Chinese School was a informal jail that every Chinese kid attended on Friday evenings or Saturday mornings – aka. the prime time of youth. (If you are an Asian of another ethnic origin, you might’ve attended a similar style of home-language schooling.) As a young girl, I was jolted awake every Saturday morning, a schoolbag shoved into my hand, and a finger pointed at the door: “Chinese school. Go now.” I’d weep tears at all the Saturday morning cartoons I’d miss, at the weekly dictation I was doomed to fail, and at the bullies lurking around my very table (the girls who read, wrote, and spoke Chinese much better than me).
As a girl, I would beg my parents: Why? Why take away my youth, my childhood, my life’s joy, by resigning me to Saturday morning prison? Their answer: You are Chinese, so you will learn Chinese. You are yellow-skinned, so you will speak the yellow-skinned language. Also, your uncle is the principal of the local Chinese/Saturday school so you will show your support!
Every Asian kid’s reaction to Asian language classes varies, ranging from pure hatred to disheartened ennui to even benign tolerance. A few kids might have enjoyed these classes. I am sure, though, that all Asian kids struggled with the paradox of learning a tongue that was 1) excruciatingly difficult for English speakers 2) nearly obsolete in all other spheres of life, including school, the playground, and drug-dealing and 3) taught in such a boring manner. While the North American school system often tries to, albeit lameley, incorporate “fun” into its classes, Asian language classes (usually on a budget) forego such frills altogether in favour of maximum learning, Asian-style. This means teaching the students lecture-style; giving them as much homework as possible; minimizing recess, lunchtime, and other likewise time-wasters; and discouraging creativity. Students, used to a weekday schooling borne of North American culture, often find Chinese/Asian language school to be alienating in both content and structure. We just aren’t used to spelling drill after spelling drill after spelling drill.
Another component of Chinese school fondly recalled is the competitive poetry recitations of famous Tang dynasty poets such as Li Bai and Du Fu. Often performed at the year-end assemblies, these recitations provide ego-boosts and breakdowns in equal doses, depending where the student is on the grading spectrum and their own comfort/shame of the Chinese language. “My Heart is the Full Moon” and “Mulan” (my literal translations here) are popular poems. If a child succeeds in these endeavours, he or she receives a good pat on the back from mom and dad.
Naturally, I squandered my learning opportunities as a kid – I learned how to cheat (write all the words on your wristband, your pencilcase, get a cheating partner….), how to swear (I learned what the “f word” meant in gr. 6), and how to skip class (feign illnesses, parent-approved absences, etc.). After quitting Chinese school in 9th grade, I began to regret not having learned my own language. When family members, visiting from Hong Kong, shake their heads at your shameful Whitewashedness. When you realize the daily specials at your local dim sum house are written in only Chinese. When you wonder if you will fail to pass your language onto your descendants.
So, from R-Hill Asian to fellow Asian: learn your language, and learn it well, while you can! You can learn relatively quickly and informally by listening to your culture’s current pop music, movies, dramas, and so forth. Karaoke is a popular option. And if you’re not Asian, it’s never too late to pick up an Asian language should one strike your fancy ; )