EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Bob Dixon and Kevin Dang sit side-by-side in cramped classroom desks but they couldn’t be more different.
One is a 79-year-old retiree trying to rekindle the language of his childhood and, in the process, keep his mind young. The other is a fresh-faced second-generation Chinese 12-year-old giving up his Saturday afternoons to learn the language of a country he has few ties to.
“It’s mental gymnastics and it takes me back,” said “Dr. Bob,” as the former Richard Stockton College professor is affectionately known by the instructors at Atlantic Huaxia Chinese School, which rents space each Saturday at the Atlantic Christian School.
Until age 15, Dixon learned the language of the streets as the son of missionaries in the northern seaport town of Tianjin, China, but he’s had few occasions to put that knowledge to use since.
Dang has struggled with the language for more than three years. He hopes to use it to get into a good college; but this year his goal is to read at least one article in a Chinese newspaper and to be able to converse with older relatives.
“I’ve been places where everyone’s speaking all Chinese and I’m just standing there not knowing what they’re saying,” Dang said. “I want to carry on a conversation, but I can’t.”
The school, run by volunteers and a handful of organizers each Saturday, is many things: It’s a bridge between two cultures. It’s a crash course for recent immigrants struggling in a foreign land. It’s a connection, however tenuous, to a past that’s faded for some second- and third-generation Chinese-Americans.
But most of all, said school administrator Amy Yingyi Situ-Liu, it’s a community.
“We don’t have a Chinese community here,” Liu said as she speed-walks from class to class. “Of course there’s the church, but if they don’t believe in God, they don’t come—we feel such a need in this area to have a school.”
She and her husband, Peter Liu, who serves as principal, helped found the school in 2005 in order to serve the growing Asian population in mainland Atlantic County, but it's been difficult keeping the school going.
"It's a battle," said Peter Liu, who also chairs the Monmouth University Department of Criminal Justice. Amy Liu is also a professor of criminal justice, at Stockton.
More than 150 students signed up that first year, and enrollment eventually peaked at about 200. But the economy and the realities of Chinese culture — in which most recent immigrants are more concerned with assimilating than preserving their old identities — have hurt the school.
This fall, the school has about 70 students. That’s a slight improvement over the spring, but Peter Liu said each semester is a struggle, particularly since the school tries to keep tuition low. Currently, students pay $90 per semester.
Without the help of its landlord, which offered Huaxia reduced rental fees — $250 each Saturday — for use of several classrooms and its cafeteria, he said the school may not have survived.
“We feel that we’re blessed to have this place,” he said.
While tradition is still important, he said, it's typically further down the list of priorities for busy Chinese families.
"Many of the first-generation immigrants are struggling with their daily lives, finding a job and raising children in an American environment," he added. "They're trying to assimilate themselves."
Combined with normal childhood apathy on the part of students, Peter Liu said, that means the school struggles to attract and keep Asian students.
"Many Chinese kids would rather play video games at home," he said. "Video games are fun; learning Chinese language and taking tests are not fun."
That’s a sentiment the Lius’ 13-year-old son, Justin, can sympathize with. In addition to attending eighth grade at Belhaven Middle School in Linwood, he’s taken classes at the Chinese school since its inception.
“Sometimes I dont want to be here because it’s the weekend and it’s supposed to be free time from school, but I know it’s going to be worth it in the long run,” he said between classes Saturday.
Justin said knowing a second language could be vital in marketing himself to colleges and to future employers. He hopes to study sports medicine, an offshoot from his interests in hockey and swimming.
“And it’d be a shame if I didn’t know my own language,” he added.
Older students understand the career benefit of learning Chinese, Amy Liu said, but that alone won’t keep them engaged. With most parents too busy supporting their families to continue lessons at home, the school needed to offer something more. So this semester, the school began incorporating more cultural classes into its curriculum. Now, students go from language classes to playing pingpong, practicing traditional dances and even learning to make sushi.
Peter Liu said he can sympathize with the challenges facing upwardly mobile immigrants because he faced them himself as a graduate student with very limited English and the weight of adapting to a new culture.
That’s why the school also offers an English-language class tailored to new immigrants, in addition to its Chinese language and culture classes.
Bill DiLorenzo, who also takes a yoga class, stepped forward to teach about 15 students, many of them recent immigrants. Beyond the basics of language, he also incorporates lessons in American culture.
“Since we just had an election and the Chinese have a new president, too, we talked about what faces both of these presidents,” he said. “It gives them something to use their language for and learn a little something about the world around them.”
DiLorenzo, a 62-year-old medical consultant from Margate, also gives his students practical information, such as the importance of voting and how to contact the Federal Emergency Management Agency to report storm damage.
Amy Liu said it’s volunteers like Lorenzo that have helped the school continue on despite its hardships. Its role as a bridge between the Chinese and American cultures is too important to give up, she said.
“We are immigrants here, but we want to get in the mainstream,” she said. “We do this to open a small window for new immigrants here.”
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