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Hey everyone. Welcome to our limited podcast series, Reclaiming the California Dream. We’ll be hearing stories from some amazing individuals and how much their community means to them. The Schools and Communities First Act, also known as Proposition 15, will restore $12 billion a year in funding for our roads, parks, and libraries; health clinics and trauma centers; local schools and colleges. By working together to pass the Schools and Communities First Act, we can sustain our culture, find stability for our families, and build a future where all Californians have access to quality healthcare and the education we deserve. Today, I’m talking with Kathee Nguyen, who’s a long-time Bay Area resident, and as a child of Vietnamese refugees, she shares her experiences being one of two Asian kids in her classroom. Kathee is a proud mother of two, and she discusses how being a young parent has changed her entire perspective, ensuring she does all that she can to provide the best education and opportunity for her children. She finds the amount of reliance of parent volunteers concerning at her son’s school, and talks about the struggle that the school has to deal with regarding funding. Today, Kathee understands the importance of civic engagement and education as a way to secure a future that not only supports her and her family, but for all folks in her community. Enjoy.
Hello! So let’s get started. Something really easy If you want to just go ahead and introduce yourself, your name and where you currently live.
Sure. My name is Kathee. I live in San Jose. I was born in SoCal, but moved up here about a month after I was born. So pretty much raised here my whole life.
Nice. What’s your earliest memories, and how do you feel connected since you were growing up in San Jose?
So I actually, so I grew up in Campbell actually. I currently live in San Jose. But my earliest memories of Campbell are school. I went to a Catholic school called St. Lucy’s, and I did a lot of activities at the Campbell Community Center, like basketball and camps and stuff as a kid. So a lot of fond memories.
How often, or how long did you participate in those community events?
So I started, I think as early as eight years old doing team basketball, and I probably did that for a few years until I was eligible to do sports through my own school program, which I think started around fifth grade.
If you could recall, could you kind of try to think about the ethnic makeup, if you recall in that young age, was it a pretty diverse community, not that much minorities? Kind of give me a picture of kind of the environment that you were in.
Yeah. This is a great question. I was just chatting about this with one of my colleagues the other day. She grew up on the East side of San Jose, whereas I was in Campbell, which I think is a lot more diverse now, but growing up, I don’t think it was very diverse at all, actually. So I think I was one of two Asian kids in my class. So I think that shaped my experience as an Asian child, a child of immigrants, you know, growing up and going to school and just being around kids that didn’t look like me or didn’t have the same cultural background as I did. So, I think I was very aware of that actually at a very young age too. I knew that I was different, you know, by the way that I looked, the food that I ate, my name, my maiden name is Nguyen. So I just remember, you know, being in class or being called on and having to pronounce my name because it was just so foreign to everybody. I had an awareness very early on.
Did you ever get kind of teased or people more gave a sense of like, they just didn’t know because you were the one of two Asian kids, but no one ever had malintent towards you or anything like that right.
I actually, I can recall several instances. I remember being very self conscious about the way I looked growing up. You know, there were instances where people would make fun of me for having smaller eyes or for my nose being a little bit flatter, not quite as tall. And then I think that Vietnamese was just not a known ethnicity. I think it was just like a lot of times, you know, we would learn about, for example, like Lunar New Year, like Chinese New Year, everybody would look to me like, because I was representative of what, you know, [what] the holiday was.
Right. They’re always like, you’re Chinese, right? You’re like, no I’m not Chinese. Could you talk about your family history, kind of how your parents immigrated here, if you’re first-generation, second-generation kind of a little bit about your family history?
Yeah. So my parents immigrated from Vietnam and so they were refugees escaping the war. So our experiences obviously growing up are completely different. They escaped for a better life and wanted to give us a better life. And so yeah, we’re very fortunate that my parents decided to come over here.
And in that time of them coming over and immigrating here to the States, do they ever kind of talk about some of the struggles that they’ve had?
So stories of their upbringing in Vietnam are very, like, they’re very sporadic. They tell us little bits and pieces here and then they share very small bits and pieces of their experience going through the war. I think it’s just a really difficult thing to talk about. Now that I think about it, actually, my mom did share a lot with me about her childhood and like her early teen years. So she went away from home to get an education and growing up, she was one of like, I want to say 10 siblings, 10 or 11. And so she had [to] share in like the childcare duties and things like that. And so education was important, but at the same time she had all of these other obligations. And so I think for us, growing up, you know, they wanted us to be able to focus on education and bettering our lives and having opportunities and a lot of things that they didn’t have growing up. But, yeah, I mean, I know my parents worked hard, they worked really long hours, you know, like all the time that they spent looking, and all of the money that they would make, they would invest back into my sister and I, so that was, you know, through our education, through extracurricular activities, always making sure that we didn’t feel like we were without, I guess you could say.
