More than a billion people speak some dialect of Chinese. Millions of them live outside China. In some U.S. metropolitan areas, like New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C, that are home to large communities of Chinese immigrants, it is easy to find schools that offer Chinese language courses. But even in cities like Nashua and Manchester, New Hampshire, where Asian immigrants are just a tiny percentage of the population, there is a demand for learning Chinese… and a school to meet that demand.
Desiree Wong got the idea of founding a Chinese school five years ago, when she moved from Arizona to New Hampshire with her husband and 5-year-old son.
"I had been teaching him Chinese since he was 3 years old," she says. "But I wanted him to go to a formal classroom and see so many people also learning Chinese. So it would motivate him to learn. That's when I had the idea. I wanted to start a school just because there wasn't any Chinese school, at that time in New Hampshire."
But actually turning her dream into reality was not easy. "I didn't know anybody," she says. "I had to work. I did find a job in Boston, Massachusetts. So I had to commute for 5 or 6 hours a day just on the road to go to work, back and forth. I didn't get time to get my thoughts together and set up the school at that time. When I really had a serious thought about having this school during the summer time last year, I had to call about 30 or 40 places just to find a space to get the school going. It was pretty tough because we couldn't afford to pay a lot of rent."
Luckily, Ms. Wong says, a local community learning center in Nashua offered her an affordable space last year. A few months later, the non-profit Chinese school expanded to the campus of Southern New Hampshire University in nearby Manchester. "We have pre-school age group," she says. "Generally speaking, they start from 2 ½ and 3 years old to 5 years old. We have an elementary age group, from anywhere from 5 to 11,12 years old. Depending on how mature they are they can actually go to pre-teen age group. We have another group, adult/teen, adults and teens together attending the classes. "
The New Hampshire Chinese School offers year-round instruction in Mandarin and Cantonese.
Renee Wong, 24 -- no relation to the school's founder -- teaches Cantonese at the Manchester campus. Ms. Wong says her immigrant parents insisted she learn Chinese, speak the language at home and celebrate every Chinese event. Although she resented it as a child, she says now, she appreciates what they did. "It's a really rich culture," she says. "There is a lot of history and there is a lot of people that speak Chinese in this world."
The teacher says she tries to keep her students engaged by turning each class into a party, where in addition to learning language skills, her students practice calligraphy and try their hand at other traditional Chinese arts like painting and paper-folding.
"I have a class of four students," she says. "They are all at the beginner level. We play a lot of games. People start having fun and give me feedback like what they want to learn. I'm very encouraged by their enthusiasm. They want to go to school. They want to learn."
Classes at the New Hampshire Chinese School have attracted a variety of students. School founder Desiree Wong says that has exceeded her expectations. "Half, if not more that half of our students, are from-non Chinese families," she says. "Those include non-Chinese families that adopt kids from China. We also have adult students that are from the business world. Half of them are already doing business with China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The other half of the students that are non-Chinese and want to learn would be those who had been to China. They love the culture and the language, or they have friends that are Chinese and they want to continue learning."
Stockbroker Andrew Fitzgerald, 26, belongs to this latter group. He lived in China three years ago. "It was a lot of fun," he says. "It's probably the most interesting experiences that I've had. It'd be nice if I could use that and get to go back to China as the markets open up a little bit more, but it's not my main goal now. It's a personal interest, and mostly for myself. I'm just kind of refreshing and trying to remember most of what I forgot. But it's definitely the hardest language I've ever studied."
That doesn't surprise New Hampshire Chinese School founder Desiree Wong. But, she says, combining old and new instruction techniques has made it easier for determined students to master Chinese. She says with today's increasingly competitive job markets in America and around the world, learning a foreign language, especially Chinese, might become a requirement for success in business in the near future.