A Linguistic Link To China

October 30, 1994|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Sun Staff Writer

Ann Lam bends over a slim book with colorful pictures of shaggy dogs and rosy-cheeked children, flipping the pages from back to front and reading from right to left. On this sunny Sunday afternoon, the 12-year-old Ellicott City girl is spending hours studying one of the world's most difficult languages, Chinese.

"I wanted to know more about my culture," says Ann, who grew up speaking English to her Korean mother and Chinese father. "I was reading from textbooks about China and its history, and I wanted to learn more."

Ann is one of 230 students -- ages 3 to 28 -- enrolled this fall at the Columbia Chinese Language School, a community-run school that has taught the intricacies of Chinese for 18 years.

The school is one of about two dozen similar grass-roots institutions in the Baltimore-Washington area -- and perhaps hundreds throughout the nation -- quietly keeping Americanized children in touch with the complex language and culture of their ancestors.

"I'd like them to appreciate some of the traditions their parents and ancestors came with," says Vincent Yang, a 40-year-old Ellicott City doctor who heads the school's board of directors and has three children in the school. "And with the globalization of the world, the additional language will certainly help. There may be opportunities for them to work outside the States with people who speak Chinese."

The Columbia school also serves as a community center for the growing Chinese-American population in Howard County -- the number more than doubled in the 1980s, to 1,823.

The school depends on parent volunteers. Having no permanent home, it rents space at Howard High School every Sunday afternoon during the school year.

Parents take turns as the school's principal, president and board members.

Each parent also must sign up for cleanup duty at least once during the semester. One recent Sunday, a father patrolled the school's halls with a small vacuum cleaner, peering into rooms to make sure classes were in order.

'The only bridge'

For many Chinese-American families, the school is the bridge that connects their homeland to their children, who identify more with MTV and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers than, say, Confucius. ""This is the only bridge we have," says Richard Chwang, 39, a Catonsville banker.

Mr. Chwang came to Baltimore in 1978 to study economics. His '' two young daughters have an American mother, but he speaks to them in Chinese whenever he can.

"I want them to learn, to know their heritage and culture," he says. "They need to know where I'm coming from."

At the school, there are students as young as 4 who speak Chinese but haven't tackled reading and writing characters. There are Chinese-Americans teen-agers who grew up with English as their native tongue and are starting Chinese from scratch.

Wilde Lake Middle School student Steven Hong, 12, goes to the school so that he can communicate better with his mother. He sports jeans, clunky boots and a button-down oxford shirt. He says he forgot how to speak Chinese when he began kindergarten.

He says his mother wants him to take the Chinese course because her English isn't good.

For some, the school is a touch of the familiar. Steven Chu, a 12 year-old who attends Clarksville Middle School, moved here from Taiwan two years ago knowing little English.

"You meet people from your same culture," he says of the school. "It made me feel like I was in Taiwan."

Not only Chinese-Americans attend. There is a class for youngsters not been reared in homes where Chinese was spoken, such as 3-year-old Jeremy Censher, whose mother is Malaysian and whose father is American.

And there is a class for older students, such as 28-year-old Michael Collier, a University of Maryland physics student who married a Chinese-American woman and is slowly picking up the Chinese characters.

Students attend language, conversation and reading classes for the first half of the four-hour afternoon session.

More than half stay for 11 extracurricular classes offered in the second half. Those classes provide snapshots of Chinese culture.

In one class, a dozen boys swarm over each another to watch a Chinese chess match between Steven Chu and his teacher, who holds open an instruction book in one hand as she moves playing pieces with the other.

Then the boys break up into pairs and scramble over desks and chairs to play matches of their own.

Traditional art

In another, a group grapples with traditional Chinese art, using thick brushes and watercolors.

They make careful strokes to form swimming goldfish and perched birds.

"You have to hold the brush in a special way," advises one of them, Chendi Zhang, an 11-year-old student at Dunloggin Middle School. "You need the right brushes and paint. You need a lot of practice."

In a third room, 10 girls of middle school age in black and pink leotards gracefully twist and twirl colorful ribbons as they practice an ancient dance they will perform for the community in a Chinese New Year celebration in January.

While children journey through the complexities of Chinese culture and language, their grandparents and parents also gather at Howard High.

Some read Chinese-language newspapers, practice Western ballroom dancing or silently practice the tai chi martial art. Fathers play basketball with older sons, calling out in Chinese. Mothers in leotards stretch to an aerobics videotape.

But their focus is always on the future.

"Chinese parents invest a lot of their time and energy in the next generation," Ellicott City parent Holly Li said as she watched her daughter, Clara, jump and twirl with other girls in dance class.

"Children are the No. 1 priority in their lives. I sacrifice my Sunday afternoons just to come here for my daughter to be here."

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