Bread, Rice, or Tostada: Cultural Inclusion at The Transition Table
Editor’s note: This article was written by: Ann Wai-Yee Kwong, Daisy Soto, Jovany Barba. APH ConnectCenter wants to thank these authors for sharing their experiences with diversity and transition with our readers.
Some people make sandwiches using bread for lunch while others enjoy tostadas with ceviche. I however usually enjoy a rice dish with meat and vegetables. Lunch choices are very personal! They’re often the result of how someone was raised, their cultural values and background, and any dietary circumstances and needs. We all know there is not one “right” diet for everyone and we realize that judging an individual’s lunch choice is generally not going to be received with appreciation.
Similar to food choices, there are many factors impacting how blind or low vision youth and their families view transition. We invite you to explore how transition goals are highly individualized, need to be developed to meet the needs of individuals within their family and social frameworks, and should have unique objectives and different tools for every blind and visually impaired person as they navigate transition from high school to adult life.
Why This Matters
One of the core conversations in school and transition planning revolves around the idea of independence and the importance of mastering independent living skills. The blind, low vision, and broader disability community has traditionally placed great importance on mastering independent living skills. Students are told they need to learn how to safely cook, efficiently travel, and manage and clean their homes to be successful.
The default transition goal of living independently from nuclear or extended family is intended to equip our youth to achieve the ultimate “American dream” of moving away from home and gaining additional freedoms. But this transition outcome, based on the Western value of individualism, may be different than the expectations of the student and their family (Cage, 2019; Zhang, 2005; Zhang & Rosen 2018).
Cultural values of students and families must be considered in order to facilitate successful transition outcomes.
According to data from the 2014-2018 American Community Survey, an estimated 22.0% to 44.5% of the population speak a language other than English in the home. As the United States continues to increase in diversity, it is important for educators, families, and students to realize that each of us has a unique perspective.
Independence According to Cultural Values
So, what does independence mean?
It turns out there isn’t one way to define it.
To many in the Latinx community, it means establishing one’s individuality while remaining interconnected to the family unit. To many in Asian communities, it means being able to contribute to one’s family. These communities tend to value collectivism and community; self-reliance is achieved in order to promote family advancement (Conroy, 2006; Zhang & Rosen 2018).
While in school, I was never asked how I envisioned my “independence” after high school. In an effort to develop appropriate transition goals, students and their families should ask themselves, “What does independence mean to me?”
A Look Ahead
We want to provide an important glimpse into the journeys of three blind or low vision individuals with diverse backgrounds and experiences.
Our stories illustrate how we redefined what transition planning meant to each of us. It is absolutely valid for students and families to have their own views of independence, and such views should be respected and included at the transition table.
Bread: Start with A Cup of Coffee
By Daisy Soto
Start with a cup of coffee
All of my significant, life-changing conversations have happened over a cup of coffee.
As the blind daughter of Mexican immigrants, the first girl of the family, and the first to attend college, it’s safe to say there were a lot of significant moments my family and I shared at the kitchen table over steaming mugs.
Some of those family chats included transition; the idea of independence; and navigating my family’s, teachers’, and societal expectations. You see, Latin-America is often known for being a collectivistic culture, but growing up in the United States had also given me a strong individualistic mindset. Additionally, I think subconsciously my family had a natural instinct to shelter and overprotect me because I am both blind and a woman.
Of course, things weren’t always so heavy—sometimes we talked about American Idol results or what dress I wanted to wear to prom, but I’d like to share a couple of short examples when the answers weren’t so clear-cut or light-hearted.
Like I mentioned, something that came up consistently as I got older and started figuring out how to navigate and plan for my post-high school future was everyone’s expectations.
The expectation of my parents, stemming, I believe, from love and worry and what we knew as normal, was my remaining with or near my family despite being over eighteen. Conversely, the expectation of so many of my teachers, blindness instructors, and mentors was to take the plunge to attend the schools and follow through with the plans I was clearly interested in.
I found, as I went to friends with this dilemma, how difficult it was for so many of them to relate. Similarly, I found the lack of professionals that were available to help my parents understand everything that was happening made things that much more challenging. This was one of the first moments I really noticed a difference in culture and ideas from my peers. You see, I thought I had to choose one or the other, stay with my family for the collective happiness or venture out on my own for personal benefit.
In some ways it had always felt like I either had to be fully one thing or another: fully blind when around other disabled students or acting sighted and not acknowledging blindness around peers at school, completely immersed in English and American pop culture when with friends, but able to talk in perfect Spanish around relatives. It took me some time and a lot of talking to realize there was a way to do both, be both.
