When Taiwan’s first lady visited the Bay Area several weeks ago, she lavished her attention on students attending weekend Chinese schools operated by the overseas Taiwanese community. During her low-key visit to the Bay Area, President Ma Ying-jeou’s wife, Chou Mei-ching, spent the bulk of her time visiting four schools for some storytelling.
Among the stories that the first lady told was one about the great Chinese calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303-361). Some might think that her talk was too difficult for students to understand, but Jason Lin, the principal of Silicon Valley Chinese School and Yongching Lim, the principal of Fremont Chinese School, were deeply touched and impressed by the first lady’s visit. By coming to their schools and selecting the stories, she emphasized the importance of instilling a Chinese education in the next generation.
Classes on weekends only
Currently, there are roughly 2,000 Chinese schools in the US, a quarter of which are in California with about 250-300 of them in Northern California. It is difficult to know the precise numbers because they are not regular schools. They only offer two to three hours of Chinese language courses per week at the premises of regular secondary schools during the weekends. Silicon Valley Chinese School with over 650 students opens every Friday night, while Fremont Chinese School with some 800 students opens every Saturday morning. At its peak, both schools had an enrollment of over 1,200 students each. Even now, they are still considered large in comparison to other Chinese schools in the US.
These two schools were founded in the early 1970s. After a large number of Taiwanese college graduates completed their studies in the US, many of them settled in Silicon Valley to work. When they started families, many of them wanted their children to receive a Chinese education and thus Chinese-language schools were established.
To begin with, each of these two schools had only 10 to 20 students, with parents serving as part-time teachers. Now, there are 36 professional Chinese teachers at the Silicon Valley Chinese School, and more than 50 at the Fremont Chinese School. Today, Chinese language courses are available from kindergarten to 12th grade at both schools.
The vast majority of the students’ parents are overseas Chinese (more than 90 percent are immigrants from Taiwan), with many of them being mixed-race children. Most of the non-Chinese parents are from Southeast Asia, followed by India, Japan, South Korea, and Mexico. Caucasian students are in the single digits.
Principal Lim, who is originally from Malaysia, said that most Caucasian families do not let their children take classes on the weekends, instead, they would rather their childen take Chinese as a Second Language (CSL) during the regular school year.
Controversy over traditional or simplified Chinese characters
Despite the current popularity of learning Chinese, student numbers have declined in recent years at Fremont Chinese School. The numbers have fallen from 1,200 in 2004 to 800 today, and they continue to decline. Silicon Valley Chinese School also faces the challenge of a shrinking student population.
Lim acknowledges that Silicon Valley Chinese School uses a curriculum designed for students of ethnic Chinese families. It is more difficult for non-Chinese students, who generally choose CSL during the normal school term. In addition, this overseas Chinese school run by the Taiwanese community teaches traditional Chinese characters and uses phonetic-based teaching methods. Many immigrants from China send their children to schools teaching simplified characters and the Hanyu Pinyin system which is used in mainland China. Thus, these weekend schools reap little benefit from Chinese classes being in vogue.
Taiwan has continued to use traditional characters as used in classical Chinese literature, while the simplified system of Chinese characters has been used in mainland China since 1956. The Chinese phonetic symbols are tools for teaching pronunciation in Taiwan, while Hanyu Pinyin is used in China. Lin said that his school has also taught Pinyin to follow the trend, but that “the traditional characters are authentic, and in no way would he abandon them.” Lim also believes that the traditional characters will help students to appreciate the beauty of Chinese characters and the school will continue to adhere to teaching traditional characters.
The Chinese schools that teach simplified characters and Pinyin are flourishing, while those that teach traditional characters account for only a fifth of all Chinese schools in Northern California. Faced with this trend, Lin does not consider it a threat, while Lim said that the school will adjust its direction and be open to other options, such as cooperating with regular American high schools to teach Chinese as a community service.
At the Fremont Chinese School, roughly 70-some administrators are comprised of parents of students or volunteers. When asked if the upcoming presidential election in Taiwan hampers cooperation among faculty members, Lim replied, “parents from Taiwan have different political affiliation…and we are not suppose to discuss politics in school.”
“I learn Chinese because I have a Chinese face”
Lin said that the highly educated Taiwanese immigrants in Silicon Valley have high expectations of his school. Teachers face a dilemma often between strict parents and a more laissez-faire approach. The two groups often hold divergent opinions on students’ work, testing, score rankings, etc. Lin said, “Learning Chinese is a life-long process. We do not want to be too strict in our teaching methods so as to dampen student interest.”
At the request of Taiwan Insights, Lim surveyed some of the reasons why students are studying Chinese.
Sophia Shih (4th grader): “In Fremont Chinese School, we learn traditional characters first. It will be easier for us to learn simplified characters in future. After learning Chinese, I can watch Mandarin TV programs, talk over the phone to my grandpa and grandma in Taiwan.”
Sarah Chang (10th grader): “I come to Chinese schools not just for classes, but also to make friends. If I did not come, I’ll sleep at home, a waste of time. Once I am used to it, I like to have classes on Saturday morning at Fremont Chinese School.”
Kevin Li (10th grader): “I look like a Chinese. I think it is a must to be able to speak Chinese.”
Hilary Yen (11th grader): “I think learning Chinese will help me find a job in the future. When I go to travel in Taiwan and China, I can talk to people using Mandarin.”.
Irene Chang (4th grader): “I have enjoyed staying in Taiwan during the summer vacation so that I might be staying in Taiwan in the future. Therefore, I have to be good at Chinese language.”
When these students grow up, they may not know who Wang Xizhi is or remember the stories told by Taiwan’s first lady, but they will nevertheless have a key which opens the treasure chest of Chinese culture worldwide, one that will provide life-long benefits.