To hear Liam Li tell it, getting his children to learn Chinese was hard.
“My eldest daughter was in a local Chinese school for eight years,” Li joked. “She didn’t remember a thing!”
A little harsh? Perhaps. But Li, like many immigrant parents in Seattle, is eager for his children to stay connected to their heritage language and culture from the other side of the world.
For families like the Lis, Seattle’s language schools are a vital tether, teaching Chinese, Korean, Japanese and other languages to a diverse community of children of immigrants and first-time learners. But when COVID-19 closed traditional schools last year, their doors shut too.
Switching to online classes carried additional challenges for language schools that sustain not only linguistic skills, but culture and identity for students. Some aren’t sure when they’ll be able to return to normal.
Li grew up near Beijing and has lived in the U.S. for 23 years. He knows his children will have limited opportunities to learn about China.
“They were born here. They haven’t had a chance to go back,” Li said. “We want to make it up to them and gave them the chance … to learn more about our Chinese culture.”
His eldest daughter, Miranda, is in college now — finally studying Chinese on her own, to her father’s relief. But at home, younger siblings Richard, Edmunda and Eddy continue to study at Bellevue’s Northwest Chinese School.
“As I got older, I realized that I wanted to speak to my relatives, my grandparents,” said Eddy, who’s starting fifth grade in the fall. “They can only speak Chinese. So I really want to, like, connect with them.”
When the pandemic hit and shut down Washington’s schools, language schools had no choice but to follow. Northwest, which only runs a small office in Bellevue, rents classrooms from the nearby Newport High School. They lost access to them after COVID-19 restrictions closed the campus.
On Saturdays — when most language schools take place to avoid clashing with a regular school schedule — the Lis spread out across the house to continue their studies online.
Richard joined lessons from the kitchen while his mom cooked dinner. The siblings gathered in the living room together to help each other with assignments, and Liam tried his best to speak mostly Chinese at home so his children could practice their conversational skills.
But not everyone was able to make online classes work. According to principal Tao Zhang, around 200 of Northwest’s students dropped out last year. Younger students in particular struggled with the prospect of six days of online classes, and many families opted to pull their children out.
“It’s hard for them to concentrate in front of a computer,” Zhang said. “So we lost those students, and the tuition from [them]. That’s a great impact.”
Other language schools around Seattle report similar departures. The United Seattle Korean School in Alderwood lost 150 students, according to principal Haesung Yoon. In the Chinatown International District, Chong Wa Benevolent Association’s Chinese school lost around 40 students after switching to online classes. Nearby, on South Weller street, around 50 students dropped out of the Japanese Cultural & Community Center’s Japanese language school.
“There were many complaints about the school closing,” Yoon said. “Parents and teachers protested.”
Mei-Jui Lin, president of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, said many children that enroll in their language school come from low-income families and didn’t have the resources to continue studying online.
“[Students] don’t have computers or other things at home,” Lin said. “Or their house did not have extra ones they can use. It’s very unfortunate.”
Teaching languages demands an emphasis on one-on-one interactions that were hard to sustain virtually. It’s even more important for teaching languages like Chinese, Japanese and Korean, where the method for typing characters on a computer differs greatly from writing by hand.
“They cannot type in Korean, so it is difficult to submit homework,” Yoon said about United Seattle Korean School’s students.
Karen Yoshitomi, executive director of the Japanese Cultural & Community Center, said her school had to make the difficult choice to restrict class sizes so teachers could give students enough attention. Waitlists quickly filled up.
Even with the support of his siblings, Richard Li struggled. He missed being surrounded by Chinese-speaking peers in the classroom.
“When you’re online and 90% of us are muted and one person is speaking, it’s really hard to just be able to talk,” he said.
It was also hard to continue cultural activities that are an equally important part of the curriculum at most language schools. With fewer students, Northwest couldn’t afford to continue lessons on the dizi and pipa, Chinese musical instruments. The Japanese Cultural & Community Center canceled calligraphy classes and tea ceremonies. The highlight of the school year is the annual undōkai, a Japanese sports day with tug of war and doughnut eating competitions, but that had to be canceled too.
“That’s the best thing for the children,” instructor Atsuko Savorgino said about the canceled sports day. “But we couldn’t do that.”
Staying connected to a community is why many families value language schools. Richard misses his friends from his Saturday classes — other Chinese American kids from across Bellevue and Seattle he said he otherwise would have never met. Stella Tong wants her 11-year-old son Ken, who attends Chong Wa, to be able to speak Chinese with his grandparents in Hong Kong when they call.
“We don’t want their generation to stop understanding Chinese in America,” Tong said.
Seattle’s schools will reopen for in person teaching this school year. But it will be a tougher road back for many language schools after the pandemic jeopardized access to the facilities, funding and staff they depend on.
Northwest Chinese School has not yet confirmed whether it will be able to rent classrooms from Newport High School in the fall, according to Zhang. The United Seattle Korean School won’t be able to rent the Edmonds School District classrooms they previously used, Yoon said, and will continue with online classes for most of students.
Chong Wa, a community organization supported largely through fundraising, had several fundraisers canceled during the pandemic. The group needed a cultural activities grant from the city of Seattle to sustain its work this year. The Japanese Cultural & Community Center plans to resume in-person classes but is concerned about whether it can bring back the teachers they let go during the pandemic when enrollment was low.
“We’re scrambling right now,” Yoshitomi said. “We will have the students who want to return. We may not have the teachers to teach those classes.”
The Li children are anxiously hoping to return to classes in person this fall. But if they have to wait a bit longer, Liam said he isn’t too worried about his children falling behind. What matters is that they still have a class to go to.
“It’s really [about] keeping their interest,” he said. “Don’t let them forget about Chinese [and] keep reminding them, they all have a heritage.”
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