“Once there was a snail …” begins a Cambodian folktale about a race between a snail and a rabbit who wants to drink from the snail pond.
The tale bears a superficial resemblance to Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare. But in the Cambodian folktale, the snail “wins” the race without moving; instead, he enlists all the other snails to fool the rabbit into thinking the snail is always one step ahead of him.
“From a Western point of view, the snails are kind of cheating. But from the Cambodian point of view, the small snails are working together to protect their pond from the big rabbit,” says Psychology Prof. Allyssa McCabe.
Or, as a Cambodian proverb puts it: “A bunch of sticks cannot be broken.”
McCabe was part of a team of faculty led by MinJeong Kim, associate professor of education, that worked with community organizations in Lowell to collect, edit and translate “Why the Rabbit Doesn’t Drink from the Pond” and five other folktales from Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Kim, McCabe and Assoc. Prof. of Education Phitsamay Uy then worked with Assoc. Prof. Ellen Wetmore and several of her art and design students, as well as children’s book author and illustrator Anne Sibley O’Brien and some of her interns, to turn the folktales into an illustrated, multilingual book for use in the Lowell schools.
The publication of “A Long, Long Time Ago in Southeast Asia” was celebrated before a standing-room-only crowd of students, faculty and community members from the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, Saydanar, the Vietnamese Language School at Lowell and Wat Buddha Bhavana, a mostly Lao Buddhist temple.
Kim opened the celebration by recounting how she and Uy, after they became mothers, commiserated over the lack of Asian-themed storybooks for their children.
“When my daughter was 17 months old, she saw snow for the first time and called it ‘rice,’” Kim said. “But I couldn’t find any children’s books that talked about snow looking like rice.”
A pair of readers took turns reading the beginning of each story, first in its native language and then in English (the book includes each story in both its native language and the English translation). Laughter erupted during the Khmer reading of “Don’t Open Your Mouth,” a Cambodian folktale about a turtle who talks at the wrong time.
Education Ph.D. student Tham Tran read one tale in English and another in Vietnamese. She helped write the book’s introduction and translate the two Vietnamese folktales, working with students and elders at the Vietnamese Language School at Tuong Van Buddhist Temple in Lowell.
“It’s our pride to promote the community and help kids learn their heritage language, because they don’t have a lot of access to Vietnamese folktales,” she says. “It’s a great thing, because our folktales will be appreciated not only by Vietnamese American youth, but also by other Americans.”
Kim and McCabe have both done considerable research into the importance of making sure that children of varying ethnic backgrounds get to hear and read stories that align with their cultural values, especially when they’re learning to read.
“Learning how to read is a lot of work, so why would you learn to read if you don’t ever see stories that have anything to do with you?” McCabe says.
Last spring, the three professors and O’Brien held a professional development workshop for 30 teachers from elementary schools around Lowell, which has a large Southeast Asian immigrant population. The teachers developed lesson plans for the stories.
Kim says it’s important for teachers to understand the cultural background and values expressed through each story, because those values may be quite different from white American values: group cooperation vs. individual dominance in the tale of the snails and the rabbit, or keeping quiet vs. being outspoken in the story of the turtle.
“Teachers do not always have the knowledge to teach these books correctly,” Kim says.
“A Long, Long Time Ago in Southeast Asia” will also be used to teach older children in Lowell their native languages, the professors say – and to teach UMass Lowell education students about multicultural children’s literature. Kim will teach a class next year on the topic.
The professors are now analyzing all of the tales included in the book, as well as others they’ve collected, to write a training guide for teachers. They are applying for more grants to pay for future, in-person teacher trainings.
The project was supported by a $23,750 Creative Economy Grant from the UMass President’s Office to the university’s Center for Asian American Studies.