“I told him, ‘I’ll increase your allowance and give you extra perks,’” James said. “‘Just stick with it—start getting some characters in there.’”
Jaime, a star athlete and second-generation Mexican American whose first language is Spanish, supplemented his learning with summer trips to Beijing and Shanghai. His proficiency allowed him to skip a level of Chinese in high school. On the AP exam’s scale of one to five, he scored a four and recently got a job as a liaison for Chinese clients at a tech company. He said he hopes to earn a scholarship to study at a Taiwanese university after graduation, an unpopular if not entirely unheard of option for his other college-bound friends.
“My best friend is begging me not to go. My friends are like, ‘Come play water polo with us at Pepperdine [University in Malibu],’” he said. “It’s gotten to the point where my Chinese is better than my Spanish.” His younger sister, Charlize, just got her first Mandarin textbook; she’s 9.
Jaime might be an outlier among his friends, but he’s part of the country’s newfound urgency for the Joneses to keep up with the Chens. The trend can be seen at heritage schools themselves, where even the administrations are no longer exclusively Chinese. Westside Chinese School, the oldest heritage school in Southern California, appointed its first white principal, John McGlasson, this year. McGlasson, whose wife is also not Chinese, first got involved with Westside when his 12-year-old son Jack started studying there six years ago.
And while McGlasson estimates that up to 15 percent of Westside’s 340 students are of non-Chinese descent, he insists that the school is, ultimately, for students of Chinese heritage. “We don’t want the school to just cater to non-Chinese heritage students, which is pretty funny coming from a non-Chinese heritage guy,” McGlasson said.
If heritage schools aren’t catering, they are adapting.
At my old Saturday school, students are now divided into three tracks: “A” and “B” for students with at least one parent who is a native speaker, and “C” for non-heritage speakers. The school’s principal, Li Hsieh, estimated that of the 600 students enrolled, almost 15 percent are not of Chinese descent, and less than 5 percent are not of Asian descent. Compare this to the 300 students who were enrolled when I was a student, less than 1 percent of whom were of non-Chinese descent.
Hsieh, a former Saturday school teacher, said the growing enrollment has made it difficult to accommodate students in the classrooms they rent from the local high school. There’s talk of building a brick-and-mortar school or cultural center in the area. Gone are the textbooks published abroad and filled with stories of riding the subway in Taipei or shopping for Chinese vegetables. Instead, the school now uses locally published texts that reference scenarios more familiar to American teenagers—mundanities like hallway lockers and joining band or orchestra. The school has expanded its elective offerings to include kung fu, tennis, ballet, chess, and, yes, AP Chinese prep.