Jinrong Wu drives nearly two hours from her home in St. Augustine every Sunday so her 13-year-old daughter can learn Mandarin, and she herself master how to play a Chinese instrument.
They do so at Hua Gen Chinese School, a nonprofit organization which rents classrooms at Oak Hall School in Gainesville.
Though Wu, 44, became a U.S. permanent resident more than 10 years ago, she wants to be sure her daughter, Grace Zhao, connects with their Chinese roots.
“If you are not rooting, then basically you are nobody,” said Wu, a banking business analyst.
More than 200 children and 60 of their parents take part in classes focusing on Mandarin and Chinese culture at Hua Gen. The parents and its teachers and administrators say the school helps to mitigate the culture gap in Chinese families as portrayed in the 2019 movie “The Farewell”.
Mark Qi makes the 45 minute trip from Ocala so his 13-year-old son Eric can learn Chinese.
“I don’t want him to be a pure American,” said Qi, 55, a real estate business owner. “I want him to know where I came from, but it’s hard.”
A few years ago, when his family lived in New Orleans, where he was a U.S. Department of Defense consultant, Qi was surprised to hear his daughter Andrea, then 9, say one night at dinner that she was Hispanic. He soon found a Chinese school for her to attend there each weekend.
When they moved to Ocala in 2010, Andrea enrolled at Hua Gen.
“I am glad my daughter can talk and text me Chinese after going to the Chinese school,” Qi said.
The Chinese School Association in the United States and National Council of Associations of Chinese Language Schools report there are 531 registered Chinese schools nationwide.
Two of the 11 schools in Florida are in Gainesville. While Hua Gen is run by Chinese Americans, the Gainesville Chinese School is organized by Taiwanese Americans. That school only has 11 students and meets at the Oaks Church on Archer Road in Gainesville.
Maria Coady, an associate professor at the University of Florida College of Education, said heritage language programs generally do a good job of reconnecting people to their lineages.
“It could be a language kids or parents just want to learn,” Coady said, “but it’s normally some kind of relationship between the language and the learner.”
Before sending Grace to Hua Gen, Wu spent a year teaching her daughter Mandarin at home. The mother said she realized a structured Chinese heritage school – including classes, teachers, homework and extracurricular activities – might be more helpful.
At Hua Gen, parents can learn such things as calligraphy, yoga and Zumba, dance and music in adult classes. For Wu, learning to play a Zither, a Chinese plucked string instrument with a 2,500-year history, is as much an emotional release as it is a cultural reconnection.
“The more time I spend overseas, the more I wish to pick up what I adopt from my home country,” she said, adding that she plays the instrument whenever she misses her family from mainland China. “There is no replacement for it.”
Hua Gen also has a language class for adults who are not native Chinese native speakers.
Automotive technician Jason Canova, 44, of Starke, began learning Mandarin at Hua Gen in September. His wife Peijie Canova, 38, and stepdaughter Manduo Wei, 10, are Chinese; he and the girl had attended a Chinese school in Jacksonville for about a year and a half prior.
Although his wife and Maoduo can speak English well, Canova said he is taking classes at Hua Gen because, “I think it will be good to communicate a little better with them.”
Eleven of Hua Gen’s 14 teachers are parents of current or former students there, said Yao Dai, who became the school’s principal in 2017 after having served on its governing committee.
“They are not professional, but they know how to handle kids,” said Dai, a research assistant professor in the radiation oncology department of the UF College of Medicine.
Penghua Wang, who lives in Gainesville and worked for a hospital in China, has taught at Hua Gen for 12 years. She had no prior teaching background, but leads the 11th grade Chinese class, the highest level at Hua Gen.
Wang uses Chinese essays, poems and idioms to teach her students. Since most of the content is hard to understand, her handouts always come with English annotation and Pinyin. After class, she sends emails to parents with a class summary and homework.
“It’s not their native language, so most students are still too shy to speak it,” Wang said.
Michi Liu teaches at Gainesville Chinese School after having served as its principal for 10 years. Her students are between 3 and 8 years old, which means Liu, 59, must engage them with instructional games, so they stay focused during three hours of study each Sunday.
“Every class is a challenge,” she said, adding that “we use games, crafts, songs, sometimes dancing in the classes to increase the vocabulary.”
Andrea Bohorquez, 38, a native of Colombia, enrolled her daughter Isabella Mendoza, 6, at Gainesville Chinese to help cultivate the girl’s appreciation for cultural diversity.
They used to live in Indiana, and Isabella really wanted to understand their Chinese neighbors there when they spoke the foreign language, Bohorquez said.
After a Sunday afternoon of studying and other fun activities, Isabella said: “Chinese is one of my favorite languages. My others are Spanish, French, German and Swahili and English.”
Another student, Jonathan Zheng, 14, of Gainesville, said his eight years of learning Mandarin at Hua Gen have definitely connected him more to his heritage.
“My grandparents are still in China – now I can answer them without only ‘yes’ and ‘no,’” he said.
Jonathan added: “I want to try my best for my class because my mom is the teacher. I don’t want to disappoint her.”