Hope For The Sino-American Relationship
The hallways of the elementary school were filled with students, some as young as four years old, changing classes. Although they were busy going about the business of getting to their next class, each of the students greeted me with an enthusiastic “ni hao” as they passed by.
If I had been in a school in Beijing or any other city in China, students greeting me in Chinese would not have been too surprising.
The school that I was walking through, though, was not in China but in Far Hills, New Jersey. That was surprising, and makes this an interesting “man bites dog” story. First, a bit of background.
Bobby and Ellie, my two oldest grandchildren, both attend Far Hills Country Day School (“FHCDS”), a co-ed pre-kindergarden through eighth grade day school in the western part of the Garden State. Eight years ago, Jayne Geiger, Head of School, and some far seeing supporters, decided that China was becoming such an important factor in the global economy that they added Chinese as a language option in the curriculum. As a second year pre-k student, Bobby now has one introductory Chinese class every week. When he reaches first grade, he will have the option of taking Mandarin. A number of the graduating eighth grade students this year will have had the benefit of eight years of instruction in the Chinese language.
With a strong interest in China on the part of the school, the administrators asked if I would mind spending a day at FHCDS in early January to tell the students about the country. The schedule they put together had me speaking to the entire Primary and Intermediate Schools, as well as two Upper School Mandarin classes and a special program eighth grade class.
Of course, I agreed. My only hesitation was my concern about how to make China relevant to such a young group. I wasn’t concerned about the Intermediate and Upper School students—I’ve spoken to students at this age before and have found them generally receptive. I was more concerned about whether it was possible to keep the attention of the four, five and six-year-olds for 30 minutes.
When in doubt, bring gifts, and that’s what I did. With Chinese New Year being just around the corner, I had an ideal opportunity to do so. As the students entered the room, each of them received a red packet, or “hongbao,” the red envelope stuffed with money that is traditionally given by elders to children at Spring Festival in China. A few of the envelopes had 100, 50, 20, 10 or 5 yuan bills inside, but most held a one yuan bill or coin. Every student received something to take home, and all of them had fun opening up the packets at the end of the presentation.
In addition to telling the students how much each bill is worth in U.S. dollars, my presentation touched on China’s economy, its population and history. The students were introduced to Deng Xiaoping, Mao Zedong and Emperor Qin, and learned about the Great Wall, the Terra Cotta Warriors and Spring Festival. The biggest surprise was seeing 100 pre-k, kindergarten, first and second grade students, sitting on the floor in front of me, listening attentively to what I had to say and eagerly participating with questions.
In my predictions for the year of the dragon, I said that Sino-American relations will deteriorate in 2012. It’s an election year and the U.S. economy will be at the top of the agenda. The talk will be about jobs, and how China has taken all of them. China will be everyone’s scapegoat for economic weakness in the United States.
Unfortunately, politicians of all persuasions often play upon the fears of ordinary U.S. citizens with respect to China, particularly in an election year. This is effective because many of today’s American adults were brought up during the Cold War period, hearing China referred to as “Red China,” or “Communist China,” names that carry decidedly negative connotations. With such strong impressions developed in their formative years, many find it difficult to think about China as anything but a threat to the American way of life.
That is why I was so pleased by the interest in China that was displayed by even the youngest students. Sure, the red packets helped, but a sampling of the thank you notes I received from the first graders tells the story. (For the record, the students were told at the outset that they were allowed to call me “Jack,” rather than the longer and more formal “Mr. Perkowski,” on that particular day.)
“Dear Jack, I loved learning about China and thank you for the money.” (A number of students made similar comments about liking to learn about China.)
“Dear Mr. Perkowski, Thank you for teaching us about China. I really like looking at pictures of China.”
“Dear Jack, I liked the part where you told how many people live in China.”
“Dear Jack, Thank you for teaching us about China. My favorite part was when you told us about the emperor.”
“Dear Jack, I liked the bottle that had paintings inside.” (I brought samples of Chinese painted bottles to the classes.)
“Dear Jack, What I liked about the statues is that they were made out of clay.” (The story about the Terra Cotta Warriors was popular with many of the students.)
“Dear Jack, Thanks for the money. Your talk with us was cool.”
Thanks to the efforts of schools like FHCDS, many American students are now learning Mandarin and are being taught to think of China in an open and constructive way. In the end, that is the real hope for Sino-American relations.