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Making Peace—A Narrative Study of a Bilingual Liaison, a School, and a Community

by Donald F. Hones - 1999

Schools today must address multiple levels of conflict in the lives of children and communities. This study explores the role of a bilingual liaison is helping to resolve such confllicts and to build bridges of understanding between schools and diverse communities. Narrative inquiry is used to represent and interpret the narratives of Shou Cha, a Hmong community liaison, and his colleagues at the CLCCA, and special attention is given to the representation of subjects' voices and narrative forms that engage readers aesthetically as well as critically. The multiple conflicts affecting the lives of minority language students, their families and schools are addressed, as well as the need to move from a schooling paradigm of discipline and punish (Foucault, 1977) to one of making peace. The cultural roles played by Shou Cha ascultural healer (from Spindler and Spindler, 1990) and border crosser (Giroux, 1997) are examined, and implications are suggested for researchers and educators.

Schools today must address multiple levels of conflict in the lives of children and communities. This study explores the role of a bilingual liaison in helping to resolve conflicts and build bridges of understanding between schools and diverse communities. Using narrative inquiry to represent and interpret the narratives of Shou Cha, a Hmong community liaison, and his colleagues at the Center for Language, Culture and Communication Arts (CLCCA), special attention is given to the representation of subjects’ voices and narrative forms that engage readers aesthetically as well as critically. This study addresses the multiple conflicts affecting the lives of minority language students, their families, and schools, as well as the need to move from a schooling paradigm of discipline and punish (Foucault, 1979) to one of making peace. He examines the cultural roles played by Shou Cha as cultural healer (from Spindler & Spindler, 1990) and border crosser (Giroux, 1997), and suggests implications for researchers and educators.

There are twenty students present today in Ms. Mañas’ kindergarten class at the Center for Language, Culture and Communication Arts (CLCCA). They are many shades of brown and have names such as Chavez, Ortega, Belazaire, Newman, Thao, and Lee. The room is very colorful also. Cut out crepe paper designs hang from the ceiling. There are lots of pictures on the walls, and two world maps, one handmade. In the corner is a globe. The alphabet, with pictures of animals for each letter, adorns the front wall above the blackboard. Below the alphabet is a handmade poster created by one of the students in class, depicting activities at a Hmong New Year celebration. On one of the side walls is a long picture entitled, “Kids Around the World.” On the wall nearest me is a picture of kids with various skin colors and facial features hanging out together—not unlike the kids in this room. With the picture are the words: “We are alike in many ways. We are all special.” Various activities are taking place at six areas in different parts of the room. Children rotate between these activities, which include math, computers, language arts, reading, puzzles and games, and listening.

Shou Cha comes in from the playground where he has been supervising and playing with the kids. The first thing he does after hanging up his coat is help Rodrigo in the math group. Shou shows the various numbers to Rodrigo on the back wall and has him count with him. He has his hand on Rodrigo’s shoulder. He next helps out kids at the listening group, then the literacy group, and thus around the room, as needed. When the groups switch, Shou goes back to the math center to help them pick up. All the while he vocally encourages the kids to treat their materials and each other with respect, and to learn. The kids keep calling out, “Mr. Cha, come look at this! Mr. Cha, can you help me?”

Shou has a no-nonsense approach with the children, but he speaks to them very calmly, even softly. He sees a girl named Lisa with her earphones on, but jumping around, and using her book roughly. Mr. Cha sits down, close. He takes off her earphones. She puts her hands over her ears. He says, “Lisa, I know you can hear me. You must listen and learn. So you can grow and be the nice girl you are meant to be.”

This essay explores the life and work of Shou Cha, who works as a bilingual assistant and liaison between an elementary school and the Hmong community in Lansing, Michigan. Two questions guide this work: First, what are the multiple conflicts facing minority language students and families? Second, what roles are played by bilingual assistants and liaisons as border crossers (Giroux, 1997) who move between the concerns of schools, minority language communities, and the larger society?

This essay is organized in four parts: Part 1 addresses the multiple conflicts affecting the lives of minority language students, their families, and schools, and the need to move from a schooling paradigm of discipline and punish (Foucault, 1977) to one of making peace. The concept of cultural therapy offers a starting point to a process of narrative inquiry into the life Shou Cha, a Hmong bilingual liaison, who seeks to make peace between diverse children, between a school and a community, and within himself. Part 2 examines the multiple roles played by Shou Cha, including those of a cultural healer (from Spindler and Spindler, 1990) and a border crosser (Giroux, 1997). Part 3 expands on theories of the self found in the work of the Spindlers to interpret Shou Cha’s educational experiences and multiple resourceful, respectful, and relational selves. Part 3 also suggests some implications for researchers and educators from the study of this life and the lives of other members of minority language communities, as well as some directions for future research among bilingual liaisons, minority language students, and their families.


The CLCCA sits in a residential, working-class neighborhood a few blocks south of an interstate highway in Lansing, Michigan. Its dark, brick exterior conceals somewhat the sounds and sights of the life within its walls, life that shines briefly through student drawings peeping out at passersby through classroom windows. Inside, visitors are greeted by the words “welcome” in the many languages of the school. The walls are lined with self-portraits and autobiographical statements by each of the children. Upstairs, the school library contains countless volumes of multicultural stories and textbooks arranged by continent and language. In one corner there is a piano, and several children are participating in a music lesson led by a volunteer music major from the university. Back in the hallway, a hubbub drifts up from the gymnasium-cafeteria downstairs. There children are gathered for free or reduced lunches served and supervised by bilingual aides from over a dozen different countries. The room is lined with the flags of the United Nations.


Despite the image of cross-cultural togetherness represented by these words of welcome and the international flags, schools such as the CLCCA must address multiple levels of conflict in the lives of children and communities. City leaders surveyed by the National League of Cities (1996) ranked gang activities, school violence, and ethnic conflict among the top ten worsening conditions facing their citizenry, and during that same year one out of seven teachers responding to a survey by the National Center for Education Studies reported being attacked or threatened by a student (Nicklin, 1996). Widely reported school shootings in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Springfield, Oregon, and other locales prompted a special White House Conference on School Violence in October of 1998. Noted at the conference was the fact that schools in general were safe, and that 9 out of 10 public schools reported no violent crime at all (White House Conference, 1998). Nevertheless, $65 million was proposed for the hiring of police to serve as guards in violent schools. Less funding was proposed for more proactive solutions to behavioral problems, such as the use of adult mentors to help students learn conflict resolution strategies and mental health counseling (Alexander, 1998; Perlstein, 1998).

What are the causes of conflict in the lives of schools and students? Jonathan Kozol (1991) has effectively documented what he terms the savage inequalities that deny equal educational opportunity to poor children, who realize all too soon that the schooling they receive will offer them little chance for success in life. Ogbu (1982) has examined the cultural discontinuities between school and minority communities, and how resistance to an educational system that would seem to divide them from their peers and their families is a natural reaction for children of involuntary minority status.

