Language Lessons

Lillian Lee Kim once attended classes at Grace and St. Peter's. Now, the unofficial matriarch of Baltimore's Chinese-American community looks after its school for students of Chinese.

March 14, 2001|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Lillian Lee was only 9, but she had seen enough of the world to know how unusual was the scene before her.

In a classroom at Grace and St. Peter's Episcopalian church in Baltimore - miles of ocean and land from the place of her birth near Canton, China - was a circle of children with Chinese faces. During her six years in America, she had never seen such a sight. The year was 1928.

Her parents had brought her to the United States. Her father, who had lived in Portland, Ore., thought Baltimoreans were less likely to discriminate against a Chinese family than the citizens of a West Coast city. An older daughter from a previous marriage who lived in Baltimore had written this to him: "Here I live free from fear."

Her father had hoped to work in the import-export business. But when he got to Baltimore, he learned there was only one job available - laundryman. Though the detergents and starches made his hands break out in a rash, he learned the trade.

In 1928, Lillian's father died. Friends, Chinese and American, came to the house, trying to get her mother to stop crying. They took the family to church.

Through the next 70 years, Lillian Lee - who became Lillian Kim - would see this Mount Vernon church become a mirror of the changes in Baltimore's Chinese community. Gradually, she would gain one language and lose touch with another. Through it all, she would cleave to one thread of continuity that operates today largely because of her efforts: the church's Chinese school.

In the early 1900s, the Marshall sisters of Baltimore started it all. Frances, Daisy and Sarah. And it began as a fluke.

Sarah was asked by a friend of a friend to teach English to a newly arrived Chinese man. She couldn't speak a word of Chinese. He barely spoke a word of English.

It worked out perfectly.

Starting with that one student, Sarah established a school to teach English to Chinese immigrants at another Episcopalian church. When she died soon afterward, her sisters carried on. And the school grew.

The students were all men at first, many of them sleeping on boards above the Joe Wing Laundry at 103 N. Carrollton St. until they could get businesses and places of their own. Though married, they were called "bachelors" because they hadn't been allowed to bring their wives to America. They found Baltimore employers less than eager to hire them, so they opened their own restaurants and laundries.

The school moved to Grace and St. Peter's in 1924. There, the Marshalls taught these men with Bibles and children's books. They didn't just teach English. The unmarried sisters, avid Episcopalians, taught Protestantism.

When Chinese women began to come to America to join their husbands, they came to the church, too. The Marshall sisters became unofficial social workers. When someone in a Chinese family was sick, they were the first to visit.

In the middle of Baltimore's emerging Chinatown on Park Avenue, Grace and St. Peter's became a center for Chinese families. Babies began to be baptized there, and children began coming to the school, too. For the children, like Lillian Lee, the focus was less on teaching English than on teaching religion. The children already were picking up English in school, on their own.

The new population infused Grace and St. Peter's with its traditions. There were bilingual church services. A chow mein supper raised money for the Easter offering. A bazaar table with Chinese gifts benefitted church missions.

And a new phenomenon emerged. Before long, the children of the Chinese immigrants were speaking nothing but English.

The pendulum had swung too far. The children were almost too American, the parents worried. They were losing touch with their culture.

So in 1954, the parish got together with a new plan: They would teach the children the language of their roots.

That language, for many, was Toishanese, a dialect of the southern region of China from which many of the immigrants had come. A mother from outside the parish offered to teach Cantonese as well.

Everyone was a volunteer. Everything was free.

School started at 3 p.m. to give the children a chance to recover from the long Saturday nights they spent working in their parents' restaurants - nights that often stretched until dawn.

Raymond Lee, now a dentist in Ellicott City, attended the school in the late '50s and early '60s, beginning at the age of 11. Forty years later, he has lost virtually all of the Cantonese he learned, but not the memory of the bonds he formed.

"That was almost my whole social life," he said. "The church, the friends I had there."

Lillian Lee Kim, married and in her 30s, was busy volunteering in the church and in the school, working to find teachers. But, aside from studying for a year at another Chinese language school in town, she had never relearned the Toishanese dialect. She could translate Sunday sermons into Chinese for friends, but she couldn't read or write her first language.

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