Adopted Chinese children fill Chinese language schools in U.S.

With an influx of children adopted in China and brought to the United States, more and more families are looking for a way to help their children learn about their homeland. More than 30 private Chinese schools now operate on weekends in the Washington area.
By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 8:08 PM

Abby Newell's adoptive parents have been preparing for her "birth tour" for years. They have attended Chinese culture camp in Silver Spring, decorated their Fairfax home like a Shanghai apartment and - most importantly, they say - enrolled Abby in Mandarin classes on the weekend.

The goal is for her to land in China sometime in the next few years with a sense of her own complex identity: She is both an 8-year-old girl from suburban Virginia and a child whose birth mother left her in a rural Chinese outpost with a note pinned to her saying, "I can't keep this child."

Thousands of American parents who adopted girls near the peak of the Chinese adoption boom earlier this decade are facing similar dilemmas as their children reach school age. Increasingly they are turning to weekend classes in rented public schools or storefronts taken over by bare-bones Chinese language programs.

"We've always believed that language is the key to culture - to Abby's heritage," said her mother, Robin Lelyveld Newell. "These classes aren't just about fluency. They're about identity."

Across the country, there has been a surge in Chinese classes. More than 1,600 American middle schools and high schools now offer Chinese, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics, up from about 300 a decade ago. But the more pronounced increase is in private Chinese language schools, most of them run by non-profit groups.

More than 30 private Chinese schools now operate on weekends in the Washington area. Many of them, started as community centers for recent immigrants, also have become informal meeting places for groups of adoptive parents. Some of those schools now count recently adopted children as their primary demographic.

Every Sunday, when the Latino church congregants leave George Marshall High School in Falls Church, the Chinese teachers arrive. For two hours a week, the second floor of the building belongs to the Northern Virginia Chinese School.

The school, founded 20 years ago by several newly arrived Chinese families, has seen a massive influx of adoptive parents in recent years. The aging Chinese men who practice tai chi on the school's linoleum hallway floor during classes have been joined by younger, American fathers. Entire classes are now filled with adopted girls, some still several years away from kindergarten.

"They are, without a doubt, some of the most enthusiastic parents we have," said Jeanny Ho, the school's principal.

In Rockville, the Cultural Language Arts Programs and Services for Non-Chinese Speaking Families teaches more than 70 adopted children, three-quarters of its student body. The school opened in 2003, months after Yen Chen started fielding calls from eager parents worried that their adopted children were losing touch with their Chinese roots.

"'I can't teach my daughter Chinese, but I don't want her to lose her language. Can you help?' they asked," Chen recalled.

Those calls kept pouring in as the number of Chinese adoptions rose sharply in the U.S., peaking at 7,900 nationally in 2005, and then decreasing just as abruptly as it rose. China has tightened its adoption policies in recent years, changing the criteria that foreigners must meet in order to adopt Chinese children.

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