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From the Discovery Classroom: Stereotypes of Asians in America

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Mary Erwin, first year student in nutrition, at the Emperor's Palace in Boston's Chinatown.

There aren't many times when learning to eat with chopsticks is mandatory for anything. But in Michael Kalinowski's Inquiry course "Stereotypes of Asians in America," it is. If students can't manage the chopsticks during a Boston field trip that includes a visit to Chinatown, they won't pass that component of the class.

Managing to eat with chopsticks is part of getting them to step out of their comfort zone, and to help them experience a small part of Asian culture, says Kalinowski, associate professor of family studies.

"Some students' experiences with other cultures may be limited," Kalinowski says. "Our field trip gives them the chance to really see what we've been talking about in class."

The outing takes place during the spring semester after weeks of intense investigation into the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that allowed the United States to stem the flow of Chinese immigration, and the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese-Americans during WWII.

On the field trip, students walk past the first Chinese burial ground in Boston and the spot where the Chinese originally settled in the area, near Beach Street on what was once a malaria-infested swamp.

After eating at the Emperor's Palace in Chinatown, where many Chinese families are typically dining as well, the afternoon is spent at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts taking in one of the largest Asian art collections in the country.

"Many students haven't had much exposure to other cultures," Kalinowski says. "Some have never even eaten authentic Chinese food—not Chinese-American food—but real Chinese food. It's good for them to begin to experience the culture through architecture, history, food and art."

"That's what Inquiry is about, getting students involved and actively participating, and looking at things from different perspectives," Kalinowski says.

Coursework has students studying one of six Asian countries (other than China and Japan), working in teams to explore their history in America. The last two weeks of class are spent presenting the information to their peers.

As part of the course, teams also make spirit houses, which in the Asian culture are created to protect the spirits of those who have died. The miniature houses or temples, found in many Asian homes and businesses, are mounted on a dais and may contain gifts or food or money for the deceased to use in the afterlife.

Before the students craft their spirit houses, they have to identify 10 items that were important to one of their own ancestors. Each student builds a room that includes those things and the room becomes part of the house. The project concludes with individual papers detailing the items they chose, and an explanation of why they were chosen.

"I think the course helps students to have an appreciation for what they can learn from people who are really different from themselves, and that those differences can be pretty rich," Kalinowski says. "Experiencing other cultures helps them become more comfortable with differences, and it helps them gain understanding of the way others live."