The conflicts facing the lives of minority students have deep roots. One-third of the students at the CLCCA are Hmong, and the history of their people is one of navigating, and surviving, multiple conflicts. It is a history that can be traced back at least five thousand years. Over time the Hmong have wandered, or been driven, southward through China, from the fertile river valleys to the harsher environment of the high mountains. Centuries of struggle with the Chinese empire climaxed in the so-called “Miao” Rebellion in Guizhou Province from the 1850s to the 1870s. The rebellion ended with a province destroyed, millions reported dead, and the Hmong people serving as scapegoats for the wider peasant revolt against high taxes and the injustices of the central government. To preserve their lives and their freedom, many Hmong moved southwards, into Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Burma (Jenks, 1994).

The Hmong refugee community’s presence in the United States today is a direct result of their past efforts in support of American personnel engaged in the war in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. After years of protecting American airbases in Laos and tying up North Vietnamese troops on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Hmong were left alone after 1975 to face the wrath of the communist victors. The American government, which did not even acknowledge the “secret war” in Laos until 1970, had no evacuation plans for its former allies, and thousands of Hmong were forced to flee their mountain villages on foot and seek refuge in neighboring Thailand (Hamilton-Merritt, 1993; Long, 1993). It is estimated that one-third of the Hmong in Laos were killed during the war and its aftermath. Those that escaped endured years of confinement in Thai refugee camps. Many have since arrived in the United States as political refugees, where approximately 125,000 Hmong now live.1 Many of the Hmong live in America’s dangerous, decaying urban centers. Hidden away in pockets of poverty, the older generation tries to keep memories alive, while the younger generation of Hmong cross the many borders that separate their home culture from that of the school and larger society. In a brief overview of the Hmong’s long history of struggle and relocation, Trueba and Zou (1994, p. 3) ask: “What would make us think that the (Hmong)—after centuries of migration—have retained an ethnic identity, a sense of peoplehood?”

Yet in spite of an increasing need to understand and negotiate these multiple conflicts facing children, youth, and families, American schools are still strongly influenced by a larger societal urge to enforce norms of behavior and, in the words of Michel Foucault (1977), to discipline and punish. Bat-wielding principals such as Joe Clark are lionized in movies such as Stand By Me, uniformed policemen and metal detectors are fixtures in many public schools, and newer, bigger prisons are being built to handle those students who are not sufficiently disciplined by their school experience.

Foucault (1977) documents the rise of a new system to “discipline and punish” offenders in the early nineteenth century. Primary to this system was the establishment of norms of behavior and a continuum of enforcement that connected schools, asylums, prisons, and other public institutions:

A certain significant generality moved between the least irregularity and the greatest crime: it was no longer the offense, the attack on the common interest, it was the departure from the norm, the anomaly; it was this that haunted the school, the asylum or the prison. (p. 299)

Foucault’s analysis poses an important question to American educators today: How does one judge normal behavior when norms from different socioeconomic and cultural groups come into conflict? Moreover, when factors such as poverty, abuse, and a metaculture of violence and materialism influence the behavior of children, punishing the child, or attempting to “manage” the violence in isolation, may not be the answer (Lindquist, 1995).


Rather than merely maintaining discipline, it is perhaps time for educators to become peacemakers in a diverse society, between children and adults with different cultural backgrounds and belief systems. In his foreward to Pathways to Cultural Awareness (1994), Henry Trueba writes:

Could anyone really question the universal need for healing? The daily stories about hatred, cruelty, war, and conflict dividing nations, regions, states, cities, and neighborhoods reveal clearly the open wounds and hurts of many. We all carry profound emotional injuries that affect another deeper sense of self and the ability to recognize who we are individually and collectively. (p. viii)

George and Louise Spindler (1994) offer cultural therapy as an answer for educators who would address the multiple conflicts that divide individuals, families, and ethnic and socioeconomic groups in society. Cultural therapy is a process of healing that involves several steps. First, participants (teachers, students, families, and others) must acknowledge that cultural conflict exists and make the nature of such conflict explicit. Next, participants must address how this conflict involves their enduring and situated selves. The enduring self is a sense of continuity with one’s past and social identity, whereas the situated self is pragmatic, contextualized, and adaptable to changing conditions of everyday life. The enduring self can become endangered when it is “violated too often or too strongly by the requirements of the situated self. . . . [This] certainly occurs as children and youth of diverse cultural origins confront school cultures that are antagonistic to the premises and behavioral patterns of their own culture” (p. 14). Finally, cultural therapy addresses the requirements for instrumental competence in schools, which includes academic skills as well as the social skills suitable for participation in the larger society. For example, teachers would be encouraged to prepare members of minority cultures for the requirements of test taking, while acknowledging that test taking is predicated on the ritualized norms of Anglo-oriented schools. Finally, the Spindlers (1990) have argued that at the center of the American cultural dialogue are mainstream values such as individualism, personal achievement, and a belief in progress, yet “various forms of biculturalism . . . may constitute viable adaptations to the need to ‘get along’ in America at the same time that ethnic pride dictates a retention of self-orientation within one’s own culture of origin” (p. 37).

The healing principles of cultural therapy offer a framework for interpreting the work of Shou Cha as a bilingual assistant and liaison between the CLCCA and the Hmong community. By making diverse cultures and languages an important part of its focus, the school seeks to acknowledge the enduring selves of its students, valuing the traditions and beliefs of their families while at the same time preparing them with the instrumental competencies they will need to adapt successfully to life within the dominant culture. Through the work of community liaisons such as Shou Cha and monthly meetings with parents, the school seeks to mediate different worldviews, cultures, and ideologies, explaining the viewpoints of parents to school personnel, and explaining school policies and societal laws to immigrant groups such as the Hmong. Finally, through his role as “peacemaker” between various cultures at the CLCCA, Shou Cha has engaged in the process of making peace with America. In many ways his job as community liaison has been the antidote for the lingering psychic wounds and sense of alienation that he felt after being shot near his home in Lansing in 1994.


Greg Sarris (1993) writes that through dialogue we come to understand persons of other cultures as well as ourselves:

In understanding another person and culture you must simultaneously understand yourself. The process is ongoing, an endeavor aimed not at a final and transparent understanding of the Other or of the self, but at continued communication, at an ever-widening understanding of both. (p. 6)

Narrative inquiry offers a place for such dialogues of understanding the self and others to take place. In representing and interpreting the narratives of Shou Cha and his colleagues at the CLCCA, I made use of the following methods drawn from narrative inquiry: Like Grumet (1991) and McBeth and Horne (1996), I was concerned with representing my informants’ stories in a respectful manner, and with including them in the process of analysis and interpretation. Following Coles (1964) and Sarris (1994), I sought a form for this story that allowed for the representation of the dialogue between myself and my informant, and for substantial passages of my informant’s “voice.” For this reason I have chosen not to indent and set off my informant’s voice, but to present it on an equal footing with my own interpretations. Moreover, I wished to use narrative forms that engage readers aesthetically as well as critically (Brunner, 1994), and this has led to the occasional representation of the spoken word as poetry (Tedlock, 1983; Richardson, 1992). My interpretation of this narrative has dimensions: First, the thematic arrangement of the material following Polkinghorne’s (1995) analysis of narrative, and second, the contextualization of these narratives within history, culture, and the social milieu (Goodson, 1995).

