We were lucky that our son took to kindergarten like a duck to water. He literally skipped home from school with me after the first day, and said, “Mama, that was the funnest day ever!” Day two yielded the comment, “That was the second funnest day ever!” Etc. (I was pleased but also a little skeptical….I wanted to say, “Pace yourself, kid, you’ve got a minimum of 12 and probably 16 more years to go.” But hey, take your little victories where you can get them, right?)
(Also, can I confess that we’ve had unbelievably smooth sailing with regard to homework, getting up in the morning, and so forth? I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. He loves his reading homework–it’s usually the first thing we do when he comes home. I’m embarrassed to say it, but he’s asked me for more math homework. We’re doing simple addition and subtraction now, whenever he asks me for it, often two or three times a week. And we live a five minute walk from his school, so he can literally roll out of bed, get dressed, and have breakfast and be out the door. What a change from last year and the 60-75 minute long drive to get to his preschool. I tell you, we are just out of this world lucky.)
It was the other school I was worried about. Those of you who send your kids to Hebrew school or Ukrainian school, and so on, will know what I’m talking about.
Our son had been taking Mandarin Chinese class, both written and spoken, at a sweet little school in Silver Lake. It’s one hour every Saturday morning; we’d signed him up for it when he was very young and it just didn’t work. But recently he’d been very happy there. Now, until I was four I spoke only Chinese (both my parents are immigrants from China and of course, native speakers). So I understand it pretty well. To use linguists’ terms, my receptive Chinese language ability is great, but from lack of practice, my expressive Chinese language ability sucks. It’d take me hours to figure out the right syntax and dredge up my admittedly limited vocabulary from the part of my brain that stores memories from age four. I grew up in an area where there were no Chinese schools, so I myself didn’t go to one. My husband, who’s also Chinese American, had the more classic experience of hiding behind the sofa when the bus for Chinese school came to his house–that is, he successfully shirked the opportunity and has lived to regret it a little. All of this is to say we didn’t speak Chinese to our son as a baby.
And the grandparents, the native speakers who live in SoCal and have spent a lot of time with the kid since he was a baby? Did they speak Chinese to him? NO! Of course not. Because that would be work and they’re all about the Fun! and Shopping! and Buying Him Shit He Doesn’t Need! and Feeding Him Chocolate Whenever He’d Like!
So, it was up to me to find a new Chinese school once we moved into the San Gabriel Valley.
Now the community next to ours, San Marino, is about 40% Chinese/Taiwanese/Korean American. It’s also known for its fierce–some would say disproportionately emphasized–attention to academics. And that extends to keeping up your bilingual ability. (Just look at China now, and how young people who can’t seem to crack the employment market here in the U.S. are at least off having adventures if not jump-starting their careers in China.) We want our son to be bilingual because it’s his heritage, it may broaden his opportunities later in life, and he’ll be able to speak to a quarter of the world’s population.
With a tip from a friend, I brought my son to this high-powered San Marino Chinese School to observe the beginner’s class. Previous school: one hour of gentle doting and singing songs in Chinese with adorable Teacher Emma, occasional airplane folding or coloring. High-powered school: three-hour long class for kindergarteners where they sit at desks and write characters, refer to textbooks, the workbook, a pink booklet for copying characters, and a separate blue booklet that the parent uses to check off homework.
I was somewhat reassured to learn they had two breaks where they could run around and eat snacks. I watched these tiny kids sit and recite phrases back to the teachers. They were so young their legs dangled from the seats.
I texted my husband nervously from the classroom as my son writhed in silent anguish behind my legs.
1 ltl girl started putting away her bks 15 mins b4 class ended, & teacher sd, “Whr r u going? Put yr bks back in yr bag! Do I hv 2 come over thr & HIT YOU?”*
Srsly, she’s WAY harsh! Oh wait, another ltl boy was fidgeting & teacher scolded, “Stop tht! Wht, do u think I’m yr mother? Think I’m gonna make dinner 4 u, run & fetch u a glass of milk?”*
–W. T. F.??? Those kids already speak Chinese at home. The kid’ll be miserable. …Then again, maybe he needs a little struggle.
(*Note, in Asia, corporal punishment in the schools is not unheard of, not to mention at home. Teachers are afforded unbelievable respect. And while here in this Chinese class offered in America the threat of a spanking 99% of the time won’t be followed through upon, it’s not uncommon to make the threat to show you mean business. In addition, this particular teacher was extremely Old School, the drill sargeant of my worst nightmares. She was the very reason I had dragged my feet a little in enrolling my kid in a real Chinese school: someone who couldn’t distinguish teaching the language from some of the harder-edged parts of the culture.)
“Mama? Can I go back to my other Chinese school?” said my darling son, who could understand tone of voice if not the exact words. I felt his position keenly, but also knew he’d been able to skate by at the previous school on his dimples and sweet nature. We’d started him off slowly for a reason. But maybe he was ready for more–although not the harsh teacher’s approach.
I immediately found my friend and described what had happened. To her credit, she was horrified too. “Oh no, you need to have the beginning Chinese teacher my son had. She’s really good, and very nice.”
After a bit of wrangling and with a little luck (a student in the nice teacher’s class switched to the harsh teacher’s class to be with his sister), I got my son into the nice teacher’s class.
Last Saturday I sat with him during the class. He’d missed the first two weeks of school and I wanted to make sure he could follow the instructions given in mostly Chinese and a little bit of English. I also wanted to make sure I knew what the teacher wanted done by way of assignments.
She was delightful. She had them coloring, cutting and pasting their own flash cards. She played games with them. She had them get up every so often and sing a song, or line up and recite the words she’d just taught them, or she’d wander around the classroom and check everyone’s work. This teacher was firm and demanding yet encouraging and her methods were age-appropriate. We’re thrilled.
We’ll have to do it Suzuki-style (meaning, I get to take beginning Mandarin Chinese too, alongside my son as I hear it in the classroom and then help him with his homework). But this is the soft, gentle kick in the pants my son needs to actually learn the language. And, added bonus–two for the price of one, maybe I’ll brush up on my Mandarin too.