Chinatown “circle time” preps kids and parents for school days ahead

By Serena Yeh
Medill Reports

Around 20 young children, accompanied by their caregivers, sing and dance to both English and Mandarin nursery rhymes, listen to an English story translated to the Mandarin language, and learn from a bilingual teacher about cultivating good habits in the classroom.

It is a scene called “circle time” and it happens every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at the Chinese American Service League’s family and learning resource center, said CASL’s parent-child educator, Jasmine Wang. On Wednesdays and Fridays, the children participate in gym classes.

Through the program, the children – infants, toddlers and a bit older – are taught simple songs and dances, habits such as lining up to wash their hands before eating a meal and about different festivities ranging from Lunar New Year to Christmas and Thanksgiving.

The goal of the two-hour program, said CASL’s manager for children and youth development, Yuling Wu, is to educate both children and parents.

“For children, it is to provide a learning environment where they can get to know American culture, and kind of experiencing the school setting in the United States,” said Wu.

While for parents, on top of bonding activities with their children, “they want to get to know the U.S. more and they want their child to learn a little bit English, and they themselves to get to know something about the school systems,” she added.

Some parents said they first enrolled their children in the program because they wanted their children to feel less lonely, and agreed the program later allowed both themselves and their children to better understand the U.S. education system.

“A lot of our graduates, their parents would say my kid adapts so much better after coming here,” said Wang, who has been teaching at the center for three years. “They come here, they learn all the routines. They learn they need to line up to wash their hands, they learn they need to wait, and they know how to play with others because they have this environment.”

Jingzi Liu, 28, said she started bringing her 17-month-old daughter to the center last month because she felt her daughter was lonely at home.

Another parent YunQin Li, 30, who has been bringing her 2-year-old son to the center for a year, also said she first brought her only child for fear he would be lonesome.

Li, who has been in the U.S. for almost six years, said in Mandarin that her goal was for him to be “more open, cheerful, active and make more friends.”

His grandmother had also wanted them to attend the classes because they had no friends in this foreign country, she added.

Both parents said they believed the Western-styled classes, where the teachers are friendly and nurturing and where the kids learn to take initiative by speaking up and choosing what they want to play with, will help their children assimilate better when they attend an American school in the future.

Speaking in Mandarin, Liu, who has been in the U.S. for 12 years, said, “At home, she is the only child, and does not know how to share or how to work in a group, but here, she knows and learns all these and it will help her adapt to American schools easier.”

While most parents bring their children to the center to expose them to education in the U.S., some other parents bring their children there to keep them connected to their Chinese roots.

Emergency room physician’s assistant Jason Leung, 34, who moved to the U.S. from a small village near Guangdong province some 20 years ago, has been bringing his 1-year-old daughter to the class for the past three months.

“Right now, I just try to instill some more, as much Chinese culture as possible in her cause her whole life will be immersed in the American society, so I don’t think there’s any harm to give some Chinese cultural stuff here,” said Leung.

He added he hopes the first language she learns will be Mandarin “because she’ll be exposed to English her whole life.”

“Hopefully she can still speak some Chinese when she grows up and know about the Chinese holidays and just like, Chinese values and stuff like that, hopefully she will retain some of that,” he said.

“We don’t want her to forget about her heritage.”

Photo at top: At the Chinese American Service League’s family and learning resource center, the young children sing and dance to nursery rhymes in both Mandarin and English. (Serena Yeh/MEDILL)