Tuesday, August 26, 2008

I'm In a Chinese School Daze

I know I've mentioned it here before that Ava, our 6 1/2 year old attends Mandarin language classes on Sunday afternoons at the Chinese Community Center. This fall marks the beginning of our 3rd year there. Hardly newbies...and yet hardly fitting in.

I'll start by saying my personal goals and motivations for spending 2 hours at Chinese school on Sundays have absolutely nothing to do with learning fluent Mandarin. In my opinion this is a completely unattainable goal in a non-Mandarin speaking household on a mere 2 hours a week...even if we did practice more. All of my goals are not clearly defined in my own mind though I have put considerable thought into what the heck I want out of a Chinese school experience for my Chinese born child. I'll admit to winging it as a first time parent to an adopted child that I pulled from her home country as I navigate the few cultural resources I have available. I will say that as Ava gets a little older she is pushing back. Chinese school has Chinese teachers, who teach in the Chinese way. It is not like American Kindergarten and 1st grade. You sit down, you raise your hand and you memorize stuff. You study, and you hope to be the best. ( I make a point of offsetting that "being the best" crap whenever applicable.) Ava told me that she doesn't like it anymore and wants to quit. This is the first time I have ever pushed her a little harder to stick with something. So we signed up again.

Before I go further let me say that I would feel like a complete and utter failure as an adoptive parent of a child of a different race and heritage if I did not try to at least expose them to that race and heritage in the formative years of their lives. What an ass I would be if I just assumed that being raised American and white would be enough to insure emotional stability for the entirety of their lives.

I am making an assumption here, but I think my girls will indeed choose some sort of higher education after high school. At the very least I plan to make sure they know it IS an option for them. I believe the life experience of higher education is intrinsically valuable above and beyond the obvious book learning. So, it is off to dorm life they will go...kidding, sort of. With that being said I simply cannot stand the thought of my daughters as 18 year old freshmen walking by the Asian American Alliance or the Chinese campus organization or Asian sorority and turning a blind eye thinking there is absolutely no place for her in that club or organization because even though her skin and face look like those other students...she knows deep in her heart is not them. Their talk is foreign, what they do on Saturday nights is foreign, what their mama's house smells like at dinner time is foreign, their punishing attitude towards achievement is foreign....this scenario seems overwhelmingly sad to me. My girls should know something, even if it is snippets of what it means to be Chinese in America...or France if they decide on the Sorbonne. Again, tongue in cheek. Damn it if they want to "pass" or try to "pass" I think they should be given that opportunity to see if it is where they want to be.

And this is why we go, each and every week. Perhaps my goal is simple normalcy in all that is them, the real Chinese. I told Ava that I honestly did not care what she does at the Chinese school, it could be dance, Gong Fu, Tai Ji or language, but she had to choose something. As of this summer she reluctantly signed up for folk dance. But then her teacher suggested we try a semi-immersion class with children more her own age this fall. Ava has for the last few years been on the younger end of the children in the class. I thought this would be a good idea...some English and some Mandarin spoken in the class of 5-7 year olds rather than the wholly English class of only American families with Chinese children who are a few years older. That English Mandarin class had seriously dwindling numbers and was in jeopardy of closing. So, I signed her up for language again to try this new class.

This brings us to last week. We go to the assigned class, which is now integrated. It is about 50% Chinese families and 30% adoptive families and 20% English speaking non-white families. This is comprised of mixed race families, and 2nd or 3rd generation Chinese or Asian families that speak 100% English in the home. I am ecstastic. We FINALLY get to be in a class where we can associate with some families who are not exactly like ours.

And of course, it is chaos. The teacher is nearly in tears with the number of students, apparently she thought there would be less. And the Chinese families are sitting on one side and the rest of us are on the other. Then one father starts in on how his child needs to have some English in the classroom, because they don't speak Mandarin at home. He is Asian and so is his child. The teacher turns a lovely shade of purple and announces that perhaps this isn't the class for junior, in the nicest way possible, of course. Mr. I Need English states that the enrollment folks told him to come here. Chinese families squirm and some white parents appear wide eyed. I'm in the back, rolling my eyes because quite frankly here we go again. (Organization and finite planning are not this schools' strong point.)