There is a growing literature about the life experiences of the Hmong in America (see, for example, Chan, 1994; Ungar, 1995; Donnelly, 1994; Santoli, 1988; Trueba, Jacobs & Kirton, 1990). Not being a member of the Hmong community, I was fortunate to have the assistance of Pao Lo, a Hmong community liaison who worked at an elementary school where I did research. This liaison spoke with members of his community and then suggested I talk to Mr. Cha, a new member of the bilingual staff at the school.

Through my interviews with Shou Cha I became aware of the variety of roles that he played: He is a husband and father of seven school-age children; he is an active member of his clan council, working specifically on ways to heal the generational rifts in the Hmong community; he is a bilingual assistant and community liaison for a local elementary school; and he is an evangelical minister. Coming from our disparate linguistic and cultural backgrounds, we were able to form a friendship and converse about the new America that is coming into being.

The “outside” research I conducted was comprised largely of audiotaped, semi-structured interviews and notes from participant observation. Over the course of six months I spent frequent evenings at the Cha home and a few hours each week at the CLCCA, interviewing, observing, and volunteering in music activities and on the playground.


The CLCCA is a focus school within the Lansing school district for the development of a multicultural-multilingual learning community. A school brochure states that “the CLCCA promotes a positive international, interethnic and interracial climate by identifying, sharing and supporting cultural values from our Global Learning Community.” A majority of the approximately three hundred students at the school come from families that have recently immigrated from places such as Laos, Vietnam, Iraq, Mexico, and Haiti. Ninety percent of the students speak a first language other than English. The school’s bilingual teaching aides work closely with classroom teachers and students, and there is additional specialized English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction for some students. Families choose to send children to the CLCCA because the school explicitly values diverse languages and cultures and encourages ongoing dialogue between the school and linguistic minority communities. The school also plays an active role in educating the wider community in Lansing. School staff and children regularly participate in citywide educational conferences and cultural festivals. The CLCCA also publishes and disseminates various materials, including a booklet on cultural traditions whose writers included refugee children and parents, teachers, the principal, the mayor of Lansing, and the president of Michigan State University. Sharon Peck, mentor teacher at the CLCCA, describes the role of the school as an ingathering of children from diverse cultures and an outflowing of cultural and linguistic information to the entire community.

Working to build a school community at the CLCCA has its frustrations. According to Ms. Caamal Canul and Ms. Peck, many children are acculturating at such a rapid pace that they are leaving their parents behind at a time in their lives when parental guidance is especially needed. The school faces a perennial shortage of classroom space, and the high enrollment in lower grades has forced it to forego, for the time being, the addition of a sixth grade. The crowded conditions in the school were a contributing factor in a 1997–1998 school year that saw some of the worst student behavior in the school’s short history. In response, the CLCCA hired an adult student mentor who works with groups of students in classrooms to create proactive responses to conflict resolution. Since the implementation of this mentoring program, overall student behavior has improved substantially.

Efforts to create civic-minded children who appreciate and tolerate diversity are not unique, though they may buck some of the current trends in educational reform. Proposals such as America 2000 seem to focus more on preparing young people to fill slots in the corporate world, and less on America’s two hundred years of commitment to civic education and community. Robert Bellah et al. (1991) has been critical of an “economic ideology that turns human beings into relentless market maximizers undermining commitments to family, to church, to neighborhood, to school, and to the larger national and global societies” (p. 94). Bellah’s emphasis on preparing citizens for a democracy echoes earlier concerns of John Dewey, the great philosopher of American education. A strong advocate for education that was experiential and that connected students, teachers, and schools with their society, Dewey (1900) also foreshadowed our continuing problem of an educational system that exacerbates class distinctions, “the division into ‘cultured’ people and ‘workers,’ the separation of theory and practice” (p. 27). For Dewey, to foster better learning and build a more just, democratic society, schools needed to embody service and a sense of community:

When the school introduces and trains each child of society into membership within such a little community, saturating him with the spirit of service, and providing him with the instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guaranty of a larger society which is worthy, lovely and harmonious. (p. 29)

The staff and students at the CLCCA appear to be putting into practice such a vision of community; they offer educators and policymakers an alternative model for educating young people to live and work together for the benefit of all members of society.


Gina Mañas, the kindergarten teacher with whom Shou Cha works, is a second generation Cuban American. She is continually amazed at how well children of many cultures in the classroom accept each other. “Here there is such a mix in every class that you find. Whether it is their levels of speaking, their academic levels, their hair color—whatever—even though there are the differences, there are so many that it just makes it look like one whole class. I don’t think the children look at it as all being different, but just everybody being in here, trying to get to the same goal. I feel like I am very fortunate to have kindergarten, because I get the majority of my kids at the beginning of the school year. It is amazing the first day of school to see those children come in, and immediately, no matter what their background is those first 4–5 years at home, they come in and they accept each other! They don’t even consider making fun of each other. They might stare with kind of a funny look, as if to say, I don’t really think he is speaking in the same language that I speak, and it sounds a little different. . . . The children just come to an understanding that the teacher is speaking in English, some other people are speaking in English. If there is an Arabic girl who wants to talk to a Vietnamese boy, they are all going to have to speak in a common language. It pulls them all together” (italics mine).

Gina describes Shou Cha, her bilingual assistant, as her “savior”: “Those days without him are just long! I don’t think he even understands how much I appreciate everything he does. This is my second year working with him. Now that we have spent this much time together I can’t imagine teaching without him! I guess after you teach with somebody that long, you get used to each other and kind of click. So he knows on days when I am struggling for words or something, he will fill in. Or if he is having a problem disciplining, I can help him. Yeah, we really do complement each other. The way he works with the children is just beautiful. He really has a special way with him, and I think so many children these days really need a male role model this young. In so many school districts you don’t see a male teacher until you get to junior high or high school. They get to thinking that all teachers are women. I think it is great to have him in the classroom for that reason. I get hugs on a daily basis, but he does, too. They see him as important. They don’t look at me as the number one teacher. They know that both of us are teachers.

“I think a lot of the interaction he has with the children comes from his home, and his background. He really does talk to the children in a gentle manner, even when disciplining. The children look him in the eyes and know it is coming from his heart. Sometimes he will throw out this deep voice and from across the room it draws a silence” (italics mine). Gina continues in a voice like an old bear: “‘Now you have to sit down!’ It is really special how he interacts with the children.”

