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.
we they get the summer off.