d o c t o r a n d m a m a

Linda Shiue

Linda Shiue
San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA
December 31
I am a physician and spend my free time with my husband and kids, reading everything in sight, eating, traveling, and cooking meals inspired by my travels. These days I'm spending more time at my food blog, spiceboxtravels.com. Please visit me there and follow me on Twitter @spiceboxtravels. Disclaimer: Health information presented here is not intended nor recommended as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your own physician or other qualified health care professional regarding any medical questions or conditions. © 2010-12 Linda Shiue. All Rights Reserved.

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MAY 26, 2010 8:27AM

Why I Torture My Kids with Chinese School

Rate: 14 Flag


My daughters had their last day of Chinese school for the year last weekend.  We celebrated it for many reasons, both for them and for us.  They were glad to get a break from their Sunday morning class.  We were glad to have a temporary respite from having to get them to school at 8:30 AM every Sunday morning.  But Chinese school is more than just another class and another item on the weekly agenda. 

My older daughter, who completed her first year of Chinese school with an unbeatable 100 average (yes, I'm proud), said "I hate Chinese school so much.  I never want to go again!"

"Why?" I asked her.  "You are so good at it." I said the words, but they sounded ridiculous even to my own ears.  Of course she hates Chinese school.  Everyone hates Chinese school.  I only attended for a year myself, eons ago, and stopped because I hated it.  I was good at it, too.  Being good at something doesn't mean that you enjoy it.

Why is Chinese school so painful? First, I need to clarify what type of "Chinese school" I am talking about.  This is the traditional model of teaching Mandarin to "ABCs" (American Born Chinese, as we are known).  It involves a weekend morning class with a strict teacher, lots of oral and written repetition, weekly quizzes, and very little fun, if any.  Public humiliation may be involved.

This model is very different from the Mandarin immersion programs that are becoming more and more popular in elementary schools around the country.  Those are designed for the general population, and are tremendously popular, especially among non-Chinese.  They involve lots of fun, play-based learning, and smiling, enthusiastic teachers.  I tried a weekend "play and learn" class for my kids first.  It didn't work out.  It was too much "play" and too little "learn" for my more studious older daughter, and too much "learn" and not enough "play" for my little one, the party animal.  I also had an incident with another mom in the class over the issue of mandatory snack, but  I won't go into too much detail over that.  (But really, how much snack do kids need after a 45 minute class that ends right before lunch?)

So I shopped around, spoke to other parents, and took the advice of a first-generation immigrant from Shanghai whose son had attended this school for a few years.  He said it was the best one.  Since the newer, gentler, American version had not worked out for us, I took his word. My first impression of the school was that it was definitely Chinese from a cultural standpoint.  Day one, registration, involved a confusing mass of ethnically Chinese parents, mostly first generation immigrants, crowding the tables to register their children.  For any of you who have ever been to China, you will understand what I am talking about.  There is no concept of a line.  You crowd around the counter, push and shove, and whoever reaches first, goes first.  This is true at markets, the bank, ticket counters, restaurants, governmental offices-- everywhere.  Then there was the bureaucratic registration process which involved multiple "lines," papers to first fill out, and then get stamped with official looking stamps with Chinese characters.  I thought, well, this certainly feels like China.  They should be able to learn Chinese here.

But why does everyone hate Chinese school? Why did I? The first issue is, who wants to spend a few hours on a weekend morning in school, when you could otherwise be sleeping/watching cartoons/playing, like all of your friends?  Mandarin is also a very difficult language to learn.  With its four precise tones, one tone off (or spoken in a California girl accent like my littler one), and native Chinese speakers look at you like you're speaking Spanish.  And then did I mention that Chinese school is no fun? 

So why do I subject my kids to this? It's a complicated question, actually. I love my kids.  I want them to be happy.   I am more of an underscheduler than almost any other parent I know: I routinely turn down my kids' requests for organized activities.  That's partly because I think that early childhood should be mainly unstructured, and partly because I don't have the time or desire to chauffeur them here and there more than I already do.  I am not making them learn Chinese to make them overachievers, despite that stereotype about Asian Americans.  

