At Lotus Preschool located in San Jose’s Japantown, one of the senior volunteers, Kay Park, is teaching Japanese songs to the children.
Park is 75 years old. She began volunteering at Lotus Preschool about three years ago, when her granddaughter, Cassidy Yoneda, first attended preschool there. Like many other Asian grandparents, Park has shared the responsibility of caring for Cassidy since she was born, while both of Cassidy’s parents worked full time.
However, Park wanted to be more than just a babysitter.
As they become increasingly aware of the importance of preschool, many Asian grandparents are trying to participate more in their grandchildren’s early education.
Park has always valued education. Before immigrating to the United States nearly 40 years ago, she was a medical student in Japan, but she was not able to graduate because she had to work to support her family. The experience motivated her to become actively involved in her granddaughter’s education.
Park’s decision to volunteer three days a week at the preschool benefits more than just her granddaughter.
In addition to preparing teaching materials, serving food and guiding students in their artwork, she is a living source of Japanese culture and language at the predominantly Asian preschool.
“She expands our experience so much more, especially with the Japanese culture,” said Brian Honda, a teacher at Lotus Preschool.
Earlier this year, Honda consulted Park when he was designing a lesson plan around a traditional Japanese festival, Setsubun, a celebration of the beginning of spring. “She explained to us what they do traditionally in Japan and how they celebrate it.”
Honda said the students had a good time learning and practicing a special Setsubun’s ritual, Mamemaki, in which beans are thrown at a masked demon in order to drive away evil spirits.
Lynne Yamaichi, executive director of Lotus Preschool, said she was glad that Park decided to stay after Cassidy graduated last year.
“She is like part of the Lotus family,” said Yamaichi. “Because some of the children do not have their grandparents around locally, it is nice to have a grandma figure here.”
Yamaichi said Park enables the preschool to engage in more multigenerational activities, ranging from pounding mochi (Japanese rice cake) for the Japanese New Year celebration, dressing children in kimonos during Girls’ Day and Boys’ Day, to learning old Japanese folk songs.
Park teaches the children Japanese folk songs almost every week. As she translates the lyrics into English, students are able to understand the meaning of the songs, and pick up Japanese words and phrases here and there.
Park also speaks in Japanese with her granddaughter, playing the traditional role of Asian elders in maintaining their native language at home. Park’s own mother taught her daughter to read and write in Japanese, she said. Park’s daughter retained her Japanese even after she immigrated to the United States at the age of seven, and she hopes her granddaughter will share the same interest.
While some senior volunteers help the children learn about their cultures, others help new immigrant children by explaining concepts to them in their own language.
“It is important for kids to understand the classes, or else they will lose interest or feel left behind,” said Kung Luen, a 65-year-old Chinese volunteer at San Francisco’s Chinatown Community Children’s Center (CCCC), where 90 percent of the students are from new immigrant families that speak limited English.
Kung said classes for the four and 5-year-olds are taught in English, and even though all of the teachers at CCCC are bilingual, individual students may still have a hard time with English instruction.
Kung fills in the gaps by explaining certain English words in Chinese, which helps the students understand without taking time out from the class.
“Bilingual volunteers provide great help to our children,” said Lawland Long, executive director of CCCC, noting that preschool is the first place where English is taught on a daily basis to most of these students.
Long said the four Chinese seniors who volunteer at the preschool have been valuable resources for other grandparents too.
“About 40 percent of our students are taken care of by their grandparents,” said Long. “It is good to see grandparents talking to grandparents.”
Kung said she often shares the parenting skills she has learned from the preschool with other grandparents, because she has noticed that when grandparents are overly protective, their grandchildren may become very dependent.
“I will explain to them, in their terms, how excess care would harm their grandkids’ development,” said Kung.
Moreover, maintaining good relationships with other grandparents helps them stay engaged. They participate in school activities, such as joining the preschool’s monthly field trips, where the two generations can spend the day together.
Park and Kung said they enjoy their volunteer work but understand that not every grandparent has time to volunteer.
However, they encourage others to participate as much as possible because they say seniors can also learn a lot from children.
“Children often look at things with the purest eyes and they make me reflect on the meaning of life,” said Kung.