By ELIZABETH COLUCCIO
Lim Quing is a soft-spoken mother of two sons, aged seven and one, whose older son attends P.S. 69, an elementary school that straddles the border of Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst, at the corner of 64th Street and 8th Avenue. On a Friday morning, she is at the school, sitting at a long cafeteria table with a dozen or so other parents. They have come to participate in an English class.
Quing is sitting with five other women who are all immigrants from China. She moved to New York from rural China for the freedom available in the United States, she says.
In China, “you had to listen to the government. In the city you can only have one child. If you have another, you get fired, no job. They don’t care if it’s a boy or girl,” she said in faltering English. “In the country, if you have a boy that’s all you can have. If you have a girl, five years later you can have a boy.”
Quing worked in a Chinese restaurant when she first moved to New York. When her older son was born, she had neither the money nor the time to devote to an infant. She sent her child at five months old to live with relatives in China. She did not see him in person again until he was five years old.
“I saw him on the computer,” she said. “I talked to him.”
When her son was back in New York, Quing was able to enroll him in preschool. She was happy to have him home, though she found it difficult to help him with his schoolwork due to the language barrier. Since she quit her job, she has not needed to send her younger son to China.
“I have time to care for him,” she said.
Jin Fang had an experience similar to Quing’s, except for the fact that Fang came from an urban part of China where everything was exorbitantly expensive.
“When my daughter went to China, she got sick, had to go to the hospital,” Fang said. “One day was one, two thousand dollars. If you paid a lot of money, you could do things easy.”
Fang was educated to be a kindergarten teacher in China. When she came to the United States 12 years ago, she found work as a cashier in a Chinese restaurant. She believes her English-speaking skills are too poor to become a teacher in New York, though she speaks English eloquently. Fang has two children: a son who is four years old, and a daughter who is three. Both were born in the United States, but when her daughter was six months old, she was sent to live in China with her grandmother.
“I needed to take care of my son. Both children were too small; I couldn’t take care [of them] at the same time,” Fang said. “It was a little bit hard, but I needed to go to work.”
Fang’s family used technology to maintain an overseas connection. “We told her, ‘that’s mom, that’s your brother,’ ” Fang said. “She knows.”
Though Fang wouldn’t send her children to school in China because of the expense, she does think there are benefits for the children in receiving a first-hand education in their home country. It would certainly be better to go to school in the urban centers of China rather than rural areas where there are far fewer opportunities to receive a proper education, Fang says. But more importantly, sending one’s children back to China offers a chance for them to learn about their heritage even as the parents can focus on saving money for the family’s future.
“Mothers make kids stay for two or three years to learn about China a lot,” Fang noted. “Then they can speak very good Mandarin and come to school and speak good English. In America they speak good English but not so good Mandarin.”
On the other hand, Liu Yu, a strongly opinionated mother of three girls and one boy who have all attended P.S. 69, declared she would never send her daughters to live in China.
“Don’t like it,” Yu said. “Don’t like daughters to go to China. Here it’s clean,” she said, tapping the table firmly. “[There] it’s country, it’s dirty, not good.”
Her children were born here, she said proudly, and they have many friends. Her oldest daughter, already in middle school, attends I.S 187, a school for gifted students a few blocks from P.S. 69.
After a moment’s pause, Yu continued. “I speak to daughters about China,” she said reflectively. “Maybe when they grow up, I can bring them where I was born.”
The stories of these women highlight the struggles of Chinese immigrant parents who have come to New York in great numbers in recent years. Waves of immigrant families have settled in Brooklyn, and as for many immigrants before them, it has been a struggle to become accustomed to life in the United States, especially for the children, many of whom were also born in China or were born in the United States and sent to live in China at a very young age. In many cases, immigration causes complications for the education of immigrant children, who struggle to keep up with their English-speaking peers. It also can prompt serious issues in parent-child relationships when children are expected to reconcile the traditional Chinese values at home with the independent thinking taught by the public school system.