It's simply because I want my kids to be able to speak Mandarin.  I am aware with each passing day that they are less "Chinese" than I am, and that each successive generation of my family will lose more and more of their connection to their roots.  Language is the key to being part of a culture and being privy to its customs, cuisine, and art in a way that no outsider can access.  Speaking Mandarin, I hope, will keep the Chinese part of their identities alive.  Although even this is a concept that deserves examination.  Mandarin is a connection to their cultural roots, in China and Taiwan, but is not actually the language spoken at home by either set of grandparents.  Their paternal grandparents spoke Toishanese, a dialect of Cantonese, and my side of the family is Taiwanese speaking.  Mandarin is, however, the official and academic Chinese, the dialect used by all Chinese speaking countries.  So if my kids are going to learn any Chinese, it's going to be Mandarin.

Because I was raised in an era when assimilation, not preservation of immigrant roots, was the mantra, and because I so strongly protested against Chinese school, I really only had that one year of Chinese school.  I regret that.  I have since had many attempts to learn Mandarin, mainly after college, but I have not been very successful.  I somehow garnered an "A" in a introductory Mandarin course at the local community college several years ago, but my Mandarin is rudimentary and I can really only get by.  I think the only way I could really learn more Mandarin now is to live in a Chinese-speaking country, and that's not in the plans right now.

Cognitively, it is known that the ability to learn languages "like a native" expires at age 7.  Period.  So while kids over 7 and adults can learn foreign languages, it gets more and more difficult. 

So those are the reasons why, despite my daughters' protests, I have already registered them for Chinese school in the fall.  I want them to have the advantage that I did not have, of learning the language that will connect them to their culture.  I think they may regret it later, as I do, if they don't get the chance now to learn this difficult to master language while they are still young.  When they're older, it will be their decision to pursue learning more Mandarin, if they want, just as it will be their choice how much they want to identify with Chinese culture.

At least we they get the summer off.

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Linda, that certainly is a wonderful way to have your children know a part of their heritage! It is interesting to see that an excellent grade does not necessarily mean a student enjoys the class.

Our sons' middle school offered Chinese this year but based on reading your post it sounds like it was the "fun" version. I was present at a board of education meeting this winter when several of the students read Chinese and I was impressed with how impeccably they read each word.
This is a wonderful gift you are giving your daughters, Linda, whether they fully appreciate it now or not.
Linda, this is such an interesting and informative post. I am especially interested in this because our elementary school starts Chinese lessons in kindergarten. The teacher comes to our room one a week (today, actually) and the children really do have fun learning many of the basics. The one Chinese girl in my class leaves our school early every day to go straight to Chinese school. She says she is very tired and has no time to play. I don't know if this is an exaggeration, but I'm thinking it is not. Her family is moving back to China next year and perhaps they don't want her to forget her native language.
As for the other kids in the class, they love it when it is Chinese day!_r
Thanks. Don't tell your daughter that someday she will thank you for this. I think that you picked wisely from a wide array of choices. I love the "no line" registration.
It's always hard to impose cultural classes on kids. I remember how much my son hated Hebrew school. But it may be easier in your Chinese century. A visit to the homeland might impress your girls enough to make them thorough Sinophiles and insist on additional weekend classes.

I know, easy to say. But there could be something in it. In any case, as with piano lessons, they'll be happy you pushed them--eventually.
How I wish my grandmother and mother had encouraged my sister and I to learn Italian when we were young! They were so focused on being Americans (immigrated after WWI) that they forgot the importance of heritage and ancestry. Now, as an adult, I struggle to learn the language and continually delve into our history so that it is not lost to my children. Some day your children will thank you.
They'll appreciate it when they're older -- and isn't most good parenting based upon that premise? -- the fact that you preserved a part of them they might have lost otherwise.
designanator- it is exciting to see Mandarin being introduced more and more as a commonly taught foreign language, like Spanish and French, and I do believe that if it's taught like those languages, in a fun way, that more and more kids when enjoy learning it.

Kathy- I hope so! Because it is torture for us, too, to get them up and at Chinese school every weekend!

Joan- Chinese day at your school sounds like fun. Your student who complains of no time to play, unfortunately, might not be exaggerating!

nolalibrarian- I might have already used that line, but didn't get very far with it.

Leon- I think Chinese school has many parallels to Hebrew school in terms of difficulty of the language, strong connection to preserving cultural heritage. But I still think Hebrew school is usually more fun, from what I have heard.

Donna- thanks for stopping by and for your insightful comment. I didn't mention it in my post, but my kids are actually learning Italian in their regular school, three days a week!

