Cultural Differences and Similarities between Mexican American and Chinese American Students

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Cultural Differences and Similarities between Mexican American and Chinese American Students

Cultural Differences and Similarities between Mexican American and Chinese American Students

Christine Tanner

WGU Indiana

The Mexican American Student and the Chinese American Student in the Kentuckian Middle School Classroom

There are many different cultures in Kentucky – all very unique and an integral part of school society. The two that I will focus on in my essay are Mexican Americans and Chinese Americans. Many of the English language learners in my classroom are from these two cultures.

I will explore the populations, family situations and roles, some important traditions/customs, and languages. How children of these two cultures learn in the classroom will also be discussed.

It is important to understand the many different cultures that exist in our schools, communities, cities, and states. Through a better knowledge of the students and their families, teachers will be empowered to help all students succeed at their educational goals in school and to take part in their global communities. I will explain how I plan to help my students succeed in my classroom, giving them the knowledge that they will need to empower them to continue with their high school education.

The Family Role

There are 82, 110 people of Mexican descent living in Kentucky (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011). According to the same information on the U.S. Census Bureau website, the average family size of those with Mexican heritage living in Kentucky, with children, is a family of four. These numbers are a little different for those of Chinese descent living in Kentucky – only 9,051 people. The average size of a Chinese American family is around three people (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011).

Both cultures take family very seriously. They show it in different ways, however. Both cultures like to keep their extended families close. In China, it is not uncommon to find children living with their parents until marriage (Wang Fei, personal communication, 2011, July 5). According to Zhou Yi Fei (personal communication, 2011, July 10) many newlyweds live with one of the couples’ parents. Zhou Yi Fei, a newlywed living in Wuxi, China, even intends to live with her in-laws for years to come. In the event that Zhou Yi Fei and her husband have a child, the grandparents will help raise the child while Zhou Yi Fei and her spouse continue to work. Many Chinese American families have adapted this family role into something similar – with a few differences. The children of Chinese American students tend to be very close to their parents but they may move out to attend college/university classes and begin a life on their own. If the child wishes, the parents will most likely let the child continue to live with them after college graduation while the child “gets on his feet,” (W. Lin, personal communication, 2011, June 30).

Parents in China take the education of their children very seriously, as do their teachers. I have experienced first-hand how competitive the classroom can be in China. When I taught English classes in Wuxi, China during the month of June 2010, I worked very closely with many Chinese teachers. Through them, I was able to learn that a child’s test scores determine his/her future education (Wang Chau, personal communication, 2010 June 14). For example, if a child does not do well on his/her end-of-the-year exams in the sixth grade, then that same child will not move on to the best secondary school available. Instead, that child will be placed in a lower-achieving school. Many Chinese American parents hang on to the view that education is everything – as it is in China. Parents will ensure that their children complete the homework assignments and class assignments that are given each night – even if it takes all night! (W. Lin, personal communication, 2011 July 1). If a teacher contacts the student’s parents for any disciplinary or work-related issue, the parents will take care of the problem at home immediately. In the classroom, I have had very few issues with my Chinese American students –whether they were born in the United States or immigrated to Kentucky – and their work ethics or discipline. They know that if they get into trouble at school, more trouble will await at home (K. Lin, personal communication, 2011 July 1).

Mexican families share some similarities with Chinese families. But there are many differences, as well. In Mexico – much like in China – it is acceptable for the children to live with their parents until marriage, thus allowing the children an opportunity to save up money for their future married lives This is especially true for the male children – who are often spoiled by the mothers (Gonzalez, R., personal communication, 2011 June 30). The male children have an easier life than the females, who are expected to help with chores around the household – even if her brother is not busy, he will not be expected to cook dinner or clean the house. This means that women are left to care for the household and any children in the family (Differences in Mexican and American Culture, n.d.). This part of “machismo” (Mexican American Culture Differences, n.d.) is commonly practiced in the United States. “Machismo” is what I would compare to “saving face” in China. Nothing is done to embarrass the child/person in public – it is an ultimate shame for a mistake to be pointed out this way. If the error needs to be known, it should be done in private (Mexican American Culture Differences, n.d.).

Traditionally, it is the men who work in Mexico while the women take care of the domestic situations. In the United States, this does not happen as much, due to the economic realities that many families face, especially in the past few years with the recession that has hit the United States. Both parents tend to work, and many times, as in the case of a former student, the children have to take after-school jobs to help the family’s finances (M. Baize, personal communication, 2011 June 18). The father is the head of the household (Mexican American Culture Differences, n.d.); he makes the decisions for the entire family. This tradition has carried over to the United States, as well. Many of my Mexican American students do not go against the wishes of their fathers.

One aspect of Mexican family life that I find very interesting is the practice of putting the family first – even at the expense of the career/job (Differences in Mexican and American Cultur, n.d.). As family is the most important thing in Mexico, parents take time to care for their children and play with them. Many Caucasian American families have an extremely difficult time putting their family first – many times the family is second because of work meetings, long work hours, trying to meet the family’s budgetary needs, etc (A. Cecil, personal communication, 2011 June 15).


