Grace Lin is the principal of the Chinese Academy of Cleveland, a school that teaches both Simplified Chinese (used in mainland China, Malaysia and Singapore) and Traditional Chinese (used in countries like Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau). She has been in the city of Cleveland since 1994 and has seen the ebbs and flows of migration of Taiwanese individuals and families since then. Trends are also shifting as third generation Taiwanese children and adults reclaim cultural connections through heritage language learning.
Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Grace and Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) on March 17, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.
Ruth Chang (RC): How did you first arrive to Cleveland and how did you get involved with the Asian communities here?
Grace Lin (GL): Okay, so, graduating from the University of Colorado at Denver, I got a job here. The first opportunity is to join the [Chinese] Women Association of Cleveland. I was a board member since 2000. Then throughout the years, I was the president, and right now I am an advisor of the Chinese Women Association. At the school, Chinese Academy of Cleveland — I joined the school in 2007 as a teacher, teaching the adult program, teaching those kids, teaching the different grades of the classes. And as the academic director of the Chinese school, and later on, I was a board member.
Now [I’m] the principal of the Chinese Academy of Cleveland. I enjoy being in the community helping out the community. At the Chinese school, we pretty much focus on learning traditional Chinese. We have a trend right now. It’s been about 50 years. The first generation of immigrants tried to send their kids to learn Chinese. At that time, the second generation was not interested. But now we see a trend that the third generation is coming back to learn Chinese. They like their children to learn traditional Chinese, not just read and write. Basically their focus is to be able to communicate and speak to their grandparents.
We value the parents and family is very important for society, so that’s really good. In 2020, we got an opportunity [we were] invited by the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers for a performance to celebrate the Lunar New Year and it was a great experience. I helped the community sell 225 tickets, so everybody went to the Cavaliers and we had an Indigenous Taiwanese dance. That is the Neon God dance. 就是跳 “三太子” 舞。 So they had a great time. Everybody had a great time. It’s really a lifetime experience.
I’m really happy. But I’m not the one dancing. I’m the one behind the scenes, helping out the school and also the community to demonstrate our culture. My role is very important here, to continue this tradition so we can transition to the new generation.
RC: So why is it important for Taiwanese culture to be celebrated here? Are there a lot of Taiwanese and what do we give to Cleveland?
GL: Currently, we don’t have a lot of Taiwanese coming to Cleveland. What I mean is it is not like in the past, when people came directly from Taiwan. We have people coming from other states for the job. We have Cleveland Clinic here. So, a lot of professional people came here because their job. But lately, we have seen a lot of people from mainland China who still come here. In our opinion, maybe it’s because there is opportunity in Taiwan so, after school, they go to another country to study and decide to stay in that other country or go back to Taiwan.
Here [at the school], we see the trend is that the number of heritage families [taking classes] is dropping down. In the past, at the Chinese school, we proportionately had more heritage families. Then with some people, they take Chinese as a Second Language (CSL); that had less population. But, right now, it is different. More people, especially really young children — preschool age kids — they all want to experience Chinese as CSL. And those are from the families [who] do not speak Chinese at home.
RC: And what do kids get when they learn? Are there any stories from when you were teaching, what happens in their family?
GL: Oh, after they learn the language, a lot of people express to me that they like to go to visit Taiwan. They want to learn more. There are more opportunities to learn, because this is just a weekend heritage school. In order to learn Chinese more, they’d like to learn more advanced study. So, either they take AP Chinese courses, or they go to college to do further study in language. In the meantime, because we have an adult program, a lot of adults asked me about the kinds of programs available if they go to Taiwan. If you go there, every day you have to use your language. Plus it helps business when you learn Chinese. And food is part of the culture. They like the food. They like to try it.
RC: And I’m wondering specifically about learning traditional Chinese. I know the school also teaches simplified, but specifically with traditional Chinese, why is learning that important?