Bellwether- thank you. I hope so; I know at this point they cannot even imagine what they will be like when they're older, much less who they will be.
Will, Thanks so much for your wonderful and thoughtful comments. I love your second to last paragraph so much-- such vivid images. You should write up some of those memories for us.
we had spanish lessons when i was in 2nd grade. very simple, but still usable. since then i've taken classes in public school and privately practice with friends every week. until i will move to a spanish speaking country, my skills will remain rudimentary. i can give instructions on a telephone! woo hoo! that's my latest accomplishment.
My Father, second-generation Chinese, attended Chinese School to learn how to write in Chinese and learn phonetics, in order to understand our Chinese relatives and family members.
Almost makes me wish that I was'nt a mutt!
dianaani- that is pretty impressive, being comprehensible over the phone! that must mean your Spanish is pretty good- no need for dramatic gesticulations.

Ghung and CLC- thanks for sharing your experience

Fred- that means you have your pick of cultures and languages to pick from.
Wow, we have similar roots (Toisan-speaking on one side, Cantonese on the other). I can't help feeling a twinge of sorrow that Cantonese—long the dominant language of the Chinese-American community— is being pushed aside in favor of Mandarin. Yes, Mandarin is a million times more marketable, but Cantonese is still "ours"!

On the other hand, Cantonese has five tones as opposed to the four in Mandarin, which would make your kids hate Sunday morning even more!
When I worked as a teaching assistant in Vancouver that was the biggest complaint amongst the children. They absolutely hated it. I do admire that the children may hate it, but they go, and they generally excel. It forces them to think about life outside of their current condition.

I had some time to check out OS today! I've been so busy trying to settle in so I haven't had time to write. But soon! I might post the eulogy I wrote for my Grandmother's memorial. We shall see.
Felicia- that fifth tone might be the killer.

Kim- nice to see you! I'll look out for your post.
"Cognitively, it is known that the ability to learn languages "like a native" expires at age 7. Period. So while kids over 7 and adults can learn foreign languages, it gets more and more difficult." Thank you for this little tidbit which assuages my guilt for letting my 2nd grader bow out of Chinese class after this year!

Now, I'm reconsidering my decision to hold off on starting my younger son until first grade. I thought full-day Kinder, plus afternoon Chinese class, would completely kill all joy of learning.

It is hard to find a happy medium between the American "fun" versions of Mandarin class, and the "Chinese-y" rigorous, pencil wielding, kind. My son's teacher, an immigrant from Taiwan, offers a Chinese as Second Language track, geared at non-ethnic Chinese and 3rd generation kids like mine. I hope that increasing globalization will bring about more programs that make Mandarin approachable to American culture.

And no, I did not go to Chinese school... which as an adult I ask my parents "Why???"
I love the idea of teaching kids a language at young age when they can actually learn it- for culture or just to get them better rounded. *sigh* remembering painful piano lessons, poor kids- it's good for them, but ugh
Grace- sounds like we are in the same boat. I still (clearly) struggle with this, but so long as there are no full blown tantrums, I am going to soldier on "for their own good."

Julie- I love hearing kids speaking any foreign language. Their accents are always so excellent, because their brains are so open to new information at their young age. If only they could understand that. Thanks for your comment.
Dr Linda,
This is a great read. I agree with your sentiments on teaching a foreign language.

I grew up in India where you were used to learning at least two languages from the time you are born (one of which is almost always English, which I might add every Indian speaks with their own cultural and ethnic accent :) Kids in India (and other multi-ethnic societies)learn to read, write, converse, negotiate, play and switch back and forth between the languages they learn.

For my kids here in the US, I have made a simple choice. I have told them that I do not know English and the only way they can listen to my stories, or talk to me, is to talk to me in my native language. And so far (my son is 4.5) it has worked ! My son switches back and forth between English, going so far as to tell his teachers that "My Papa does not know English" and speaks to me only in Hindi. And I am happier for it.

I applaud your efforts to teach them your native language. They will learn of a culture that is lost without learning its language.
betterworld, thanks for sharing your family's experience. I think it is definitely true- speaking only the "native" language at home is really the only way to raise bilingual kids. It is just so hard to do in practice. I wish my parents had been able to enforce it. Every day around here, I see parents speaking to their American-born kids in Chinese or Spanish, and the kids responding in English. It makes me sad.
This may seem like a torture now but after some time your children will be happy they had these classes. When I started to make masters in leadership I wanted to give up after the first week, but my wife told nothing is impossible and I should stick to it. The third week I started to like it and i recently graduated, now I am happy I did not give up back then.