Looking to Beijing, With Pride

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Wed Jul 30 14:10:22 UTC 2008

Looking to Beijing, With Pride

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 29, 2008; Page B01

In her quest to keep her 10-year-old son Joseph connected to his
Chinese roots, Diana Wobus has hung paintings with Mandarin characters
in his room, shuttled him to Chinese language classes most Saturdays,
and steadfastly resisted the temptation to speak to him in English
rather than Chinese. But it wasn't until Wobus and her American
husband, Peter, decided to take Joseph to the Beijing Olympics, that
the boy began truly identifying with the land of his birth.

"It's really exciting because I never knew the Olympics could be in
China," said Joseph -- who moved to Rockville before he reached the
age of 2 -- as he pulled a well-worn Olympics T-shirt out of his
half-packed suitcase to show a visitor on a recent afternoon. "It's
like the first time China gets to do it in more than a hundred years
and it makes me really proud."

When the first bars of the Olympics theme are broadcast from Beijing's
National Stadium to television screens across the United States this
August, perhaps no one will cheer more ecstatically than the nation's
estimated 1.4 million mainland Chinese immigrants. Like their
countrymen back in China, many immigrants consider the Olympics a sort
of national coming-out party -- the ultimate recognition of China's
long transformation from "sick man of Asia" to economic powerhouse and
world player.

Many Chinese Americans say they are just as thrilled by the
opportunity the Olympics will offer to introduce their U.S.-raised
children to Chinese culture in a modern, appealing light.

"One of the frustrations for Chinese parents in this country as they
try to pass on their heritage to their children is that the children
say, 'Oh, China is the old way. That's your heritage, not mine,' "
said Yan Tai, deputy national editor of World Journal, one of the most
widely read Chinese-language dailies in the United States.

 "But through the Olympics, parents can say to the kids, 'See, where
I'm from is not that old fashioned or out of date. We can do great
things like hosting the Olympics. The Olympics is your thing, but
we're hosting them.' . . . It's a way to bring the first and second
generation together."

Months before the games, teachers in some of the dozens of
Chinese-language weekend classes for children of the Washington area's
more than 46,000 Chinese immigrants were already using Olympic-themed
readings or reward stickers to capture students' attention. And lately
Xiaoning Wang, owner of ChinaSprout, a New York-based company that
markets Chinese textbooks to Chinese American parents, has also been
doing a brisk business selling Olympic-themed pencils, clothing, and
plush toys.

Once the games begin, almost all Chinese immigrant parents are likely
to make watching them a family event, predicted Yaohui Wang, a
scientist at the National Institutes of Health and head of the
American Chinese School in Rockville.

"The Olympics are such a good way to communicate to the kids," said
Wang, whose 16-year-old son has a poster of Chinese NBA star Yao Ming
in his bedroom. "Sports are universal."

Then there are those willing to spring for an even more expensive
version of the lesson: Several travel agencies that specialize in
Chinese American clients estimate that purchases of tickets to China
are up as much as 20 percent this summer, largely due to parents who,
like the Wobuses, are taking their children to see the Games in

Wobus and her husband, both health policy researchers, have encouraged
Joseph to find maps of China on the Internet and plot their trip
itinerary in advance. Diana Wobus said her ultimate goal is to ensure
that he doesn't grow up to be "a banana -- yellow on the outside,
white on the inside."

"There are already so many second-generation adults who are like
that," said Wobus, who was born in China. "They take a trip back to
China [as grown-ups] and they realize that they have no connection to
this rich, ancient culture and it's too late. . . . I don't want
Joseph to have those regrets."

The difficulty of keeping their children grounded in Chinese culture
is all the more vexing to many Chinese immigrant parents because of
the effort they put into it. Chinese Americans, of course, are hardly
the only immigrant group struggling to pass their language and
traditions on to the next generation. But they are certainly among the
most systematic, founding hundreds of weekend and summer academies
like Wang's to teach not only Chinese reading and writing but
decorative arts, sports, music and dance.

The mixed results of that approach were evident during interviews on a
recent afternoon with some of the roughly 150 kids, mostly Chinese
Americans, attending Dr. Li's Summer Camp in Rockville -- which offers
six hours of math, English, middle- and high-school entrance exam and
SAT prep classes, five days a week.

Despite attending language classes, few children said they could read
or write well in Chinese. And asked to define what part of them was
Chinese, most gave examples related to their parents rather than

Being Chinese American, giggled 10-year-old Jessica Zhang, means
having a mother who insists that you eat Chinese food every single
day. "I'm so sick of it -- it's so oily!" she said.

Or having parents who make you spend the summer toiling in Dr. Li's
camp, even though you're already in your middle school's advanced math
class, added her friend, Rolanda Wang, 12. "They want me to do even
better -- Chinese parents have the highest expectations," she said,
half-sighing, half-laughing.

And though most said their families have access to television and
music broadcasts from China through Internet subscriptions, they could
not cite a single Chinese performer whose work they followed.

"I guess," said Jacob Chen, 15, summarizing the sentiments of many
peers, "I think of the Chinese part of me as the stuff that comes at
home rather than the rest of my life."

Yet nearly all the children interviewed said they considered
themselves Chinese American, or even simply Chinese, rather than
purely American. Most shared not just their parents' pride in the
Olympics, but the dismay that even immigrants not particularly
supportive of China's government expressed when human rights advocates
protested the international torch relay through Europe and San

And as much as a group of high school boys on break from their SAT
prep class bemoaned the Saturdays of their youth lost to Chinese
language class, not one hesitated when asked if they planned to
subject their own children to the same regimen.

"Oh, definitely," said Ed Gao, 16, of Potomac. "And I'm not going to
let them quit like I did!"


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