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.
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.
Carola McGiffert, the president and CEO of 100,000 Strong, said, "the fact 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. But formalized programs are popping up across the country: Indiana will roll out its first publicly funded Mandarin immersion program next year in the city of Batesville, of which Asians make up less than 2 percent.
Participation among high-schoolers in the Advanced Placement Chinese exam has surged 257 percent since 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 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. Jaime started studying Mandarin at age 11 at the urging of his father, James, in L.A.'s San Fernando. He was the only Latino student there, and later studied independently with a Beijing-based tutor via Skype. 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.'"
Jaime, a second-generation Mexican American whose first language is Spanish, supplemented his learning with summer trips to Beijing and Shanghai. 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, "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 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," 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, 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 teenager. The school has expanded its elective offerings to include kung fu, tennis, ballet, chess, and, yes, AP Chinese prep.
On the track-C kindergarten-level class, about a third of the students are not Asian. "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.
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