Chinese School — Not Just for Children of Uptight Chinese Immigrants Any More

If you grow up Chinese or Taiwanese American, your stories of weekend Chinese school will consist of either using strenuous and silly means to avoid attending, or tales of long Saturdays where you and dozens of other insurrection-minded kids were united in the desire to be anywhere BUT Chinese school. Now, everyone else gets to be an honorary Asian American kid, and undergo the tribulations of Saturday mornings reciting lessons aloud with coaching from the teacher. This is progress!

Unless…you think Chinese language classes taught by native speakers from the People’s Republic of China are a TroJAn HOrsE SmUgGliNG in COMMUNIZM!!1!! OMG!1!! OMG!!1!!1 to our poor defenseless American children.

Let’s just dispense with that silliness right now, before I get to my main point.

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(My son’s class is actually taught by a Taiwanese American lady, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I mean, she could still be leading an “army of tiny Maoists” for all I know. Not that there’s anything wrong with that either.)

In my son’s class of 30 or so children, probably a couple are Korean American, the ethnic Chinese are mostly Taiwanese, and there are about four kids who are Latino. That’s about the demographic mix you’ll find in the San Gabriel Valley. It differs from the NY/east coast experience of Chinese school, which seem largely to serve recently-immigrated families slowly moving away from Cantonese language to embrace Mandarin, or hothouse orchid children of the upper classes tutored by their hand-picked Chinese nannies. Then there’s the heartland experience, in which homogeneous classes of non-Chinese kids take Mandarin classes.

I find this all fascinating–as is the news that in Mexico, children there are learning Mandarin Chinese as well. It’s not just a yuppie thing, it’s growing recognition that China is an emerging economic force in Central and Latin America.

Savvy Mexican politicians have other ideas. State authorities launched the pilot language program in Aguascalientes, a working-class city, in hopes of jumping on the Chinese bandwagon. As China swiftly expands its reach across Latin America, Mexico is experiencing a flurry of new Chinese investments in traditional targets like nickel mines and in newer areas like car-part factories and electronics.

For many years, Mexico had lagged behind other big Latin economies, like Brazil and Chile, which saw China displace the United States as their
principal trading partner. China spent an estimated $100 billion in
Latin America in 2008, but Mexico had only a small piece of it.

Remarkably, this is not the endeavor of an elite academy, nor the work of a Chinese-government cultural institute. Pedro Garcia caters primarily to low-income families. Most students are the sons and daughters of factory workers or come from single-mom homes. Pedro Garcia is a public school, meaning there’s no tuition; workbooks, with names like Mandarin Hip-Hop, are subsidized by the Mexican government.

Now I have to admit, I have ambitions to one day be fluent in Spanish myself, as well as insisting that my son learn to speak it. We live in Los Angeles, how can we not speak Spanish? I really do think that by being trilingual, he’ll have a good half of the globe open to him in whatever endeavor he ultimately pursues. But what pleasantly surprises me is how Spanish-speaking people are coming to the same realization when it comes to fluency in Mandarin.

No doubt there’s a shadow side to this Mexico-China business partnering, which is partly fueling the interest in language learning. In the grown-up world of battles over cheap labor costs, no or lax workplace safety standards, and little to no environmental regulation, which transnational corporation will win the race to the bottom?

But for now, I’d like to believe there’s a possibility for greater contact and familiarity between children from two or more cultures who haven’t had occasion to come in close proximity before. Maybe there’s something utopian to be had in that?

This post first appeared on Los Angeles Moms Blog, part of the Silicon Valley Moms Blog set of linked sites.

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