According to 2012 Brooklyn Neighborhood Reports published by the Center for the Study of Brooklyn, the Asians of Brooklyn’s Community District 10, which includes the neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and Fort Hamilton, jumped from 12.8 percent of the population in 2000 to 19.2 percent in 2009, based on the American Community Survey. Among children in the community under the age of 18, 24 percent are of Asian heritage.
A Bewildering System
Tim Law, a former administrator in the city school system who counsels Chinese immigrants in Brooklyn, says that many parents are bewildered by the American school system.
Law, an advisor for the United Chinese Association of Brooklyn, said that with requirements for elementary school students becoming increasingly demanding, parents are left even more in the dark. “Parents have to understand what’s going on. Parents are left out of the system and miss all the information,” said Law, a member of the community education council for the Bensonhurst area. “They don’t know how to educate their kids, or what the teacher teaches.”
Chinese immigrants have had a long history of difficulty in gaining acceptance in the United States, which has played a role in the creation of the tightly knit Chinese communities that are seen in New York today. From 1882 to 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act limited the number of Chinese immigrants allowed in the United States, out of fear they were stealing jobs. Due to this, a generation of Chinese immigrants known as the “paper sons” was created, from the false papers and information Chinese men needed to prove they were eligible to live in the country.
Time has changed some aspects about Americans’ perception of Chinese immigrants, but even in recent times, many have felt mistrust of Chinese motives, with charges ranging from hacking to spying on governmental agencies. In 1999, for instance, Asian-American scientist Wen Ho Lee was accused of stealing designs for a nuclear warhead, and many other Chinese intellectuals felt as though they were being treated unfairly as a result of one person’s crime.
Michael Robison, a curator at the Museum of Chinese in America, has observed this subtle shift through history and through his own experiences. “In the past, Chinese were taking jobs, so there was less money; they used to break strikes,” he said. “Now they struggle more with like [being called] hackers, spies, where loyalties lie, with China or the U.S. With a lot of families, like mine, we had to leave because they fought against the communists.”
In addition to the struggles that arise simply from being a stranger in a new country, some Chinese immigrants have to pay off massive debts owed to the smugglers who arranged their passage to the United States. This dark side of the immigration can require newcomers to pay off tens of thousands of dollars of debt. In 1993, a boatful of Chinese immigrants washed ashore on the Rockaway peninsula; those who did not drown were imprisoned and deported. Passengers were reported to have paid $5,000 to smugglers for the trip, with a promise to pay off the further fee of $30,000 during their time in the United States.
In order to pay off such extortionate sums, and also to afford living in New York City, Chinese immigrants have developed a reputation as dedicated workers who devote many hours of labor to their jobs. Often, these are low paying, menial jobs. Although this type of life seems to be merely toil with no reward, the Asian culture that has developed in neighborhoods around New York is the legacy that is born from it. Their Chinese culture is an inheritance that is bestowed on the children of immigrants, no matter what their generation’s connection to their new country is.
“It used to be the case where you used to want to assimilate. It’s much less the case now,” said Robison. “Even on a practical level it’s a good idea to learn. It varies from family to family, but a lot of families place an importance on culture. They are concerned their children won’t learn the language.”
The difficulty arises when children raised in ethnocentric cultural communities are expected to be part of the mainstream American lifestyle they find in public schools. The culture gap could cause children to struggle to find balance between the traditions of their parents and what is expected of them in school, affecting them socially and academically.
Out of 859 students enrolled in P.S. 69, 687 are Asian, or 80 percent, making it the kindergarten through fifth grade public school in Bay Ridge with the highest percentage of Asian students. The Department of Education reports that for the past three school years, P.S. 69 maintained a C rating in student performance, despite improving from an 8.5 out of 25 possible points in 2010 to 11.9 in 2012. Student performance refers to how well students did on the State English Language Arts and Math tests.
