I sit at a desk, balancing a focus on my book with limited attention to the teacher leading the class next door. She is drilling them on their characters. I look up when I hear her call, “Ai-te.” That is [jie-jie]’s Chinese name. “Ai-te. Na ge cie, shemme yitse?” (What does this character mean?) In the empty pause that follows I wince. I stare at the wall that separates me from the scene. I cannot see what character the teacher is showing my daughter. Is it one of from the lesson we studied this past week? Finally the teacher gives in, “Na ge cie, yitse lao.” [jie-jie] puts it together, “Na shi Laoshi!” (that is teacher) “Dui!” (Yes!) The teacher moves on to the next student and I return my eyes to my book. After a minute or so I realize I am reading a paragraph I have already read. Today’s 90-minute Chinese school session is nearly over and I have only read about 5 pages. On top of that, I am even sure what I read about. A little more focus is required to bring the sense of the political philosophy I am reading from the page into my own consciousness.
Soon my attention is drawn again, this time by sound of the scraping of chairs and the bustle of children in the other room. Class is over. I rise and stow my book. Jason is snoozing in the desk next to me and I nudge him. We join the other parents out in the hallway where they have been standing and chatting. I smile at them. I always feel a bit of anxiety in my interactions with the other parents at Chinese school. Just as my children are the only white kids in their class, Jason and I are the only white parents and the only non-native speakers of Chinese. The first couple of weeks of Chinese school I sat with the other parents as they chatted, grateful for the opportunity to hear Chinese being spoken – it was just like old times, comprehending just a little, feigning comprehension when possible and, ultimately revealing my lack of understanding when they really tried to bring me into the conversation. And that is when everyone would switch to English. It happened like that every time. That is why I stopped sitting with the other parents. I imagine that they spend all week speaking English. Most of their children favor English so I suspected even at home they do not get to immerse themselves in the familiar tones of their mother tongue and here I was intruding in the weekend opportunity to spend 90 minutes sitting down with people who shared that language. My own limited Chinese-speaking ability shouldn’t stand in the way of that.
We file into the classroom to collect our children. There they were, the Saturday morning Chinese 1 class – 11 children between the ages of 3 and 6. As I help my children pack their backpacks, the teacher, Yang Laoshi, approaches me. “Ai-jie needs to continue to practice her strokes.” She says in Chinese as she indicates to 3-year-old [Mei-mei]’s yellow Chinese composition book. “Ai-te…” she pauses and takes a deep breath before beginning again in rapid Chinese “needs to study the characters from lessons 3, 4, 5, 6 – walk, horse, rain, sun, head… and even lesson 1.” Then she switches to English. “She has forgotten everything. Even the numbers 5 and 7. Even mountain.” Her disappointment is palpable and I blush in shame. “Everything? Mountain?” I ask. Mountain (山) is one of [Jie-jie]’s favorite characters. I glance at the chalkboard. She had quizzed them. The children’s names were written on the board with a row of hearts for all the characters they identified successfully. Ai-te had one heart. Ai-jie was completely absent. She was the baby of the class, included for language practice instead of character memorization. Most of the children had 8 or 10 hearts. “Everything.” Yang Laoshi says. I switch back to Chinese, “Sorry.”
I nurse my disappointment on the 40-minute drive home from Burlington to Montpelier. At least 5 days a week I sat at [Jie-jie]’s side as she did her Chinese homework – practicing and memorizing the characters that constitute written Chinese. Instead of an alphabet, the Chinese language has characters. Each character has a meaning and a one syllable sound but the character doesn’t offer any clues on how it is pronounced. The only way to write and read Chinese is to memorize each character and it is not enough to write a character that looks correct, you need to write the character one piece at a time, with particular strokes that must come in a particular order. It is the type and order of the strokes that allows you to use a Chinese dictionary and even most word-processing programs. When we do Chinese homework, [Jie-jie] and I wrestle with layer upon layer of complexity. Given that her own Chinese speaking and reading abilities exceed mine, the homework sessions can be a lesson in how much we both do not know. All the same, she really likes writing in Chinese and, most days, my five-year old doesn’t resist taking 30 minutes to do her homework. She says that the characters are beautiful. But here we were, flunking out of Saturday Chinese school despite both of our efforts. I understand now that [Jie-jie] would never keep pace with the other students – native speakers who seem to have much more time to devote to practice. “What we really need,” I consider angrily, “is to move to New York City or San Francisco where they can be in a dual-language school or at least have a Chinese afterschool program. There is no way my children are going to maintain the ability to speak Chinese as long as we are living here.”
I take a deep breath and look out over the winterscape. We were travelling along the Winooski River, through the beauty of the Green Mountains – occasional fields, farms and pastures populated the small valleys. Vermont. I felt at home when I first set foot in Montpelier three and a half years ago. The community was comfortable and accessible. My values and culture didn’t set me apart the way they had in other places I’d lived. Would I really trade this place for the city just so the kids could speak Chinese? So I could hold onto their bilingualism – since I seemed to be the one who thought it was so important? What am I after anyway? Why does it mean so much to me? Two and a half years ago none of us spoke a lick of Chinese. Two and a half years ago I would have never believed that I would ever have any interest in the Chinese language. I had no desire to visit China. The place had never excited me the way that so many other places did. Now several days a week I enacted my own version of the tiger-mom, drilling my children on character recognition and expressing my displeasure if they did not shine during Saturday Chinese School. I spent my commuting time memorizing the lessons on “Talk Chinese” discs. I schemed about return visits to see friends in Guangzhou and to explore the places that I missed last time around. I talked up my future research in China, scouted out funds and sought to establish relationships that could lead to a research partnership with a Chinese researcher.
This was not the plan. This was NEVER the plan. How did I get to this point? Refocusing on the blue ice descending from the ledges along the highway, I laugh at loud at the absurdity of it all.