South Charlotte

They came as grad students. Now they want their kids to know what China has to offer

Jeremiah Moore-Graham and Tristan Gaddy get ready to go on stage as student speakers at a recent ceremony at Charlotte Chinese Academy
Jeremiah Moore-Graham and Tristan Gaddy get ready to go on stage as student speakers at a recent ceremony at Charlotte Chinese Academy

As south Charlotte’s Chinese community has grown, so has interest in children learning Mandarin and about Chinese culture.

The interest isn’t only from Chinese parents with American-born children hoping to keep their children connected to China. So many families from other countries have enrolled their children in Charlotte Chinese Academy that the school now offers a separate language program for non-Chinese students.

This spring, Charlotte Chinese Academy, which was founded in 1996 by Wei Cai, Shasha Liu and Siyuan Tang, celebrated its 20th anniversary with an event that more than 400 people attended. The school started with about 15 children, and now it enrolls almost 300 K-12 students.

As China is becoming a more important economic power, knowing Chinese will hopefully bring them more opportunities.

Parent Diana Cheng

Students take language classes, which are taught in Mandarin, as well as cultural arts classes such as Chinese kung fu and painting. Students also learn about Chinese New Year and other significant cultural events.

“Charlotte has grown dramatically in the past 10 years, and during this time more and more Chinese people have moved here from China,” said Rebecca Yuan, Charlotte Chinese Academy vice principal. “That’s why the whole school has been growing dramatically. It has high quality Chinese education, and the reputation has expanded.”

Chinese Charlotte Academy meets 10 a.m.-noon Sundays at Providence Day School off Sardis Road. It is staffed by volunteers and families are asked to donate about $290 a year.

Opportunities in China

The parents of many of the students at Charlotte Chinese Academy immigrated to the United States to go to graduate school. They married, moved to Charlotte, and had children, and there’s a growing interest in preparing their children to one day return to China if they choose.

That means they need to speak the language and have a familiarity with Chinese culture.

“China has been growing and growing and growing,” said Yuan, who noted China is no longer a developing country. “My view is in 10 or 30 years when my kids grow up, I don’t know if they will have a better career in the U.S. or in China.”

Shasha Liu’s two children have graduated from Charlotte Chinese Academy, and she said that Mandarin continues to play a role in their lives. Liu and her husband moved to the U.S. from China in 1988, and their children were born here.

Both of her children would move to China for a good opportunity, Liu said.

“My son likes Chinese because he thought it would help him in the business world,” she said. “In fact, he is using quite a bit of spoken Chinese in his line of work, business analysis and sales. My daughter loves Chinese too, for she can travel in China and talk to people in Chinese.”

Diana Cheng, whose son Bryan attends Charlotte Chinese Academy, said the world will be more globalized when her children are adults, and it will be beneficial for them to speak two languages.

“As China is becoming a more important economic power, knowing Chinese will hopefully bring them more opportunities,” she said.

Exposure to language, culture

Once-a-week immersion in Chinese culture has other benefits. When Chinese children, who spend the bulk of their day speaking English at school, learn Mandarin, they can talk to their grandparents and other relatives when they visit China. Many don’t go to school with a lot of other children with Chinese heritages, and then enjoy learning with their Chinese peers.

Bryan Cheng has been attending Charlotte Chinese Academy since he was 5, and Diana Cheng said that learning Chinese has now become part of his life.

“He can tell me why we celebrate Chinese New Year and why we call ourselves ‘offspring of the dragon,’” she said. “He likes me reading Chinese folk stories to him and is eager to know more about Chinese history.”

Yuan said that her son, Alex Shi, who attends Providence Springs Elementary school, only has about five other children with a Chinese background in his grade.

“We are a minority here, and the Chinese school provides them with an environment for them to meet more Chinese people than a regular school,” she said. “In the Chinese school, he is excited to see more Chinese people. I want them to feel that and be proud that they are Chinese.”

The parents of many of the students at Charlotte Chinese Academy immigrated to the United States to go to graduate school. They married, moved to Charlotte, and had children, and there’s a growing interest in preparing their children to one day return to China if they choose.

Other families who aren’t Chinese also value their children being exposed to Chinese culture.

Fernando Maisonett, whose children are 8 and 11 and attend Charlotte Chinese Academy, said his family is Hispanic and Asian, and he and his wife believe introducing a different culture and language to their children at an early age was important for raising well-rounded children.

“Given that (my wife and I) were raised in New York City, we now greatly appreciate the advantages of being exposed to a diverse set of cultures and languages,” he said. “Having our children gain proficiency in Mandarin should allow for additional opportunities in areas such as academics, research, professional, fields, consulting and traveling.”

Looking ahead

Charlotte Chinese Academy always has been run by volunteers, who include teachers. On top of learning on Sundays, teenage students have traveled to China for summer camp programs, and the school has sent volunteer teachers to China to learn how to teach Chinese to children who don’t live in China.

This year, Charlotte Chinese Academy will further connect its curriculum to what is taught in China. It will introduce a new class, starting with kindergarteners, that uses a Chinese textbook and will be taught like a comparable class in China.

“A lot of parents have been asking for this program,” Yuan said. “The curriculum and requirements for the students of this class are going to be 100 percent the same as in China.”

Charlotte Chinese Academy also will work with the Confucius Institute at UNC Charlotte, which is partnering with Shanxi University to bring teachers from China to the UNCC campus this year. A few of these teachers also will volunteer at Charlotte Chinese Academy.

“We’re introducing professional teachers,” Yuan said. “The quality of the education is very important to us.”

Older Charlotte Chinese Academy students, for the first time, will take the HSK, a Chinese proficiency exam. Students can use the scores when applying for opportunities that could involve Mandarin.

“All the things we are doing here, we are trying to deliver a high-quality Chinese education,” Yuan said. “Not just the language, but the culture.”

Marty Minchin is a freelance writer: martyminchin@gmail.com.

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