American Kids Immersed in Chinese, Asian Education

Happy Rogers was the only American in her graduating class at Nanyang Primary School in Singapore.

Happy Rogers, age 8, stands among her classmates in the schoolyard at dismissal time, immune, it seems, to the cacophonous din. Her parents and baby sister are waiting outside, but still she lingers, engrossed in conversation. A poised and precocious blonde, Hilton Augusta Parker Rogers, nicknamed Happy, would be at home in the schoolyard of any affluent American suburb or big-city private school. But here, at the elite, bilingual Nanyang Primary School in Singapore, Happy is in the minority, her Dakota Fanning hair shimmering in a sea of darker heads. This is what her parents have traveled halfway around the world for. While her American peers are feasting on the idiocies fed to them by junk TV and summer movies, Happy is navigating her friendships and doing her homework entirely in Mandarin.

Fluency in Chinese, she says—in English—through mouthfuls of spaghetti bolognese at a Singapore restaurant, “is going to make me better and smarter.”

American parents have barely recovered from the anxiety attacks they suffered at the hands of the Tiger Mom—oh, no, my child is already 7 and she can’t play a note of Chopin—and now here comes Happy’s father, the multimillionaire American investor and author Jim Rogers, to give them something new to fret about. It is no longer enough to raise children who are brave, curious, hardworking, and compassionate. Nor is it sufficient to steer them toward the right sports, the right tutors, the right internships, and thus engineer their admittance to the right (or at least a good enough) college. According to Rogers, who in 2007 left New York’s Upper West Side to settle in Singapore with his wife, Paige Parker, and Happy (Beeland Anderson Parker Rogers, called Baby Bee, was born the next year), parents who really care about their children must also ponder this: are we doing enough to raise “global” kids?

“I’m doing what parents have done for many years,” Jim Rogers says. “I’m trying to prepare my children for the future, for the 21st century. I’m trying to prepare them as best I can for the world as I see it.” Rogers believes the future is Asia—he was recently on cable television flogging Chinese commodities. “The money is in the East, and the debtors are in the West. I’d rather be with the creditors than the debtors,” he adds.

It has become a convention of public discourse to regard rapid globalization—of economies and business; of politics and conflict; of fashion, technology, and music—as the great future threat to American prosperity. The burden of meeting that challenge rests explicitly on our kids. If they don’t learn—now—to achieve a comfort level with foreign people, foreign languages, and foreign lands, this argument goes, America’s competitive position in the world will continue to erode, and their future livelihood and that of subsequent generations will be in jeopardy. Rogers is hardly the only person who sees things this way. “In this global economy, the line between domestic and international issues is increasingly blurred, with the world’s economies, societies, and people interconnected as never before,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in remarks in the spring of 2010 at the Asia Society in New York. “I am worried that in this interconnected world, our country risks being disconnected from the contributions of other countries and cultures.”

Despite Duncan’s articulate urgency (and the public example of Rogers and a few others like him), America is so far utterly failing to produce a generation of global citizens. Only 37 percent of Americans hold a passport. Fewer than 2 percent of America’s 18 million college students go abroad during their undergraduate years—and when they do go, it’s mostly for short stints in England, Spain, or Italy that are more like vacations. Only a quarter of public primary schools offer any language instruction at all, and fewer high schools offer French, German, Latin, Japanese, or Russian than they did in 1997. The number of schools teaching Chinese and Arabic is so tiny as to be nearly invisible.

Meanwhile, 200 million Chinese schoolchildren are studying English. South Korean parents recently threw a collective hissy fit, demanding that their children begin English instruction in first grade, rather than in second. Nearly 700,000 students from all over the world attended U.S. universities during the 2009–10 school year, with the greatest increases in kids from China and Saudi Arabia. “Not training our kids to be able to work and live in an international environment is like leaving them illiterate,” says David Boren, the former U.S. senator and current president of the University of Oklahoma. The gap between our ambition and reality yawns wide.

There is no consensus on remedies. According to a white paper issued in 2009 by the Institute on International Education, most colleges and universities say they want to increase participation in study-abroad programs, but only 40 percent are actually making concerted efforts to do so. Long immersion programs are expensive, and in an environment of tough statewide budget cuts, students and professors are too crunched for time to make international experience a priority. Educators disagree on which kinds of experiences are most advantageous for kids—or even what advantageous means. Is it enough for a teenager who has never traveled farther than her grandma’s house to get a passport and order a pint in a London pub? Or does she have to spend a year in Beijing, immersed in Mandarin and economic policy? Is the goal of foreign experience to learn a language or gain some special expertise—in auto engineering or peace mediation? Or is it to be of service to others by giving mosquito nets to poor children in an African village?

Jim Rogers sees an America in decline, and his solution has been to immerse himself in the countries and cultures that are ascendant. “We think we’re the world leader, but we’re not,” he says. “I don’t like saying that. I’m an American. I vote. I pay taxes. But the level of knowledge is not very high, and that’s going to hurt us, I’m afraid.” In the Rogers family’s five-bedroom bungalow, there is no TV. Instead, there are more than a dozen globes to look at and maps to ponder, a nanny and a maid who speak only Mandarin to the kids, bicycles to ride, and a new karaoke machine so the girls can learn Chinese songs.

