Fifteen years after her escape, Frances finds herself in Chinese School once again with her own children
By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, AAV Contributing Editor
After class, I fax the homework and the weekly note from the teacher to my mom in California so she can tell me what it says. Then we completely forget about Chinese school until Friday afternoon when we rush to finish the seven pages of homework before class starts. My four year old whines, “Chinese homework is too hard.” I agree, it’s hard for me, too, but with a dictionary and a page of translations emailed from my mom, I force her to go on, hoping that she doesn’t become permanently put-off by this experience. It feels strangely familiar.
I hated Chinese school. Everyone did. Every Saturday morning from 10 to 12 we were at Branham Junior High School in San Jose, composing sentences and learning phrases. No sleeping in, no cartoons, no going out with friends, no special school events, no sports. Saturday morning was reserved for Chinese school. Of course, that also pretty much committed Friday nights, too. A mad dash to finish this week’s Chinese school homework. Sitting at the kitchen table with a dictionary on one side and my mother on the other, “How do you write this word? What is that word? How do you use this phrase in a sentence? What does that mean?” It was so hard.
American friends did not understand and always felt sorry for us. I remember one blond girl in high school insisting that it was “a Constitutional right” that you had to get Saturdays off from school. Jewish friends understood, as they had to go to Hebrew school on Wednesday afternoons to prepare for their bar and bat mitzvahs. We never discussed what we actually learned, just that we had to go. It was a rite of passage, a dreaded yet bonding experience all the (Chinese/Jewish) kids had to endure. It was something you would probably force your own kids to do when the time came.
I could not wait to graduate from high school so that I would not have to attend Chinese school anymore. Of course, as soon as I started college, I was taking Chinese classes again–second and third year Chinese. My junior year, I went to Beijing to study at the School for Overseas Chinese. In graduate school, I petitioned to fulfill my language requirement with Chinese classes instead of German or French (which in retrospect would have been so much easier) and spent another summer taking intensive Chinese. My teachers always chastised me for having the best spoken Chinese and the worst written Chinese. I could participate in class and pronounce all the right answers, but I barely passed the written exams. I just could not keep the characters in my head.
After so many years of study, I still cannot really read and write. My spoken vocabulary does not easily extend past topics of family and home. I forget new words and idioms as soon as I learn them. When writing thank you letters, I have to look up almost every word in the dictionary. I am very good at guessing meaning and context from the few words and particles I can read, though, and I can bluff my way through signs and menus and letters from grandparents.
But I can speak, for which my mother gets all the credit. I am so proud when Chinese people ask if I am from Taiwan or the mainland, and how many years since I immigrated. They are completely amazed that an American Born Chinese (ABC) can speak Chinese without an accent. My Chinese friends love to introduce me to other Chinese people, “Can you believe she’s an ABC?” The other people gasp, “You speak so well! You don’t have that ‘ABC accent.’ What’s your secret?” After a lifetime of not being a good enough Chinese girl (too outspoken to interest any nice Chinese boy or his parents), I am suddenly a model for what they want their children to become. It’s very weird.
Nevertheless, I am still too embarrassed to let on that I can’t read and write very well, so whenever Chinese school passes out a notice or wants a form filled out, I hold out the page in front of me and look at it thoughtfully, pretending I can read it, before tucking the sheet away in my bag for faxing later to Mom. Sometimes if I need to know right away (like the time we had to vote and I couldn’t figure out which box was yes and which was no), I sneak over to a friend and quietly ask her what it says. Other times, I pretend the words are too small or too poorly photocopied for me to see. School officials ask me, “Didn’t you see the big sign in the lobby?” “Oh right, of course, I remember now,” I lie.
On the one hand, I view this experience as a second chance for me. If I sit in the back of the room and pay attention for the next fifteen years, maybe I can learn it right this time, from the very very beginning. But at the same time, if, after so many years of studying Chinese, I am struggling to keep up with the preschool class (often the five year olds in the class know words that I do not—like ostrich and rhinoceras), what chance is there for my third-generation multiracial girls to be able to learn it at all? Or does that really matter?
When my children were born, I thought that the best I would be able to do is to build a solid enough base to hardwire the language into their brains’ neural networks so that after they forget it, they will be able to learn it again in college and possibly avoid having an accent. But now, they can communicate with their great-grandparents who do not speak English, they are unembarrassed and unafraid to teach their American friends how to say different things in Chinese, and they see the world as a multilingual place. I am reluctant to let them lose that.
My mom tells me not to be so frantic, and reassures me that if I create the interest, they will want to learn it in college. She also reminds me that a big part of Chinese school is just to be with other Chinese children, to see 300 people with black hair, and to not feel like a minority. “And when they become young adults, they can make friends.” As I begin to chuckle at the relentless matchmaking of Chinese parents, she protests, “Not just to marry, but good friends, close like cousins.”
So does Chinese school really make us all family? Certainly I took many different kinds of lessons that did not affect me as deeply as Chinese school. Regardless of whether or not we retain what we learn, enduring it together helps us create the bonds with other Chinese Americans that come so naturally for our (immigrant) parents. Being surrounded by people who share the same cultural norms as our parents makes those norms seem a little less eccentric. It gives us a safe community in which to be Chinese-American children. Going through it is an important part of being an American Born Chinese, if only because we all have to do it. It has become a part of our Asian-American culture.
So far, my girls actually like Chinese school (except for the homework, of course). However, I am the only American Born Chinese parent in the school. It will be interesting to see if other ABCs, the oldest of whom are now coming of age and having children themselves, will continue to send their children to Chinese school. I hope so.