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Learning While Teaching

Students Tutor Residents of Boston's Chinatown

By Errol T. Louis

Most Asian students at Harvard are nearly as unfamiliar with Boston's Chinatown community as the thousands of tourists and Boston-area residents who go there each year for groceries, good food, or just to have a look around. Like other Harvard students. Asians can easily find enough classwork and campus activities to keep them busy in Cambridge. But a small group working through Harvard's Phillips Brooks House (PBH) have opted to involve themselves in a neighborhood whose problems often go unnoticed by outsiders.

Pat Yee '83 heads the five-year-old PBH Chinatown Committee, which concerns itself with the downtown area--near the red-light "Combat Zone"--which is known as Chinatown. About 25 students regularly work in different community programs. Each week, eight volunteers travel to the community's New Quincy School to participate in a program called English as a Second Language (ESL). They tutor groups of Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking adults.

"A lot of the teaching is just liking your student and building a rapport," says Yee. "The English comes in there somewhere "Many tutors function effectively without knowing any Chinese, she says.

In the course of their contact with Chinese speaking people, many of whom are recent immigrants to America, students learn many of Chinatown's most pressing political concerns "I've picked up a few things," says Yee. "This hasn't made me more politically active, but it has made me more politically aware." Part of the awareness is supplied by ESL coordinator Li Min herself a Chinatown resident Min's conversational references to her own experiences and those of her neighbors convey a wealth of information on the history and current position of Asians living in Chinatown across America.

"I don't think most people outside the community know what's going on here," says Min whose pressing concern is with the number of immigrants from southeast Asia who reach Boston in great number and great need. Chinatown has 3500 registered citizens, and Min says the neighborhood continues to swell with newcomers from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Vietnam.

Min, who gets most of her volunteer tutors from the Chinatown Committee, says the need to expand the ESL program has never been greater More than 200 people now share 10 tutors, with 500 more waiting for a chance to enroll. The Harvard volunteers keep the ESL running. "They're contributing now, and hopefully they'll contribute in the future," says Min. "I look forward to working with one centralized group."

To recruit more tutors, Min and Yee plan to co-sponsor seminars at Harvard this year that will acquaint prospective tutors with life in Chinatown.

The first seminar, to be offered at PBH in conjunction with Boston's International Rescue Center, will focus on the plight of Vietnamese refugees. They had a very different struggle from the people from Hong Kong and China," Min says. Recalling a time she tutored a group of newly arrived Vietnamese immigrants. Min says she got an unexpected reaction from her students when she brought up the subject of holidays and family gatherings "Half the students started shaking. A lot of them had lost entire families."

According to Min, the city of Boston has given the New Quincy School $1800 to pay ESL tutors and provides only 10 percent of the money needed to run the school's five different community programs. One of them, the New Quincy Day care program, has a three-year waiting list, which Chinatown women are advised to join as soon as they get pregnant to ensure that in the future some one will watch their children while they work.

The labor problems of Boston's Chinatown reflect a situation common to Chinatowns through out the world. Work in restaurants and garment factories makes up the majority of job opportunities, and offers low wages for long hours. In the garment industry, workers are not unionized and they get paid at, "piecemeal rate," according to Min. Most restaurants offer work to only to those willing to work 12 hour shifts. "The labor history really hasn't changed" from conditions and wages 10 years ago, Min says. "It's going on right now and affecting people and the thousands of immigrants who are coming." One of the planned campus lectures will deal with the labor history of Chinatown.

Adrian Ho '83.4 tutors for a few hours each week at the Boston Chinese Youth Essential Service (YES), another Chinatown committee, which provides Chinatown youths with a place to meet study and receive educational and career counseling Ho, who used to tutor inmates at Walpole Prison through the PBH Prisons Committee, says working with the 13-to-19 year-olds at YES suits him better. "I didn't know if I was doing that much good [at Walpole]. Here I feel a little more effective.

One obstacle Ho encounters is the attitudes many of the teens have about schoolwork. "It's not considered cool to try and do well in school," he says. The negative peer pressure. Ho adds, can partly be blamed on the prevalence of street gangs in Chinatown New York Chinatown gangs send people to Boston every once in a while to organize" he says. "The environment's not too good for studying.

Yee hopes to revive a program at the Boston legal Service which handles a number of major Chinatown issues legal and political mobilizations have both resulted from recent expansions in Chinatown by the Tufts University Medical School "Housing seems to be the really big legal issue," Yee says. According to Min, organizing against Tuffs has been difficult because the long work days of many Chinatown residents leaves them too exhausted for meetings and rallies.

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