A generation ago and as far back as Thomas Jefferson, a certain kind of child from a certain kind of family went abroad because it was done; a sojourn in Europe was as crucial to becoming a cultivated person as knowing the works of Mozart or Rembrandt. The point was to see the Great Museums, of course, but also to breathe the air—to learn to converse in another tongue, to adapt to the rhythms of another place. Hemingway did this, of course, but so did Benjamin Franklin and Johnny Depp. This is what Pamela Wolf, who just returned to New York City with her husband and children from a year in Barcelona, did. She enrolled her teenagers in an international school, where they made friends with kids from around the world and learned to speak fluent Spanish. Her children have a global perspective not only because of their language skills but also because arriving in a new place, knowing no one, forced them to be resilient. “It’s pushing yourself out of your comfort zone,” Wolf says. “It builds a very compassionate child. While, yes, grades and academics are as important to me as anyone, you need resilience to understand and have sympathy for other people.”

Such lengthy sojourns, though, are available to only a few: the very adventurous or the very rich. Wolf and her husband are both self-employed. “Financially,” she says, “we have the great privilege of earning money while we’re away.”

Without resources and connections, a foreign experience can be a misery. Two years ago, Maribeth Henderson moved from San Antonio with her husband, her college-age son, and her adopted 5-year-old daughter, Wei Wei, to a remote part of China, in Guangdong province. Wei Wei didn’t learn much Mandarin—her school taught mainly Cantonese—and Henderson felt lonely and alienated. “It was so Chinese that I couldn’t assimilate and feel comfortable,” she says. “I couldn’t speak the language; it was hard for us to even order food in a restaurant. If you ordered a chicken, they would literally hand you a chicken. You were lucky if it wasn’t alive.” Henderson abandoned ship, returning to Texas with Wei Wei ahead of schedule and leaving her husband and son in Guangzhou. Now, though, she’s planning to try again. This summer she and Wei Wei will move to Beijing, and Henderson hopes the big city will ameliorate her former isolation. About her goal—helping Wei Wei learn Chinese—Henderson has no doubts. “For children to be competitive and successful in a global economy,” she says, “it’s important for them to be bilingual.”

For parents who want to give their children global experience while keeping them safely on the straight and narrow American path of PSATs, SATs, and stellar extracurriculars, there’s an ever-growing field of options. Immersion schools have exploded over the past 40 years, growing from none in 1970 to 440 today, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics, and Mandarin, especially, is seen among type-A parents as a twofer: a child who learns Mandarin starting at 5 increases her brain capacity and is exposed to the culture of the future through language. (One mom in San Francisco laughs when she recalls that her daughter learned about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott in Chinese.) The education entrepreneur Chris Whittle and colleagues recently announced plans for the new Avenues school, to open in New York City in September 2012 and designed to compete with the city’s most exclusive (and expensive) private schools. Its curriculum will be fully bilingual—parents choose a Mandarin or Spanish track when their kids are 3—providing the Happy Rogers experience but with all the conveniences of home. “We think that any child that graduates from high school a monoglot is automatically behind,” Whittle says. Fourteen months before the school’s doors open, Avenues has already received 1,200 applications.

Study abroad is now a prerequisite on some college campuses, and a few professional schools, especially in business and engineering, have begun to require international study as part of their curricula. Nursing students at a community college in Utah must all spend a month at a hospital in Vietnam as part of their training. But Margaret Heisel, director of the Center for Capacity Building in Study Abroad, believes that a real global education comes from a long stay in a strange place; it gives kids skills that no amount of study can teach.

My own experience proves this point. During my sophomore year in high school, my father, a university professor, moved our entire family to Amsterdam for his sabbatical year and enrolled my brothers and me in local public schools. During that glorious year, I rode my bike through city streets, learned to roll a cigarette one-handed, and eventually spoke Dutch like a 15-year-old native. (I can still say “That’s so stupid” and “This is so boring.”) We saw Stonehenge and the Rijksmuseum and drove to Burgundy for the grape harvest, but the real impact of that adventure was that I learned a degree of self-reliance—a 15-year-old girl needs to make friends and will cross any cultural boundary to do so—that I didn’t know I had.

“I think it’s liberating to some extent,” Heisel says. “It touches people in places that being in a familiar place doesn’t. It requires versatility, flexibility. It’s a different culture and it’s pressing on kids in different ways.” Baby Bee is equally at home on visits to the U.S. and in Singapore, where her father rides her to school each day on his personal pedicab. There she sings the Singapore national anthem and pledges the Singapore flag. “She’s no different from the Chinese kids,” says her teacher, Fu Su Qin. “And her Chinese is just as good.”

With reporting by Lennox Samuels in Singapore

Join the Discussion