Closing a cultural divide


Annie Mai knows what it’s like to be the only Vietnamese student in class. She understands what it is to have parents who work long hours and are unable to help their children with schoolwork. And she can relate when a child must translate for her parents during teacher conferences.

Mai was 7 when her family arrived in Orange County in 1979 and was immediately confronted with such challenges. Now an education consultant for the Garden Grove Unified School District, she knows that Vietnamese families still face many of the same difficulties.

The 48,000-student district has struggled to reach out to the Vietnamese community since refugees began settling in this middle-class suburb after the war, dramatically changing its demographics. In Garden Grove schools, the proportion of Vietnamese has shot up from 3% of students in 1977 to nearly 30% today.


Mai, a former teacher in Garden Grove, believes that the district has found a way to better connect with Vietnamese parents: through a talk show program on Radio Bolsa, KALI-FM (106.3), at 7 p.m. Wednesdays.

“Sometimes Vietnamese parents aren’t going to come to the school, they’re not going to ask the teacher, they aren’t going to share with an administrator,” said Mai, one of the hosts. “But they will listen to the radio show.”

Called “Youth and Education,” the program is geared toward Vietnamese-speaking parents who are unfamiliar with the U.S. school system and want tips on helping their children through school. Topics include getting kids ready for the year and finding financial aid for college. There are also shows about special education and online bullying.

The show reaches out to parents like John Nguyen, 48, who immigrated to the U.S. in his 30s and is now raising two sons who go to Ethan Allen Elementary School in Garden Grove. Nguyen, his wife and mother-in-law listen to the radio show every week.

“The show brings up topics that I never thought of before,” said Nguyen, who owns a graphic design business. “I never went to high school or middle school here, like a lot of Vietnamese parents. That’s why there are a lot of things we don’t know.”

Nguyen said he had learned about after-school programs, programs for gifted students and how to prepare students to transfer to other schools. Nguyen, a PTA member, has also been a guest on the show, encouraging Vietnamese parents to volunteer at schools.

The show is making a difference, said Garden Grove administrators, who are looking at replicating the program for Spanish- and Korean-speaking parents.

Parents “feel more connected to the Garden Grove school district,” said Debbie Youngblood, director of kindergarten-through-12th-grade education. “We’re helping them navigate the educational system better.”

Vietnamese parents in neighboring Westminster and Fountain Valley also tune in to Radio Bolsa. The show even gets calls from out-of-state parents who access the show through the Internet, Mai said.

A frequent topic is how to balance Vietnamese and U.S. cultures.

“How can I make sure my kid keeps practicing Vietnamese?” one parent asked during a recent show. “He keeps speaking to me in English, and I’m afraid he’s losing his language.”

The hosts suggested playing games with children, such as asking them to translate songs they learned in school.

Language and cultural barriers have been a constant challenge for both teachers and Vietnamese parents, many of whom experienced different learning styles and parent-teacher interactions in their homeland.

“Things like prom, sports, theater class -- those are things that most parents learned growing up in the U.S.,” said Lan Nguyen, one of two Vietnamese members of the Garden Grove Board of Education. “Many immigrant parents did not know what to expect from school. They didn’t know what they needed to do, and they don’t understand how to help their children.”

Vietnamese parent participation at open houses and school events has been a challenge, Nguyen said, even though Garden Grove Unified has a Vietnamese community liaison, translators for conferences and Vietnamese-language outreach meetings.

The lack of participation stems from a culture in Vietnam in which parents are largely removed from their children’s classroom education, Mai said.

Recently, she and other hosts tried to tackle those issues with a segment about the differences between the Vietnamese and U.S. schools.

“In Vietnam, the teacher has the complete and full responsibility for the education of your children,” said Quyen Di, a lecturer at UCLA, who was the in-studio guest. “Here it’s not necessarily the case.”

He urged parents to attend open houses and conferences even if they didn’t feel completely comfortable speaking in English. “Vietnamese parents tend to say, ‘The way the teacher teaches is good enough. I don’t have an opinion,’ ” he said. “But you should have the opportunity to participate in the activities of the school.”

Mai said she had seen more parents attending sports games and open houses since the show started.

“It’s really been incredibly empowering to our parents,” Mai said. “They’re much more aware. They’re asking their children more questions. It’s opening a lot more dialogue.”