Lessons in Chinese culture

Youths: Families run a school in Columbia to instill their heritage in their children.

October 02, 2002|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On a Sunday afternoon, the gym at Howard High School is packed with kids playing basketball. At a table in the school's entrance, a group of parents works on fund raising. Voices drift from the classrooms into the hallway. Everywhere - the gym, among the parents, in every class - people are speaking Chinese.

The Chinese Language School of Columbia (CLSC) was founded nearly 30 years ago. Several Columbia families began meeting at one another's homes Sunday afternoons, hoping to teach their children about Chinese heritage. As more Chinese-Americans moved into Howard County, the group grew. By 1975, CLSC incorporated and started to offer Sunday afternoon classes at Howard High School.

Today, about 100 families attend CLSC. Parents are the teachers and administrators, working as volunteers. Classes for preschool through 12th grade run throughout the regular school year.

Principal Yen Li got involved with the school when he and his family moved to Columbia in the 1980s. His younger son was in fourth grade. "We wanted him to know about our heritage, so we started looking around and found this school," Li said. "We got involved with the school because it's really a volunteer-run organization."

Li, a National Institutes of Health administrator, will be principal for two years. A small salary comes with the position, but it is usually reinvested in the school.

"We figure that they get a lot of American and Western cultures in their [public] school," Li said. "In Chinese school, we emphasize ... why do we do certain things," such as celebrating certain festivals and holidays. Teachers read stories about such traditions to the children to help them understand their background.

The high school students were learning how to read a poem in Chinese with emotion and rhythm. Though the teacher spoke Chinese, the teens mostly responded in English. They recited together a poem about the midautumn festival, which fell on Sept. 21.

Angela Lee, 15, a 10th-grader at Centennial High School, has been taking Chinese classes at the school since kindergarten. "You get to interact with people of your same background. Here you can speak it [Chinese] with people your own age," she said.

Wei Chuan Liu, group leader for the upper classes, said, "They have more fun when they learn with other kids. This is a place they can meet their friends. If the parents cannot provide any support at home, it's harder for them."

The goal is for the youths to practice with their families.

"Most of the parents do re- inforce that," said Eric Huang, a member of the CLSC board of directors. "They send their kids so they can have multiple resources."

A class in conversational Chinese attracts adults as well as teen-agers. Patricia Chao of Columbia takes the class with her son David, whose father's parents emigrated from China. "The farther you get away from your immigrant parents, the farther you get away from cultural heritage," she said. The family plans to travel to China to find the town where David's grandparents lived.

"I'm glad that people from different walks of life still show an interest in Chinese language and cultures," said teacher Yang Soong, a former principal of the school.

The school is operated in a community atmosphere, emphasized by common heritage, language and volunteerism. After two sessions of language classes, everyone attends extracurricular activities.

In addition to running classes, the school is active in Howard County. Members participate in the Howard County Central Library's Chinese New Year celebration and visit schools for international festivals. Because the New Year is such a significant holiday in Chinese culture, the group has proposed to the Howard public school system that the day be reserved for staff development. That would allow students to celebrate the festival with their families.

Li said of his son's experience at CLSC, "If it's just by ourselves, we probably don't have the resources and time to educate him about many aspects of Chinese culture."

But he has been able to provide this through the school. "I think he actually cherishes the Chinese heritage that we tried to instill in him," Li said.

Information: www.clscwe b.org.

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