I ask Shou Cha what has been particularly interesting for him in his work as a bilingual aide and community liaison. He responds: “There is another step, and another dimension. Before I worked at that school, I practiced at my religious school. But something was added to me when I got the school job. Something was added to me and my family and something was subtracted. I say that honestly. Some rules in the school in the United States are not really good enough. It needs to be more strict. I am talking about the discipline of children. And I know the rules in the United States, you don’t discipline the way the family disciplines, but there is something that needs to be more strict.

Shou, like many parents, is concerned that his children learn in a disciplined environment at school. Perhaps he fears that too much freedom for children in schools could subtract from what they learn at home, contributing to laziness, violent behavior, or open sexuality, issues he raised earlier when discussing television programs and stories about family life. Thus, Shou’s view of schooling is complex: On the one hand, it offers a site for making peace between the school and children of different ethnic communities. However, in order to make peace, a greater degree of discipline is necessary, and if children cannot discipline themselves, schools must provide the discipline for them. Shou translates this sense of discipline into a concept of responsibility for oneself and the group:

“I have some knowledge from the school, too, which is very good. I learn from the teacher who I work for. I see so many children who do not speak English, and of course they do not know the American culture or the way to live, or to keep things, or to take responsibility. I learn that they take that very seriously, too. I also learn that when the teacher explains to the children, whatever she needs to explain, she really makes it clear and she explains it well, and simple enough to understand. And she makes the children responsible for their things. I believe going to school like that is really helpful. Even though I am only an assistant teacher, and though I have never learned in a secular class, I have finished my introduction to education in the church, which is a little bit related. I also finished my course for children’s evangelism, too, so it’s kind of related. So I can see that school is very different from what I have learned, but some things are similar. I’ve learned a lot of things.”

I ask Shou about his role in the classroom, and he responds: “The CLCCA is good because so many children do not speak English. They do not have the understanding to participate, or go on. And it is good, because we have help, regarding language, and also we have many people who can help you. And we have many children who are like you, who can encourage you by some ways, somehow, invisibly, so that you can go on. That school is especially good for that. The teacher explains, and she teaches, whatever she has planned to do, and after that, she needs help with twenty-four students. That is a lot of children. She helps one table, and I help another table. So many raise hands, to do this and do that, questions about this and that. And because of lack of language, too, I need to explain to my ethnic group, or even show examples, and that takes a lot of time.”

Shou understands the importance of fostering friendships among children of diverse cultural backgrounds: “The girls from the different countries can get very friendly with one another, but boys, not so much, and boys and girls, no. They do something totally against one another just because their skin color is different. So I called them together, and I said: ‘You know, I didn’t see what you did. Why I am calling you here together is this: Whatever you did, whatever you judged, whatever you think, you are wrong or you are right, I cannot make the decision. You can make it yourself. But what I am doing here is this: You make peace. You talk about being friends over here.’”

As with cultural therapy, Shou tries to make explicit with children the nature of cultural conflict in their immediate lives in the world at large: “I also go back to the wars in the world. I said, ‘This country fights that country, and this other country fights that other country. The only reason is that they do the same thing: Someone says, ‘that one I don’t like.’ Someone else says, ‘This is not our people and that is not our people; that is why we fight.’ So I show them that when they are against one another that is how they make enemies, and I don’t like that. I tell them, ‘This is not a school for fighting. We have to make friends.’ So they hug, make friends, make peace. Something like this is pretty new for them. Sometimes they fight, but every time I work with them and tell them they have to be friends.”

Central to Shou’s efforts with these diverse children at the CLCCA is that he adopts the role not of judge, but of peacemaker. Moreover, he goes beyond the playground conflict to educate children about the nature of broader conflicts in the world. His message is clear: Wars and civil strife begin much the same as fistfights between two children at school. Once children decide that they have enemies, they allow themselves to be drawn into a lifelong struggle that can never be won. However, peace, too, can begin in the school, as simple and strong as an embrace, or the phrase, “Let us be friends.”

I am reminded of a Hmong parent who told his children not to fight in school. The Hmong, said Mr. Lee, knew what it was like to fight enemies. They fought their enemies in China. They fought their enemies in Laos. They fought their enemies, and they lost so much. There was no need to make new enemies in America. With a history of warfare and devastation fresh in their memories, perhaps Hmong Americans such as Shou Cha are ideal teachers of peace for our children and our society. When I ask Shou what he would pass on to the next generation of Americans, he says:

“Just this: That we should make friendship. We are just the same people—black skin, brown skin, white, yellow—it does not make the difference. We are just different colors. But treat each one equally and nice. Don’t just look at their skin and treat them badly.”


When educators such as Shou Cha challenge students to both remember their own histories as well as learn to struggle alongside, rather than against, their classmates, they are embodying the role of border crossers (Giroux, 1997). Giroux describes the work of border pedagogy:

. . . to engage the multiple references that constitute different cultural codes, experiences, and languages . . . not only to read these codes critically but also to learn the limits of such codes, including the ones they use to construct their own narratives and histories . . . [to] engage knowledge as a border crosser, as a person moving in and out of borders constructed around coordinates of difference and power. (p. 147)

The border crosser’s work also involves the struggle for remembrance: Giroux (1997) writes:

Remembrance is directed more toward specificity and struggle, it resurrects the legacies of actions and happenings, it points to the multitude of voices that constitute the struggle over history and power. (p. 154)

The border crossers commit themselves to remembering and to helping students to remember their own histories of struggle, and they value diverse cultural and linguistic understandings of the world. Border crossing takes the role of the cultural therapist and gives it a critical edge.

Two girls are running outside on the playground of the CLCCA. As they chase each other, the Hmong girl falls down with the other girl on top of her. The next day, the Hmong girl did not come back to school, nor the next. Principal Yvonne Camaal Canul asks community Liaison Lao Lo why the girl is not attending class. Mr. Lo looks troubled, saying, “When the girl fell with the other girl on top of her, she got scared, and her spirit fell down. Her parents have asked a shaman to come from Wisconsin to perform the ceremony to recover her spirit. And her mom would like the teachers to make sure that the kids don’t play like that anymore.” “Okay,” says Ms. Camaal Canul, “We’ll call it an excused absence.”

The staff at the CLCCA have helped to create an atmosphere of open communication across cultural and linguistic boundaries. Beyond addressing such diversity in the classroom, the school utilizes its bilingual assistants as liaisons to different linguistic and cultural communities. Sharon Peck, mentor teacher at the CLCCA, suggests that the role played by the community liaisons is fundamental:

“The community liaison’s role is so critical. They are the diplomatic corps, the glue, that has always been such an integral part of this type of program. Not only because of the legal aspect of having kids work with adults who speak their own language. Even if it weren’t for that, it wouldn’t make sense to run the program without their involvement. I’m not Hmong, and Yvonne’s not Vietnamese or Laotian, and we don’t know what we are talking about when it comes to defining critical elements in the families’ lives, and their language, and what is meaningful and not meaningful for them. Insofar as having a certified teacher legitimizes what is going on in the classroom, having people that speak all the languages of the kids who study here, legitimizes this effort in the eyes of parents.”