Additionally, the New York City School Survey issued by the Department of Education, a questionnaire by which parents can rate their child’s school, indicated that parents wanted to see more from their children’s education. In the 2009-2010 school year, parents said that the school’s academic expectations were below average and in need of improvement. That rating has improved slightly in the past two years.
The search for additional, more rigorous education may be part of the reason so many Chinese students are sent to after-school programs. Counselors from a number of companies show up at dismissal and round up their charges, taking them to private programs or remaining in the school. The Brooklyn Chinese-American Association runs an after-school program in the cafeteria of P.S. 69. Counselors, often high-school or college students, help students complete their homework, then teach the children supplemental lessons or let them read independently from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Eric Liu, the program’s manager at P.S. 69, said homework help is their main priority when working with the over 100 children he is responsible for. The areas the children often struggle with most are English and grammar.
Liu speculated that most parents send their children to after-school for the help counselors provide that immigrant parents cannot. “Because a majority of their parents come from China they don’t know how to help them, so they send them to after-school,” he said. “We translate homework into Chinese or Cantonese to help them understand.”
Yan Du, a counselor at a private company called I Kids Tutor who picks up students from P.S. 69, also noted the difficulties her 14 or so students have with English and grammar. In addition to homework help, Du prepares the students for the State English Language Arts and Math test. “They’re struggling mostly with grammar. Even word problems in math, they have to read it three times. Some counselors get frustrated and give them the answers, but I try to read it out to them,” she said.
“I did a survey [about] what they do at home, and usually when they finish their homework they don’t look at books, they just watch TV. I figured out they don’t read chapter books, they read comic books,” she added.
Du believes that it isn’t enough for parents to find outside help for their children; some learning must be done at home. “I think they work to pay bills and they push everything to the teachers and tutors. But the parents need to factor in also,” she said.
Law agrees that parents need to become more involved in their children’s student life, and that schools ought to encourage such participation.
“Encouraging parents to go to meetings is very important; [they need to] get information, talk to teachers. They should communicate with other parents, ask their kids, check their homework everyday,” Law said. “A lot of parents give excuses; one, that they don’t know English; two, they have to work, and three, they don’t even have a high school diploma.”
It is true that Chinese immigrant parents work very long hours, leaving less time to spend with their children. Counselors said that they mostly see grandparents and babysitters picking up the children when after-school ends at 6 p.m.
A Long Day at School
The students, interviewed during after-school programs with the permission of their program counselors, are themselves often unaware of what it is their parents do for a living, only knowing that they must work for many hours. A fourth-grader who was born in China and came to New York when she was seven or eight said didn’t really know the particulars of her parents’ occupations.
“My mom is a maid in a hotel. I think the Sheraton in Manhattan, I don’t know. You have to take the subway,” she said.
“My mom got her the job,” her friend chimed in.
“I don’t know [what my dad does],” the girl continued. “He makes army stuff, that’s what my mom told me.”
“Not anymore,” her friend reminded her with a meaningful look.
“Yeah, well, he passed away on October 19,” the girl said.
Cecilia Sam, a bilingual school social worker who divides her time between P.S. 69 and P.S. 205 in Bensonhurst, another school with a large Asian population, says that crowded apartments are a common complaint in Chinese enclaves.
“For some, especially where living space is small, they crowd together,” Sam said. “That affects [the children] because they don’t have space to move around and play, which is important. Usually parents don’t bring kids out for recreation because they are working, so the child has little exposure.”
Another girl, whose name is being withheld due to her age, was also born in China, and moved to North Carolina in second grade before coming to live in New York. She didn’t remember much about China, except for the squalid conditions of the schools.
“In China, schools there were messy, but here it’s clean,” she said.
Her parents live in China with her two siblings, while she lives in Brooklyn with an aunt. According to Sam, a separation of such distance could affect a child, not only in relationships at home but also at school. “Distance between families would affect [children] emotionally and academically; if a brother or sister were home, they could help since parents or guardians don’t speak English,” Sam said. “They would be able to learn from each other. Children also might have trouble getting along with peers.”
