Our Weekend at Chinese Culture Camp

‘I was surprised when I felt very emotional watching Stella learn Tai Chi sword dancing, dumpling making, and calligraphy with such delight and positive feelings about all things related to China.’

By Robin Pinto

Our daughter Stella, from Suixi in Guangdong Province, is almost five years old. My husband, John, and I are Caucasian, and Stella is our only child. Before we went to China in March 2005, our agency and the state of New Hampshire required us to participate in two days of pre-adoption classes. Most, if not all, of the ten or so couples were adopting children internationally so many of our discussions had to do with raising a child that was ethnically, culturally or racially different than we are. All of us felt that it is very important to honor our child’s birth culture.

Living in Hanover, New Hampshire we are very fortunate to have Dartmouth College near us, with its Dartmouth Asian Organization (DAO). Students with DAO volunteer to be Big Pals to Asian children in the community (and even to siblings of Asian children.) The DAO Big and Little Pals get together once or twice a month during the school year for fun and cultural activities, such as making kites or spring rolls, and a traditional Korean dancer in full costume amazed an audience of more than 30 children. Several times each year, the DAO puts on Culture Nights with skits, dancing, martial arts demonstrations, music and a Chinese dinner. For Chinese New Year, the students do an amazing Dragon Dance, taught to them by a Chinese dance Troupe.

Our family has enjoyed and greatly benefited from the dedication of the Dartmouth College students bringing Chinese culture to our family. The DAO students also teach Chinese language classes weekly during the School year. We tried this – and have a picture of Stella dressed up for her first day at Dartmouth College – but we decided to wait until Stella is a little older to participate. We know that by ourselves we cannot meet Stella’s need to have her Chinese heritage honored and brought into her everyday life.

In the spring, I read the FCC-NE postcard item about a weekend Chinese Culture Camp at the Common Ground Center in Starksboro, Vermont. (This turned out to be the third Chinese Culture Camp held at this center.) Since John works every weekend, I’m always looking for fun things to do with Stella, so I signed up to go and reserved a cabin for us to stay in.

Arriving at Chinese Culture Camp

We arrived Friday afternoon at four o’clock and were given a schedule for the weekend’s events, a list of names for the participants and staff, and directions to our cabin. Off we went in search of the cabin with the door painted like a Jersey cow. Our cabin had a set of bunk beds and a twin bed. Stella immediately decided she would sleep in the top bunk, which fortunately had a safety railing. Our cabin was linked to another, but since the other side was empty that weekend, Stella found a sliding door that we opened to enjoy double the space. The entry door had a sailboat painted on it and Stella delighted in deciding which door we would go in and which we would go out.

The cabins are about a four-minute walk from the main buildings. Along the way there is a huge play structure that was enjoyed by all the kids during the weekend. We went to the screen porch and made nametags and decorated cardboard boxes that were to be used for our stuff (art projects, sunscreen, cameras, etc) during the weekend. More and more families joined us in making our crafts. Kate and Rhoen, both college bound young adults with experience with the Chinese language and culture were helping us with the crafts. After we made our nametags and finished our box, Stella wanted to check out the cooking in the Farmhouse. We headed over and learned how to and helped to make Chinese Pork Dumplings. Our teacher was Rong, born in China, working as an engineer for IBM in Vermont.

We had a delicious vegetarian dinner, served cafeteria style. Dinner was fantastic and plentiful. We ate in a big dining room at long tables and that fostered meeting other people. After dinner we had an orientation on the big hill just behind the main buildings. We sat in a circle and introduced ourselves. Cai Silver, a lovely woman born in China, married to an American, Adam, and mother of beautiful 10-year old Leah, led the group in songs. Just before dark, we enjoyed freshly cooked, delicious dumplings. We barely put our heads on our pillows before we fell asleep.

Saturday started with Chinese exercises on the hill. Cai reviewed body part names, counting and the exercises themselves before turning on the music. These exercises are done everyday by school children in China. Most of the adults and some of the children participated. All of Saturday was filled with Tai Chi sword making, tumbling, Chinese language and games, Chinese knotting, pottery painting, a walk to the creek for a dip, scallion pancake making, delicious meals and an after dinner performance by the Vermont Chinese School dancers. Stella and I did all these things together.

I managed to squeeze in some Mah Jongg lessons from Rhoen. I have always wanted to learn to play real Mah Jongg. After the first lesson Saturday morning, a foursome was always playing in the dining room so I could float in and out to practice. The game itself is not complicated, kind of like Gin Rummy, but set up and scoring are quite complicated and Rhoen kindly gave us cheat sheets to take home.

I was disappointed to miss a talk Saturday called “A History of Modern China for Beginners,” though I did have lunch with the speaker, who was there with his wife and four-year old daughter. He was born in China and lives in Vermont, and promised to come back next year to speak again about modern China. By then, they will have their second daughter from China. That evening, we enjoyed a campfire, singing and s’mores before another great night’s sleep.

We awoke Sunday to the threat of showers but managed to get our morning exercise and cars packed before it rained. Another delicious breakfast was followed by kid’s activities in the building called Kidville, where the children and some of the adults were preparing for what is called The Big Show, an event after lunch for all to perform a talent they have learned over the weekend or share a song or dance. Mostly it was an opportunity to laugh together. The younger children showed off some tumbling, and Cai lead the children in a Tai Chi sword dance to music. Some of the mothers sang, and one family sang a song about their cat. It was a fun way to get ready to depart. Many hugs later we were on our way home, filled with fond memories and anticipation for next year’s Chinese Culture Camp.

There was some opportunity for adults to be together, without their children, but this was more likely to work for parents of older children. The staff was willing to watch Stella so I could enjoy more adult activities, such as Mah Jongg, and I really enjoyed talking with the other parents. As adoptive parents, we have a bond and a shared goal of bringing Chinese culture into our children’s lives. Having this bond eased our meeting of strangers and allowed us to jump right into conversations about or children and how we were trying to honor their birth heritage.

Feeling Happy – and Sad

I was surprised when I felt very emotional watching Stella learn Tai Chi sword dancing, dumpling making, and calligraphy with such delight and positive feelings about all things relating to China. Stella calls China “My China” as in when we meet another child from China, Stella will ask “My China?” Even at the age of four, she really did connect the fun, games and activities at camp with her China, and as her mom I felt pride and joy at being a part of this experience with her. At the same time, I felt sad and shed tears at the loss of her Chinese culture.

I am realistic enough to know that neither John nor I, nor even our larger community efforts, can provide Stella with the real experience of her China. We try to do our best to provide a glimpse into what life is like in China. We celebrate Lunar New Year and the Harvest Moon Festival. She has a DAO Pal and as a family we go to the wonderful offerings at Dartmouth College. We look at maps and point out where Stella was born. We have paper cuttings and other Chinese decorations in our home. Yet we know this will never be enough. Having this remarkable opportunity to attend something as wonderful as Chinese Culture Camp at Vermont’s Common Ground Center will go a long ways towards helping us keep Stella’s birth culture in her life.

The article appeared in China Connection: A Journal for New England Families Who Have Adopted Children From China, December 2008, Volume 14, Issue 2

To read more about FCC-NE. Families with Children from China - New England, please visit their website.

To learn more about the Chinese Culture Weekend, please click here.