The battle for the hearts and minds of diasporic Chinese kids

Children performing at a Mandarin-medium Chinese school in Vancouver.

我是海外的中國人,我愛中國,我也愛本地的國家。

“I am overseas Chinese. I love China. I also love this country [in which I live].”

The above is the only passage I remember from my days as a student at a Taiwanese-run weekend language school in the San Gabriel Valley ethnoburbs. Throughout my childhood I thought it was strange that we had to repeat that sentence over and over. I was born in the US. My parents were born in Vietnam. My grandparents were born in Vietnam. None of us had ever set foot in the Republic of China; our last territorial link to China was probably in the Qing Dynasty! But that didn’t matter.

The sentence comes from a textbook dating back to the 1980s that was sold (or perhaps donated) by the Republic of China government to Chinese weekend language schools all over the world. The martial law era in which Taiwan was dominated by the pro-reunification Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (國民黨) lasted until the late 80s.

The party’s message is evident even in this elementary school text for ethnic Chinese children overseas. Chinese nationality, as the Kuomintang understood it, was immutable, even with foreign residence or citizenship. Once Chinese, always Chinese—and clearly you want to side with the Nationalists.

——

Flash forward a decade or so, to last night. I had come back to the San Gabriel Valley to spend lunar new year with my family and to scope out a potential field site for my master’s thesis research on Chinese schools. I talked to some friends to see if they had any idea where I should start. One of them told me, “I can’t believe you’re going back to Chinese school!”

I have to admit that it is a bit strange to go back. Growing up, I hated Chinese school, as did all of the other Chinese American kids I knew. Who wants to go to school on Saturday to learn a language that everyone made fun of? Now, as an adult, I’m going back with an eye for things that had escaped my notice as a child.

Things have changed dramatically in the last 15 years. China is now a hot topic. Mainland China has emerged as a world power, and its immigrants, tourists, and investors are changing the face of cities the world over. To ameliorate its negative image in the West, the Mainland is trying to exert “soft power” through its Confucius Institutes for language learning and other cultural products and services.

Nowhere in the West is the Mainland’s rising cultural influence felt more strongly than in ethnic Chinese communities. For example, the language of interaction is slowly changing. In Los Angeles’ Chinatown and the western part of the San Gabriel Valley ethnoburbs, we see more signs in the Mainland’s simplified characters where traditional characters were once ubiquitous. Cantonese was until recently the primary lingua franca, spoken by Mainlanders from Guangdong province as well as ethnic Chinese from all over Southeast Asia. Now, one hears Mandarin with much more regularity, as immigrants and tourists from non-Cantonese-speaking parts of the Mainland arrive in large numbers.

Chinese schools have certainly adapted to the times. Not only are there more Mainlanders in the communities that the schools serve, but the promise of Mainland capital and the specter of Mainland cultural dominance are changing the way things operate. I expect to find that Cantonese-medium schools are disappearing, as parents move their children to Mandarin schools to prepare them to interact with Mandarin-speaking Mainlanders. I also have a hunch that even schools run by Taiwanese are switching to simplified characters, or at the very least are including simplified variants in their curriculum. In my last few years of Chinese school, for example, the curriculum changed to include both traditional and simplified characters, and both Taiwanese bopomofo pronunciation symbols and Mainland pīnyīn romanization.

In Argentina, I observed a Chinese school that still used Taiwanese government-issue textbooks. The Mainland government likely issues a similar set of books, reflecting their own culture and ideological agenda. Chinese schools, I argue, are the battlegrounds on which Mainland and Taiwanese overseas Chinese affairs agencies fight for the hearts and minds of diasporic communities, starting with the children.

In the 2010s, Chinese school textbooks might not be imbued with ideology as they were in the 80s and 90s. They might even be as apolitical as possible, knowing that their content could come under the scrutiny of Western governments sniffing out traces of indoctrination and overt foreign influence. Even so, I suspect that cultural pride continues to be a central pillar of the curriculum. What do these schools tell children about being Chinese? In the current political climate, a message like “I am overseas Chinese. I love China,” is bound to take on a very different meaning than it did when I went to Chinese school.

Creative Commons photo credit: Felex.

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