After graduating high school, I attended a living skills center in the Bay Area, the first of many compromises. I was able to live in a place I had always wanted to explore and improve my independence without feeling like I was pushing my family away. The finite timeline of spending one year at the living skills center was a period of adjusting for my parents, and I had a chance to see how our family dynamic could mold to this new way.
The day I decided I was officially staying in the Bay Area on a permanent basis I called my mom over breakfast. I was making coffee in a French press I’d just bought while she was heating milk on the stove for hers, and I broke the news to her with an ask that they come visit that summer and promises to call all the time. I was so nervous over how it would go and was still wrestling with wanting to be with them but wanting to be on my own. Ultimately it all went over well, and over the years I’ve started finding a balance between my individualistic and collectivistic values.
By no means have the big conversations over coffee stopped, but I find I approach them with much less trepidation. I noticed it the day I came out to my mom over matching caramel lattes, knowing I wanted to help her understand this part of my identity while realizing I needed to meet her where she was. I noticed it again last summer after our family went through a series of medical emergencies, and I grappled with feeling I should move back home to help but also knowing I wanted to return to my own home, continuing to build on the independence and life I had started to create for myself.
If I have any advice on transition and all that it entails, it would be that nothing is just black or white, decaf or double-espresso. There isn’t one right way to do things or one path, and having people who can help bridge those gaps can help immensely.
Rice: A Side of Leafy Vegetables
By Ann Wai-Yee Kwong
A leafy green vegetable
Yu Choy Sum is a leafy green, Chinese vegetable that my family and I regularly eat for dinner. It is a familiar and comforting food item, yet I had not previously paid much attention to how it ended up cooked on the family dinner table, as my mother typically handled all of the grocery shopping and food preparation in my home while I was growing up.
Throughout my childhood, education was a cornerstone in our family; during dinner, my parents, without fail, would ask my brother and I about school and our grades. Although they had never gone to college, they strongly believed in the importance of academics for future success.
I compare my transition to my relationship with Yu Choy Sum, the staple component of dinner, to the value of education and to some degree the end goal of graduating from college. That goal is very familiar to me, however, like eating Yu Choy Sum, I had little understanding of the specifics around how I would get there. How would I afford college? Who could I speak with and what should I consider when choosing a school?
Values and Goals
Phase one of my transition journey began with clearly identifying and committing to my values and goals.
In the year 2000, my family and I emigrated from Hong Kong in search of better opportunities, as there was limited access to education for blind or low vision individuals. Respecting elders and being part of the family unit are important concepts within the Chinese community. Therefore, appreciating my parents’ sacrifice coupled with their emphasis on going to college planted the seed for education early on.
As I entered my senior year of high school, our dinner conversations would often revolve around affording college and about which schools to apply. The family pressure to succeed academically, although originating from positive intentions, conflicted with messages from school professionals, making me question my values early on. I would often be discouraged from transitioning directly to college after high school; statements such as “You will not graduate; look at the statistics” would be frequently brought up in conversation as the professionals believed first acquiring independent living and blindness skills is a crucial component of transition.
I did not fully comprehend at the time, but this misalignment of values in transition planning was in conflict with the narrow definition of success that is espoused by the model minority myth, which is the stereotype that an Asian American is expected to excel in school performance, attend a prestigious university, be passive, and attain career success in science or math fields.
Both of my identities, (1) a Chinese American daughter and (2) a blind high school student in the United States, were engaged in battle where I struggled to find balance among these differing expectations. Ultimately, this tension made the first part of my transition more difficult, where my decision to value and attend college directly after high school meant that I had less support initially from professionals, which disrupted our trust.
The second phase was learning to do my research and consult with my community and mentors. Just like I had to learn strategies on how to pick the most fresh and tender produce for my meals, I had to narrow down my list of colleges by doing in-depth research.
I spoke with other blind and low vision folks and called all the disability services offices at universities of interest to evaluate pros and cons; I learned that transportation systems around the college was also a characteristic to consider because I would not only study, but also have to live, work, travel, and socialize around the campus.
With that said, being blind, I felt like it was not enough to solely investigate through conversations. I yearned to visit the campuses to get a true understanding of the campus environment. I thought about visiting my top two choices, UC Los Angeles and UC Berkeley, to help me decide through informed choice.