At the end of the orientation, if you could call it that Ava somehow missed being on the list to get a set of books. I stay after class to add her name to the list. The teacher apologizes profusely and I tell her "Hey girl, Don't sweat it." Ok, perhaps I was a tad more formal, but you get the drift. Then I turn on my heels as one of the Chinese mom's starts laying into the teacher. She's speaking Mandarin at about 110 miles and minute and I'm catching only a word or two at very best. Clearly she is not happy, and I do hear FCC families, in English spoken several times. Ok, so I'm at this point inferring that she is not pleased that her little darling is in class with the likes of anyone not authentically Chinese and or speaking Mandarin in the home. I'm somewhat surprised she would have this conversation right in front of me...but heh, she was correct to assume that I don't speak fluent Mandarin. But hey lady, I do speak body language and can understand a few words like FCC Families. Of course I'm also finely tuned in the universal language of "pissy". At this point there is nothing else to do but hold my head up high turn on a dime and get the hell out of there. I did not want to add to the teacher's distress and I honestly never believe it is appropriate for adults to get overly snippy and petty in front of children. That is to be done after they go to bed.

Later on in the week, we all get an email saying everyone has been assigned to new classrooms. And guess what? All the kids who's parents don't speak Mandarin are in one class and all the kids who whose parents speak Mandarin are in another. Lovely...we are now segregated again.

And honestly, who am I to complain? My kid gets to go to Mandarin class...albeit on the fringe. She could take dancing if she'd like. She could take Gong Fu, even though we were told it was for boys. Now that is one I AM willing to fight about. This school is primarily run by volunteers who are serving the people that mostly make up their contingency...high achieving 1st generation Chinese Americans who have attended only the best schools in China and are now doctors and scientists working for a very large pharmaceutical company here in town or one of the few universities here. There isn't one schlep in the bunch. They worked hard to get here...and now nothing will stand in the way of their children topping even their accomplishments.

Is this school the right place for our family? I don't know. I have often spoken to leaders of the community and they are warm and inviting, saying they love our children...their children...see, it's confusing. They want to serve the community at large and you don't need to be Chinese to be at the community center. But, then maybe they are having growing pains too, not always agreeing about the direction and the tone of the organization and the school.

We'll just take it week by week and see what happens. It's times like these that I wish the Muffin Man hadn't forgotten the manual at the hotel in Changsha.


Beverly said...

This is the same experience at our Chinese school. It seems they allow FCC to come to it but then treat the FCC kids as fringe. I guess I understand it. Sadly our school also starts promptly at 5:30Fridays and I can never get there. Maybe they are one and the same?!?!

Wendy said...

It's interesting to hear your perspective on this. We have a weekly Chinese school here too that C may attend when she's older (if our elementary Mandarin immersion school does not come to fruition). I wonder if it has the same dynamics.

Johnny said...

[pssssst] teach-eh secret-eh handshake-eh.

Like someone once wrote, better to have your kids annoyed they had to do Chinese stuff when they were young than be bitter at you they missedout when they were older.

I think.


Diana said...

We just registered for Chinese school. It's an hour for 3-5 year olds and then switches to two hours at 6 years old. It seems so intense, but I agree with Johnny- better to at least try.

AmericanFamily said...

Ugh. That sounds very crappy. We are fortunate that our Chinese School's new principle is very actively integrating the adopted kids into the general population. It isn't perfect, but it isn't unbearable. It probably helps that the principal's daughter is adopted too.

Amanda said...

As an adult have you thought of / are you studying online like at ChinesePod www.chinesepod.com or a site like www.zhongwenred.com.
Mandarin School is like piano lessons and eating your vegetables, but I'm glad my parents made me do it, although maybe I did not learn as much as I could have.

Lisa said...

Just throwing this out there ... our SW was telling me about a forum with adult adoptees and how they all stressed how awkward it was when their families tried to integrate them into local Chinese or Korean communities when the kids saw themselves as American. What they did find supportive and helpful were the groups and activites with other adoptive kids who shared their experience of living in a mixed race family. So while frustrating to be "segregated" in the school, in the end, perhaps the greatest benefit will be the friendships formed in class with hopefully some understanding of Mandarin on the side?