So here we are in school together, Mom, Dad, Anna and Sasha, the whole family seated in Room 116 on Day One of Chinese class. This, I figured, would be a beautiful family experience. It's a class for kids -- you have to be at least 3 to enroll -- with their parents. Perfect. In our family we speak of China as a shared heritage -- we adopted it when we adopted our girls -- and learning the language together would be a symbolic expression of that, as well as a literal one.


"Sasha, put the desk down," I say to my 3-year-old, who has never experienced a community college desk before, and finds the hinge mechanism particularly terrific.

"Look!" she says. "Gum!" Many colors of gum, in fact, under that desktop, some still ripe enough for Sasha to poke her fingers into.

"Put. The. Desk. Down."

At this point the teacher, an energetic woman with square shoulders, marches up to my 5-year-old and says, "Zhe shi shenme?" while pointing to her nose.

Anna, who has been busy drawing cats, looks at me as if she is about to cry. "Zhe shi shenme?" the teacher says again. The question, I'm pretty sure, means, "What is this?" In a stroke of genius, or because the little old boy next to me just responded to this drill with success, I speak on behalf of my daughter when I say, "Zhe shi bizi."

"Pizza?" the teacher says, turning to the class. "Does my nose look like a pizza?"

But I didn't say pizza, I said bizi, with a soft "b" and the final "i" going up in tone, just as she had said it. She says it again. "Bizi," I mimic.

"No, not a pizza!" she shouts, to the continued delight of the 25 people gathered here today. "This is a language class," she then reminds us. "Everyone here has to have pronunciation! Also, everyone here has to respect the teacher, otherwise the teacher get very, very upset, okay?"

"Okay," my husband says, as if to apologize for the entire family. She turns to him. "Zhe shi shenme?" she says, pointing to her eye.

"Um," he says. "Hong?"

She pauses, purses her lips, refusing to even register that answer, then moves on to the girl with the long red hair raising her hand eagerly. "Zhe shi yanjing!" she says perfectly.

"I think you called her eye a rainbow," I tell Alex.

Right-o. So we're the dolt family. I keep thinking there must be more of a beginner beginner class, but when I check the registration form to see what's going on in Room 115, I see this is it. The class for 3-year-olds is as beginner as it gets.

"Sasha! Get your fingers out of the gum!"

In our defense, many of the people here have taken this beginner class two and three times before, so the fact that we are so very much in the dark in Hour One of Day One of a semester-long course should not be so discouraging. And so what if Sasha gets nothing out of this beyond a little family bonding with Chinese language going on in the background? And Anna has already learned a tremendous lesson in self-control, in that she is not, as she has repeatedly threatened to do, going at that huge green chalkboard with those giant sticks of chalk with which she could draw giant cats.

So, this is fine. This is a beautiful family experience, all right. I listen to the music of the class counting from one to 20 in Mandarin, absorb the wonder, relax into the mystery. Then, in one swift motion, Sasha escapes from her desk and runs up to the teacher with a page of scribble she has ripped out of her notebook. "Teacher!" she is shouting, "A present!" Alex takes off after her, and then Anna after Alex, but Anna trips over the foot of a man in the middle row and lands right on her bizi, which has always had a tendency to bleed, and so I'm waiting.

It's hard to know when, exactly, to proclaim a beautiful family experience a disaster, but that does seem to be the way these things go. A beautiful family experience is a snapshot of the imagination. As if obeying a call for family unity, you pack that picnic and go to that beach, only to find those giant green flies, but you did think to bring bug spray, so you spray the bug spray, but it coats the croissants, and then one of the kids has to go to the bathroom, and then the other one does, and then that luscious mimosa you drank just leaves you caving in to a most miserable need for a nap.

"Oh, well," I say to Alex, after he calls the teacher's ear a skirt. "So we bond over our shared stupidity. It's still bonding."

"Look, we are not going to go down without a fight," he says, vowing on behalf of the entire dolt family to be in charge of homework.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is