Text by Jennifer Poff Cooper
Photos courtesy of Blacksburg Chinese School
When Chinese school started in Blacksburg, some of its current younger teachers were not even born. The school recently celebrated its 35th anniversary, the culmination of seeds planted decades ago in the dining room of Virginia Tech architecture professor Joseph Wang, Ph.D. The motivation was to teach American born children how to read and write Chinese. This little group grew into three classes as more Chinese-American faculty moved to the New River Valley. In 1979, Mrs. Sylvia Wong registered the group with the IRS as Chinese School of VPI in Blacksburg, and she became the first principal.
The first group of Chinese professors at Virginia Tech came from Taiwan, though they were born in mainland China. After the student protest and movement on China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, many mainlanders moved to the United States. The mainlanders occupied only one classroom when they were invited to join Chinese school classes at the Cranwell International Center about 13 years ago, according to Blacksburg Chinese School (BCS) president I-Mo Fu. Now, she says, the majority of the students come from mainland Chinese families.
The Chinese school originally received books and funding from the Overseas Office of the Taiwan Government. “While Blacksburg Chinese School teachers participate in training provided by both Chinese and Taiwanese governments, BCS currently receives no monetary support from either Chinese or Taiwanese governments,” says Fu. In 2010, with Xiaojin Moore’s effort, Blacksburg Chinese School registered as a non-for profit 501(c)(3) organization. Its main sources of revenue now come from student tuition, Kroger Community Rewards (which donates 5 percent of Kroger purchases back to BCS) and private donations. Supporters may also sign up for Amazon Smile, a new program in which Amazon donates 0.5 percent of the price of Amazon purchases to BCS.
In the past four decades, the Chinese language instruction has moved from a private home, to Virginia Tech campus, to local public schools, and now into the New River Valley community. With its language and culture programs continuing to expand, for the first time BCS is renting commercial space in the New River Valley Community Services building on University City Boulevard to fulfill its need for classrooms. “Lack of space for teaching and cultural activity is our biggest hurdle now,” Fu states. “We are looking for affordable space. We lost our regular space at the Cranwell International Center when it moved on campus. Although we are in the Cranwell’s future plans, we need space now.”
BCS has approximately 45 students in 13 classes in four local schools, including after-school weekend programs. In addition to language training for children and adults (Mandarin is the official language of both Taiwan and China), BCS offers cultural classes such as dance, public speaking, Chinese yoyo, Chinese instruments and art. This summer BCS started a pilot program of bilingual Parents and Me for pre-schoolers. Summer camps are available, and BCS’s programs fill a need for Chinese language training that is not met in public schools.
Its mission is to promote cultural awareness and harmony and to be an active, contributing member of the diverse community. BCS strives to foster connections in the New River Valley through regular cultural activities and events. Students perform annually in Chinese New Year and mid-autumn festival celebrations at Virginia Tech and Radford University, and they have taken part in the Blacksburg Holiday Parade, receiving first and second place awards in different categories.
The staff is composed of community helpers and dedicated language and culture instructors. While teachers are paid, those who work out logistics and keep track of finances, like Fu, are unpaid volunteers. “I would like to pay all the staff with monetary compensation or time credit toward tuition,” Fu says. Most of the teachers and staff were born in China or Taiwan, with most of the pupils being American born. “We have increasing numbers of non-Chinese parents interested in our programs.”
Fellowship with other students is one of the biggest draws of BCS. Fu points out proudly that “through the years, older children become like older sisters and brothers for the younger ones, and BCS becomes one big extended family.”