Sunday, June 1, 2008

Of soccer, baseball, and chess parents

My family moved to Oregon in the year 2002. My wife and I had 3 kids in tow, one in high school, and two in elementary school. Education and extra curricular activities, of course, were high on our list. We had done our homework, calling the school districts, having phone meetings, from California, the whole works. We even made the decision to buy our home based on the schools, as most parents do. Besides academics, our kids were active in soccer and chess, so we found a school with a chess club close by. The club had many parents who were very involved. As a matter of fact, all chess lessons were taught by parents in the evening. Many parents attended the classes along with their kids, so they could learn. I had not paid much attention to the demographics of the club, but it appeared to me that more and more members were coming from immigrant families. As time went by, one thing led to another, and I led the start up of a new statewide organization in Oregon to promote chess competitions, called the Oregon Scholastic Chess Federation. And again, in our first two state championships, I saw more and more immigrant families bringing their children to the state championships.

In parallel, my wife and I did our duty as soccer parents also. My wife and I signed up as volunteer coaches, and did our duty as soccer parents. Again, there were a disproportionate number of immigrant's kids in our soccer teams, albeit not as lopsided in chess. Then my son, then a fifth grader, expressed an interest in joining a baseball team. I had no clue about baseball, but I had played enough cricket in my life to understand his interest. We signed him up for a team. I had not paid attention earlier in the season, but as time went on, I saw hardly any immigrant's children on the team.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I was at the Portland Chess Club, where my kids were playing in their monthly tournament. I bumped into a professor from U of O, who had driven his son all the way from Eugene to play. He and I were killing time, talking about our common experiences. It turns out he was an immigrant from Scandinavia. He brought up the observation that in all the chess events he has been to in Oregon, he sees more and more kids of immigrants. To a lesser extent, in Soccer. In Europe, of course, he was just used to seeing Europeans in both events. He wondered, where all the native born kids were. Surely, there are enough of them in the same economic brackets and similar leisure times. What do they do on the weekends?

His last remark took me back to my son's baseball years, where most kids came from middle to upper middle class families. The coach called his son "A-Rod", and drilled the team like an army drill master. He yelled and screamed at kids who did not perform up to his expectations, but I did not see any parents complain. When I thought he was being a little over the top, I would quietly bring it up with other parents, and they would say something like "oh, the kids need to know it is rough out there. He means well. Besides, it builds character." I thought, all this to make sure someone knows how to handle a fastball? Wouldn't it make more sense for his kid to take up an activity, like chess, that has been proven to build intelligence? After all, it has some immediate benefits like helping them do well in school. In many conversations I would strike with the parents about chess, they would either change the subject, or dismiss it summarily. I felt as though academic and intellectual achievement was either not valued, or was just plain taken for granted.

Back to the present, the professor and I parted with a shared understanding that there are some deep cultural divides that separate first generation immigrants from the rest of the population. When I came home, I saw the day's newspaper. I saw that the top two National Spelling Bee contestants were children of Indian immigrants. I said to myself - yes, the cultural divide is alive and well.

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