Sunday, January 18, 2009

Saturday Chinese school for my daughter (and me)

To get back to the theme of ethnic experiences in the U.S. that I touched on earlier, many of you in the U.S. or Canada may remember from your childhood that you, if you're Asian, or your Asian friends always had to go to school on Saturday. While the rest of us were getting our brains rotted out by Saturday morning cartoons, Asian kids' parents forced them to do more school, as if any kid thought five days wasn't already enough. Those forced to go never seemed very happy about it, and often rebelled and stopped going when they got old enough to pull it off. As much as these kids may have been unhappy during classes, those who actually ended up sticking with it ended up (hopefully) thanking their parents, because they were probably pretty darn good at the languages that those classes were teaching them.

My daughter, age four, just kicked off her experience with this Asian-American tradition with Saturday Chinese school (yes, that is despite her Japanese mother and her Italian-American father). We recently discovered that there's one of these schools about ten minutes from our house and, although we missed the first semester, we were eager to get her started and finally got around to it today. While she's had Chinese nannies and babysitters for most of the time that she's been speaking, we found that she was progressing a lot more in English (she goes to English nursery school every day, karate once a week, and dance occasionally) and Japanese (she goes to Japanese Kumon classes twice a week and ballet once a week) than in China, whereas Chinese was originally her best language (she started speaking while we were in China).

As it turns out, her Chinese classes here are as much of a language experience for her as they are for my wife and me.

One of Felicia's babysitters had called the school this week to see what we needed to do to get her enrolled, as their online registration wasn't working. He basically said just go there at 9AM on Saturday to take care of whatever paperwork there was, and she should be set for class at 10:45AM.

We show up at the middle school where the classes are held to see a parking lot full of Chinese people (they were probably mostly or at least partially Chinese-American, but let's just keep it simple and call them "Chinese"). We then go into the cafeteria, which was something of a base for the classes and a gathering places for pretty much every one related to a kid attending any of the classes, and this too was chock full of Chinese people with an occasional white person (case in point) floating around. In the typical entrepreneurial Chinese style (that somehow, amazingly, Mao managed to suppress for a few decades last century), one person set up a store of various snacks and drinks on one table, looking like they had just bought bulk and driven it straight over here. And some of the scenes there were straight out of a movie like The Joy Luck Club, such as the cafeteria table claimed for a game of mah-jong by a group of grandparents, with grandchildren running around at their feet.

We wandered around the cafeteria for a bit and weren't sure who was in charge until someone started setting up a printer and a scanner at a desk near what I suppose was supposed to be the front of the cafeteria. So we walked up to them to inquire about what we needed to do.

We thought there might be a little issue about our daughter starting in the middle of the year, so my wife, who thinks I'm a better negotiator, had me do the talking. Although I'm pretty sure they all speak English just fine, I opted to use Chinese because of a concern about the classes. There's a Chinese class for Chinese speakers, like my daughter, and another for Chinese learners, i.e., English speakers who are starting to learn Chinese. I was concerned that they'd see my white face and think, "Oh, here's another one for the foreigner's class," and so I hoped to evade that discussion by going at them in Chinese. Doing that, they would assume that my Japanese wife is Chinese and then just put my daughter in the class that promises better language exposure by not using English (although the teacher did keep saying "sticker" in English while speaking Chinese in lieu of the perfectly available Chinese word tiēzhǐ). Sure enough, the mid-year start date was raised as an issue. We weren't concerned about my wife speaking up either, because her accent's good enough that she falls within a range that sounds Chinese, and Chinese people are always generically asking, "So you're from Southern China?" when they hear her talk.

Their first answer was, "No, we're full,", but one thing I found to be true in China was that, if someone initially said no to you, persistence could turn that into a yes, and I intended to see if the same thing worked here. The rational analysis sometimes seemed to be, "Is it less of a hassle to just say yes to this guy or to keep saying no?" If they say no and you just walk away, that's a piece of cake for them, but if you make a nag of yourself suddenly it becomes easier to just let you do whatever you want. (This is something I discovered as a kid worked with my parents too, but I'd rather my kids come up with this idea.) For instance, when I was studying Chinese in Beijing, the placement test put me a level or two below the top of maybe a dozen levels, but I wanted to be in the highest level possible because of how rapidly you can learn when you're immersed. When I was first told no, I kept bugging the person who told me no and several other people until I finally got bumped up, clearly above what the test results had gotten me. I'm not sure if this works in all bureaucracies in China (unfortunately, in some, a wad of cash will work much better), but it usually worth a shot.

The first answer we got from the Chinese administrator was, "Sorry, it's the middle of the year, we're full." So I said that we had called earlier this week and they said to show up at 9AM and we should be able to take care of everything. He asked who we spoke to and, since the babysitter called, I had no idea. I did know, however, that it was "the guy whose name and number were on the website", and I told him so. Apparently he had no idea who that was. After effectively repeating this interchange a few times, he finally gave in. I think he might have thought that the person our babysitter had spoken was someone important that was higher up in the administration, so he was weighing potentially needing to deal with that guy or just letting us sign up. He went for the signing up.

So we take care of the paperwork and whatnot and we're sitting in this cafeteria full of Chinese people. And then my son reminded me what good language-learning tools one-year-old kids can be; my son kept going up to people and pointing at them, and this would repeatedly result in them calling him cute and start talking with us.

My wife eventually left to run some errands, leaving me to escort our daughter to class. After dropping her off and again getting a chance to converse in Chinese - this time with the teacher, I was left alone. There happened to be free Chinese-langauge newspapers there so I picked one up and started reading it. It appears that the de facto standard Chinese in the U.S. uses traditional characters, and there were a few that were driving me nuts because I was sure I knew them as simplified characters but the traditional versions weren't ringing any bells. In any case, one of the articles I read was criticizing China's stimulus plan, saying it only helped bureaucrats' favored companies, while the U.S. stimulus plan was aimed at the average person. A pretty interesting read, but it was a shame I didn't have my dictionary with me because now I have to go back and reread it to find all the words I didn't know, if I even end up bothering to do so.

Today also happened to be the day of what they called "parent-teacher conferences", but were less the one-on-one meeting that that term conjures up than the teacher giving an update to all the parents at once. So I got to sit through my first such meeting in Chinese today, and I was surprised at how easily I was able to follow what she was saying. There were only two words I didn't get, but since they are things that the kids will be doing this upcoming semester (I got that much), I'll probably be learning the words soon enough.

So now we have a chance every Saturday to hang out in a hall full of Chinese speakers, and as my daughter makes friends and we meet people there, I'm sure we'll be putting our Chinese to great use. This is just one example of the many creative ways that you can find people to chat with, if not outright native-speaker tutors, and also get other kinds of exposure to your target language in less-than-obvous places far from the language zone. If you had asked me where I could find hundreds of Chinese people gathered together every Saturday in the New Jersey burbs just a month ago, I'm sure I would have had no idea. But now that I have found just that, it's definitely a great language-learning opportunity for all members of my family - and not only those for whom we're paying tuition.

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