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Having a Happy…and Authentic…Lunar New Year

February 4, 2016

Lion dancers at the Chinese American School’s 2015 Chinese New Year event, the Mass Greeting.

Monday, Feb. 8 is the Lunar New Year, an event celebrated by over one billion people worldwide. Students in Chinese immersion programs across North America will have spent the weeks leading up to it learning about the holiday the Chinese call Spring Festival by doing things like making red lanterns, singing songs and maybe learning to write 新年快乐 (Happy New Year) with a brush.

But in a thoughtful message to his school community this week, the headmaster of the Chinese American International School in San Francisco, the nation’s oldest Mandarin immersion program, talked about going deeper into an event that for many parents is a cultural closed door, simply The Festival of Lion Dances and Dumplings.

In a school that embraces both Chinese language and culture, writes Jeff Bissell, the goal should be to give students a deep understanding of the cultural meaning of this holiday. I asked his permission to reprint part of his essay, because it is such an excellent example of the world immersion can open our children up to—but one we as parents must also embrace.

Having a Happy…and Authentic…Lunar New Year

By Jeffrey Bissell

On avoiding “orientalism,” the West’s sometimes shallow, romanticized perceptions and fictional depictions of “The East.”

I’m not Chinese. Although I was lucky enough to live in China for fifteen years and spent many enjoyable lunar new years with local friends, I wasn’t raised in a family or in a community that celebrated and enjoyed this holiday the same way my family enjoyed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Fourth of July when I was growing up in the Midwest.

How lucky we are to have so many families at the Chinese American International School whose relationship to the lunar new year is much deeper than mine! And so at this time of year we should regard these members of our community as precious resources; ask them what the lunar new year means to them!

Not only will you gain knowledge that contextualizes the two dimensional images and forms that we associate with the lunar new year, but you will also be infected with the contagious positive energy that they radiate as they speak about their magical childhood experiences—just like the excitement your kids feel as they dress up for Halloween or prepare to visit their grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins on Thanksgiving.

My impressions of the meaning of the lunar new year are filtered through the lens of an outsider. But here they are:

Home – In Chinese the word for home and the word for family are the same: jiā 家. My home town means my family’s village: jiā xiāng 家乡. It feels warm and it feels like it’s where we belong. Years ago, Chinese seldom traveled far outside their villages, being home was something most people took for granted. Today it is estimated that more than 275 million rural Chinese have left their villages and relocated to urban areas in search of employment. That number is more than 85% of the entire population of the U.S.!

Each year at this time, as the lunar new year approaches, massive numbers of these migrants struggle to return home—most of them on trains and buses. It is expected that some 332 million train trips will be made over the course of the lunar new year holiday in China this year, and this past Tuesday railway officials estimated that 175,000 people passed through the Guangzhou railway station in a single day—that’s more than two and a half times the number of people that can fit into Levi’s Stadium to watch Coldplay and Beyonce!

The vast majority of these people are not riding on the bullet or maglev trains that have received so much attention. They are riding in overcrowded, poorly ventilated, second-class hard-seat carriages, many of them standing, some for 24-hours or more. Why would anyone endure this?

Ask any migrant in China—they want to be home.

Gratitude – On the morning of the first day of the lunar new year, people pay visits to their closest friends, colleagues and teachers, wishing them a happy new year. This is called bài nián 拜年. One of the purposes of bài nián is to express thanks that one has made it through the previous year, perhaps to thank the person being visited for her or his help over the previous 12 months. This is a heartfelt expression of gratitude for one’s good fortune and good friends.

On day two typically, women return to their parents’ homes (called huí niáng jia 回娘家) with their spouses dutifully in tow. This is the daughter’s way of expressing gratitude for the upbringing her parents provided and the spouse’s way of expressing gratitude for raising such a wonderful wife.

Hope and Optimism – During the lunar new year season we see bright spring couplets on either side of doorways. These balanced, auspicious phrases express hope and optimism for the coming year:


bā fang caí băo jìn jiā mén, yī nían sì jì xíng hăo yùn

From all directions wealth enters our door, in all four seasons of the year we have good luck


wàn shì rú yì fú lín mén, yī fān shùn fēng jí xīng dào

All things are as we wish and good fortune is at our door, everything is smooth sailing and our lucky star has arrived.

As people bài nián, they often greet each other with four character phrases that express hope that the coming year will bring good fortune:


wàn shì rú yì

May all things go your way.



xīn xiăng shì chéng

May you realize your heart’s desires.


dà jí dà lì

May you enjoy good fortune and great benefit.


nián nián yŏu yú

May you enjoy abundance every year.