When I shared this over a memorable dinner with my parents, my mother said “Why don’t you go to UCLA, it is close to home. We can help with laundry and bring you soup if you get sick, besides, Berkeley is so far; how can we drive over to visit?” I responded, gesturing to the plate of Yu Choy Sum on the table, “I believe the process of selecting between my top choices is similar to learning how to pick fresh ingredients that nourish your health. I would like to explore Berkeley, visit the campus, and determine based on informed research and experience whether it is suitable for me. Someday in the near future, I may have my own family and have to go to the grocery store and select fresh Yu Choy Sum myself, just like what you did for us. I can’t simply expect it to be cooked and on the table for me; I would like to learn the skills to contribute back to the family unit. Unlike bad produce, if I committed to a school that was not suitable for me, that will be several years of time that will affect my future.” My comparison really stuck with my parents and, despite their fears of having to drive six plus hours to Northern California, my family took a road trip to the Bay Area, which ultimately resulted in my decision to go to Berkeley.
To this day, I credit the family staple, Yu Choy Sum, as the bridge that supported the communication between my family and I to help us all realize the process of selecting a suitable college and to identify the different tools necessary to get there.
As I continue to grow and transition in my current life, I have entered phase three, expanding my goals and adding new food staples to my dinner table.
My experience at UC Berkeley set a solid foundation for me to venture out of my comfort zone and to continue my career development. New dinner staples (such as pork chops and Brussels sprouts) have been added to my meal; this represents the new lived experiences I have added to my transition journey, which I bring home and share with my family on a regular basis.
After graduation from Berkeley, I interned in Washington DC, traveled to Minneapolis to present at national conferences, and now permanently reside in the Bay Area and work professionally as a Transition Program Manager at Lighthouse in San Francisco to empower the next generation of youth and their families with navigating their transition journeys at their respective dinner tables.
Tostada: Time for Dessert, Cake
By Jovany Barba
Time for Dessert, Cake
When I think of food and celebrations that depict a transition in time, such as Quinceañeras, weddings, and graduations, I picture the intricate layered cake that towers over the other displays, making its presence known.
That, my friends, is how I depict transitions in life, not separate in and of themselves, but rather layers that build upon one another. And while life is full of transitions, I would like to expand on three major transitions that have occurred in my lifetime: education, independence, and personal growth.
You could say I had a pretty average childhood. I went to school, played with my friends, and got into trouble like most kids do. I can recall one instance vividly when I was riding my bike down the street and accidentally crashed into the neighbor’s car, breaking the taillight. Obviously, I was scared to the bone in the moment. Nevertheless, reflecting on this, I believe that this is exactly what my parents wanted to happen. Not necessarily to anger the neighbor and incur a bill, but provide the freedom to make mistakes; to not be sheltered from the world.
This set me up for success. As a first-generation American, a blind individual, and firstborn of the family, there was certainly a lot to navigate for my parents and myself. My parents, being immigrants to the United States, did not understand English. As a result, a lot of the decisions revolving around school came down to administrators and teachers.
I am incredibly grateful that I was able to attend a public school, albeit outside of my hometown. There I was able to learn braille in addition to other blindness skills, while having a classroom for the visually impaired available on campus and attending mainstream classes.
In the Latinx community, the sentiment of machismo, providing for oneself and their family and being an active member of society holds strong. As a result, even though I am blind, there was no exception, which is why education was a cornerstone of my parents’ philosophy. They would constantly pressure me to do well in school so that I may one day be able to provide for myself and the family. Thanks in part to their support, the encouragement of my teachers, and the motivation from my peers, I exceled in my academics, first transitioning to community college, and eventually to UCLA. The transitions to those respective schools were monumental moments for me, for I felt that I was making a difference in my family tree, that I was achieving what people had believed to be possible. Most importantly, I gained greater belief in myself, in the knowledge that I could learn and earn degrees.
In all honesty, choosing and thriving at my community college and UCLA were not easy endeavors. Yes, there were the typical obstacles such as learning how to navigate a new campus, the nuances of college life, and leaving the comforts of TVI’s behind. However, given my cultural background and socio-economic status, there was more to consider. For one thing, how on earth would I pay for college? My parents had always said, “Either we have a house or you go to school. You’d better find a way to finance this without the need for loans.” Thankfully I did, via financial aid and scholarships. Once on campus, it was up to me to figure out how the disability office works, and how to seek out resources. Nobody else in my family had done this before, nor did they know who to ask for assistance.
Thank goodness I am self-determined and persistent in seeking out resources.
As is life, there was another transition taking place simultaneously as I continued post-secondary education.
