Immigrant students at Chinatown school savor first Thanksgiving

Halfway through his first Thanksgiving meal of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and green beans, Jacky Ma, 8, and his fellow immigrant students at the Chinese Education Center in Chinatown partook in a cross-cultural tradition — toasting — with a beverage they had only recently been accustomed to drinking.

“Now I like it,” Jacky said in Cantonese, taking a sip from his carton of low-fat milk.

The second-grader and many of the 86 students at the newcomer school, who predominantly lived in China and spoke no English before moving to San Francisco, previously did not have safe or frequent access to dairy products. For the students, all attending the San Francisco Unified School District program for less than a year, Tuesday's meal accompanied with Chinese sticky rice was their first taste of the American holiday.

Jacky's favorite Thanksgiving staple was turkey.

“The taste was very good,” said the Guangdong Province native.

What he did not find quite as appetizing was the “white stuff” he had never tried before.

“It was like it had no taste,” Jacky said, referring to the mashed potatoes.

The school at 657 Merchant St. — the only Chinese-speaking newcomer school in the country according to Principal Victor Tam — has hosted Thanksgiving meals for immigrant students and their families since 1972, a few years after the school opened its doors.

On Tuesday, the kindergarten to fifth-graders had no trouble devouring the Thanksgiving feast. That wasn't the case several decades ago, noted Marlene Tran, 68, a retired teacher of the school. When she taught, part of her job was to instruct kindergartners on how to open milk cartons and get used to eating American fare.

“There was a lot of acculturation that needed to be done because they used to come more from villages,” Tran said. “Nowadays, many of the kids are from the bigger cities.”

While the school currently has close to 90 students, enrollment grows as students enter from China. When the school year started in August, there were 51 students.

“This year, it looks like we will need to add at least one class in January and possibly one later in the school year as well,” Tam said.

Funding has remained stable from the district, which runs one other newcomer-only school for kindergartners to fifth-graders, the Mission Education Center, catering to Spanish-speaking immigrant children. The Mission and Chinese Education Centers are structured to give immigrant students a year to acclimate to American schools in their native language and then transition to schools with an English focus.

Students at the Chinese Education Center sang songs in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, and the Thanksgiving meal was a special part of their American cultural experience.

“I think it's very warm how we're able to create this environment,” said second-grade teacher Candy Lee, 25, “because they would not have that at home.”

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