FERNDALE - Kim Khong remembers the first time she saw snow.
She was in class at Ferndale High School, and her teacher realized it was a new experience for the Vietnamese immigrant. So her first snow experience was throwing a snowball at that teacher - at his request.
The memory made Khong, now a senior at Ferndale, smile as she shared her story with a group of Windward High School students working on their oral history project Wednesday, Jan. 16.
People from all over the globe met with about 85 Windward students to talk about their experiences with immigration, the theme of this year's oral history project. Previous projects have focused on the Depression, the Cold War and Vietnam War.
"Immigration is part of almost all of our stories," said English teacher Melissa Engels.
Khong sporadically clicked and twirled her pen as she sat at the head of a table with four Windward students in the school's gym, as the students asked about her life in Vietnam and what it was like coming to America two years ago.
What was one of the biggest challenges when she moved, they asked. The language, she said, was a struggle. She had learned English from books in Vietnam, but she had to get used to hearing it and speaking it.
She answered the students' questions in mostly short sentences, her accent from Vietnam still prominent in her words. When the students asked if her traditions had changed when her family moved to America, she asked them what they meant. Once the question was rephrased, Khong had an answer. In America, her mom had to work, while in Vietnam she had stayed at home.
When it came to things she missed from Vietnam, one of the biggest was her bike and the free feeling that she could go anywhere on it. Here, she said, you need a car to get around. When the students asked if she would move back to Vietnam if she had the chance, the answer was an easy no.
Windward student Sophia Gammons-Reese asked most of the questions during Khong's interview, as other students at the table took notes or asked follow-up questions. When she asked how Khong felt when she found out she was moving to America, Khong said she had been excited about making new friends and learning about a new culture.
"I had never seen a blonde before," she said enthusiastically.
A blond-haired Gammons-Reese giggled.
Khong was one of 21 interviewees who hailed from 15 countries and ranged in age from high school students to octogenarians. One was Engels' grandmother, Agnes Lankhaar, who came from Holland during the Depression and thought it was important for the students to hear about how people came to America.
"When I put those pins in the map of the countries where the interviewees were born, I think it surprised them that people in Whatcom County started out in so many places," Engels said of her students. "Teenagers tend to be so about themselves and only think about themselves. I think it's so important to realize everybody's life is not like theirs. I think it can give them perspective, not only on their own lives, but their community as well."
Five of the interviewees were students at Ferndale High School's Multicultural Center, including Khong. When Masa DeLara, who works with the center's English language learners, heard about the project, she thought it would be a great way to bring students together to share their stories.
"I think it breaks down stereotypes," DeLara said. "You see a person and you have no idea what their story is. I think it just gives you greater insight into people versus assumptions."
Ferndale junior Lorena Garcia broke down in tears as she told students about the death of her parents in Mexico and her adoption by relatives in the U.S. As they listened, the students comforted her when she cried. They brought her food and something to drink.
Among those listening intently was Windward student Kathleen Whitehead. She found herself relating, as she lost her own father recently.
"It was really sad," Whitehead said of Garcia's story. "She had to go through a lot to get here."
"I don't usually talk about my life," Garcia said afterward. "It was a nice experience."
Whitehead thinks that if people took the time to listen to an immigrant's story, they might not be so quick to judge them.
"Sometimes people say things about what they think about immigration, that it's bad or it's good, without knowing anyone who's gone through it," Whitehead said. "Hearing this, we can get a picture of how much it's changed their lives for the better coming here."
For Windward student Nadia Chesheva, the project was a family affair. She and her family emigrated from Kazakhstan more than a decade ago, and while she interviewed a student's father who came from Mexico, other students were interviewing her mother.
"I know I'm an immigrant, but I didn't realize so many people in our community were immigrants," Chesheva said. "It shows the variety of people who live here."
Chesheva's mother was happy to share her story with the students, and Chesheva was interested to see how her immigration story compared with her interviewee. Both were quick to adapt to U.S. culture, she said, celebrating the Fourth of July and enjoying the new foods.
"I'm glad we did it," she said. "It was fun to do and see history in real life."
For students who'd never experienced immigration, it was an eye-opener, hearing what families had to go through to get to America and what their lives were like before they came.
"I think it's important to know where everybody's come from, to kind of connect and hear stories that we don't know," Gammons-Reese said. "We all have backgrounds from somewhere."
Reach Zoe Fraley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-756-2803. Read her School Days blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/schools or get updates on Twitter at @bhamschools.