BERKELEY — Moses Hardin isn’t Chinese. But when the Jefferson Elementary student asks to visit the restroom during class time, chances are his teacher will want his request in Cantonese.
Hardin, a kindergartener in Anna X.L. Wong’s class, is enrolled in a special Chinese bicultural program in Berkeley public schools.
He didn’t know one word of Chinese at the beginning of the school year, but after three weeks he could count to 10, say “clap your hands” and “wash your hands” in Cantonese and tell you what was wrong with Big Bear, the character in a book Wong read to the class in Cantonese.
“Big Bear is trying to get some sleep because it is too noisy,” he translated as he busily put a puzzle together.
Starting as kindergarteners, kids immediately hear stories and lessons in both English and Cantonese. They learn to count in Cantonese and write the brush symbols for the different numbers. They learn several words and simple phrases.
They celebrate Chinese cultural holidays as well as those celebrated by other cultures. They even learn the disciplined physical exercise of tai chi.
“Usually most love it, or at least play along,” Wong said. “Only about four don’t get it.”
By the time they reach third grade, the students are learning about Chinese inventors, how to use an abacus for counting, and China’s pulation is small, and Asians are not concentrated in any one neighborhood, such as Oakland’s Chinatown.
Last year Wong had about 10 kids of Asian descent in her class, this year she has barely more than five.
Parents must approve their child’s enrollment in the program. Sometimes kids have to be turned away because there isn’t enough room. Rarely is it the other way around.
“I think it’s great if he learns another language,” said Jonathan Scott, whose son Kenji Scott, 5, is enrolled in Wong’s class. Kenji’s mom is Japanese, and the youngster has dual citizenship and speaks a little Japanese and Spanish.