It was a happy new year all over again at Rosa Parks Elementary School, except this time in February.
According to the lunar calendar adhered to by many Asian communities, Feb. 18 was the last day of the year and time to usher in the Year of the Goat.
Rosa Parks Elementary has been celebrating Lunar New Year on campus since its opening 17 years ago. Pam Pham-Barron was a first-year teacher at Rosa Parks at the time and played an integral role in launching the festival – and has remained an integral part of the event ever since.
Pham-Barron said those first few years were about helping Vietnamese students feel pride in who they are and what they could achieve.
“They can be more than the Asian stereotype of the smart kid,” Pham-Barron said. “They can be on stage and let themselves go.”
The festival has morphed over time to include the participation of the neighborhood’s largely Latino population. It is now common to see students from all ethnic backgrounds dressed in traditional Vietnamese costumes and performing Indochinese dances.
Pham-Barron learned Chinese customs growing up in her native Vietnam. After the Communists took over South Vietnam and united it with the north, Barron fled with her pregnant mother and two brothers in the middle of the night on a small fishing vessel as her father stayed behind. She remembers the boat became lost on its way to Australia and drifted for two days and three nights. With more than 80 people on board, provisions ran out and some people died. Finally, the U.S. Navy rescued them and took them to a Hong Kong refugee camp.
Pham-Barron’s aunt sponsored the family’s entry to the United States, where they settled on Orange Avenue in City Heights. Her father was able to join them later. Pham-Barron enrolled as a third-grader at Euclid Elementary.
“School was a shock,” she said. “School in Vietnam was only a few hours. We didn’t speak the language (here).”
Pham-Barron recalled being bullied by children in the neighborhood because she looked and acted different, as she was one of the only Vietnamese students around at the time. Some teachers weren’t much better, telling Pham-Barron she wouldn’t amount to anything. It was through these difficulties, along with push from her parents, that drove her to succeed.
Pham-Barron was moved from school to school, eventually graduating from San Diego High. She said moving schools was typical among Vietnamese refugee families because parents would hear there were better opportunities at other campuses. Her experience has led her to counsel parents to create more stability for their children.
“A better school needs to be the right fit,” said Pham-Barron, a strong advocate of campuses in the neighborhood. “Your smart kids can get a lot more scholarships if they stay at Hoover.”
Another lasting impact from Pham-Barron’s childhood was her parents’ example to work hard. She used to collect and recycle cans and cardboard boxes for money, jumping into trash bins and tossing recyclables to her family. At the age of 15, she became a cashier at a restaurant.
Pham-Barron used her restaurant experience to open a Japanese restaurant with her husband – who was born in Korea and brought to San Diego by his adoptive Irish-American parents – 11 years ago. They run the restaurant – named Tomodachi, which is Japanese for “friendship” – with Pham-Barron working evenings after the school day.
Barron said she has no intention of leaving her profession as a teacher. It’s her passion, and she feels duty-bound to keep City Heights growing by working with children.
“When I leave this world, I want to leave a legacy.”