being changed by the once all-white community.

"We came in for the same objectives they did," Chen said of his non-Asian neighbors. "We want to live in a nice, quiet environment. We want to be where people respect us so we can respect them. And we want good schools so our children will get the best education."

Changed Perspectives

Chen, who ran unsuccessfully for the San Marino school board this spring, said that his attitudes toward education have changed dramatically since he left China.

"Over there academic preparation was the No. 1 priority," he said. "Over here you can become a successful person in different ways."

In America good grades are valued, but so are other kinds of achievement, he said. His daughters, one in seventh grade, the other in 10th grade, excel academically but are also accomplished swimmers and pianists. "I feel good about that," he said.

Chen said that he and his family are basically satisfied with the schools, which are now 32% Asian.

They wish the schools had enough money to provide more extracurricular and cultural activities, among them art, music and Asian languages.

Although Chen was familiar with American customs, the San Marino ethos of hands-on support of the schools was foreign to many of the Asian newcomers.

In San Marino, fathers dress up in costume, parade through a school gym transformed into a papier-mache palazzo and serve dinner to tables of laughing 18-year-olds on Grad Night.

Traditionally, Chinese parents become involved in the education of their children in other ways, Chen said. They may hire tutors or pay to have a child chauffeured across town so he can attend the best school. Parents go to the schools only on those rare occasions when a child is in trouble.

As Asians began moving into the community, some established San Marino residents thought the newcomers were ungenerous and standoffish when they did not do things like signing up to be room mothers, according to several school watchers.

The issue was sufficiently heated that it surfaced at early meetings of the city's bicultural Human Relations Committee.

"The nature of our community is a community of volunteers," said Selma L. Sax, one of the committee's founding members. "But that ethic was the one that was perhaps most new to Asian San Marinians. We encouraged them to become active, first through the schools, and then in the other processes of the community."

Sax recalled that one group of Asian women wanted to help but spoke little English.

Photocopying Aides

"The first thing they decided to do was to be in charge of all the Xeroxing for the PTA because once you learned how to run the machine you didn't need to speak English," she said. "Now they've spread out and are involved in everything."

Although there continues to be ethnic tension in the fiercely competitive high school over grades and college admissions, Asians are increasingly integrated into San Marino life.

Among the small but telling signs of change: The Carver Carnival, an annual fund-raiser at Carver Elementary School, now features authentic Chinese foods as well as the enchiladas it is famous for.

Volunteerism helped smooth that process, according to Sax, Chen and others.

'Better Rapport'

Chen recalled his campaign for the school board and for passage of the narrowly defeated school-tax measures.

"Because of the effort and drive, we got to know our neighbors much better and have established a better rapport. We've all got kids in the schools and that's become our common concern."

With something akin to wonder, Chen described a party to benefit the San Marino schools.

"The parents worked so hard," he said. "They dressed like casino bar girls and card dealers. They cooked the food. They'd do anything. They raised $40,000. It was really a very heart-touching thing."

"I'm very proud to be part of it," Chen added.

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