The Immigrant Experience

Turning empathy into action

By Anna Chang-Yen
Photographs by Brian Stethem '84

Traffic buzzed by the open doors of the Wat Thai temple in Los Angeles on a sunny February afternoon. The thick smell of incense wafted through the large room as barefoot students took instruction from Dusit, a Thai Buddhist monk.

Dusit demonstrated the proper way to kneel, explaining the importance of placing the right leg over the left, then kneeling with the head to the ground. He answered students’ questions about the elaborate altar, complete with a painting of Buddha ascending to Heaven, surrounded by angels.

The 12 members of professor Akiko Yasuike’s Immigration in the Global Age class may never have imagined that their studies at CLU would find them meditating with a Buddhist monk. It is an experience that Yasuike hopes will leave her students with a profound impression of a people who once seemed foreign to them.

Dusit explained how the Wat Thai temple is the center of the Thai community in Los Angeles. Many families spend hours there on the weekends – meditating, celebrating Thai holidays and birthdays, and participating in fundraising projects and other social events. The temple also runs a school where Thai children study during the summer months.

Understanding the Immigrant Experience

Yasuike’s course is intended to not only encourage students to discover the problems immigrants face when they arrive in the United States but also to find ways to solve those problems. This is a primary focus of CLU’s International Studies program, which was revamped a year ago to provide students with opportunities to promote social change and address global issues in Los Angeles.

A grant from the late Alma Pearson of Santa Barbara helped to fund the redesign of the International Studies program and establish the Pearson Scholars for Leadership and Engagement in a Global Society. The program challenges students to go beyond typical volunteer work to find long-term solutions to the global problems they encounter – right here in Los Angeles.

According to Haco Hoang, an associate professor of political science and Director of the International Studies program, “The Pearson gift gives us the opportunity to structure an academic program that institutionalizes CLU’s mission [to educate leaders for a global society] by equipping students with the knowledge and skills to be agents of change.”

“One of the objectives of this program is to give students an opportunity to develop skills in leadership and also learn how to engage politically,” added Yasuike, an assistant professor of sociology and Assistant Director of International Studies.

Leading Social Change

Yasuike pointed out that the immigration course is a great example of how CLU students serve their community, adding that CLU has a long history of emphasizing service learning. This program, she continued, goes beyond service to helping students become leaders and agents of social change. They learn to identify the issues that must be addressed and find a way to address them more effectively.

Wat Thai’s Deputy Director of International Affairs Rossukon Worasri told students about the challenges her people face in integrating into society, including getting a visa or green card, overcoming the language barrier and obtaining health care.

Worasri explained that the temple is a respite where her 14-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter can keep in touch with their heritage, and she can teach them the more reserved ways of her people. “Thai children do what parents say to do,” she said. “Here [in the U.S.], they kind of talk back.”

Dusit noted, “When you come to the temple, it’s run like Thailand. People are more reverent toward monks.”

The temple was founded in 1972 and now includes housing for monks, who maintain the grounds. Wat Thai’s Sunday school and temple are open to anyone, but draw mainly Indian, Nepalese, Vietnamese and other Asian people, Dusit said.

The monks help immigrants with everything from obtaining the proper immigration status to helping students fill out college applications.

After the trip to the temple, Lynn Clahassey ’11 volunteered to help with a Thai New Year festival, where she painted small cardboard figurines for children.

“I thought it would be a nice cultural experience,” said the international studies/communication major from Ventura. “It was nice to feel like you’re helping out the Thai community.”

Cultural Interaction

Mari Stromsvag ’10 took the immigration class to learn about different cultures coming together. The international studies/political science major, now 20, moved to Miami from Arendal, Norway, with her parents when she was 16.

“When I was growing up in Norway, you learn how America is a melting pot,” she related. “When I got here, it was interesting to see how people kind of separate into groups. Even Norwegians living in the United States tend to stick together.”
During a tour of Los Angeles’ Thai town with Nongyao Varanond, who heads the community-based nonprofit organization Thai Health & Information Services Inc., the students learned about Thai society.

“It was more like an introduction, I thought, to how Thai people come and get settled in the country – or don’t get settled,” Stromsvag observed.

The class considered the different problems Thai immigrants experience in assimilating. Many of the people don’t have family here and don’t plan to be here long so they stay with their culture rather than trying to assimilate, explained Stromsvag.

“With the Thai community, there’s not a large foundation for humanitarian outreach within the community,” added Kayla Barnett ’09 of Santa Cruz. “For them it’s hard to have sources they can go to when they are faced with problems with assimilation.” Barnett, an international studies and political science major who took the course as a capstone, hopes to work abroad, perhaps as an ambassador.

Intent and Reality

The CLU students learned that many Thai immigrants come on student visas but soon find themselves working to send money back home. When they arrive, they don’t necessarily intend to stay, which presents further problems, Barnett noted.

Also a member of Hoang’s Ethnic Conflict and Civil War class that studied Armenian immigrants in Glendale last fall, Barnett found that the Armenians have a better support system than their Thai counterparts.

“The Armenians are more organized,” she pointed out. “They have the Armenian Relief Society, a huge worldwide organization that offers assistance with immigration, language, counseling, pretty much anything immigrants have a problem with when they come to the country as well as continuing with their culture as they assimilate into the United States.”

Hoang and Yasuike emphasized the fact that the students use what they refer to as “domestic immersion” experiences to develop projects that promote social and political change.

Following their visits to the Armenian community, members of Hoang’s ethnic conflict class wrote policy papers examining whether or not the United States should recognize the Armenian genocide.

As their final project, Yasuike’s students analyzed the effectiveness of social services for the Thai community and developed recommendations for improving the integration of Thai immigrants into American society.

Duncan McDaniel ’11, from Basalt, Colo., noted the field trips to Thai town and the temple helped solidify what he learned from the class reading materials. The international studies major, who has since returned to the temple to learn meditation from Dusit, concluded, “You read everything in a textbook, but until you see it, it’s hard to really understand.”

What seems clear is that the students finished the semester with a new understanding of the immigration experience – the difficulty of relocating in a foreign land halfway around the world, of trying to obtain legal status with little knowledge of the language or the customs, and striving to make a better life … the same challenges that wave after wave of immigrants have faced in coming to America.

Anna Chang-Yen is a freelance writer who has covered education for 10 years.