Balancing American, Mainland, and Taiwanese influences in Chinese language schools

Students at a Chinese language school in Vancouver. Photo by Felex Liu (Flickr/Creative Commons).

C.N. Le of Asian-Nation has graciously invited me to contribute to his blog, which was one of the first (if not the first) sociology blog looking specifically at Asian Americans. I remember reading Asian-Nation in high school and college and being awed by the kind of things that sociologists did. Little did I know that I would end up in graduate school for sociology and writing for that blog!

My first post looks at an aspect of my research that has come up relatively recently: the role of the US, Mainland Chinese, and Taiwanese states in Chinese language schools. Though I’ve reproduced the text of the post after the jump, I encourage you to read and comment on the post at Asian-Nation.

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Thank you, C.N., for inviting me to write for Asian-Nation. I hope to contribute to this blog a perspective on Asian America that looks both within and beyond the United States. The Asian American experience has been transnational since the very beginning, and has only become more so with economic globalization, the increasing affordability of travel and communications technologies, and the acceptance of multiple citizenship. Though the boundaries of the nation-state have not become irrelevant, I believe that we must look at Asian Americans as situated in the United States and in the larger global context.

With that frame in mind, I would like to introduce you all to some of the transnational dimensions of my current research on extracurricular Chinese language schools. What kinds of influence do the US, Mainland Chinese, and Taiwanese governments have in these schools, and how do the schools handle these influences?

I am currently conducting an ethnography of two Chinese schools. One school is located outside of an ethnic enclave and serves a predominantly upper-middle-class student body. The other, in the heart of an urban Chinatown, serves mainly students from working-class backgrounds.

It is in the interest of the Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese governments to support extracurricular Chinese language programs like these. As anthropologist Gladys Nieto (2007) argues, these schools foment cultural and linguistic ties between children of immigrants and their ethnic homeland. Not only do these programs open up the possibility that these children “return” to their ethnic homeland and invest in the homeland state’s economic and political projects, but they may also make them more sympathetic advocates for the homeland in their country of residence.

The US government has been marginally involved in these schools for decades. For example, many schools do not have their own facilities and will rent public schools or community centers for the day. With the designation of China as the world’s emerging superpower, federal and local government investment in Chinese language programs has increased dramatically. There are national initiatives for teaching and learning “critical languages” such as Chinese, and at least one school district has mandated that all students learn the language. Though these initiatives have generally ignored privately-run extracurricular programs like the ones I am researching, the opportunity is wide open.

These extracurricular programs are often in need of space, financial support, and affordable materials. They will apply for help from the three governments as they are able. What kinds of assistance they seek and from whom they seek this assistance depends on community politics, language ability, and connections (or, in Mandarin, guanxi 關係). How they balance the competing influences coming from the three governments depends on the same three factors.

Taking from all sides

Taiwan’s Overseas Compatriot Affairs Council (OCAC; 中華民國僑務委員會) has been supporting overseas Chinese language schools for decades. When I was a student in a weekend Chinese school in the mid-90s, the school used the Huayu (華語) series of textbooks that OCAC donated. Though I no longer have a copy of this book and cannot find a proper citation for it, Nieto reproduces a lesson from this series that has been ingrained in my memory for decades:

我愛中國,[I love China.]

我也愛本地的國家。[I also love the country that I live in.]

我們都是中國人,[We are all Chinese.]

我們都是海外的中國人,[We are all Overseas Chinese.]

我們都愛本地的國家,[We all love this country that we live in.]

我們也都愛中國。[We also love China.] (Nieto 2007, p. 143)

This lesson clearly reflects the political moment in which the books were produced. The first edition of Huayu was published in 1978, under the Chinese Nationalist party’s authoritarian rule of Taiwan, and the second edition (from which this excerpt comes) was published in 1990, just a few years after democratization began and a full decade before an advocate of Taiwanese independence was able to take the presidency. As you can see from the text, the government was still actively making a claim for all of territorial China, and for all Chinese people around the world.

Today, OCAC is still actively involved in distributing textbooks and providing financial and other forms of support for Chinese language schools. Some Mainland Chinese government bodies, such as the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council (國務院僑務辦公室) and Hanban (漢辦), have joined the party. As the push to learn Chinese gains momentum in the US, different levels of government in this country are also getting more involved. For example, some school districts are allowing students to opt out of foreign language classes if they get documentation saying that they spend a certain amount of time in these extracurricular programs, learning an approved curriculum.

In today’s very different economic and geopolitical climate, the textbooks used in these schools are no longer explicitly political, but you still see direct and indirect influence from all three governments in both schools. What influences these schools take and how they implement them depends on the teachers and administrators and their understanding of the community’s politics and preferences.

The result is fascinating and often incongruous combinations of symbols of state influence. Just last week, for example, I observed Mainlander teachers leading Mainland-origin students in bowing to the Republic of China flag. However, not all of the evidence of state influence that I have seen is so blunt. Both schools teach both the Mainland’s simplified characters and Taiwan’s traditional characters, and one school uses both the Mainland’s hanyu pinyin phonetic transcription system and Taiwan’s zhuyin fuhao system. This is partially a reflection of changing demographics, and partially the result of the Mainland government’s promotion of simplified characters and hanyu pinyin as a hegemonic world standard.

These schools have considerable leeway in adopting these influences. For example, both will accept textbook donations but use them solely as supplements. Traditional characters may be an official part of the curriculum, but if Mainland-educated teachers cannot write them without consulting a dictionary, simplified characters become the classroom standard. And in one school, parents hold so much sway that they can successfully lobby for change if they are not happy a certain aspect of the curriculum. As I continue to collect more data, I will be looking more closely at how these schools negotiate these competing influences, and the extent to which community pressure, financial ties, and practical and logistical concerns shape the resulting balance.

References

Nieto, Gladys. 2007. La inmigración china en España: una comunidad ligada a su nación. Madrid: Libros de la Catarata: Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Servicio de Publicaciones.

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