It was through those formidable years where I felt a powerful change taking place inside me. I began to attend workshops from Wayfinder Family Services which is where, for the first time, I met peers my age outside of academia. Even more significantly, I was introduced to a network of blind professionals who inspired me, who motivated and told me that I can have a successful career and live in my own home. I had found a network of happily employed individuals whom I could see myself in.
I then incrementally worked my way up to participating in a three-week, seven-week, and eventually a year-long residential program. As much as my parents wanted me to be independent, I felt that I would never achieve that if I did not leave the nest. As a result, I took it upon myself to take a gap year from college and attend The Hatlen Center for the Blind in northern California.
My parents, as you can imagine, were not pleased to hear this news. They were afraid of the fact that I would be hundreds of miles away and living on my own. “You don’t even know how to cook,” my mother would say. “You’ll burn the house down and starve to death.” “Well, that is the reason I am going,” I would tell her. As much as I had excelled in my academics, I felt that I was lacking in independent living skills. It took some convincing, but with their blessing, I took the plunge and moved.
It was not easy by any means leaving the place I had called home for my entire life, but I felt deep down that this was a necessary step for my own development. And you know what, leaving everything and everyone I knew behind turned out to be one of the best decisions I could have ever made.
It’s not easy for Latinx communities to let go of their children. I was never told to leave the house at 18, but for the sake of my independence, I felt I needed to do so. Throughout that year I learned and grew in ways I could not have even imagined. I gained the skills and confidence to cook, grocery shop, travel, manage finances, and even sharpen knives! I knew from then on that with my academic background and new found independent living skills, there was nothing holding me back from achieving my goals!
At the same time, my family was forced to let me go and see all that I am capable of. My parents would visit every so often, and it was I who would cook for them, take them on outings, and demonstrate the capable person I am.
Lastly, I would like to discuss another life-changing transitional moment. At this point I had the academics, I had my new found independence, but there was one more thing holding me back, my sexuality. You see, growing up I did not have mentors, nor was there rhetoric of the LGBTQ community in media. My parents, coming from a small town in Mexico, certainly did not discuss LGBT issues, and when they did, they were always negative. For years I buried my LGBT identity for fear of the unknown.
At first it was not too difficult; I was occupied with getting good grades, working in college, and learning independence skills. All of these things kept me from diving deep into myself. There came a point, however, while living away from home, I felt that if I were to truly be myself, then I had to “transition” into my full identity.
I put transition in quotation marks because I wouldn’t say I transitioned; I had always been who I am, but rather I transitioned into letting the world know. By no means do I mean to make this a coming out story, but I felt that this is an important part of who I am as it intersects with other parts of my identity. My culture, religion, and blindness all play a role in my lived experience.
To not leave you hanging, I am overjoyed to report that I am accepted and loved by my family and friends despite the cultural difficulties.
Remember how I mentioned the ornate cake present during celebrations? I feel it depicts who I am and how I define transitions in my life. The transitions that have taken place in my life built upon each other. My parents, teachers, and peers provided a strong foundational layer that allowed me to excel in school. Leaving the comforts of home gave me the confidence to thrive independently and network with others. Finally, the top layer in which I came into my own and expressed my true identity is supported by my previous lived experiences. Each of these layers provide the support on which I can stand. I can show the world who I am, where I come from, what I have accomplished, and where I am headed.
Main Points and Final Advice
Now that you have heard three very different interpretations of transition, We would like to leave you with food for thought. The diversity and intersectional identities captured in the previous stories bring to prominence the idea that each person is an individual with their unique background and personal history. A transition plan that works for one youth may not work for another. All who are involved should be open to different ideas and perspectives.
- For Blind or low vision students who are in the midst of their transition: be encouraged to invite mentors as part of making informed choices. Seek out stories; the more folks you interactive and speak with, the broader your knowledge. You may be able to incorporate their experiences into your own transition journey. You do not need to do it on your own!
- For educators and counselors: be mindful of the diversity of each student brings. Understand that each youth may be at a different point of their transition journey and have differing interpretations of independence and disability.
- For family members: recognize that your involvement and perspective is extremely valuable in the transition process. Just as the blind or low vision young adult has to venture out of their comfort zone and learn to assume adult responsibilities, the entire family unit must also adapt to these changes. Communication and support are key to a successful transition and reimagining of this important life stage.
Whether you choose to engage in conversation over a cup of coffee, a side of leafy Yu Choy Sum, or over cake, it is up to you!
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