The Changing Face of America’s Chinese Schools

Non-Asian students are increasingly spending their Saturdays immersed in China’s language and culture.

From the mid- to late 90s, I endured Saturday morning Chinese school the way many of my fellow children of immigrants did: with a healthy a mix of indifference and resentment. While my non-Chinese friends spent their mornings at youth soccer games, I was stuck inside a heritage school classroom for at least two hours, practicing traditional characters and reading texts about buying bai tsai at the supermarket.

Chinese-heritage school, or “Saturday school,” is a dedicated space for ABCs (“Americans Born Chinese”) like myself to learn Mandarin and Chinese culture. In my own experience, it was simultaneously a hub of exclusion and inclusion. Days spent at heritage school were weekly reminders of my otherness in Thousand Oaks, the mostly white suburb of Los Angeles where I grew up.

But it was also one of the few settings where I was surrounded by people who looked like me. I remember only one non-Chinese student in the entire school: my friend Ashley, who was two years older than me but took the kindergarten-level classes out of interest, which I considered fascinating and weird.

Some 20 years later, a face like Ashley’s is becoming the norm in these classes.

When China’s President Xi Jinping visited the White House in September, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the “One Million Strong” initiative to grow the number of K-12 students studying Mandarin from approximately 200,000 to 1 million by 2020. (Students who study in heritage schools were not factored into the 200,000 number.)

The initiative, led by the nonpartisan nonprofit 100,000 Strong Foundation, advocates for a standardized curriculum in classrooms, increasing the number of Mandarin language teachers in the U.S., and using technology to promote language and cultural education, especially in underserved communities. The foundation’s partners include the Chinese government; nonprofits like the American Mandarin Society; and a quirky cross-cultural platform called Crazy Fresh Chinese, which features YouTube videos starring a bubbly blonde named Jessica, who translates English slang words into Mandarin. One recent example: “twerk,” which loosely translates to “electric butt dance.”

Increasing the number of Mandarin speakers fivefold in less than five years is an ambitious goal. And it carries with it a sense of urgency for the U.S., given China’s rise as the world’s second-largest economy, and the paucity of Mandarin language learners in the states compared with the estimated 300 to 400 million English learners in China. One survey, published in state-run newspaper China Daily, indicated that 47 percent of Chinese students are exposed to English learning materials between the ages of 3 and 6.

“We’re not keeping up,” Carola McGiffert, the president and CEO of 100,000 Strong, said. “I don’t view it necessarily as a competition, but the fact of the matter is we’re not doing our part to make sure that our young people are ready to compete in this global economy where China plays a huge, growing role. We’re not preparing them well enough to manage the most consequential bilateral relationship on the political, diplomatic, [and] security side.”

The effort to incorporate Chinese culture and language programs into U.S. schools has faced some opposition, primarily in the form of communities’ fears that a curriculum sponsored in part by the Chinese government is a vehicle for Communist brainwashing. But formalized programs are popping up across the country, and not just on the coasts: Indiana will roll out its first publicly funded Mandarin immersion program next year in the city of Batesville, population 6,541, of which Asians make up less than 2 percent.

Participation among high-schoolers in the Advanced Placement Chinese exam has surged 257 percent since the College Board introduced it as an option in 2007, although it’s still minuscule when compared with the number of students taking AP Spanish. Of those who took the Chinese exam in 2015, 21 percent (2,444 students) self-identified as “standard students,” meaning they studied the language primarily in the classroom, not by speaking it at home with their families.

Jaime Ocon, 17, a senior at Westlake High in Westlake Village, California, falls into this category. Jaime started studying Mandarin at age 11 at the urging of his father, James, first attending a heritage school in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. He was the only Latino student there, and later studied independently with a Beijing-based tutor via Skype. Like my parents had with me, James struggled to get Jaime out of bed for an extra day of school on the weekends, resorting to a tried-and-true parenting strategy: bribery.

“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.

When I sit in on a track-C kindergarten-level class, about a third of the students are not Asian. They come from families whose tax brackets largely reflect the affluence of Thousand Oaks, as do their parents’ motivations for signing their children up. “Mandarin is the language of the future,” they tell me, recalling their own experiences where they’ve had to travel to China for business or learn the language to communicate better with co-workers. They hope to give their kids an added edge—the earlier, the better. For some students, like 6-year-old Juan-Isidro Martelli, it’s a third or fourth language; he’s also learning Spanish and German from his Argentinian parents.

At one point, teacher Veronica Li draws a rough map of China on the wipeboard. She shares a story of volunteering in a poor province in the south central part of the country. There she met a family who earned $30 a year and had to marry off their 10-year-old daughter because they couldn’t afford to send her to a school. Her story seems to illustrate the growing economic schism between rich and poor in the country; some of the parents in the classroom nod sympathetically.

“Maybe one day, we can all go there and teach them English,” she suggests enthusiastically. Although, increasingly, it looks like it might be the other way around.