Raging debates on Proposition 227, the English-only initiative on the June 2 ballot, are stirring painful memories. My memories go back 23 years to the disheveled look of my 7-year-old son Paul — his angelic face soiled with streaks of tears and his blue shirt untucked from his navy pants, blubbering while being led out of the school gate to me.
Paul, who had arrived from Seoul a few days before, was ridiculed and bullied by his classmates all day for not understanding what they said.
“He had a hard time with the kids,” said the guardian in a Hancock Park area school, trying to console me. “But he’ll be all right pretty soon.”
I clenched my teeth. Our family could not go back to Korea, so we have no choice but to swallow this, I told myself. But it didn’t occur to me then that it was Paul who was subjected to this torment because of my decision.
Years later, I came to realize that I had inflicted irrevocable cruelty on him, by not sending him to a school where Korean bilingual classes were available. Unfocused on the value of broad education and ignorant of benefits of a bilingual curriculum, I had denied my son a smooth transition he could have had.
In the spring of 1975, three days after Paul arrived in Los Angeles, I purposely enrolled him at the private school solely based on the school’s academic reputation. The Los Angeles Unified School District had started a Korean language bilingual program the year before and Suzie K. Oh, now the principal of the Third Street Elementary School, was one of the handful educators who taught bilingual classes in Koreatown schools.
As a journalist I knew of the Korean bilingual program. But my obsession with one desire — to see my son learn English quickly and get good grades — kept me from taking advantage of the program. I foolishly accepted the myth that suited my own vanity: that children learn foreign language quickly and that the best place to learn is a mono-lingual immersion. Thus I made my decision solely on the school’s academic reputation and dependable after-school daycare.
That misjudgment resulted in a high price for Paul beginning the first day in school. Every afternoon for two weeks, his face was smeared with tears when I went to the school to pick him up. Paul explained that his classmates had shoved him or knocked him to the ground when he didn’t answer when they talked to him.
In about a month, my son developed another problem.
At least twice a week at about 11 a.m. I would get a call from the school office, informing me that Paul had an upset stomach. “He’s now in my office waiting for you. Could you come over?” the school secretary said.
This condition lasted more than six months.
Things got better for a while. But his symptoms returned when we moved to the Westside and onrolled him in another private school. On his first day he had an upset stomach and had to be brought home early. For a whole year while he attended the school Paul suffered from an upset stomach once or twice a month.
As he adjusted to his new life in Los Angeles, Paul did “pick up the language” and finished high school with A’s in English. After graduating from UCLA, he is now working at a Korean American community service organization.
Still, whenever I think of what I imposed on my son because of my own ignorance and my single-minded desire to see him succeed on my terms, I feel like I must tell new immigrant parents not to make the mistake I made. I cannot undo the pain I inflicted on my son because of my ignorance, but perhaps, I can persuade other parents to make an enlightened decision.
Some say that Unz initiative is an anti-immigrant move by conservative Republicans. To me, politics is not the issue. Prop. 227 is a dehumanizing proposal, which Californians must not enact.
Proponents of the proposition cite the bilingual program’s “failure” as a reason for scrapping it. They say that immigrant students stay in the current bilingual program too long, and are deprived of opportunities to move to English-only classes. They also imply that immigrant parents don’t want their children to learn English but want them to maintain their native language.
That’s sheer nonsense. What kind of parents in their right minds would want their children to try to get by without proficiency in English in an English-speaking country?
It is true that one can learn a foreign language quickly through “immersion.” While this may work for adults or exceptionally strong-willed children, it is not for average youngsters, especially those transplanted here by their parents.
A bilingual program is akin to a pair of crutches for linguistically-handicapped immigrant children until they overcome their difficulty. It is inhumane to take away this helping tool. If the program is defective or needs improvement, we should figure out ways to make it better, not throw it away.