Harvard Educational Review
  1. Educating New Americans

    Immigrant Lives and Learning

    By D. F. Hones and C. S. Cha

    Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999. 276 pp. $59.95, $29.95 (paper).

    Educating New Americans: Immigrant Lives and Learning retraces the education life experiences of Hmong refugee Cher Shou Cha, from his life in a Laotian village to his arrival in an urban U.S. community. This narrative inquiry into one man’s life effectively illuminates the Hmong immigrant experience while raising questions about what it means to be or become “American.” By examining the life history and educational experiences of one man within the larger social, cultural, and historical contexts, this book serves as a “place to begin new dialogues about who we are as a rainbow people and how we would prepare for the world of our children” (p. xiv).

    The book is divided into three parts. Parts One, Two, and Three, respectively, are dedicated to exploring immigrant identity within American schools and society; to Cha’s personal life history; and to what educators, policymakers, and researchers can learn from this narrative inquiry into Cha’s life. Part One, Immigrant Identity in School and Society (ch. 1 & 2), opens in a convenience store parking lot in the United States with a “Prelude to a life History: The Shooting.” In his own voice, Cher Shou Cha recounts how being shot in his own neighborhood shortly after his arrival in the United States significantly shaped his American experience. Through poetry, Cha effectively expresses his feelings of alienation and confusion invoked by that tragic and near fatal event.

    Chapter one further connects Cha’s rich personal experiences to the larger social and ideological contexts of immigration and education in the United States. The authors contend that how becoming and being an American is defined has implications for how teachers, policymakers, researchers, and all Americans approach education for both immigrant and non-immigrant children. Specifically, this book addresses the following questions: “How do we understand the educational lives of immigrants within the context of immigrant educational policies? What kinds of education takes place in immigrant communities and homes? How can schools benefit from this learning? How can the study of the educational life of one man inform our understanding of the educational needs of immigrants themselves as well as increase our understanding of how to further the education of all Americans?” (p. 15).

    Hones argues for the utility of using narrative inquiry into the lives of immigrants as a methodology to answer the above questions. In chapter two, he foreshadows his inquiry into Cha’s life history with a rereading of the autobiographies of Richard Rodriguez and Leonard Covello, two renowned authors who are immigrants themselves. Rodriguez’s life as a Mexican American immigrant raised in a middle-class neighborhood in Sacramento in the 1950s differs significantly from that of Covello, an Italian American immigrant raised in a New York City ethnic enclave around the turn of the last century. Although very diverse, the lives of these two immigrants provide a useful framework for a deeper understanding of educational issues common across diverse immigrant experiences. Furthermore, their memoirs explore such topics as bilingual education policy, community involvement, and the role of the school in immigrant lives. Rodriguez’s and Covello’s examples further prepare readers for the narrative inquiry analysis and insights gleaned from Cha’s life throughout the remainder of the book.

    Cher Shou Cha’s story is explored in depth in Part Two (ch. 3 to 6), A Hmong American Life History. Cha’s life story is contextualized in the Hmong historical background, then traced from a Laotian village through experiences in a refugee camp in Thailand to his newest life in urban United States. Through Cha’s story and his educational journey in becoming a new American, readers learn about the resourcefulness and resilience of Hmong refugees. The life experiences of immigrants, such as Cha’s, are unveiled as unique sources of learning outside of the schooling context.

    Cha’s conversion to Christianity in Thailand is highlighted in chapter four as a means through which Cha is able to acquire literacy skills and to ease his transition into life in the United States. The complex nature of the relationship between traditional Hmong religion and Christianity is explored through Cha’s negotiation and reconciliation of these two ideologies in his life.

    Family relationships also emerge as a critical part of Cha’s story. In chapter five, Cha talks about the influence of his father in his life in Laos, as well as the relationship he has with his own children in the United States, where he seeks to maintain familial relationships in the face of an ever-changing life. Tensions arise between Hmong parents’ efforts to pass on traditional Hmong values to their children and the children’s desire to adopt the more materialistic American culture surrounding them. Maintaining continuity while negotiating inevitable changes challenges Cha’s family across multiple fronts.

    In chapter six, Cha talks specifically about the lessons he has learned through his role as bilingual aide and community liaison at the Horace Kallen Elementary school in Windigo, Wisconsin. In his position, Cha finds himself in the role of a peacemaker, continually striving to make a place for peace between the various ethnic groups within the school and community. This role serves Cha as a type of cultural therapy in his personal quest to make peace with the United States, to overcome his initial feelings of alienation after the shooting, and to find his new identity as an American. His challenge is to acknowledge change while respecting the elements of individuals, communities, and cultures that do not change. Hones proposes that this process of cultural therapy uniquely qualifies Cha, and other immigrants like him, for teaching peacemaking and respect for others to the next generation of Americans.

    In Part Three, Learning from a Life (ch. 7 & 8), Hones argues that the themes of resourcefulness, relationship, and respect emerge as fundamental aspects of Cha’s life experiences as a new American. These three values, rooted in both the Hmong tradition and the communitarian American tradition, are then highlighted as key elements of a new conception of American identity. Schools are called upon to take these themes seriously in utilizing them as tools for constructing a great American community out of diversity. Hones argues that our newest Americans can be looked to as an invaluable source of inspiration in helping to move American society beyond individualism to a sense of collective responsibility.

    In chapter eight, Hones returns to the idea that by investigating diverse lives we can discover what it means to be American. He explores three more autobiographical works — Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, Maxine H. Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, and Jesus Colon’s A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches — to support his contention that autobiographic and life history research provides an ideal point of departure for discovering the construction of American identity.

    Educating New Americans refers to the educational experiences of the newest immigrant populations in the United States, such as the Hmong, as experienced by Cher Shou Cha. Yet the lessons learned from the life of this man also gently remind us that what “being American” means is constantly being reinvented as these new immigrants’ experiences bring new insights for the education and conceptualization of all Americans as we begin the twenty-first century.

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    Book Notes

    Children of Immigration
    By Carola Suárez-Orozco and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco

    At War with Diversity
    By James Crawford

    Educating New Americans
    By D. F. Hones and C. S. Cha

    Language Crossing
    Edited by Karen Ogulnick