Writing their own history

  • Christina Harper<br>Special to the Enterprise
  • Tuesday, March 4, 2008 6:57am

MOUNTLAKE TERRACE — A few of Hong Jiang’s colleagues at the University of Washington were adopting baby girls from China in 2004 when they began asking her to translate their new daughter’s names.

The families were also keen to bring their children to Jiang’s Bothell home in the hopes that they would learn about Chinese culture and to play with her kids.

“That really gave me the idea of having a Chinese school in this area,” Jiang said.

In March 2004 Jiang, from Beijing, China, and friend Di Yan made the dream a reality and started the Seattle Chinese Academy.

Jiang is now the principal of SCA, a nonprofit educational organization with Saturday classes and a bilingual summer program that offers language, calligraphy, math and culture classes to children and adults.

School staff rents space in Bethel Chapel in Mountlake Terrace and has small class sizes.

“There is more interaction with other students and with teachers,” Jiang said.

Joyce Schwensen of Seattle heard about SCA classes when she attended an event hosted by Families with Children from China (FCC).

Schwensen’s daughters, Jeanette Su Tao Schwensen, 10, and Betty Ji Mei Yu Schwensen, 8, were adopted from China when they were babies.

When she was a preschooler, Jeanette took Chinese language and culture class. Betty took Chinese dance for awhile. Both classes were in Seattle.

“Mountlake Terrace is good,” Schwensen said. “We had wanted to have more Chinese cultural classes or language. The only ones we knew were in Bellevue.”

Schwensen and her daughters take a Chinese calligraphy class at SCA.

“I like it a lot,” Schwensen said. “I think for the girls they were expecting it to be more of an art class.”

Instructors at SCA teach calligraphy along with pronunciation of characters and meaning.

Although Schwensen is under no illusion that her daughters will write Chinese, she is enjoying the time spent learning calligraphy.

“I’m fascinated,” she said.

With few resources in public schools in the way of Mandarin classes, Schwensen doesn’t have much of an expectation that her daughters will speak the language fluently. It can be difficult for children whose family members don’t speak Mandarin in the home to keep up with classmates who are from Chinese families. SCA offers classes to both groups with Mandarin as a first language and second language.

Public schools in Seattle that Schwensen’s daughters will go to do not offer Mandarin language. Some schools have one hour classes paid for by parents, Schwensen said.

But one hour a week, even for diligent students, isn’t enough.

“I think for people that do learn Mandarin it will be a great asset to have,” Schwensen said. She doesn’t think in terms of children who don’t know Mandarin being left behind. “So many people in the world are learning English. It’s easy for English speaking countries to sit back and say ‘Well, they are going to learn our language.’”

Schwensen wants her daughters to learn Mandarin if they want to, just like Girl Scouts, piano or sports. Making them learn a language by virtue of where they were born would be pushing them, she said.

“Betty wanted to do calligraphy,” Schwensen said. “We’ll start her and see how she likes it.”

SCA’s student body is made up of local Chinese families where Mandarin is spoken in the home, children who have been adopted from China who know little or nothing of the language and culture, and families where one parent is Chinese.

There are also Cantonese-speaking students at the school. Although Cantonese and Mandarin are the same when written, Cantonese is spoken with up to nine tones as opposed to the four used by Mandarin speakers.

“Many people say that the Chinese language is very hard to learn,” Jiang said.

But teachers at SCA try to make classes fun by playing games, making Chinese calendars and learning to play traditional games.

Jiang believes that in an increasingly global society, Mandarin will be more important to future generations, Washington state’s trade with China and China’s manufacturing base.

“We buy so much stuff here that is made in China,” Jiang said. “China plays a big role in politics and has a huge population.”

SCA teachers not only demonstrate Chinese writing and Mandarin language but also introduce traditions and history of the culture. They talk about festivals in the Chinese calendar such as the Moon Festival at the end of the summer, and the lantern festival two weeks after Chinese New Year. Students often get to taste traditional foods along the way.

“One of the reasons we wanted to set up the school is that many schools teach Chinese in very traditional ways with lots of writing,” Jiang said.

While Jiang believes writing is important, she also sees the value in using computers in the classroom.

“People need to learn that the primary goal is to communicate and use the language,” Jiang said.

Being bilingual has been important in Jiang’s life. She began studying English in seventh grade in China, and having a command of the English language has taken her to more than 30 countries as a journalist.

“It makes my life so rich,” Jiang said. “It gives me a lot of opportunities to learn.”

Christina Harper is a Snohomish County freelance writer. She can be reached at harper@heraldnet.com.