Yvonne Camaal Canul is well aware of the special contribution the CLCCA’s community liaisons in this work:

“The community liaisons are absolutely essential, especially for two reasons: The amount of stuff a building is supposed to pass out to parents, information that is either district-wide or citywide or whatever, is just phenomenal. I can send them home, but it wouldn’t mean anything, and they are not going to participate in it, even if it did mean anything, because it’s Anglo orientation. So, with the community liaisons, we discuss what goes home: They are the ones who tell me what the community is interested in knowing about or participating in. I tell them things that we are doing so that they can tell the community to participate in them. Every single translation issue goes through the community liaisons” (italics mine).

The work of the community liaisons, in this sense, mirrors the use of bilingual staff at Leonard Covello’s (1958) community-centered school in East Harlem:

We were not separate, off somewhere in a world of our own, unapproachable to the man, woman or child who could not speak English. How often have I seen the lightning joy on the face of a dubious immigrant parent when he hears the sound of a familiar tongue! How many barriers crumble before the shared language! (pp. 266–267)

Yvonne Camaal Canul underscores the interpretive role that the liaisons play for the entire community: “The community liaisons are not just the CLCCA liaisons—they are the entire Lansing School District liaisons. The community liaison is critical in trying to interpret this culture and its expectations to that culture, and that culture and its expectations to this culture. I believe that it is two-way.”

Socially and economically marginalized groups such as the Hmong are inevitably involved in conflicts in school and society. In Lansing, one clan resolved its conflict with the schools by voting with their feet, and leaving the area. Elsewhere, Hmong communities have organized to promote changes in school policies. In St. Paul, Minnesota, Hmong families have joined the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) in an effort to force the public schools to address various issues of concern, which include the need to hire more Hmong staff people as teachers, counselors, and interpreters, and the adoption of curricula that value and acknowledge Hmong people and culture (United Hmong Parents–ACORN, 1994). Whereas the Spindlers suggest that cultural conflicts need to be explicitly made clear and addressed for a process of healing to begin, organized groups of immigrants such as the Hmong go further by linking the process of education in the schools with the need for social justice. They are constructing what Giroux (1997) calls counternarratives, oppositional discourses to the metanarratives of the dominant culture.

Leonard Covello and Myles Horton are two educators who have argued that a concern for social justice must be a factor in the process of peace making between the school, the home, and society. Tyack and Hansot (1982) write that Covello “believed that the school itself should mobilize neighborhood people to bring about social justice” (p. 210). Like Covello, Myles Horton (1990), founder of Highlander School, has argued that educators need to address real conflicts in society; community organizing and making peace among diverse groups must go hand in hand. Moreover, Horton suggests that schools can help channel decision-making powers and responsibilities to members of the community:

If we are to have a democratic society, people must find or invent new channels through which decisions can be made. Given genuine decision-making powers, people not only learn rapidly to make socially useful decisions, but they will also assume responsibilities for carrying out decisions based on their collective judgment. . . . to convince people who have been ignored or excluded in the past that their involvement will have meaning and that their ideas will be respected. (p. 134)

Community liaisons represent new channels of decision-making as practiced at the CLCCA. By entrusting bilingual assistants with this liaison role, the school has earned the trust of various immigrant communities, exemplified by the waiting list of families who would like their children to study there.

It has taken time to build such trust, and the process is ongoing. Children at the CLCCA must cross distinct cultural and linguistic boundaries every day, making transitions between the multiple worlds of the self, family, school, peers, and the larger socioeconomic community (Phelan and Davidson, 1994), and the job of the community liaison is complex. A community liaison is a mediator or bridge, a peacemaker between two very different cultures and paradigms. He is also a public servant, always on call. The liaisons assist teachers in the classroom, interpret for children, translate documents for the school, and interpret for members of the Hmong community when they have interactions with the school, as well as provide lunchroom and special activity assistance.

For Shou Cha, being a community liaison represents the fulfillment of a duty to the Hmong community. For Ms. Camaal Canul and Ms. Peck, a community liaison represents the possibility of opening channels of communication and legitimacy for American culture and the cultures of the home. For all members of American society, the concept of community liaisons represents the challenge of building bridges between schools, the school board, the courts, social service agencies, and parents and children of different linguistic and cultural groups. The importance of two-way communication between the school and families facilitated by community liaisons is critical. Smrekar (1996) suggests that such communication not only builds community trust, but academic success for youth:

Trusting, cooperative and mutually supportive relations between parents and teachers act as a linchpin to promote rewarding and successful academic experiences for students. Conversely, ambiguity, conflict and distance may undercut the level and nature of social interactions between these groups, producing a pattern of inconsistent and incomplete information exchange. (p. 161)

The community liaisons are thus the interpreters and bearers of information between distinct communities and worldviews. They help make possible relationships between school and community that are not based on a common language or understanding of the world, but on trust.

In many ways the community liaison program at the CLCCA parallels Walker-Moffat’s (1995) suggestions for family-based multicultural education. She specifically argues for the use of paraprofessional counselors from the various cultures represented in a school because “parents and students need access to someone who works in the schools who understands their culture and background and speaks their language” (p. 170). Galindo and Olguin (1996) have further argued that bilingual, minority educators must draw on their cultural resources in order to fully realize their potential and make lasting contributions to the education of children. By building bridges to families through the use of such bicultural teachers, counselors, and liaisons, schools recreate the spirit of Leonard Covello’s community-centered curriculum in East Harlem. Moreover, bicultural paraprofessionals such as Shou Cha have an important role to play in the classroom as makers of peace between diverse children and the world of the school.


It is quite late and the Cha children have all gone upstairs. Though we sit just a few feet apart in his quiet living room, the shadows separate Shou and I, and his strong facial features melt into the darkness. We talk about images of immigrants in America, and what it means to be an American.

I can’t help thinking of the anti-immigrant mood that seems to be sweeping our country (and the world), and has influenced immigration reform legislation in Congress, English Only initiatives, and a good deal of racial and ethnic strife. The Hmong, in fact, due to their high levels of poverty and dependence on public welfare as well as their maintenance of strong cultural traditions, have helped influence at least one writer to advocate a moratorium on immigration (Beck, 1994). To Shou I say: “In the United States, a lot of people will say that the trouble is the people who want to maintain their culture or their language. Some people see this as a threat. They say that is going to destroy America. If you want to speak Hmong and keep Hmong traditions with your kids, that is a threat. If people want to keep Mexican traditions who are living here, that is a threat. If people speak other languages than English, some people think that is a threat, and will destroy America.”

