By Ling-Mei Wong
Felicia Tsang knows what it’s like to be new.
Tsang came to the United States when she was 17 years old. When she was assigned to read “Catch-22″ by Joseph Heller and came across an unfamiliar expletive, she couldn’t find it in the “F” section of the dictionary and turned to her classmate.
“That story went all over campus in two hours,” she laughed.
Today, Tsang knows her cultural references. As the principal of Kwong Kow Chinese School, she wants children to learn Chinese not just as a language, but to understand the culture and history as well.
“The way to go about education is through languages and you cannot really assimilate unless you have the language,” Tsang said. “You cannot know the intricacies of the language unless you know the culture. They have to go hand in hand.”
While Tsang grew up in Hong Kong, she considers Boston her home. After studying electrical engineering at MIT, she completed graduate studies at Dartmouth College and Boston University, and worked as a research scientist at Harvard Medical School. She began working in K-12 education in 1986, as she raised a family of two sons and a daughter. The Newton Cantonese School became her responsibility for eight years.
“My younger son would say, “We’re the only kids who are doing this,’” Tsang said. “Chinese school on Saturday became a fact of life.”
Tsang moved to Hong Kong in 2002 to cofound a private school at the behest of Nobel Physics Prize winner Charles Kao. Once the school was on its way, she launched the Learning through Engineering, Art and Design program with the MIT Media Lab, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups. The collaborative project brought multimedia into education for Hong Kong, spanning multiple topics and serving special needs children.
When the Kwong Kow board looked for a new principal, Tsang was already well-known.
“Given my experience in Hong Kong and passion in working for the community, I really wanted to do something,” Tsang said. “It’s a good feeling to come home and do this.”
In a day, Tsang handles administrative tasks, meets with teachers, checks on students, meets with parents and advises Kwong Kow’s high school volunteers on college admissions. She performs all tasks in fluent English, Cantonese and Mandarin, which she credits to knowing the background of each language.
“Unless you start to appreciate the nation, the people and its history, along with the culture, you won’t be able to develop an interest to learn the language well,” she said.
As Kwong Kow teaches Cantonese and Mandarin classes to immigrant children from Chinatown — along with other children — the school serves as a cultural link. “A lot of people in the neighborhood don’t know the culture in America. They can take language classes but it’s hard to assimilate,” Tsang said. “They can’t take part in their children’s education, which results in a generation of very frustrated kids and parents. The parents feel hopeless for themselves, while hopeful for their children. The kids can be very frustrated. They’re in a bad position because if they disappoint their parents, they feel like they’ve failed.”
Kwong Kow not only offers language classes, but also has dulcimer, kung fu and Chinese dance so students have a fuller appreciation of the Chinese culture. On Sundays, children of new immigrants take English classes to help them adjust more quickly.
“I want to see the children here succeed,” Tsang said. “I want them to break out of the community, in a way, but to always feel they are a part of it.”
This post is also available in: Chinese