By far the most popular phrase—one with which many parents may be familiar from having heard it in Cantonese as Gong Hey Fat Cho —is 恭喜发财 gōng xĭ fā cái “Wishing you prosperity”, or more literally, “Congratulations, get rich!”

Home, gratitude, hope and optimism. These are not exotic concepts at all, they are universal, and we understand them in our own way in San Francisco. I don’t need them to romanticize China in order to connect with the meaning of the lunar new year.

Happy year of the monkey everyone.



Got new parents? Get “A Parent’s Guide” for them

February 3, 2016

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February and March are the months many Mandarin immersion programs send out letters of placement or acceptance to new families.

As they rev up for new incoming Kinder classes, several schools have asked if they can buy my book, A Parent’s Guide to Mandarin Immersion, in bulk for those new parents.

The answer is yes, and a lot more cheaply than buying it from Amazon.

As a parent of two daughters who’ve been in Mandarin immersion programs at two different schools for a total of 17 years now, I wrote A Parent’s Guide as the how-to manual that I wished I’d had when we started this process.

Many schools have found that by giving copies of the book to parents early on (sometimes even before school starts) they can spend more time building a great school and less time explaining the nuts and bolts of immersion. Informed parents, teachers tell me, are calmer and more empowered parents.

A Parent’s Guide covers:

• How immersion works in the classroom
• The benefits of bilingualism for the brain
• Chinese 101 for immersion parents
• The academic possibilities immersion opens to students
• Chinese literacy issues
• The six types of Mandarin immersion families
• Why schools offer immersion
• How parents can turbo-charge their children’s Chinese

You can read reviews here.

So here’s the deal for schools:

If you order 25 or more books, I can have them dropped shipped to your school for $12 a copy. If you order 50 or more they go down to $11 a copy. And although no one’s yet done this, at 100 they go down to $10 per book.

Some PTAs have bought them and then sold them at the regular price of $18.95 as a fund raiser as well.

If your school is interested, please contact me at weise (at) well (dot) com


Summer programs for immersion teachers

February 3, 2016

These are from CARLA, the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota.

If your program is new, it’s a great place for staff and teachers to get the basics. And if your program’s been around for awhile, the new workshop on character literacy (i.e. how to get kids reading in Chinese) is really exciting.

You can see more about this highly respected program at the link below. If your district can’t afford to send teachers, this would be a good one for parents to fund raise for!

Summer Institutes for Immersion Teachers

CARLA also offers these popular institutes that are designed specifically for immersion educators (K–12) and immersion program leaders:

Character Literacy Development in Mandarin ImmersionNEW!
June 20-24, 2016
Presenters: Tara Fortune, Luyi Lien, Haomin Zhang.

Immersion 101: An Introduction to Immersion Teaching
July 11-15, 2016
Presenters: Tara Fortune and a team of veteran immersion teachers

Meeting the Challenges of Immersion Education: Teacher Collaboration for Integrating Language and Content in Grades 5–12NEW! 

July 18-22, 2016
Presenter: Roy Lyster


The summer institutes have been developed and are offered with support, in part, from the U.S. Department of Education’s Title VI Language Resource Center program. The summer institutes are co-sponsored by the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development and College of Liberal Arts.

Alhambra, NE of Los Angeles, adds Mandarin immersion

January 27, 2016

Dual Immersion Program at Alhambra Unified School District

January 26th, 2016 by Monrovia Weekly

In AUSD's new Dual Immersion Mandarin and Spanish programs, students will be immersed in both English and the partner languages. – Photo by Jody Dowell, Instructional Specialist, Marguerita Elementary School

By May S. Ruiz

There has been a sea change in the employment landscape in the past decade as evidenced by shifts in what is available to people looking for work. Some positions that today’s youth would one day fill might not even exist yet, or may be located in foreign countries.

The Alhambra Unified School District (AUSD) has been actively finding opportunities for its student population to be ready for 21st century job requirements. This fall, AUSD is rolling out its Dual Immersion Program to add to its slate of initiatives to make their students competitive in the global community.

Leading this charge is Jim Schofield, program director. He says, “Dual immersion is critical because future jobs could be in other parts of the globe. More and more, we do business with other countries, and knowledge of the local language is essential. An employee who can speak, read, and write in the dialect is much more valuable to the company.”

Schofield cites research to advance the case for dual immersion, “Although the majority of the world is bilingual, statistics show that only 17 percent of Americans speak another language; 56 percent of Europeans and 36 percent of Brits do. Being bilingual puts one on a higher tier in the American job market.