Yeah. Now you growing up here in the South Bay, Bay Area—just in general being connected, are you aware of the fact that maybe in some neighborhoods, you know, just in San Jose too where there are some neighborhoods that benefit from more money coming into the neighborhoods and their schools. On the other side of it, maybe not so much, right. There is somewhat, somewhat of a divide. Tell me about your thoughts on that and you know, if you’ve had any kind of experience.
Yeah, absolutely. And I think it’s really interesting for me because I grew up going to a private school, and the reason my parents chose to move to Campbell when I was growing up was because at the time it was a nice neighborhood to be in, the school district was great, and so if we had to utilize the public school system, we would be able to be at a better, a better school I guess you could say. So now that I’m a parent and I have a son that is going to be entering first grade in a week or so, all of this has become really, really apparent to me. And at the time we were living in South San Jose when he started kindergarten. So the school that we were zoned for, if you go and check out all the ratings and stuff was, I believe like a 3 out of 10.
And so I was just like, wow, how is this that a school can be rated so poorly, that the kids are not performing, you know, in all of the different subject areas that they should be. And so I realized, okay, it’s one a matter of funding, like the amount of money that goes into this school and the community. Attendance, for example, that’s another big thing that determines how schools are funded and just, I think the general makeup of like the students. So kids who come from low-income families or like working-class families, a lot of times parents don’t have the time or the resources to further invest in education. And so even if programs are available, they’re not being utilized. And so, we actually transferred to a different school district, and ended up moving into the neighborhood, or the area where we’re zoned for, for the school that Tyler does go to now. And it’s a little bit better, but even so I still feel like they’re sorely lacking, you know, in resources and community outreach and just education within the community.
Yeah. That’s really interesting because where you originally were living, and you as a parent, of course, number one priority is that you want your child to have the best possible opportunity and education available to them. And I’m assuming it’s just by location, you know, whatever the closest schools are, I’m guessing.
And because you’re kind of driven by wanting the best opportunity for your son, you know, you want it to kind of transfer out and even then where you were transferring, wasn’t like drastically better, you know, but was there any difficulties that you have experienced and kind of some troubles in that process where you’re talking, you know, amongst yourselves, as parents who say, what do we do? Do we enroll Tyler into this school? If not, are we gonna have to move?
Yeah. So when it came time to enroll, I did not feel that sending him to the school that we were zoned for at the time would be beneficial. I just, you know, if he were to go to a school where the level of learning and where it’s so varied or where it’s below, you know, where he’s at, it just doesn’t seem like he’s going to thrive. So we knew obviously we had to do something and so it was do we stay here, do we look into private schools, or do we try to transfer him to another district? And it wasn’t a difficult process. And I think every parent wants the best for their child. And so you’ll explore all the options available to you. For us, private school currently, for elementary is just not an option. It’s just too expensive.
So the next best option for us was just to find another school and doing intra district transfer, so transfer out of district to another school. There was almost sort of a feeling of guilt transferring him out of our district, the one that we were zoned for, because taking one student away means one less attendee and less funding for that district. And so, I’m going to do what’s best for my child, obviously, and his education, but at the same time, I do have, you know, a little bit of guilt feeling like I’m divesting from the community and from the kids who go to school in that district.
Yeah. I don’t think anyone would hold that against you saying like, no, you have to keep your, your child here in this district. Like you said, you have to do what’s best for your child. And every parent is doing that, honestly. Have you attended some parent teacher conferences and those kinds of meetings?
So early on, I think in the first few months of school, there were several emails sent about the school, looking into leasing some of their property as a way to generate more revenue and funds for the school. And so just reading that, I mean, I knew already that schools were lacking in funding and resources, but that made it even more apparent to me that, you know, they’re in dire need of funds,
You as a parent, does that concern you of Tyler’s education just in general? Obviously you’re not there in class but everyday—
So I actually, was in his classroom every week volunteering to do reading groups and my husband was doing, I think it was every Monday was volunteering to help out PE. And so, it was actually really interesting to me that the school relied so much on parent volunteers. Just because they didn’t have enough manpower to, you know, basically run all of these daily activities and things, but kids do like PE and reading. And—
Is there a lot of other parents that are there with you? Like what’s the—
No. So I actually, there was one more parent, but for the most part, I think there were a handful of other parent volunteers, and because I have a more flexible work schedule, I was able to volunteer more consistently, but I think the majority of parents are working parents like outside of the home and unable to, you know, designate time to be in the classroom. And so for me, one, I enjoyed being in the classroom with Tyler, but at the same time, I also felt like I had an obligation to do so, because of my flexibility. And I just thought that, you know, like his education does hinge on my—not a 100 percent—but on my participation, yes. Like, you know, parent participation is important, but I just felt like the kids would be at a disadvantage and would be missing out on a lot of enriching activities and things like that without our participation. And I think it’s a great experience for both parents and students to share in the education experience for parents to be in the classroom, but when the school’s having to depend on parents, you know, in order to run PE class, or in order to have small reading groups or art projects and things like that, it just seems like that’s kind of problematic.
