Sunday morning is not a time for these children to relax. Instead of enjoying the free weekend, going to Chinese language school for two or three hours during the day is part of their weekly regimen. Sitting in the third grade class of the West Valley Chinese Academy located in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles are children as young as six.
“No English, remember?” said Ms. Li, one of the teachers at West Valley Chinese Academy. “You already spent plenty of time speaking English every day. Please seize the opportunity to practice Chinese when you are here.”,” Li said.
The first Chinese heritage language school was established in San Francisco in 1886. According to a 2008 linguistics study, approximately 160,000 students were learning Chinese in language schools across the country in 2005.
Chinese language schools are usually open on weekends or after regular school hours. They provide a place for non-Chinese students to learn a new language and for Chinese American students to learn their heritage language and culture. These schools also create a community for these students to make friends and establish their socio-ethnic identity.
Chinese Mandarin is considered exceptionally difficult for Native English speakers, who may not have learned their parents’ or grandparents’ native language.
“Because of how hard the language is, and there’s almost nowhere to use it except for at home, many parents actually have to force their kids to come to the school,” said Lily Xu, a mother of a student at West Valley Chinese Academy. Her son has been learning Chinese for three years now.
John Chen is the father of two boys learning Chinese at WVCA.
“I went to Chinese school up to fourth or fifth grade, then I threw a fit and finally got out of it,” Chen said. “I do wish my parents forced me more or made me stay.”
Chen is one of many adult Chinese Americans who wish they had spent more time learning the language. Children of immigrants face an important choice at a very young age — whether to learn their culture’s language or not.
It is Gina Shaw’s daughter’s second year learning Chinese at WVCA. Shaw’s family migrated to the U.S. in 1980 when she was five years old.
“At that time, it was dominantly Caucasian American culture. It was hard to speak a different language, to sit in classes every day, not knowing what people are talking about,” Shaw said. “Because we didn’t speak any English, the kids made fun of us constantly.”
Shaw said that because her parents wanted her and her siblings to integrate into American culture, they didn’t speak much Chinese at home and told their children not to speak Chinese in public.
Shaw didn’t keep up with the language and said that speaking a foreign language was taboo and a source of shame when she grew up.
“Maybe it is because I am so disconnected that I feel like I need to be more connected. To get back into it and have my daughter be a part of it,” she said. “I want her to be very proud of her heritage.”
Shaw hopes that before the next time they go to Taiwan, both herself and her daughter would have made some progress in learning Chinese.
Shaw said her sister made a completely different choice.
“My older sister is not that into the culture even though she knows more of the language and the culture than I do,” Shaw said. “She has zero interest to go back to Taiwan to visit. And she didn’t let her children learn Chinese either.”
Shaw said some people probably experienced more bullying that others didn’t see or understand.
“Some individuals swing the other way, to the point when there is some self-hatred,” Shaw said. “They don’t want to learn about their culture and their own languages, because they want to assimilate.”
Since then, Chinese immigration increased dramatically, among the newer arrivals were large numbers of scholars, students and people with other jobs who spoke Chinese. Like other immigrant families, second-generation Chinese American kids usually don’t share the same first language as their parents. But language and culture are closely connected, and, not knowing a language can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunication.
“Some humor just cannot be translated into another language. When I watched a Chinese TV show and I was laughing, my son didn’t find it funny. That was the moment I felt a little sad,” said Lily Xu.
Xu said if her son learns more about Chinese culture, it will be helpful in creating more understanding between the two of them. She said, however, that it would be a very challenging expectation for him to reach such a high language proficiency to be able to deeply understand the culture.
Min Liang, headmaster of WVCA, said if she can’t communicate with her children in Chinese, she would feel like something important is missing in their relationship. “It would be a huge pity for me, as a Chinese-speaking parent, if I give up on passing on the heritage to my children,” Liang said.
“Though he’s my child, he grows up in a completely different environment from mine,” Xu said. “I am still finding my way to be the mum of an American kid.”
She said a lot of families like hers face the same problem.
“I wish my children learn that when they love and appreciate their own culture, other people would be attracted by their culture as well,” she said.