For my Mexican American students, they tend to know varying degrees of Spanish and English. Many are conversationally fluent in Spanish but unable to write it. Some students know very little of their families’ native tongue – in writing or orally. Very few of my students are fluent in both writing and speaking Spanish. And, of course, they speak the Mexican dialect of Spanish.

My Chinese American students know varying degrees of Mandarin Chinese and English. In addition, they may have been able to learn a local dialect – which can differ greatly from the common Mandarin Chinese (K. Lin, personal communication, 2011 July 1). These students are much like my Spanish-speaking students – they may be conversationally fluent but unable to express themselves in the written characters or vice versa.

Important Traditions and Customs

Every culture has numerous traditions and customs that are passed down from generation to generation. I will address a few of the more popular traditions and customs for the Mexican American and Chinese American cultures. They generally do not share the same holidays/festivals but there are some similarities in the ways they celebrate.

Most Mexicans are Roman Catholics – and those of Mexican descent in Kentucky practice this religion, as well. This means that the Roman Catholic holidays are observed. These holidays can include Christmas, Easter, Passover, etc. (Mexican American Culture, n.d.). Celebrations in Mexico tend to be very grand and colorful. Much time is spent preparing for the festivities. During Christmas, the Christian nativity scene is reenacted in every town; carols are sung throughout December, leading up to Christmas day. Christmas mass is observed with many participants in every church! (Y. Alguilar, personal communication, 2011 July 8).

Each region in Mexico has its own traditional music and dances. Some examples of such dances (with accompanying music) are the Mexican Hat Dance, La Bamba, Salsa, and the Dance of the Ancients (Dances of Mexico, n.d.).. The dancers may be very young or very old – depending on the traditions for each region. In the Dance of the Ancients, it is not older people who perform the dance. Instead, it is usually children who are dressed up as their grandparents would appear, dancing with canes and sticks to music (R. Gonzalez, personal communication, 2011, July 8).

Names are much different from many other North American names. Everyone in Mexico has two last names – the mother’s maiden name and the father’s last name (What’s in a Name?, 2006). For example, a child’s full name (let’s call her Elena) with her mother’s maiden name of García and her father’s name of Fernandez would be Elena García Fernandez. And when Elena García Fernandez gets married to Alberto Lopez, she would add her husband’s last name to her name. Thus, she would become Elena García Fernandez de Lopez. Many students who have immigrated from Mexico continue to use both last names for documentation, however, they will only use one last name in their classes and with their friends (Y. Alguilar, personal communication, 2011 July 8).

As a white American living in Mexico for five weeks, I was introduced to many people by my host family. When my “Señora” (the matron of the house that I was living in) would introduce me to her friends, I was expecting a handshake – as is the custom in Kentucky. Nope! I was immediately hugged and given a kiss on the cheek. I later asked my “Señora” why I was greeted that way. She told me that it was the normal greeting in Mexico and it would be rude to only shake hands (R. Gonzalez, personal communication, 2005 June). She further explained that, “It was okay for a man or a woman to hug me and then give a kiss on the cheek. However, men may greet each other differently, by a handshake and then a hug or just a hug,” she continued.

The Chinese have fewer celebrations – but they are just as fervently celebrated, even in Kentucky. Three main festivals are the Chinese New Year, the Dragon Boat Festival, and the Moon Festival. Each has a myth that explains why it is celebrated and how to celebrate it. Many Chinese (and Chinese Americans) follow each festival with gusto! Special types of food are made for each festival – a special type of rice dumpling is made for the Dragon Boat Festival while Moon Cakes are made for the Moon Festival (K. Lin, personal communication, 2011 July 1). These celebrations are also huge and very colorful – with particular dances and music for each festival. Some of the dances include a traditional Fan Dance, a Dragon Dance (using a dragon prop), or other animal dances (Chinese Customs and Traditions Index Glossary, n.d.).

Greetings and names are also different from most North American customs – and very different from Chinese customs. These tend to carry over with Chinese immigrant students more than with children born in the United States (K. Lin, personal communication, 2011 July 1). The family name is first, followed by the given name. Many Northern Americans see those of Chinese descent as very respectful due to the ways people are greeted in China. Titles are always used (Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr., etc) when addressing someone – sometimes even years after meeting them. Your given name is only used by those extremely close to you. For example, I would call my friend Zhou Yi, using both her family and her given name. Only after many years of close friendship, may she invite me to call her Yi Fei (her given names) or Fei Fei (the nickname her parents gave her) (Zhou Yi Fei, personal communication, 2011 July 10). Most children who assimilate into the American culture tend to show more respect to their elders or people with titles but lose the formality with their peers (W. Lin, personal communication, 2011 June 30). A limp handshake that lasts a few seconds longer than most North Americans are used to is now the norm in China. In the United States, though, most Chinese Americans will quickly change the way they shake hands – using a firmer and shorter grip.

