Day 4 - SCHOOL
Chinese-American students spend Saturday mornings at school learning language, customs, culture
By TERESA HSIAO
While most kids are groggily watching cartoons at 9 on Saturday mornings, students at the Quincy Chinese Language School are filing hurriedly into class. After Principal Peter Jae reminds them of upcoming events, the students are sent off to their weekly, three-hour lessons.
As first-graders at the Quincy school embark on a test of matching Chinese characters to pictures, kindergartners chant sentences next door, and fourth-graders tackle a complicated Chinese folk story. All this is part of the curriculum that has anchored the language school’s 15-year history.
With a little more than 9,000 Chinese-American residents, Quincy has one of the largest Chinese-American populations in the state. Asian-Americans are among the fastest growing racial groups in the city, increasing by 144 percent since 1990, and many expect the population to continue growing.
Chinese language schools have been established in other cities with significant populations of Chinese-Americans. Lexington Chinese School in Belmont has over 400 students attending classes on Sundays. The Kwong-Kow School in Boston boasts nearly 1,000 students.
Started by Peter Jae in 1988, the Quincy school is a nonprofit educational institution, the only language school of its kind on the South Shore. The school strives to educate Chinese-American children in the Cantonese language and to motivate them to become knowledgeable on Chinese customs and culture.
Classes are held from 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays at the Sacred Heart School in North Quincy. The study program lasts nine years, beginning at kindergarten and ending in eighth grade. Classes incorporate learning Cantonese, writing Chinese characters and discussing traditional culture. As students get older, they read Chinese stories and poems, participate in classroom discussions, and study exercises in their workbooks.
An optional extracurricular activity period is held in the afternoon from 1 to 3, where many students can study math, work on traditional Chinese water paintings, or practice kung fu. The school also celebrates Chinese New Year and other holidays and festivals.
Many of the older students say that the school has helped them communicate and learn about their heritage.
“We learn how to talk Chinese, so we can talk to our relatives back in China,” says Benson Tang, 14, of Quincy. “My parents want me to learn the language, because it’s part of the culture.”
Stanford Chiu, 13, of Braintree, agrees. “When I talk to adults, I know what they’re talking about. Some other schools are a lot more strict, but this is a little better.”
Other students are less flattering when talking about the Chinese school. Alan Tan, 12, of Quincy, says, “I think sometimes it’s worth it, because we learn about historical Chinese stuff, but sometimes it’s a waste of time because we’re sitting there and doing nothing.”
Jae, 62, doesn’t think the Chinese school is a waste of time. Jae came from Hong Kong to Quincy in 1982 and founded the Chinese school in April 1988, at a time when the population of Chinese-Americans in Quincy was increasing rapidly.
“I started (the school) by myself, and it was very hard. Jae said. “I used my own money to pay the teachers, so I spent all my money. I took a second mortgage on my house to pay off all the debts of the school.”
Now, the school has 150 students, whose families each pay $158 a semester. Jae has also started a seven-week summer school for Chinese-American students from July to August, as well as a summer cultural camp that introduces children to traditional Chinese folk arts and sports.
At one time, the Quincy school had around 400 students enrolled, but now the cutoff is 150, Jae says, because there aren’t enough qualified teachers. Jae says he is frustrated because there are many more students who want to enroll, but he can’t accept them without additional teachers.
“It’s really hard to find teachers because I ask them to use traditional Chinese characters, have a good Chinese background, and most importantly, the teachers need to know English,” he said. “All the kids speak English more than Chinese. Kids learn Chinese better with English explanations.”
Jae also sets aside a half hour for students in first through sixth grade to learn conversational Mandarin, the official language of China. “For the future, when they grow up, if they want to do business and talk with Chinese people, Mandarin is the most important language.” (Although Mandarin and Cantonese share the same written language, the dialects vary in the way each word is pronounced.)
With all he has done to get the Chinese school started, Jae still understands the apathetic feelings that some students have about the school. “For myself, I always liked some traditional Chinese things. My sons say that my house is like a Chinese museum. And maybe I’m getting old, so I’m thinking about that, traditional Chinese culture. I’m the first immigrant, so I think about that, but second generation, less and less.”
Many students agree that they don’t think much about their Chinese heritage. And it’s difficult to explain to their American friends why they’re never around on Saturday mornings.
“All my friends at [public] school, they don’t do this,” Chiu says.
Tan concurs, “They sometimes think it’s dumb to come because it’s a waste of three hours when I usually hang out with them.”
As the sound of feet stomping down the halls signals the start of break, Jae says it doesn’t discourage him that some students are less than enthusiastic about attending the school he has built. He has already done everything he can possibly do: administrating, teaching, and even leading a Chinese dance troupe when no one else had the time.
“The only thing for me is I’m happy when I see the kids,” Jae says, “and they can learn and read Chinese.”
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