Chinese schoolhouse in southern Italy helps children remember origins

09:29, December 16, 2010      

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San Giorgio Jonico is a medium-sized town near the southern Italian port city of Taranto, one of the largest container hubs in the Mediterranean. Here the local Chinese community has integrated well into the city's social and business life, running shops, boutiques, restaurants and pharmacies.

But what makes San Giorgio Jonico unique is that despite being a peripheral small town far from Rome and other big cities, it hosts a one-room Chinese schoolhouse where 28 Chinese kids, aged 6 to 12, gather to learn the Chinese language, traditions and culture.

If it weren't for her Asian features, 12-year-old Anna Wong could be mistaken for a native Italian child by her accent. Born in San Giorgio Jonico from Chinese immigrants who now run a business, Anna speaks fluent Pugliese -- the local dialect of the Apulia region -- but her Chinese is poor. Her parents fear that she might grow up one day forgetting her country of origin, the language of her ancestors and what it means to be a Chinese.

"Children who are born and live here all their life may tend to forget their cultural background, especially their mother tongue, and we don't want this to happen," said Shen Peng, 34, director and co-founder of the Chinese schoolhouse.

Peng, who came to Italy 10 years ago, is a tenor. In the morning he studies music at a local conservatory, and in the afternoon he turns into a music tutor for the Chinese kids, including his own daughter and son.

What he has done for the local Chinese children is indeed impressive. The school stands as a perfect example of integration: in the morning the Chinese kids attend regular Italian public school and in the afternoon they "switch" to the Chinese courses, which take place in the same building.

According to Peng, having pupils of different ages all together in one single classroom is not a problem.

"The pupils follow different levels, both in the Chinese language and music classes, which are the only two subjects we currently teach. They make constant progress, get along well with one another and grow up together. It's important to nourish their Chinese background and social habitat because they must never forget China," he said.

Xide Lu, 47, is one of the founders of the schoolhouse. He also owns a Chinese clothing store in San Giorgio.

Having lived in Italy for 20 years, Lu is aware of the risk that most young Chinese born in Italy from immigrant parents face - - losing touch with their country of origin and probably never having the chance to visit China.

"We don't want these kids to forget the Chinese language. They can't afford to go to China each time to learn it but with this school we have found a good remedy," he explained.

The afternoon lessons run for just two and a half hours, three times per week, so as to not overload the students with work, especially the youngest ones. The kids are expected to attend the schoolhouse for a minimum of three year.

Peng hopes that next year Chinese math courses will also be introduced, but more tutors are needed. Now there are only two -- Peng for music and another for the Chinese language.

The San Giorgio one-room schoolhouse was inaugurated in June after the success of a similar initiative in a nearby town.

"Both the parents and the kids are very satisfied. The parents are sure that their children will definitely learn the Chinese language and culture, while the children are happy and have fun here," said Peng.

Anna and her classmates also get to participate in the local Chinese community's social events.

In August, two Chinese warships arrived at the port of Taranto after patrolling the Gulf of Aden on anti-piracy missions. For the special occasion, some 400 Chinese immigrants from all over Italy rushed to the southern town to greet the visiting fleet.

Peng took the San Giorgio Chinese class to the dock, where the girls and boys lined up proudly, holding flower bouquets and waving Chinese flags. For the kids it was an exciting moment.

"The Chinese warships represent my motherland," said Anna. "It' s like part of my family and I feel honored to welcome them in Italy."

Source: Xinhua

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