Modern-day "Peril"? Chinese language in American classrooms, and that long-standing friend-or-enemy dilemma

China has the second-largest economy in the world, a fact that looms ominously over the shoulder of El Numero Uno: the United States. And when you are as connected economically as China and the U.S., it behooves each side to attempt friendliness; it also means it would be nearly impossible for either side to start a conflict with the other, as the economies are so dependent on one another that any such move could bring collapse to both.

And perhaps the most important lesson for the United States to learn, the one it struggles with most, is coming to honest terms with the fact that China is not a democracy. It functions as a fast-paced consumer economy, and does allow more economic freedoms today (like job choice and sometimes location of residency, for example), without really having changed its governmental system at all; much has been written on this unique breed of national existence, this "socialism with Chinese characteristics," and so the basic system remains today--with obvious cracks and some severe humanitarian issues on its plate. America has trouble with this sometimes, this issue of engaging as an ally a country with fundamental differences from its own governmental policies.

Neither condoning nor condemning China's policies, though, it must at least be admitted that China cannot be ignored. Without condoning their humanitarian infractions, myself and many Americans have been able to learn about the Chinese people's language, culture, history, food, and customary idiosyncrasies; each American who speaks Mandarin Chinese is contributing positively to the larger relationship between these two economic powers, to the extent that it is hard for me to understand the neglect this language currently sees in U.S. schools. In urban areas, more is inherently available to students; but in smaller towns, like the one where I went to high school, French and Spanish are the only options, and only through the required level "two." (Let's not get into that larger discussion on our monolinguist nation.) Meanwhile there are 264 million children in China under the age of fourteen, going through school right now, and I'll give you one guess what language they're also learning. It just seems so very clear that we're putting our own children at a disadvantage for their lifetime and their job choices, if they are unable to compete with the bilingual Chinese children who can communicate in both directions in the business and politics of the twenty-first century.

Photo by Mustafah Abdulaziz for Education Week; link to story: the Chinese government has "stretched its linguistics muscles" this year by committing millions of dollars to U.S. schools to build Mandarin language programs in more K-12 schools. In a time of near economic crisis, and definite panic at least, in many schools across the country, this should be a welcome supply of funding, to get kids involved in their global world, and to infuse their studies with a new diversion--beyond their math, science, and social studies regulars. A connection with an Asian culture gives kids a much wider perspective on lifestyles around the world, connects them to a new level with Chinese-Americans in their communities, and, quite simply, gives them a "cool" language to study. Decoding Chinese characters is a thrilling revelation, for anyone who's studied the language.

But naturally, given the menacing vision of China as an economic bully (granted, the fixed Chinese currency is a festering thorn in the side of economic negotiations and discussion), and given its less than stellar past of censorship, political freedom, and dissemination of information, there are bound to be cries of cultural infiltration: these Chinese will infect the minds of our kids! It's Yellow Peril for a new age.

In a recent article from Education Week, this issue was explored. Some see it as accepting resources from a country who will provide language, with a heavy dose of propaganda on the side.

That dust-up caught the notice of Chester E. Finn Jr., a former education official in the Reagan administration and the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank. He argues that public schools should not accept aid from the Chinese government.

“This is not an ally. This is the country on the planet from which the United States faces the largest and most worrisome long-term threats,” he said. “And for its government to be funding our schools to teach its language, I think, is an alarming and menacing development. And that our schools are welcoming this development strikes me as outrageous.”

Countering this, some educators see its value for the future or global relations, as well as for the schoolkids.

“It’s a great opportunity,” William C. Harrison, who chairs the North Carolina state board of education, said of his state’s program, to which China is expected to supply more than $5 million in direct aid and “in kind” services. “The best way to become globally competitive is to develop an understanding of those with whom you compete, being able to communicate with them, and being able to collaborate with them.”

He added: “We’re looking at the number-two economy in the world with prospects to be number one. ... I think it’s in our best interest to develop positive relationships.”

The key lies somewhere in the balance of being economic allies while respecting differences; we don't have the best reputation with that. Shortsightedness now will have a crippling effect on our country's standing in the future, and the people leading it then will be the ones in school now, learning minimal Spanish and French. Our world will look mighty different then; can we find those areas of change now, and adapt?

