Ambivalent in Any Language

Subject of landmark bilingual case uncertain of role

PACIFICA, Calif. – At times, the fog covers this seaside town entirely, filling its dilapidated motels and country club lawns with clouds of wet air. It is the kind of place where someone who wanted to could go unnoticed for years, living in a cottage pegged to the cypress-covered cliffs. For Kinmon “Kinney” Lau, who as a first-grader became a national symbol for bilingual education in the 1970s, Pacifica has been a refuge from public attention for several years.

The Lau family moved from Hong Kong to San Francisco when Kinney was 5. A year later, his difficulties learning English took on a national significance when he and his mother became the lead plaintiffs in Lau v. Nichols, a landmark class-action suit brought against the San Francisco Unified School District for its failure to provide appropriate language instruction to 2,850 children who spoke only Cantonese.

For the first time in 17 years, Lau agreed to be interviewed, as Massachusetts prepares to vote on bilingual education, a move California made four years ago. In 1974, when Kinney was 10, the US Supreme Court ruled that bilingual education was a civil rights issue, prompting school districts across the country to offer native language instruction to immigrant children, and creating an issue that has been debated ever since.

But even as some parents protest the Boston School Committee’s decision to repeal a bilingual education policy that, as in many districts across the country, is called the Lau plan, the Chinese-American man whose learning difficulties sparked a nationwide education movement is leading a deliberately quiet life – primarily in English.

As an adult, Lau is a reluctant poster child for bilingual education, perhaps because he never benefited from it. By the time dual-language instruction was introduced, he was too old to be placed in any of the programs.

“If you grew up here and were born here and you speak English at home, you have an advantage, no doubt about it,” Lau said. “It’s just that I adapt pretty well if you throw me into the fire. I’m pretty flexible, but maybe other kids don’t do as well. If you throw them in the classroom and tell them to sink or swim, there’s a much bigger probability that they’re going to sink.”

Lau came to be fully acculturated sometime after his family left Chinatown, when he was in junior high school. Today, he speaks flawless, accentless English, but can no longer read or write Chinese, the only language his parents speak fluently. Over the years, he changed his name from Kinney to the Anglicized spelling, Kenny, and finally to Ken. At 38, Lau is unmarried and has prospered at a Bay-area consulting firm doing database and software work for Fortune 500 companies.

He is also in no hurry to claim his role in history.

“I don’t know if bilingual education is better – I’m still trying to work it out. I had trouble with math and science in school, but I would find ways to get the job done,” he said. “Today I can’t read a Chinese newspaper, and I sort of wish I had studied more so I could work in a foreign country like Hong Kong or something, where strong Chinese skills are necessary.”

While there were periods when he did not understand what was on the blackboard, Lau says he found ways to translate his lessons into Chinese. He struggled with English through high school, but finally mastered the language at San Francisco City College, where he majored in computer programming, graduating in 1984.

Lau views the case that bears his name from several perspectives.

“My mother told me that having equal opportunity was important, but I think this movement was brought on by other groups and they just needed a face, and that’s where we came in. I don’t know how many people the whole thing has helped. If I knew, I would think it was great, and that we stood for something, that we did something to help people,” he said.

Guidelines established under the Lau ruling have set federal policy and influenced school districts from Boston to San Francisco. For 23 years, the Boston schools abided by the Voluntary Lau Compliance Plan, a 100-page document that outlines the school system’s bilingual education policies, ranging from class sizes to paid advocates. Accepting the recommendation of Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, the School Committee recently dismantled the plan on the grounds it was outdated. Some parents of bilingual students fear the change could pave the way for the school system to do away with bilingual education.

For Edward Steinman, the lawyer who argued the case, bilingual education remains a civil rights issue. After meeting dozens of children in classroom situations similar to the young Lau’s, Steinman, then working in a public interest law clinic, decided for strategic reasons to wage his legal war from Chinatown.

“Why isn’t the case called Lopez instead of Lau?” Steinman asked, speaking from his Victorian home high in the San Francisco hills. “I knew it was going to be an appellate court issue – I didn’t know it would get me to the Supreme Court – but I thought there would be fewer biases against Asian-Americans than Latinos.”

Steinman says he chose Lau to be the lead plaintiff because he was told that the boy was US-born, and that his mother, Kam Wai Lau, was a young widow. Steinman, who does not speak Chinese, communicated with the Laus through an interpreter, which meant that some key facts possibly got lost in translation.

Lau now wonders how these essential details could have been missed: He was born in Hong Kong, and he and his mother moved to San Francisco in 1969, later to be joined by his father, who today is a retired carpenter living in San Francisco.

“Whoever told the story wanted to tell it in their way, is my feeling,” he says three decades later. “I don’t remember much about it other than taking a trip to New Orleans a few years later – they invited us for a dinner, and they presented us with a plaque. I remember going up to the stage and saying thank you.”

The Laus eventually broke with Steinman after a series of misunderstandings, but the case galvanized teachers in Chinatown, including Lau’s first-grade teacher, Lucinda Lee Katz, who has since received awards from the American Immigration Law Foundation for her work on bilingual education.

In 1970, just 1,050 of San Francisco’s Chinese-speaking students received language assistance to learn English, most of which consisted of tutoring work done by volunteers. Today, nearly 25,000 Chinese-speaking children are enrolled in some kind of bilingual program, and students learning English as a foreign language now make up 30 percent of all students enrolled in San Francisco public schools.

The total number of bilingual education students in San Francisco is roughly double the number of such students in Boston, where 9,000 bilingual students include Haitians, Cape Verdeans, Chinese, Somalis, Vietnamese, Portuguese, and Latinos. In November, those students could face major adjustments to their curriculum if voters approve a ballot initiative funded by California millionaire Ron Unz that would make one-year immersion courses in English the standard teaching method for students with limited English proficiency.

In 1998, California voters passed Proposition 227, a similar measure that Unz also funded. School districts have since found ways to continue providing bilingual classes, but only parents can request a waiver to remove their children from English-immersion classes. According to the California Association for Bilingual Education, 1 million students have stayed in English immersion classes longer than 12 months.

Yet from the vantage point of Lau’s foggy perch in Pacifica, public debates about immigration and cultural diversity appear removed from his concept of bilingual education. He is clearly proud of his accomplishments and his ability to navigate between corporate America and his Chinese-speaking family.

“The thing about America is that if you’re not native Indian, then you’re an immigrant by default,” he said. “People risk so much to come here . . . and I think they should be able to retain their language and their culture.”

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