On an early February morning in Chinatown, students put on face masks and doused their hands with sanitizer before entering the New York Chinese School on Mott Street. Like generations of students before them, these children came to learn to speak Mandarin and write Chinese characters. The children at the school are mostly the descendants of Chinese immigrants to the United States. Their parents send them to keep their language and culture alive. The school, which opened in 1909, managed to survive two World Wars and the Great Depression. However, during the last three years, some of the school leaders have feared that the coronavirus pandemic might force it to shut down.
When this school first opened more than 100 years ago, the New York Chinese School was run out of a local Baptist Church and served just 20 students. Over time, the owners finally acquired a building for the school, which it shares with the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, an organization affiliated with the Taiwanese government. In the early days of the pandemic, the school was kept alive with the help of a Taiwanese agency called the Overseas Community Affairs Council in Taiwan. The council aims to facilitate the integration of Chinese immigrants into mainstream American society by advocating for Chinese-American interests and promoting Chinese culture. As an institution within the benevolent association, New York Chinese School has played an important role in teaching Chinese to the children of immigrants.
Qiaoqing Yang is a resident of Manhattan’s Chinatown. When she first immigrated from Fujian province to New York City with her husband, she could only work for Chinese restaurants and hotels because her English was not good. Qiaoqing was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to communicate with her daughter Vicki in the future. So, when Vicki was 5 years-old, Qiaoqing sent her to the nearby New York Chinese School to learn Chinese.
The “Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association has a very long history in the US,” she said. “The tuition fee here is also cheaper than others.” All the students can receive the scholarship grant as long as they register for the Chinese classes. It’s just $375 dollars for a whole year’s study after the grant.
The school prides itself in being the only one in Manhattan’s Chinatown that teaches traditional Chinese characters. Today, this type of written Chinese character only remains in common use in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Traditional Chinese characters are more difficult to write than simplified ones, but both of them are spoken in Mandarin.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, New York Chinese School has been through a trying time and faced possible closure.
“It’s been a rough time for us with the enrollment dropped from about 1,000 to 500,” the principal, Jennifer Wang said. This School also set up a low introductory price to attract more students to carry forward its mission. Although it serves the Chinese community, it can be harder for a non-profit chapter school to be alive during the epidemic. Many Chinese overseas communities affiliated with the Taiwan government are afraid that New York City might lose a valuable historical asset, so they have donated money to help it survive. To express appreciation, each classroom has a small metal sign with the donor’s name on it.
Although it’s not a requirement, all previous principals of the school have ties to Taiwan. Moreover, the position of the school’s principal is also decided by Chinese Overseas missions’ voting in the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. Wang was the deputy director of the Education Division, Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York before she took office in 2018.
The relationship between mainland China and Taiwan is an issue left over from history. Last year, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan increasing tension between Taiwan and mainland China. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that U.S. politicians were “playing with fire,” according to a transcript released by the Foreign Ministry.
“All the Chinese textbooks are donated by Overseas Community Affairs Council in Taiwan. I don’t care about the complicated relationship between Taiwan and mainland China. We only focus on education,” she said.
The first generation of Chinese immigrants are mainly from the Southern part of China speaking Cantonese. The principle emphasized that the New York Chinese School aims at educating “Jook-Sings” in Chinese history and culture. This word is Cantonese slang and a derogatory metaphor used to describe American-born Chinese people like Vicki, or in other words, a Chinese person who is more strongly identified with Western culture than the traditional Chinese culture. The term translates to “bamboo pole” to indicate that these people are hollow on the inside and neither master Chinese culture nor Western culture.
My time at the New York Chinese School
I first came to the school for an assignment for a reporting class I took at Columbia Journalism School. The principal, Jennifer Wang, was very warm and inviting. She spent several hours talking to me, and at one point, she asked if I would teach at the school as a volunteer. I realized that teaching there could compromise my objectivity – I would no longer be an outside observer. But I also knew that teaching at the school would give me a deeper understanding of what goes on there.
My journalism professor said that I could teach but that I would have to reveal that fact to my readers. “You must be transparent,” he said.
My students were a group of 10-year-olds living in New York City. Instead of holding their hands to teach them how to write Chinese characters, I preferred to show the evolution of Chinese characters from ancient times to the present. Since Chinese characters are a kind of pictogram, they convey meaning through pictorial resemblance. At the beginning of every class, I drew some ancient Chinese characters on the whiteboard. Then, I would play some Chinese movie clips that included dialogue that is widely used in daily life. I guided the students to study the language by imitating.
Students learn in the classroom and also in the school’s corridors, which are decorated. One of them described a book called Shuowenjiezi, literally translated into English as Explaining Graphs and Analyzing Characters. It’s the oldest and one of the most important Chinese character dictionaries of ancient China, written by Xu Shen. The birthplace of the author is actually my hometown in Henan province in mainland China. Compared with the modern Chinese dictionary, which arranges characters by English letters, it is the first to use the principle of organization by sections with shared components called radicals. So, most of the time, I taught students Chinese based on this.
The students who can come to the class in person are very interested in putting their knowledge into practice by trying to communicate with their classmates in Chinese.