Grand Rapids Chinese Language School: Speaking the dialect of diversity

For the past 28 years, the Grand Rapids Chinese Language School (GRCLS) has provided opportunity for families of Chinese descent to learn about and celebrate their heritage. The school has also served as a beacon of diversity and inclusion throughout West Michigan. Started by a group of Chinese American parents who wanted their children to learn the language, the original school met in these families’ homes. As student numbers increased, the program expanded into a succession of local churches and, then, City High-Middle School. For the past 10 years, Grand Valley State University (GVSU) has hosted the school at its downtown Eberhard Center. Currently, more than 100 students ages pre-k through adult attend the Saturday afternoon sessions.

“We do see more and more diversity in our students,” says Yilin Liu, principal. “For instance, we have quite a number of younger kids from biracial families, with one parent from here and one from China, and also adoptees — Chinese children adopted by white parents who want their children to keep their culture and heritage. We also have African-American, Indian, and Korean students.”

For GRCLS, diversity was no accident. Through its association with the West Michigan Asian American Association, the school has intentionally reached out to a wide range of ethnicities and groups in the area. They have taken active roles at Grand Rapids’ various cultural events, like the Polish and Hispanic festivals, as well as in collaborations with organizations like John Ball Park Zoo and American Red Cross of West Michigan.

“Diversity and inclusion is such an important issue,” Liu says. “We all need to be more aware, get the message out that we are open to everyone. We welcome everyone who is interested in taking a Chinese class or learning about Chinese culture. We also try our best to keep tuition relatively low so more people can afford to come.”

The school’s curriculum has diversified, as well. In addition to language classes, GRCLS offers cultural enrichment through Chinese music, dance, and art instruction. Teachers include graduates and interns from GVSU’s Chinese language program and Ferris State University.

“Our teachers are pretty diverse, as well. They are from different organizations, university backgrounds, and include white, South Korean, and LGBTQ,” Liu says. “We not only welcome all people to learn with us. We also welcome everyone who has a passion to teach to teach for us.”

Since it’s tough to keep kids engaged in studies on Saturday afternoons, teachers strive to present a fun, energetic curriculum that is informed by ongoing teacher training.

“We provide standardized teacher training twice every year to provide teachers information, invite expert professors to train our teachers, and give them ideas how to engage students,” Liu says. “We structure [the school’s] classes so the first two hours are regular instruction and the third hour is a special interest class … folk dancing, chess, martial arts, painting, singing, and even drama.”

A supporter of the school since it first began and current board member, Yili Bonarski notes that due to the global business climate, more people than ever are interested in learning about Chinese language and culture. New students can enroll starting January 11, 2020, when the next semester begins.

“Interest in China is growing really fast right now. Businesses want to be bi-lingual. A lot of young students want to travel to China and teach English for a year or two,” she says. “Students in the adult classes may already have a full-time job, a profession here that requires that they know the language and culture. Maybe they married into a Chinese family, or maybe they are going to work in China.”

“For our community, culturally, it is most important that we learn firsthand about other countries, through their language and their culture,” Liu concludes. “This is how people learn how to live together.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor

Photos courtesy Grand Rapids Chinese Language School

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