“Health-wise,” continues Schofield, “it protects one against diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. A 2012 study conducted by the University of California, San Diego, revealed that of the 44 elderly participants who could speak both Spanish and English, those with higher proficiency in both languages were less likely to have early onset of either disease. While it doesn’t necessarily mean that being bilingual is the magic cure-for-all, it may help keep diseases at bay longer. Besides, it makes for a more enriching cultural experience; and being able to communicate is the best feeling in the world.”

Please read more here.

Zhu ni shengri kuaile! Father of Pinyin turns 110

January 15, 2016

For parents who don’t read Chinese, we have Mr. Zhou to thank for at least having a fighting chance when we help our kids with homework.


Zhu ni shengri kuaile! Father of Pinyin turns 110 years old, celebrates with a strawberry-topped cake


Meet Zhou Youguang, he just turned 110 years old on January 13th. In his younger days, he created the Pinyin system that is used to teach the Chinese language today.

According to his publisher, Zhou celebrated the big 110 (or 111 by his counting) with his niece, nephew in law, nurse, a pink princess hat and a sizeable cake topped off with some strawberries. Personally, he didn’t care much about his own birthday saying “it is of no importance at all,” but to all scholars, linguists and Chinese language learners across the world, it should be a pretty big deal.

Nicknamed the “father of Pinyin”, Zhou was born into a wealthy aristocratic family in 1906 near the last years of the Qing dynasty. He then went on to study in elite universities in both Shanghai and Japan.

Please read more here.

Some tips on building a Chinese library

January 5, 2016

A bilingual mom’s got a nice blog series going about about building up a Chinese library for her bilingual kids. Note that she’s from Taiwan and is only talking about books in traditional characters. This won’t be helpful to folks with kids in programs that teach simplified, which are the majority in the U.S. But even so it’s a nice overview of some of the issues and gives you some insight into what’s available and what to look for.


Building A Chinese Library for the Kids

Now that both kids are reading, suddenly it seems that my Chinese Collection is no longer enough so meet their needs.   I’ve been crossing my eyes the last few nights trying to find more level-appropriate books for the children.  I think it’s time to document what we have in our library, what I really love and recommend, and what I’m looking to buy for my own reference.  As much as I love Evernote, it’s hard to wade through months of bookmarks at a time.

I was all set to start listing books I really like and recommend, but then remembered where I was when I started buying books for Thumper, 8 years ago.  I had no idea that children’s books are a field in itself.  There’s also the issue that building a Chinese library for kids in the US is a difficult task.  So this post is turning into a series of posts instead.

I will start with a background on the books (this post), then talk about local and not so local libraries, some popular authors and publishers if you had a limited time to find books, then basically go shelf by shelf, category by category, in my current collection,  Maybe end with where and how to buy books for the budget conscious.

Please read more here.

Popular immersion program in Fremont, CA moves in to middle school

January 3, 2016

Parents in Fremont have been pushing  for several years now to insure that their program continues through junior high school. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the school and speaking with parents there and I know how hard they’ve been working on this. Thankfully, their school district has agreed. Congrats to Fremont!

You can read the district’s full statement here. The important points are these:

  • The Board accepted CIPCF’s recommendation to include two core Mandarin classes for all immersion students from day 1, rather than starting with only one core class in the first year (provided there are a minimum of 15 students for the class).
  • Provide an optional 7th period as either a 0 period (proposed) or 7 period (board member suggestion) to immersion students so they can still take an elective class like other students.
  • The staff recommended Hopkins Junior High in the Mission San Jose attendance area to host the programs.
  • Spanish Immersion Program Jr. High starts in fall 2016 and Mandarin in fall 2017– all current Mandarin students will have the opportunity to continue to Junior High.

It’s great news that the students will have the possibility of an additional period so they can take an elective class. In many programs, including San Francisco’s Aptos Middle School, Mandarin is students’ elective, so they can’t take band or theater or other electives that their non-immersion peers are able to.

From the San Jose Mercury News:

Spanish and Mandarin immersion classes to be offered in Fremont junior high schools

Spanish and Mandarin immersion programs will be rolled out to junior high schools over the next three years, the Fremont Unified School District’s Board of Education has decided.

The school board voted unanimously Oct. 28 to expand the popular immersion programs that currently are taught at elementary schools.

At that meeting, parents extolled the benefits of extending dual immersion to junior high schools.

Some parents said they’d like to see the Spanish immersion program made more challenging and asked that the district do a better job of communicating the program’s expectations and goals.

One Fremont student addressed the board in Chinese as board Trustee Yang Shao translated.

Please read more here.


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