Culture in the Classroom

Culture plays a tremendous role in the classroom. How children are raised by their parents and their communities affects how they interact with peers and adults in the school. Everyone has some cultural quirk that his/her teacher is not familiar with – a natural consequence of the multiculturalism of the United States.

Proxemics , or the proximity of one person to another, is one dimension of how culture affects learning. Students of Mexican origin tend to enjoy more closeness in family and society (Mexican American Culture Differences, n.d.). These students tend to stand closer to their friends – sometimes a little closer than their friends are used to. On the other hand, students of Asian descent are the opposite (Jimenez, 1996 January). More distance shows respect.

Eye contact is another thing dictated by culture. Depending on what you learned at home or in the community, eye contact may be extremely rude or it may be a sign of honesty and is expected. In the Mexican culture, looking someone in the eye while talking is a form of disrespect.( Jimenez, 1996 January) The same is true in China (Wang Fei, personal communication, 2011, July 5).

Chinese American students and Mexican American students have more similarities when learning in the classroom. In both of the ancestral countries, education tends to focus on group work (Mexican American Culture Differences, n.d.). According to W. Lin (personal communication, 2011 June 30), class sizes in China can be anywhere from 40 to 60 students. This means that teachers must employ many group and paired activities to reach every child. The group is more important than the individual (Y. Alguilar, personal communication, 2011 July 8). Memorization is also focused on by both cultures leading to an emphasis on role learning after the material is committed to memory (Differences in Mexican and American Culture, n.d.).

Applying Cultural Knowledge in the Classroom

To help my students learn to their potential, I will use what I have learned about both groups – in particular, how students from these two cultures learn best – and ensure that I am using instructional techniques that bring out their strengths. Using Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences is a great way to meet all the learning needs of my students. Thus, I will teach my lessons using at least two of Gardner’s intelligences per 46 minute class. I will rotate these so that all students will have an opportunity to learn to their best ability.

Cooperative learning groups will be an integral part of my classroom. Since I teach a Spanish class, I can have my students discuss the differences in English and Spanish – pulling in some of the sounds that are in Mandarin Chinese. In my World Cultures classes, I can have students compare and contrast the cultures we are learning about in class with their home cultures. Then groups will have the ability to share what they have discovered about their classmates in a safe environment.

I will also use my knowledge of parental roles in the family unit to help bring parents into collaboration with my school and myself. I will send an initial letter home to parents – in the native language of the parents – explaining that I would like their cooperation in helping their child succeed in school. I can include helpful tips for the parents in helping their children prepare for class and in communication with the school in case of questions or concerns.

Creating and keeping an updated website of the day’s events for every class I teach is on my list, as well. Students will have the ability to view the day’s task with links to download any assignments or notes that were completed/discussed during the class period. I will ensure that all parents have knowledge of the website in the event that they have the Internet at home/work and would like to check up on their child’s class activities.

Developing Cross-Cultural Competence

I am in a very unique position within my school to help students from any culture adapt to American schools and understand their new surroundings. I get to build new relationships with a new group of students every nine weeks. I see these same students grow over three years before finally leaving for high school. They know that I genuinely care about them and want to help them – and that they can ask me anything, especially about cultures and languages!

Since I teach Spanish and World Cultures, I have the opportunity to repeatedly compare and contrast the Spanish-speaking, Asian, and African cultures with the mainstream American culture. I will use this as a chance to help those from other cultures see the differences in their cultures and in the culture they see around them within my school – by pointing these out to the entire class. I will also use these teachable moments to point out that even people within Kentucky do things differently – so that all students will be more accepting of the fact that we are all different and we all have different backgrounds and family origins.

I invite all of my students to share their varied home cultures with the class in a way they are comfortable with – from food, language, clothes, etc – so we can relish each other’s uniqueness. Then we talk about how that culture is different from the culture they see around them at school.

I will also work individually with my students who are not originally from the United States until they feel more comfortable talking to their peers, interacting during class, and how American kids “act.” We will discuss tips on how to socialize better, conversation starters, common American games, how American kids tend to act around each other at the sixth, seventh, and eight grade levels (depending on the grade level of the student), and other items of interest that will help my students fit in better with their new peers. I will speak to other students who have assimilated well and find out what tidbits of information they are willing to share to help others succeed at doing the same. I will then share these with my new and continuing students to help prepare them for future cases.

This school year, my school has also enacted a “Flex” period – so called because it is a “flexible” class period. During this time, students will be discussing different issues – such as bullying, social skills, succeeding in middle school, etc. I have volunteered to teach several of these classes for other teachers in my building to help my students develop these skills. As the school year proceeds, I expect to participate in this program more and more.


Chinese Customs and Traditions Index Glossary (n.d.). One World – Nations Online.

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Jimenez Arias, I. (1996, January - March). Proxemics in the ESL Classroom. Retrieved from

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Mexican American Culture Differences (n.d.) Primary Education Oasis. Retrieved


Quick Facts for Daviess County, KY (2011, July 27). U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved from

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