Summer School! My Chinatown with Kam Mak

In Kam Mak’s book My Chinatown: One Year in Poems, Kam tells the story of his first year in New York after immigrating from Hong Kong as a child. He was struck by – and unhappy with – the differences at first, but with time was he was able to embrace those differences and realize the similarities the two cities have.

This summer, two classes of second and third grade students at PS 375 in Harlem were struck by the differences and similarities between Chinatown and their own neighborhoods and cultures. At first, things like dim sum and Chinese dragons seemed odd and foreign to them. However, after reading Kam’s book, writing their own poems about the similarities and differences they saw and researched, and visiting Chinatown, the students were able to appreciate the differences and understand the similarities to their own lives and experiences, as Kam once did.

The students’ introduction to Chinatown came through reading Kam’s book and discussing it with him. The book takes the reader through a year through Kam’s eyes when he first moved to Chinatown as a young boy. After learning about Kam’s experiences, the students were able to see Chinatown for themselves on a field trip led by Kam, visiting specific places he mentions in his book.

On the way downtown, the students chattered excitedly about what they knew of Chinatown. No one seemed to know much about it, though one boy proudly spoke of going to a park in Chinatown once with his family. Then one girl tried to one-up him by saying she had seen Chinatown many times out the window of the D train as she passed overhead (she later pointed excitedly at the train when we passed it). The strongest opinions that the students expressed were about the prospect of eating dim sum (although none of them had ever tried it), some claiming it would be delicious, others scared by the idea of trying something new.

Throughout the field trip, the students drew pictures of the places they visited and wrote descriptions of what they saw, heard, smelt, touched, and tasted. At first, Chinatown seemed very strange to them. Tanks of fish they had seen in the illustrations in Kam’s book seemed scary up close, kumquats a strange item to carry in a candy store, and dim sum far too unfamiliar. As the day went on and Kam encouraged them to be open to trying new things, they were excited by the new experiences. They especially enjoyed the dim sum. One boy even informed me that “it tastes like nothing I’ve ever eaten. It tastes like heaven!”

Equipped with first hand knowledge of Chinatown, the students spent the next workshop researching more about a specific facet of Chinese culture, with topics including food, games/sports, school, Chinese New Year, festivals, animals, symbols, language, family, art and music, and cities and landmarks. Using what they saw in Chinatown and information they found through their research, they created venn diagrams of the similarities and differences between their topic in the United States and in China. For example, one student’s diagram laid out dim sum and kumquats as Chinese food, mac and cheese and steak as American food, and tea and noodles as foods we have in common.

In the following workshop, the students created two headed spiraling dragons with a Behind the Book Teaching Artist, representing the two cultures in terms of their chosen topics on the dragon’s heads. In the final workshop, they worked on bringing the ideas they researched through their venn diagrams and represented through their dragons to create a final poem about what they learned and thought about the different cultures. In writing these poems, they focused specifically on using onomatopoeia, simile, and descriptive language, as Kam Mak does in his book. The resulting poems and art showed the candid views of students on how they viewed a different culture and how they viewed their own.

This guest blog post was written by our summer intern Emeline Bookspan, who not only worked in our office but volunteered in the classroom to help the kids with their research and writing, and chaperoned their field trip!