It’s All Worth It

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Bryant got his first paycheck from the Chinese School today! Bryant is my oldest son, and after eleven years of study as a Cantonese student, this year he finally became a teacher’s assistant, and today is his “pay” day. On the drive home, listening to my wife joke with Bryant about which restaurant we were going to spend the few dollars on, I couldn’t help smiling to myself and let out a long sigh: “Well, we made it!”

It all started in 1994, when we had move to Jersey from New York for two or three years and yet still knew little about the community. Somehow my wife got information that there was this Monmouth Chinese School in the area. Without giving much thought about it, we sent Bryant on a long, long eleven-year journey.

On the first day of school, we had no idea what to expect. Our four-year-old Bryant, who had never had any school experience, stood there with his younger cousin, looking like frightened kittens, teary eyes and all. Then in came Mrs. Sheila Ma, their very first teacher. She definitely looked like she knew her business, and pretty soon her warm and motherly demeanor calmed everyone down and took control of the class. By 12:00 noon, the new CK1A class re-emerged from their classroom with something to proudly show off – they had learned their first Chinese characters: one, two, three, people, big, small… Well, the kids were on their way!

Mrs. Ma ended up staying with the class for four years. The students loved her; the parents petitioned the school for her to stay; and she requested to stay as well. She was of a rare type of teachers who are truly caring, nurturing and dedicated. The close bond that she developed with the class was above and beyond any typical teacher-student relationships. To this date, her former students and their parents would still fondly talk about her, and miss her. I had heard rumor saying that she had been accused of acting like a “baby sitter”, but hey, if such a “baby sitter” can make kids comfortable and willing to come to classes, shouldn’t we have more of them?

Even if you have the best teacher in the world, the students still have to do their work. Like most American-born Chinese children, English was Bryant’s first language, and my wife and I made sure that he was proficient at that. And Chinese being a language of completely different kind, stood as a great challenge for Bryant, no matter how willing and hard-working a learner he could be. As he grew up, the list of homework assignment from his regular schools was getting longer, while the level of his Chinese learning kept going higher. When countless hours of hard work did not yield a favorable result, and when the fierce competition and pressure become overwhelming, you could see evidence of frustration and exhaustion all over the poor kid.

At this point, it would have been so easy to say, “Forget it, son! Let’s fold this and enjoy life a little bit.” But that would have been too easy, and we would have missed something important for us. Instead, we told Bryant, “Just hang in there, and you won’t regret it!”

So hang in there he did, and the result is nothing regrettable: the perennial trophies that have filled his bookshelves, the Chinese New Year performances, martial arts, lion dance, those would-be live long friends that he otherwise would not have met… He’s just got to feel good about himself. Oh, those little conversations that he managed to utter with his grandma and cousins when we traveled back to China this past summer – priceless!

And hang in there we did as well, for the support of our son. Which successful student does not have at least a parent behind him? We all understand that we just cannot expect our children to learn a language on their own when they cannot even go to school once a week on average. So when Bryant was sweating over his Chinese homework on those late nights, I was pretty darn sure that some kind of ulcer was developing in my stomach! And those speech contests… Who doesn’t know they actually are the ultimate writing/translation competitions for the parents, or who ever the parents can grab hold of?

But hard work aside, the Chinese school itself is a pretty good place for the parents to hang out and find something interesting to do, if you are not in a hurry to drop off you kids and run off shopping. You can actually get to know your fellow Chinese parents and develop some kind of friendship that is beneficial. I remember a few years back when my wife was pregnant with our second child, several moms from Bryant’s class, together with Mrs. Ma, threw her a baby shower. We were truly surprised and touched, and the warm memory will surely last.

I myself have been a life-long sports fan. One day shortly after Bryant started school here, I just happened to wander into the school gym, which had a beautiful hardwood floor and standard glass basketball backboards. A dozen or so parents were already playing there. “Wow, nice!” I knew then and there that I had found a little paradise where I could shake off the rust that had been built up in my body since college and pretend to be young again. After eleven years’ worth of shoves and hugs, along with a good amount of twisted ankles and jammed fingers, many of us became friends, while this team earned a regional championship for the school at last year’s New Jersey Chinese School Basketball Tournament.

Looking back, I can hardly believe that I have been coming to this school for eleven years. And guess what? My other two children are enrolled, too. The fact that my little daughter has just started her C1 class means I may have to keep coming here for another ten years! But I just feel that it is the right thing to do, and I would not hesitate to do it all over again, even though I know I have to work just as hard as the children. We are living in this environment where English is the main stream, and trying to make our children truly proficient in Chinese seems like fighting a battle that we will never win. But we have our culture, and it is in our blood, it is us. The Chinese dances, the Chinese painting, the Kung Fu, the lion dance, the Chinese yo-yo, or even just the sight of a large crowd of Chinese people, are special to me. Our children definitely need to soak in our rich culture, and don’t we as parents need to get recharged every once in a while?

Every Saturday morning on our way to the Chinese School, we pass by the Marlboro Municipal Complex, where the little leaguers are practicing soccer. My younger boy would gripe to me: “If only I could sign up…” And I would answer to him: “Just hang in there, and you won’t regret it.”

Every now and then, feeling the burden of extra work, my little girl would whine to her mom: “I don’t like Chinese school!” And she would answer to her: “Just hang in there, and you won’t regret it.”

Yes, just hang in there, and we won’t regret it. This is an assurance that we offer to our children, but isn’t it one that we can give to ourselves, too?

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