Right. And I just don’t think that’s sustainable because who knows, not every parent may have a flexible schedule. I want to touch upon COVID-19 in terms of how things have changed from the parent’s perspective. And I’ve always been curious because I spoke with the teacher and they have struggles in terms of needing the resources. But now, what’s your experience like in terms of needing to shift. I’m assuming that, you know, Tyler’s at home and he’s not at school, but what’s kind of been changed, what’s been the updates and the general direction from the school.
So initially, I think it was in March that shelter-in-place happened. And the school pivoted pretty quickly in terms of shifting the way that, you know, kids are doing learning, so to virtual learning. And I think at first, everybody was really on board and it was like, you know, this is novel and fun and cool, but I don’t think it’s sustainable. And I think it obviously was like the only option that’s safe right now, but it’s presented a lot of challenges for us as working parents. And just for Tyler, you know, as just a young kid, like nothing can replace, I think, social and human interaction, but yeah, it’s been a struggle. It’s definitely presented its challenges and we’re starting school again in like a week or two. And it’s like four hours of distance learning every day.
Have you noticed, or had to cover some of the resources that the school normally would, but I guess you now do because they’re at home,
I’ve been chatting with other parents and trying to figure out how to come up with these small learning pods. And so kind of trying to supplement their learning with a private tutor or, you know, other activities like outdoor distance activities, just to, I don’t know, break up the day or like boost what they’re getting through distance learning. It’s definitely not the same as in class learning. And so, yeah, we, we are going to have to supplement it in some way.
You mentioned that you wanted to be more civically engaged and socially active, and I want to also tie in with that question is one, where does that come from and two, how does that look for you from the perspective of being a fairly new parent?
So I think almost everything that I do now is through the lens of a parent and, you know, like how my decisions and everything are going to affect my kids and their outlook on things and their future. And I think in light of the upcoming election—presidential election—all of the things that have been going on in recent months with the health crisis, Black Lives Matter, just all of that has just made me sit back and think a lot more about, you know, like what the world will be like in 10, 20 years, and what my children will be like. And one, I always say like education, yes is super, super important, but just empathy and just like an understanding of, you know, the world and the people around you is really important. And so I think I’ve kind of been quiet on a lot of these issues and never really voiced a strong opinion or position one way or another, but just all of these recent events have made me feel a lot more, I don’t know, awakened, I guess, and wanting to contribute to positive change.
Yeah. I’m really happy to see a lot more people starting to be aware and open to learning, because I think that’s the, that’s the key thing. So that’s really, that’s really good. Glad to hear that kind of mindset that you have.
Yeah. I mean, I think I grew up pretty privileged, you know, I think I had a lot of opportunities and my parents sacrificed a lot so that I would have those opportunities. And now as a parent, I’m doing everything I can to give my kids those opportunities too, but I want them to be aware and to know that they don’t live in this bubble of opportunity, you know, where everything is available to them and that there are so many other children out there, and so many people in the world that don’t have all of these opportunities and that they have to look outside of this little bubble that we live in, and realize how privileged they are and what they have and what so many other people do not have.
Yeah. So last question I have is, so if Schools and Communities First gets passed, it’ll be a win for us. What does that future kind of look like for you in terms of the community that you want for Tyler?
I think it’s, you know, even though we’re not going to see an immediate impact, like it’s going to get passed and things might not necessarily change tomorrow, like you were saying. But I think it’s important to continue doing the work because we’re here to, like, our parents came over here to make a better life for us. And in turn, we need to shape the future, and make it better for future generations. And so I have been talking a lot about like how I think it’s important to recognize that there is a huge disparity between, you know, different groups in the community and working to better and close that gap, I guess, so that there’s a more even playing field for everybody is super important. And as I was reading the narrative that you sent over to me about how we need to kind of shift the thinking from, you know, like pulling yourself up from your bootstraps kind of mentality, to like investing in the whole community and making sure that resources are available to all is super important. And I think that old bootstraps mentality is super misguided. And part of that, I feel like makes people resistant to wanting to put money into the community.
Well, thank you so much, Kathee, for your time. I think the conversation was very enlightening and quite enjoyable for me.
Well, thank you for having me!
Reclaiming the California Dream is brought to you by AAPIs for Civic Empowerment Education Fund and Project by Project San Francisco. If you’d like to learn more about us, visit our website at aapiforce-ef.org and projectbyproject.org. Thanks for listening. Ad paid for by Chinese Progressive Association, nonprofit 501c3. Committee major funding from Chinese Progressive Association.