After-school programs are helpful to Chinese immigrant parents who work long hours for little pay, but there are restrictions. Most programs require the child to be of a school age to participate. Daycare centers that mind smaller children and infants are often expensive and seats fill up quickly.
There is another option which has become a growing trend among Chinese immigrant parents: sending their children at just a few months old back to China to be raised by their grandparents when they are small, and to return when they can be enrolled in school.
One fourth-grade boy was born in the United States, but sent to live with his grandparents in China when he was three months old. He returned to New York when he was seven, old enough to enroll in elementary school. His first day as a bewildered second grader who didn’t know any English was a dizzying experience.
“My teacher was reading a story and I had no idea what she was talking about. I only understood a little but by looking at the pictures,” he said. “I felt like I wanted to leave here, that’s not where I belong.”
As a counselor to immigrant parents, Law is familiar with this practice, but does not approve of it due to the detrimental long-term effects. “I see this a lot, sending kids back to China. I don’t suggest it unless they are desperate,” Law said. “Parents ask me if they should send [their children]. I strongly oppose the idea. They are already separate from the school system, not mixed with other kids. Parents need to have a plan. If you want to have a baby, sit down and talk about it. Do you have a program, can you get your kid into a school?”
While the process of parting with their child is harrowing for parents, there are many, if not more, troubles waiting when the child returns. According to Sam, children who are raised by grandparents or other family members for years before being returned to their parents find difficulty assimilating to their new environment, to the discipline of parents they have likely never met, and to a foreign school system.
“Adjustment is a big issue. It is a very different environment than China,” Sam said. “Grandparents spoil the children and they don’t understand discipline. Also because they are separated for many years and many parents don’t visit, there’s no relationship between parents and child,” added Sam. “It’s hard to discipline in the beginning period.”
This includes discipline in school. Children recently come from China and sent to school right away often have little concept of proper conduct in a classroom. They don’t stay seated, sometimes crawl on or under the table, and are sometimes mistaken for having attention deficit hyperactive disorder, says Sam.
“One student was brought here for counseling. He looked around and said, ‘This is a big place, is this your house?’ ” Sam recalled. “He didn’t even understand what a school was.”
`Learning New Stuff’
With immigrant parents loyal to their roots and children being raised as Americans, there is a shift in responsibilities. “Many times as [the children] grow older and pick up the language, parents will use them as translators when they go to government offices, maybe for welfare benefits, even ACS [Administration for Children’s Services],” Sam said. “It’s not right. Parents depend too much on the child. It’s a role reversal; it’s supposed to be the parent as the authority figure.”
This is very unusual for Chinese culture, in which elders are supposed to be treated with respect. But relying on their children for help, in addition to independent thinking encouraged by public schools, has created a disconnect between parent and child.
“Sometimes the parents get frustrated, and also children grow up comparing them to American parents and see their parents as limited,” Sam said. “It’s caused a cultural gap.”
Law agreed. “It’s a big problem. The kid [goes] to school and learns a different culture, says, ‘My school says that I don’t have to listen to anyone,’ learns independence, but in China parents are always right,” Law said. “It’s a big problem. Parents sometimes smack their kids, become abusive.”
The difficulties within Chinese immigrant families are indeed crucial ones, but it doesn’t have to stay this way. Eventually children can learn to balance their lives as immigrants or children of immigrants and as people who live and grow in the United States.
A fourth-grade boy who was interviewed said he no longer feels like he doesn’t belong. He has learned to love school, his new friends, and everything that is being offered to him.
“Here I go to school and learn new stuff. In China, all I learned was Chinese and math and music. Here I learn history and computers,” he said. “In China, I didn’t read much books because there weren’t much books there. Now, I feel good, learning new stuff.”
Photo: Parents Connie Li, Li Qun Chen and Qing Lin (from left) attend an English class at P.S. 69. (Elizabeth Coluccio photo).