Thoughtfully, Shou responds: “The way I see it, that could happen. But that is not a very big concern to me. Talking back to when the Hmong people helped the American people fight the war in Laos. Suppose that idea carries on, and the Hmong people, population, which grows in the United States, they keep their strength, they keep their idea, and they keep their principle of leading, and they keep their principle of fellowship. Then suppose America somehow becomes politically unstable, then the Hmong people are among those who could help. Because they just help those whom they trust” (italics mine).

Shou hasn’t always trusted America and Americans. After being shot outside a grocery store in his neighborhood in 1994, he did not feel that he had a home in America, and became more distrustful of those who were not members of his Hmong community. Shou recalls his feelings upon leaving the hospital: “There isn’t any solid place, any place of peace on Earth. There isn’t. I stayed in the hospital for two weeks. I disown that place. The hospital is not my place. They said: ‘You can go home.’ And I don’t have a home to go to. This house I live in is not my house. Not my home. I live by the money. This place belongs to someone else. It’s not my house. I don’t belong to this Earth.”

Interestingly, his attitudes about Americans and America have changed substantially since he has been placed in the position of liaison between the Hmong community, the school, and the society. Shou has told me that as he has worked with the diverse teachers, liaisons, and children at the CLCCA, he has begun to feel a part of a larger community. Perhaps this active engagement in teaching and learning from others has been an antidote to the lingering sense of alienation Shou felt after being shot. His has been a process of cultural therapy, a coming to grips with the conflicts and traumas of his eventful life, a learning to acknowledge changefulness while respecting that which endures in individuals, in families, and in communities.

Shou speaks: “Before this job as community liaison, isolation was always in front of me. I isolated myself from African Americans, I isolated myself from Mexican Americans, I isolated myself from other Americans. And now I can say that is not right. Many different peoples live in the same town—black, brown, yellow. If they look a certain way, they have their own community. I don’t deny it, it is good to serve your own community. Please do your best for them. But then you should treat others nicely, too. Black, white, brown, yellow—we are the same people. We are different in skin only, but we are all human. We are the same, created by God, one creator, and it is very beautiful. Different colors, and very beautiful.”

“At the CLCCA we have many, many cultures, but we focus on the major culture: which is the community, the city you live in, and the country where you live! I know that there are some things you cannot add to this culture—of course not! But something that we learn to adapt ourselves to. It’s American culture. But that does not mean “white” culture. America, even though I am not a citizen yet, America is this country, is my country!”

Shou’s life experiences have taught him that all things must change, and have prepared him to adapt to meet the challenges of new languages, cultures, and economic and social realities. Intrinsically he realizes that children growing up in America must adapt to the dominant cultural and linguistic norms of the nation. Yet he has also laid claim to the American experience: This is his country, even if he is not yet a citizen. This country must honor the experiences of all of its people—black, brown, yellow, and white. American culture, for Shou, is like the pandau of the Hmong: In order to tell the story, you must weave together threads of many colors.

In many ways the educational philosophy of the the CLCCA follows the tradition of John Dewey’s “Great Community” and Leonard Covello’s community-centered curriculum. They are engaged in a process of cultural therapy, of making peace between immigrant children and their parents, who are often operating with different cultural scripts; between different ethnic and immigrant communities, some of whom have long-standing animosities that they bring from their previous homelands; and between the worldview of the larger society, represented in the school, and the various worldviews of different communities. Community liaisons such as Shou Cha and Pao Lo are golden, as Sharon Peck suggests, for they are the ideal peacemakers in this complex web of multicultural relationships.


Throughout Shou Cha’s lifetime of learning, and his relationships with history, family, community, and school, three themes emerge that suggest an important set of values; resourcefulness, relationship, and respect, which I will relate to a new conceptualization of the self. Beyond their alliterative appeal, these three Rs are significant in that these values are rooted in Hmong tradition, but they are present in American communitarian traditions as well. Nevertheless, these values are often obscured by a contemporary American culture that is both individualistic and clannish, where participation in civic and social associations has declined (Bellah et al., 1991; Putnam, 1995). Moreover, for many Americans there is a growing fear, fed by stereotypes presented in the mass media, of outsiders, whether they be from across the border or across town. In such a world, in such an era, schools need to renegotiate their role as educational institutions in society.

Amy Gutmann (1987) has argued that schools must recognize their roles as moral agents and that civic education, “the cultivation of the virtues, knowledge and skills necessary for political participation[,] has moral primacy over other purposes of public education in a democratic society” (p. 287). Schools, the places where we hope to socialize the next generation into their role as citizens of America and the world, are both influenced by, and influence, the mores of society: Schools can, and do, reinforce individualism in some of their practices by placing high value on individual achievement and little value on community. On the other hand, schools such as the CLCCA can, and do, influence students to value their resourcefulness as speakers of languages other than English; to value their relationships with their families, their peers, and their communities; and to respect each other, their diverse histories and beliefs, and all living things on the planet.

I argue that the three Rs—resourcefulness, relationship, and respect—not only give us a sense of who Shou Cha is as a new American, but a new conception of what it means to be an American as we approach the twenty-first century. Furthermore, I will suggest some lessons for educators, policy makers, researchers, and all Americans from this life history of Shou Cha.

Shou Cha’s many roles include those of husband, father to seven children, evangelical minister, Hmong community elder, and bilingual assistant and school-community liaison. For him there is a sense of continuity between his great-great-grandfather, who led many Hmong people out of China in the nineteenth century, and himself, who led over one hundred members of his village to safety in Thailand in 1979. Although he recognizes that the Hmong people will change as society changes, Shou Cha suggests that the Hmong will keep their relationship with family and clan, their sense of respect for elders, their fellowship with other Hmong and such friends as have earned their trust, and the leadership that has brought them safely through genocidal wars to the United States. Language and certain cultural traditions and practices may change, but for Shou Cha, certain qualities of Hmong-ness are not optional. He says:

Because the society changes, I guess most of the Hmong culture will be changed, too. No matter whether Hmong people like it or not, it has already changed. Totally changed. Even if we keep a Hmong church, I preach in my own language, we sing our songs, and when we come home we keep our culture, our way of life. I know we are changing. And Hmong always change. (But) Hmong keep one thing forever: The relationship. The relationship and the respect. Things like that you keep forever. If you lose it, then, that’s it, you’re gone.

His words seem to indicate that his identity as a Hmong American is always changing and adapting; it is an identity based on a complex series of relationships; and, within these changes and supported by these relational ties, there is a sense of inner continuity. But this sense of continuity, for Shou, does not hinge on the maintenance of a language or the outer trappings of a culture. Rather, it appears to hinge on the maintenance of certain values, that are at once Hmong and American: Resourcefulness, which Shou does not name, but which his life illustrates in many ways; relationship; and respect.


