After 5 years, Chinese School has given the Wang family so much more than just skills in a second language
by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, AAV Contributing Editor
It has been five and a half years since we first started going back to Chinese School. My oldest daughter is now eight years old and in the second grade class, my second daughter is six and in the first grade class, and my youngest, three, started preschool this year. Chinese School has now become the most important thing that we do. All our other lessons, activities, plans, and social events come after Chinese School homework and classes on Friday nights. On Saturdays, a teacher comes to our house to give additional lessons on reading, speaking, and listening comprehension. Our summers are structured around Chinese Summer Camp and Chinese Art Camp in San Jose, California, by my mom’s house.
My oldest daughter now reads and writes Chinese better than I do. When I show her how to write a word, she always asks, “Are you sure? I better look it up in the dictionary to be safe.” When my second daughter needs help with her homework, she does not even ask me, preferring to ask her older sister for help. My three year old is so excited to finally be able to attend her own class at Chinese School (after going every week with her sisters since she was two weeks old) that she asks me every morning when she wakes up, “Today we go to Chinese School? Why not?”
Even my Chinese has improved an incredible amount. When I was asked to read “The Lord is my Shepherd” in Chinese for my grandmother’s funeral, my father asked me if I understood a word, hsing, which means to walk. I answered, of course I do, and I began to recite the children’s rhyme (with hand motions) that I learned with my kids in Chinese School, “Hong deng ting, lu deng hsing.” (Red light stop, green light walk). I can read a lot better now, too, but when I do not recognize the words, I pretend to quiz my daughters: “Can you read this for me? What is this word?” My oldest daughter is starting to figure out my tricks.
My children’s closest friends at regular school (we call it English School or ying wen hsue hsiao) also attend Chinese School, so they ask each other every day, “Did you finish your homework yet? Are you ready for the test this week?” Sometimes they help translate for new Chinese students who do not speak English. Sometimes they even speak Chinese together at school just because they think it is fun. At lunch, they look at each others’ lunches and envy the girl who has dumplings (jiao zi) or wheat glutens (mian jing). They are especially proud at Chinese New Year’s when they can all dress up and perform the dance and songs they learned at Chinese School for their schoolmates. If the Chinese School Dance Troupe has a dance performance on the same day as a soccer game, a quarter of the second grade girls’ soccer team is missing.
Once, when I gave a presentation about Chinese culture at my daughter’s school, the teacher asked me to teach the class how to count in Chinese. Afterwards, my daughter and two of her Chinese School buddies were giggling in the corner because I wrote the number three on the blackboard wrong—the middle line was too long. I told them that I was so pitiable (ke lian) because I never had a chance to go to Chinese School like them until I was 12 years old, and by then it was too late. They listened very seriously and went home and told their mommies how terrible it is that I was not able to go to Chinese School and did not even know how to write “3” properly.
Like my children, I now collect all of my friends from Chinese School, too. Many are officers, board members, and parent representatives, and most everybody now knows my embarrassing secret—that I cannot read and write very well. Although I keep declining official roles at Chinese School because I do not feel that my Chinese is good enough, they have finally found a special role for me. I now write all the official English letters for the school. I cannot really translate because I cannot read Chinese, but if they tell me what the letter needs to say and with what kind of tone, then I can do it much more quickly and cleanly than anyone else. Instead of feeling like an imposter and hanger-on, now I feel proud to have my own contribution to make at Chinese School.
My oldest daughter recently had a homework assignment to write some sentences: “I like Chinese School because…” or “I do not like Chinese School because…” I was a little worried at what she might write, but I was very pleased to discover that the things she liked about Chinese School outnumbered the things she didn’t like five to one. The only thing she did not like was, predictably, “too much homework.” (At the same time, she now does a page of Chinese homework every day without being nagged and without any help.)
I have always worried about raising my children in Michigan because there are not a lot of Asian Americans here and Vincent Chin was killed less than an hour from where we live. I did not want my children to have to struggle with being minorities or have to deal with racism at a young age. However, because of Chinese School and the friendships we have developed there, we have found a safe and nurturing community for all of us. The Chinese community in Ann Arbor is smaller than that in San Jose, but everybody knows us and everybody watches out for us. My children are proud of and secure with their Chinese heritage and culture. Even though they are multiracial, there can be no doubt about their Chinese-ness. That they can also speak and read and write and understand is an added bonus—an incredible bonus—that would not have come without the security and strength that comes out of our Chinese School relationships. Chinese School has become our anchor.
Our Chinese School recently held a Storytelling Contest in which the children were given a set of pictures and thirty minutes to prepare a story—with no adult help and only dictionaries for reference—a real test of their own Chinese skills. My children (first and second grades) were so much younger than everyone else that we could not believe it when they actually placed fourth out of 28 teams, most of whom ranged from third through eighth grades! We were even prouder when we learned how excited everyone was for them, and how many people were cheering for them behind the scenes.
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