UPDATE 12/9/2010: Here is another article on America's trials and tribulations in building a Chinese language program in K-12 schools. From Newsweek: "America's Chinese Problem"

Visit to Best International School, Zhengzhou

On our last full day in Zhengzhou, after having finished up our two classes and all the accompanying readings and papers, our group of exhausted Americans got a final treat. We had been invited to Best International School to celebrate International Children’s Day with the students. The school is bilingual, so the students study both Chinese and English, in addition to their other subjects. As the institution is private, I gleaned that it was a rather substantial investment to send a child there. I would say, however, that the money seems to be well-invested, because the facilities were impressive, the staff seemed large, and the children’s English was exceptionally adept. To illustrate the conditions in which the children learn, the interior courtyard— surrounded by classrooms and other facilities—boasted a huge indoor pool.

We were told that International Children’s Day is a very important holiday to the children of China, as it is a day to celebrate being a child. Our entire 30-plus group was shuttled to the school, in downtown Zhengzhou, via Best International charter busses. Along the way, we were assigned groups of several students and a teacher as an assistant. We would spend the day with our group, get to know them, play and have fun, and celebrate being a student and a child at any age.

Our arrival was met with hundreds of primary and elementary-school aged kids lined up along the front stairs of the school. As we pulled up, they began shouting, singing, and laughing, excited about their guests and the day of events ahead. Getting off the bus and walking into the school, it felt what I assume it would feel like to be a celebrity—aware that all eyes are on you. As I have no experience with that feeling, I was by no means numb to it, and couldn’t keep a straight face. The kids were all wearing their uniform red or blue Best T-shirts, and full of energy; for lack of a better word, they were absolutely adorable.

We met our groups and enjoyed a performance of dance, music, and speaking that the older students had prepared. Our day was spent with the older children, upper elementary, as they have a better grasp on English and are able to make friendships with us more easily. My group was four students, most notably Robin, who was always ready to be in the middle of the action. Incidentally, he was also the chubbiest student of the entire group, which along with his personality, I immediately found endearing. The kids all presented me with greeting cards that they had hand-made and decorated with stickers, markers, and other embellishments they felt would welcome me graciously. To date they are my favorite souvenirs from my time in China.

Heading into the center courtyard (where the pool is located), the kids informed me that we were going to have dumpling- and noodle-making contest. They were very excited to learn that I had made dumplings before (with my host family in Zhengzhou, during our Sunday afternoon together), and were keen to win.

The traditional Chinese dumpling is something I rarely see in America, and definitely not a part of standard U.S. Chinese food. It is one of the things I will miss most as far as food; in fact, I know already that although some of it is strange and not at all appetizing to me, the real Chinese food I’ve had here will make American-style pale in comparison. It will be awhile, I think, before I pick up a plate of American Chinese food upon my return to the U.S.

Turns out we were not the fastest dumpling-makers in the world. However, in an act of true elementary school anticipation, award medals had been collected for all participants. In the middle of the “medals” were tiny chocolate coins, of which Robin quickly proceeded to eat two (I’m not even sure how he found two…).

His talents came out (or at least his excitement and pride) when the noodle-making started. Thick, hand-made noodles are also a staple of the Chinese diet, cooked in broth and mixed with various meats and vegetables. Robin explained that he was an excellent noodle-maker, and that sometimes he prepared them at his own home, as help when his mom was still at work. I loved his enthusiasm and the command he had of his thick strand of dough.

After all the groups ceremoniously received their medals, we entertained the students (in true Chinese performance entertainment) with our rendition of the Hokey-Pokey.

A mass exit and hand-washing led us back outside, for lunch. Steaming carts on wheels provided us with hot, delicious egg-and-vegetable dumplings, Chinese rolls, vegetables, rice, and dim sum (another authentic type of food, little pastry-like items stuffed with various things, including meat mixtures, vegetables, or sweet bean paste—my personal favorite). Hot, fruity tea was also served, which I found to be an interesting fusion of Chinese culture and kids’ universal taste for excessively sugared drinks.

Recess followed, and was the final event of our time with them. The school seemed to really value a strong education, and as such, fostered healthy, curious, and loved children. Matt, one of the American boys, had made such an impact on one of his little girls that she burst into tears and attached herself to him as we made to leave. There were hugs abounding, and smiles on every student’s face, Chinese and American alike.

The day passed quickly, and was a perfect way to draw a close to our time in Zhengzhou, a connection to the city and its children that I will remember and value long after they graduate from Best International.

The school posted photos from our visit, which you can see at