Resourcefulness, the ability to deal effectively with problems and difficulties, comes from the French word resourdre, “to arise anew.”2 Shou Cha has needed resourcefulness to overcome a series of adversities in his life, including the loss of his homeland, adaptation to a new culture and language, continuing poverty, and the near loss of his own life. His ability to learn and adapt during these crises has allowed him to “arise anew” and continue. Shou Cha’s resourceful self is perhaps an adaptation to what psychologist Robert Lifton (1993) calls our protean era:

The protean self emerges from confusion, from the widespread feeling that we are losing our psychological moorings. . . . But rather than collapse under these threats and pulls, the self turns out to be surprisingly resilient. It makes use of bits and pieces here and there and somehow keeps going. . . . We find ourselves evolving a self of many possibilities, one that has risks and pitfalls but at the same time holds out considerable promise for the human future. (p. 1)

Much like Lifton’s protean individual, Shou Cha’s resourceful self has adapted, grown, and changed with the circumstances. He is a man educated in the world as much as in schools. As a youth he learned from experience, mastering the skills for farming in the mountains and hunting in the jungle. He learned the stories of his ancestors, and such lessons from the past guided him in his entry into a complex social group during times of war and peace.

As with the Spindlers’ situated self, Shou’s resourceful self is both adaptable and masterful in the instrumental competencies needed for survival in a dominant culture. Certainly Shou has shown his resourcefulness by taking educational opportunities that arise: He took the time to study photography when he first arrived in the refugee camps in Thailand, and this skill allowed him to document life in Laos when he returned as a revolutionary. Shou’s participation with refugee camp missionaries allowed him to learn to teach and preach, to gain a modest income, and to learn English, which would facilitate his acceptance as a refugee in the United States. Furthermore, conversion to Christianity opened the door to a larger world, and to an immediate connection with diverse peoples far beyond the Hmong homeland in Southeast Asia. Shou has taken the opportunity to continue his education, through a ministerial program that better prepared him as a preacher and in English literacy, through adult education and high school completion programs, and through daily conversations with teachers and community liaisons at the school where he works.

Yet, Shou’s resourcefulness is not unique within his family or within the Hmong American community. His wife, Mai, needs this quality to keep a large family together while her husband is absent, at work or on the road to a ministry. Their children also show resourcefulness as they find ways to help each other manage the transition from an immigrant home to the school and back again. Finally, the Hmong community is noteworthy for its complex network of mutual support, despite the limited income of most of the community’s members. When a family arrives in Lansing, the community helps find them a house, a car, a school for the children, and a job. This type of mutual aid one often finds in refugee and immigrant groups, and there is a long history of such community support in the United States.

Perhaps the traumatic changes in the life of refugees and immigrants facilitate the development of the resourceful self. Klaus Riegel (1976) has argued that significant learning occurs through the management of life crises, that development follows change. Certainly this can be seen in the case of Shou Cha. The change from leaving a life of farming in the mountains of Laos to life in a crowded refugee camp challenged Shou to find a new meaning for his existence. This meaning he found in evangelical Christianity. The change from life in Southeast Asia to a new life in America encouraged Shou to become literate in English. The trauma of being shot and seriously wounded caused Shou to think seriously about the United States as a home, yet in the aftermath of that shooting he realized his connection to a broader group of Americans beyond the Hmong community. Like Lifton’s description of the protean self, Shou Cha has moved towards species consciousness and a sense of commonality with others.


The word respect, to notice with special attention and treat with courtesy, comes from the Latin respectare, “to look behind.” Respect is of central importance in the establishment and maintenance of Shou Cha’s complex relationships with other people and the world. Shou Cha’s respectful self recalls the Spindlers’ enduring self, with its connection to the past and its sense of continuity with the future. Shou Cha demonstrates a respect for his cultural and familial heritage, recalling stories about his heroic great-great-grandfather, his experiences with his own father and mother, and the Hmong traditions of Laos and America.

Shou shows a deep respect for education, both formal and informal, and has been active in the schools as a parent and as an educator. Since his childhood he has learned to respect both the experiential knowledge of the world and the knowledge that can be obtained through books. Both Shou and Mai take seriously their roles as primary educators of their children, assisting their children with homework when they can, and encouraging them to continue their studies even when, as parents, they no longer grasp the advanced subject matter of their children’s work. Within the school where he works, Shou encourages all children to respect their teacher, the educational process, and themselves. He encourages his own children and the children at the CLCCA to dream, to envision themselves not as the people they are, but as the people they would like to be. Education in the world and in the world of literacy has transformed his own life, and Shou recognizes the potential for it to change the lives of others as well.

Finally, Shou has learned to respect the differences between the various cultural groups that make up his school, his neighborhood, and his country of adoption. Like many refugees living in America’s impoverished inner cities, Shou has known the fear of the outsider. When he was shot near his home in Lansing he could have given up on America and her people, and built a wall between himself and outsiders to the Hmong community. Moreover, as an immigrant parent who arrived to this country with a strong cultural and linguistic heritage, Shou also sees the importance of respecting certain borders between communities so that a continuity in minority cultural traditions can be maintained. In some ways Shou Cha is both a border guard, protective of a traditional culture and language, as well as a border crosser, moving between diverse lives, communities, and worldviews.

Nevertheless, Shou learned through his experience as a bilingual assistant and community liaison to come to terms with American diversity. He no longer distances himself from African Americans, Mexican Americans, and “other” Americans, for such are the colleagues with whom he works, and the children with whom he teaches and learns. With these associations has come understanding, and this understanding has enabled Shou to play the role of peacemaker in his school, community, and society. His experience working with diverse Americans, coupled with his Christian faith, has enabled Shou to respect the beauty in all people.

Robert Bellah (1991) has suggested that a sense of respect for all people and all life must be fundamental to a renewal of the American people and American society:

When we care only about what Tocqueville called the “little circle of our family and friends” or only about people with skin the same color as ours, we are certainly not acting responsibly to create a good national society. When we care only about our own nation, we do not contribute much to a good world society. When we care only about human beings, we do not treat the natural world with the respect that it deserves. (p. 285)

Through new Americans such as Shou Cha we learn again the complexities of the respectful self when one can acknowledge an allegiance to one’s group as well as to one’s membership in a larger whole.


Relationship, a connection, comes from the Latin referre, “to bring back.” Throughout his life history Shou Cha describes himself best when he brings back up his relationships to others. Carol Gilligan (1988) supports such a model of the “relational” self, contrasting it with the “mirrored” self so prevalent in modern psychology:

When others are described as objects for self-reflection or as the means to self-discovery and self-recognition, the language of relationships is drained of motion and, thus, becomes lifeless. (p. 7)

In the relational self, “self is known in the experience of connection and defined not by reflection but by interaction, the responsiveness of human engagement” and “within this framework, the central metaphor of identity formation becomes dialogue rather than mirroring” (pp. 7, 17). For Gilligan, without relationships the self ceases to exist. In an important respect, the relational self alters the unnatural dichotomy of the Spindlers’ enduring and situated selves: One’s dialogues are at once with the past and the future, with the inner self and with others, with the bearers of one’s cultural and linguistic traditions and with members of the dominant culture. The value Shou Cha places on relationship is clear from his many stories involving history, family, community, and society. Shou relates his sense of the present to stories from the past—of his great-great-grandfather, and the long struggle for freedom of the Hmong people. Significantly, Shou seems to see himself as a player in a larger story, the history of his people and, since his conversion to Christianity, the biblical story of God’s relationship to humankind.

