Today was the first day of lessons at Vermont Chinese School. After our registration session a couple of weeks ago we had pretty high hopes. We arrived at the school and met the principal. We spoke to him in Chinese from the very beginning, only acknowledging when it became necessary a bit later in the conversation that our Chinese is not very good. We assured him that the kids were much better speakers. He seemed to believe us and said something about the class offerings and having a lower-level class for our kids. I said that we wanted them in a class conducted in Chinese only. He said good.
Then we sat waiting in the lobby with some other families for the teacher to arrive. There were 3 kids, I would put them at 3, 7 and 8 years old, running around. Jie-jie just watched them with a huge smile on her face. They were speaking mostly in English but when they spoke to their parents they used Chinese. At one point, Jie-jie turned to me with a grin and said, “Mom, those kids can speak English AND Chinese, just like me.” It was plain that she was thrilled to be in a setting where there was nothing special about her particular skill set.
Then the teacher arrived. We followed everyone upstairs. Mei-mei hung back holding our hands while Jie-jie grabbed her backpack and got in line behind the 2 older kids (even though they weren’t in line) and ran up the stairs. When we arrived at the classroom the door was locked. The teacher took a minute to speak to us. Her demeanor indicated immediately that she was not pleased by our presence. We did our best to speak Chinese, explained that the kids went to school in China, etc.
As we walked into the classroom, I saw the teacher look again at my kids and smirk. I interpreted it to be a look of annoyance and disdain. A couple of older kids arrived but, to my dismay, the mother of the other small child took her and departed. At this point, the teacher turned to Jie-jie (it was clear she had already dismissed Mei-mei) and pulled out a workbook. In Chinese she asked Jie-jie how many characters she could write, if she knew the names of the radicals, etc. Jie-jie showed that she knew some. At this point, the teacher said that our children should not be in the class – they did not know enough.
You should have seen the look of pain on Jie-jie’s face. Clearly wanting to stay, she told the teacher that she could write some characters. I was impressed by her bravery in the face of the teacher’s behavior. Unlike my amazing daughter, I was crushed – disappointed and angered by what seemed to be a failed Chinese school endeavor, angry at the racism I sensed in the teachers assumption regarding my children’s language skills, and heart-broken that I had walked my kids into a situation in which they were experiencing such a painful rejection. I was literally fighting tears (with only limited success) – the immediate situation being wrapped up with my own feelings about missing China.
Fortunately Jason was level-headed. He said we would leave the kids there for a while today. They, of course, were happy to stay and the teacher relented. We went down to talk to the principal. Truthfully, I was upset by what had happened in the classroom and embarrassed by my display of what some Chinese I know consider to be the American tendency to wear one’s heart on their sleeve so I stayed on the sidelines while Jason spoke with the principal and another person. It turned out that other person was being interviewed for the job of teaching an earlier level Saturday class and in Mandarin, too. Jason did a great job pointing out how hard we worked for our kids to acquire Chinese and how we were driving up from Montpelier to continue their language education. Jason and I sat for a while, intermittently sneaking upstairs to peak into the room. For a while it seemed to be OK. The teacher was reviewing aloud. Later we went up and saw that the other kids were all working in workbooks. My kids had pulled their crayons out. I was ready to leave but Jason said that we needed to stay there to show them we were serious and that we needed to leave the kids in the class for the same reason.
After an hour (the class is 90 minutes), the principal left for a bit. We decided to make a break for it. We went up and collected our kids and brought them down to meet the teacher they will hopefully start with next week. She just arrived from China and is young and smiley and bubbly and, although you could also sense her skepticism regarding the kids abilities and her surprise when they demonstrated their comprehension and ability, she did not treat them with hostility and disdain, but instead with warmth.
So, that’s what happened at Chinese school today. Here are a few of the many things I think about it:
1. Although they do some basic speaking, the focus of Chinese school is clearly on reading and writing characters. This makes sense for students who speak Chinese at home. The class led in English actually starts with pinyin (romanisized Chinese) and moves quickly to characters but those kids don’t speak the language. We are in the uncommon position of having 2 Chinese-speaking kids but not speaking the language ourselves.
2. Jie-jie’s obviously excitement at the prospect of making friends who can speak the languages she speaks reinforces my desire to get a Montpelier playgroup going but reinforces my understanding of the obvious limitations of this place when it comes to exposure to other cultures.
3. Living in China was a very challenging experience and we put a lot of ourselves into making it work and developing lives there. Now that our year is over and we have returned home, we find that many of the fruits of our labor – relationships, tastes, language abilities and new self-knowledge – are so difficult to hold on to. In addition to the pain of seeing these things fade, there is the experience of feeling, at best, indifference and, at worst, hostility as we struggle to hold on.