Chinese Information and Service Center
Serves Pan-Asian Community
“Tell the world we need funding. Tell the world we need support.”
These are the words of Karia Wong, computer lab coordinator for the Chinese Information and Service Center (CISC) in Seattle’s International District. Once known as Chinatown, today’s International District is pan-Asian.
The CISC lab sports 14 new desktop computers, seven older desktops, one Chinese computer, one Mac, and one server. They also have a digital camera, projector, and Chinese “gogo” pads, a handwriting recognition device.
Traditionally, Asian families look after their own needs and their own families. But, in America, many do not have extended family to carry on this tradition. Agencies like the CISC were formed to provide vital assistance to the neediest members of Seattle's Asian community. CISC makes an effort to assist all Asians in the area. The agency targets recent immigrants, at-risk youth, and the elderly.
“My goal is to have the lab fully utilized,” said Karia. “Not only to serve Chinese, but all other ethnic groups in the neighborhood and beyond, because we are the only place that offers bilingual computer training to Asian immigrants. There are a lot of Chinese-Vietnamese in the neighborhood. We kind of prioritize them, but Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese...they are all our target. I have a lot of students who can read and write Chinese, but they speak Vietnamese. There are a lot of Chinese-Thai, Chinese-Malasian, Chinese-Cambodian. They want to learn computers. I have students from Kirkland, Bellevue, Newcastle, Renton, Auburn. I even had someone call me from Oregon for classes.”
Many recent Asian immigrants haven't acquired computer skills because of language and cultural barriers, lack of money, or simple fear of technology. They can come to the CISC lab for computer training specifically designed for adults who have little or no experience with computers.
“We have introduction to computers, Internet, email, Word,” according to Karia. “Staffing is always a problem. I teach most of the classes. Occasionally, between quarters, I will have a few volunteers who can shoot in and teach classes. But it's not often that we have volunteer instructors.”
The goal is to empower students by teaching fundamental computer skills and to help them to gain confidence through bilingual instruction. Having mastered the techniques needed to use the computer, the immigrants gain skills needed to join the work force and improve their quality of life.
Karia has found that the workshop model works best to accommodate working students. She finds that two-hour workshops make it easier to organize both volunteers and participants.
"A lot of people can't come to class because they have to work during weekdays," according to Karia. "And our open hours are 8:30 to 5:00 from Monday to Friday. That's it. With a workshop, we have more flexibility. We can open up on Saturday or Sunday just for two hours. And we can accommodate about 10-12 people."
"It's just a matter of how to organize your teaching materials," said Karia. "There can be a series of workshops for one topic. They may need just a class for managing their files on the computer, which is part of the original teaching material for Introduction to Computers. But they don't need the whole thing."
When necessary, the CISC lab staff and volunteers go out of their way to help learners with special needs.
"I kind of like the flexibility," said Karia. "Even though we don't have a lot of resources, we can accommodate different people's needs pretty well. If someone comes in with a broken computer, we can have a volunteer fix it for them. We are not really rigid, so we can do it."
One student has a learning disability and had been a Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) client. He was hired by Boeing, but then was laid off.
According to Karia, "He came here because he needed to learn 10-key. But he couldn't type. He'd never used a computer before. His father approached me about a computer class. After talking to him, I knew that we couldn't place him in the regular session because he doesn't speak Chinese. He speaks Cambodian. He can't really express himself very well."
Karia suggested that the student learn to type.
"He can learn but he needs one-to-one supervision and encouragement. His father came with him for the first few sessions. After the student learns how to type, I will try to spare some time so that he can learn email. He now can type about 37 words per minute. His goal is 40.
"Then we can move on. I will probably show him how to do a job search online. He can read. It's just that he's kind of slower than the other people. But he is doing excellent. He is really good. He came here every Tuesday and Thursday, for about one and a half or two hours, just to type. Very dedicated and very hard working.
"He has a wife. She doesn't speak any English or Chinese whatsoever. She speaks Cambodian. And I tried to encourage him to bring her in as well. She has been here only once with her little boy. But I can tell that his wife can benefit from technology. So I'm trying to help the family. And the father as well. The father would like to learn to read a Chinese newspaper. And I told him about the current schedule. I'm not sure that he'll register but that's what I'm trying to do."
Exclusion, discrimination, and violence: These words define the historical American experience for Asian immigrants.
The Chinese were the first Asians to experience the full force of social and political discrimination in the United States.
Celebration of diversity and multiculturalism are relatively new ideas. Until the Burlingame Treaty of 1868, and as early as 1789, Asians were listed among “aliens ineligible to citizenship.” In fact, all nonwhites were prohibited from becoming naturalized citizens. Labor contractors ignored these restrictions and opened the doors to the almost exclusively male laborers seeking to escape political and natural disasters in their homeland. First to arrive were the Chinese.
In 1849, and later in the 1860s and 1870s, the Chinese arrived primarily from the Canton regions to Washington and California. Known as “sojourners,” most came to earn money to bring back to their families in China.
They were greeted with angry resentment. A typical charge leveled at immigrants was that they compete for jobs with Americans who arrived earlier. But the truth is that the Chinese have created their own jobs as well as jobs for others. Many were laborers brought in to fill jobs created by the lumber mills, fishing boats, railroad construction projects, and road paving programs. Many others started businesses. Some operated restaurants, laundries, grocery stores and hotels in Seattle’s Chinatown, which is now known as the International District or ID.
Specific laws were enacted against them. In 1853, the Washington Territorial Legislature barred all Chinese from voting, and later special anti-Asian legislation created restrictions against their testifying against whites in court cases. In an effort to control the Chinese population, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned women immigrants.
No longer Sojourners, the Chinese are today an integral part of Washington’s history. The well-educated and professionally trained move into mainstream occupations. According to an Ong and Blumenberg report in 1994, about one-third of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. are college graduates. Many have exceeded that level. Many Chinese are found in the math, science, and technology fields, where proficiency in English is less of an issue. Almost a one-fourth of all science and engineering degrees awarded in 1990 were conferred upon Asian Americans.
Established in 1972, CISC offers support and advocacy, particularly in areas of health, welfare, and education, helps limited-English speaking newcomers find jobs, and refers the needy to government services they might not otherwise access. CISC’s programs are grouped into five areas: Family and Youth Services, Administration, Elderly, Employment and Sunshine Garden Day Care. During its 31 years, the agency has successfully transformed itself from a fledgling group of volunteers to a staff of 25 full-time professionals. With the help of more than 100 volunteers, CISC serves more than 3,500 clients a year.
The CISC Computer Technology Center was partially funded by the City of Seattle’s Tech Matching Fund in 1997.