Within the Hmong community, Shou has been an advocate for strengthening relationships within and between families and has volunteered to organize workshops for members of his Cha clan to encourage dialogue and communication between the older and younger generations. Moreover, Shou has worked to build relationships across clans through his religious community, and between his circle of believers and those who practice traditional Hmong religion.

Finally, through his efforts as a community liaison and bilingual assistant at an elementary school, Shou encourages the development of relationships across cultures between school children, professionals, and community members. As an exponent of making peace, Shou has learned from his relationships with diverse children and staff at the CLCCA and brings this knowledge of diversity to bear on his relationships with all children. Today he can acknowledge that “all people are beautiful,” whatever the color of their skin or the language that they speak.

Conceptualizing the resourceful, respectful, and relational selves may offer a more holistic perspective into the narrative lives of immigrants such as Shou Cha. At once there is the recognition of movement and change drawn from Lifton’s sense of proteanism, the need for continuity as well as flexibility present in the Spindlers’ conception of enduring and situational selves, and an acknowledgement of the overriding importance of relationships as postulated by Gilligan. Moreover, the values of resourcefulness, relationship, and respect inherent in this understanding of the self are the three Rs needed for the education of a new generation of Americans who can move beyond individualism to a sense of collective responsibility.


The values of resourcefulness, relationship, and respect that arise from Shou Cha’s narrative offer a way to frame the discussion of the role of the school between individual, community, and society. These values are responses of the self to individual, communal, and societal needs; facilitated by a school such as the CLCCA, these three Rs allow for individual initiative as well as responsibility to the group, respect for community traditions, and flexibility when faced with powerful technological, economic, and social changes. These three Rs provide a bridge between our understanding of where we have been as Americans, where we are, and where we might go.

Living in a nation in flux, where images of the frontier and immigrant arrival have always been strong, Americans have often defined themselves more through identification of a common enemy than through common values or ideals. As Lifton (1993) suggests, recent history has shown that when we cannot define ourselves through our opposition to a common enemy, we are at a loss to describe who we are:

Over the previous decades, whatever our deficiencies or decline, whatever wrongs we perpetrated abroad or at home, we could still view ourselves, in contrast with Soviet evil, as steady in our virtue. Denied that contrast, we find it hard to see ourselves as steady in anything. (p. 33)

With the end of the Cold War identity-conscious Americans have been left with a choice: to seek out new enemies to rally against—in Panama, in Iraq, across the Mexican border, or across town, and to continue to try and redefine ourselves in opposition to the “threat,” however remote, that these foes represent—or to develop an identity based on civic interaction, on making peace among our own people, and working for peace in the world.

The values of resourcefulness, relationship, and respect provide a bridge to a new sense of identity for the American community, one that moves beyond individualism and the identification of an enemy to a greater sense of community responsibility. The Spindlers (1990) have argued that the real enemy of the American cultural dialogue is inequity, fostered by “individualistic, self-oriented success, the successful drive for wealth by individuals uncommitted to the public good” (p. 165). Shou Cha, one participant in the American cultural dialogue, shows us that resourcefulness can imply the best of individual initiative, but in service not just to oneself but to others; relationship encompasses the importance for the individual of ties to family, community, nation, and world; respect allows individuals to relate themselves to all people and all life.

Robert Bellah (1991) has argued that in order to create a good society, Americans must learn to attend to, and care for, their families, their communities, their nation, and their world; that by taking responsibility for themselves and each other, Americans can build bridges of trust across the barriers that often divide people of different economic levels, ethnicities, religions, or genders; that through a politics of generativity, Americans can acknowledge their respect for both those generations who have come before and provide for those generations who will follow. Resourcefulness, relationship, and respect, when taken seriously as part of the moral education of all Americans, can be steps on the road to a good society.


This research has illustrated ways in which narrative inquiry can contribute to the building of theory. By reconceptualizing the self as resourceful, respectful, and relational, this work offers a new, wholistic perspective through which to examine immigrant (and American) identity. Moreover, this work suggests an understanding of culture that is both a movement, between the beliefs and traditions of the past, the exigencies of the present, and the hopes and dreams of the future; and a set of tools needed to reinvent traditions in a new setting, much as the Hmong and Christian traditions are reinvented through Shou’s Hmong church.

Through this life history research, the voice of a member of the Hmong community could be brought into the public discourse about education. Of course, such an approach to educational life history could also be of research relevance to other people in American society whose voices need to be heard. Lincoln (1993) suggests that by writing narratives of the silenced, new avenues can be opened for social scientists. The study of lives can lead to developments in grounded theories. Moreover, by including the protagonists in the construction of their own narratives, narrative inquirers can gain multivocality and authority of voice. Such multivocality is needed in educational circles, as many teachers and policy makers have little personal experience of the daily struggle faced by poor students and their families, and the voices of such families and students are rarely heard when educational policy is being formulated. Narratives have the power to bring these voices to the attention of educators and policy makers.

Shou Cha has no teaching certificate, no college degree, no high school diploma. Yet, he is a valued member of a teaching staff at an elementary school that is noteworthy for its work with diverse children. His educational expertise comes from life experiences: Into his work as a bilingual assistant he brings knowledge of four languages, Hmong, Laotian, Thai, and English, and a lifetime of moving between cultures. In the classroom and in his work as a community liaison he brings years of experiences teaching and working with a Christian ministry and values of hard work, responsibility to community, and respect for all people that reflect both his religious convictions and Hmong traditions.

Michael Walzer (1990) has said that “Americans have homesteads and homefolks and hometowns”—and, we should add, homeboys—“but they don’t have much to say about a common or communal home” (pp. 592–593). As a newcomer who has engaged in his own personal struggle to find a home in America, Shou Cha offers a lesson for all Americans who would make peace with themselves and their communities. We must reject messages and policies that are founded in fear and mistrust, and learn how to live with all the diverse citizens of our nation and our planet. As Shou Cha’s life has demonstrated, one of the best ways to learn this lesson is to work and study in educational settings that value all the languages and cultures that contribute to our changing nation. The values of resourcefulness, relationship, and respect can be tools for constructing a great community out of diverse individuals.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 101 Number 1, 1999, p. 106-134
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10427, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 4:09:24 PM

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About the Author
  • Donald Hones
    University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh
    E-mail Author
    Donald F. Hones is an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. He is coauthor, with Shou Cha, of Educating New Americans: Immigrant Lives and Learning (Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999). His interests include narrative research, immigrant studies, and second language education.
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