Japanese-American kids keep in touch with roots
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 18, 2006

Cary Aspinwall
Preschool caters to growing Asian population

Four-year-old May Obata stops wiggling for a moment, sits prettily on her folded legs, and bows respectfully to her teacher before sipping a cup of tea.

"Nigai!" she says, causing her classmates and teacher, Yuko Elliott, to giggle.

Nigai means bitter in Japanese. All of May's classmates at AmeriPan Kids preschool in Gilbert speak Japanese and English.

They also know Japanese songs, dances, stories and customs, because they
learn them at Elliott's preschool.

Asians are one of the fastest-growing populations in Gilbert. In 1990, the
U.S. Census reported less than 500 Asians living in Gilbert. Now the number
has grown to nearly 7,000, more than doubling their percentage of Gilbert's
overall population.

Elliott, a former kindergarten teacher in Japan, started the school for
children 3 to 5 after moving to Gilbert with her American-born husband.

She met a few Japanese-American couples who wanted her to teach their
children some Japanese language, stories and customs a few hours a week.
Word of mouth has now spread far enough around the Valley for Elliott to
have 16 students and a waiting list of more than 10.

Classes are taught in Elliott's home and are small: Four students per
three-hour class, each coming about once a week. They make crafts, sing
songs, and practice a tea ceremony, dances and songs for the Global Village
Festival in April.

All students have at least one parent who is Japanese, and the parents don't
want them to grow up without some knowledge of their Japanese culture and
language, Elliott said.

On this day, the students are practicing their tea ceremony to show their
parents in a few days.

May keeps wiggling to adjust her socks, while classmates Melody Thompson, 4,
and Devin Pike, 5, try their hardest to act solemn.

The wiggling continues as they sing a song about numbers and listen to a
story about some mice and chickens. Then it's time for a little jump rope in
the back yard, which has been converted into a playground.

The children switch effortlessly between English and Japanese as they play.

Elliott points out their red, white and blue T-shirts were more than just a
craft project. The handprints in paint are the school's symbol.

An American flag and a Japanese flag, side by side.