Students of all ages present skits using their Chinese language skills.

Vermont Chinese School Celebrates The Year of The Horse

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Thursday February 06, 2014

Last weekend, you might have been making nachos and frying chicken wings for the super bowl, but others were ringing in the Chinese New Year – 4712 – one of China’s oldest festivals marking the start of the agricultural season. As they have done for the past 20 years, The Vermont Chinese School, a one-of-a-kind institution in the state, hosted their celebration at the Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School last Saturday, February 1.

According to the principal of the school, South Burlington resident George Tang, three hundred tickets were sold, filling the auditorium to full capacity with students, staff, and people from the local community and beyond. Board chair, Eric Hanson, and teacher, Mary Carpenter, were Masters of Ceremony. They introduced two drummers who performed a spine-chilling opening. Chinese legend says that loud noises ward off Nian, the mythical monster who comes out every New Year and preys on villagers. 

Guests arrived dressed in red traditional Chinese clothing. Red flashed everywhere: flowing dresses and sleeves with delicate gold embroidery patterns dating back to either the Han or Tang Dynasties. Why so much red? Chinese legend says that the intensity of the color makes Nian fearful, keeping him at bay. Students and teachers wowed the audience with stage acts, from traditional Chinese dances to skits performed completely in Chinese, by children as young as five. A professional Chinese opera singer filled the auditorium with perfect pitch and vibrato, and with stunning grace, a 93-year old woman silenced the crowd as she demonstrated an array of Tai Chi movements.

The Chinese New Year is linked to the Chinese zodiac, which is based on a 12-year cycle, with each year related to an animal sign. Why animals? The term zodiac means circle of animals. There are several stories that explain their sequence in the line-up, but suffice it to say that this is the year of the intelligent, friendly, and hard working horse. So the New Year would not have been complete without the horse mascot, who galloped onto the stage between performances, celebrating with the guests. 

Children gathered around a craft table, creating symbolic drums out of paper plates and bells. Of course, they painted them red – the entire room was awash in red:  tablecloths, paper lanterns, and elaborately decorated scrolls. There was no chance for a Nian sighting.  

People eagerly lined-up for the forty-foot spread of Chinese cuisine provided by Grand Buffet of Essex Junction and South Burlington, and Silver Palace of South Burlington. Served by the teachers of the school, there was something for everyone: sweet-and-sour chicken, glistening-gold dumplings, crunchy vegetables, and saffron-yellow fried rice.

For a dollar, everyone had a chance to win a raffle prize, with all the proceeds benefiting the Vermont Chinese School. A non-profit founded in 1990, the school is run by a staff of volunteers and board members. Fund raising manager, Jenny Xia, who stood at the raffle table throughout the event, explained that the support of IBM, SBHS, The Freeman Foundation, University of Vermont, and FHTMS, as well as many individuals, has allowed the school to maintain reasonable tuition costs.

The Vermont Chinese school offers language classes for students from all over the state, ranging from pre-school to adults. The students learn to write basic sentences and engage in cultural activities, such as calligraphy, dancing, and singing. 

When Vermonters consider learning a second language, French usually comes to mind. After all, Burlington is less than fifty miles from the Canadian border. But there’s a growing interest in learning Chinese in Vermont, and the Chinese community is growing. According to Mr. Tang, sixty-five students are currently enrolled at the Vermont Chinese School. Last year, seventy-five Chinese students were enrolled at The University of Vermont.

Mr. Tang explained the reasons why students attend the program. Most Chinese children who have been adopted by American families come to the US between four and five years of age, and their parents want their children to continue to learn their native language. So the school is a place for them to remain connected to their heritage. Parents who were born in China want their American born children to attend the school. Though they speak Chinese with their children, parents often want them to learn to read the language as well. At the celebration, I asked Mike Russell, a South Burlington resident and student at the school for the past 2 years, what influenced him to sign up for classes. “My wife is Chinese,” he said. “I want to learn her language.”  Sylvia Blakeslee, another student, said she visited China in 2002 to teach English as a Second Language and was inspired to learn Chinese. When she returned to South Burlington, she signed up for classes. She admitted that writing in Chinese is “very difficult,” but keeps in tune with the language by listening to tapes. Fortunately, the school also offers tutoring services. They offer much more …

When I spoke with Mr. Tang, he said, “When someone needs an interpreter, they come to me.” The school’s students interpret for attorneys, for hospitalized children whose parents don’t know English, and for those who have recently moved to Vermont and need help understanding how to navigate through an entirely new culture. There was no doubting Mr. Tang when he said, “I’m committed to service.” 

Just before I left the event, a guest I had met shook my hand and said, 我想在他有成功和新的一年.  I blushed because I didn’t understand him. “I wish you success in the New Year,” he clarified. I smiled, wishing I could speak his language. But it didn’t matter to him, or the other Chinese-speaking guests, because they were simply glad that I was there to celebrate with them, to learn about their culture. So, if you haven’t experienced ringing in a Chinese New Year before, mark your calendar for February 19, 2015 – the year of the sheep.

For more information on the Vermont Chinese School go to:

SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Contributor