GL: Yes. I am very into traditional Chinese. The reason is when each character was created, it’s based on the traditional character. The meaning behind the character is very [pictorial]. You can draw the picture, like 日 is a sun. So, [the word] is the shape of the character. But when you simplify the [character] of the word, it doesn’t [represent] anything, especially when you want to demonstrate the art of Chinese. When you do calligraphy, you have to write the traditional, otherwise the simplified Chinese will not be able to represent the beauty of the character. So you’re learning the meaning of the character, you’re also showing that as part of the art. So, a lot of places are really amazed when I demonstrate Chinese calligraphy. I learned Chinese calligraphy for over six years when I was [in] elementary school. So, I demonstrate it by using a brush to write the traditional character. It’s very meaningful.
RC: You said six years?
GL: From first grade all the way to the sixth grade I learned calligraphy, and it’s pretty much using the brush to write the character. A lot of people like to use that as a bookmark. Also, of course you can draw with Chinese painting, water coloring — I also know that. But again, to write that particular character, if you know how to write the traditional, it makes a big difference, because it requires more steps, and then it shows off the beauty of the character. So that’s part of the reason we learn traditional Chinese. In the meantime, after you learn traditional Chinese, it’s very easy to go from traditional to simplified. So most people, if they learn how to do the traditional, they have no problem recognizing the simplified. It’s just a very simple transition.
RC: I know that when someone learns the language, they gain a new perspective and can make more connections with others. Is that something that you’ve seen with students, whether they’re young or adults? Did young people regain connection to their heritage in a place that otherwise doesn’t have any Chinese connection?
GL: Yes, I did see that happening. And that’s the reason at the beginning, I stated that the third generation is coming back because the second generation failed to learn [the heritage language]. They lost that opportunity and right now, although it’s more difficult, they realize the value of learning more than one language. So, they’re sending their kids back. And they want to reconnect with the community by learning the culture as well. The whole family feels that it’s really good to connect the two generations together instead of just by themselves.
With learning Chinese, they also understand the philosophy better, because now they are more mature and they know the family values. In the past, maybe they didn’t realize, but now the whole world is connected together. There are a lot of opportunities for doing business — whether it is connecting with the economic development or connecting with people. If you learn an additional language, it gives you more opportunity, no matter if you use it or not, or even just use [it] for travel purposes. A lot of people learn the language [because] they want to travel, because now they feel they are equipped. They can go there without a translator or interpreter.
RC: So, your daughters, your children are here.
GL: Yes, my daughters. I have two daughters. They were all born here in Cleveland.
RC: How do they feel in terms of identity? Do they feel like, “I’m totally American,” or “Taiwnese,” or “Chinese?”
GL: Yes. Very good question. My children — they are mixed. My ex-husband is Lebanese. He’s also the third generation, but he doesn’t speak Arabic. And the kids, since they [were] young, I already [taught] them Chinese. So my daughter — she learned how to speak Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese. At school, she learned Spanish. I feel kids are like a sponge. Since she already graduated from the Chinese Academy of Cleveland, she had a solid foundation of speaking, and going back to high school she just needed to make sure the reading and writing are all there. Now she’s seeing herself as mixed and she never hesitates to tell them, she’s half Taiwanese — she’s not Chinese — she’s half Taiwanese and she’s half Lebanese. But she has a lot of friends. She is friends with all the Asian friends. She also has all the friends here. So, the whole world. She’s not just looking at Asians only. She considers herself as both. She loves Taiwan, too. She loved to travel there, she had the opportunity to go there with her friends, they all enjoyed it very much.
RC: One of my final questions, what can Cleveland gain from other cultures like Taiwan?
GL: Cleveland and Taipei are sister cities. That has been created for a long time. There is a Chinese garden right by University Circle with a Confucius statue there. I am hoping with all this sister relationship, it can continue to renew and have more opportunities for students to come to Cleveland and also economic development. I’ve lived here since 1994. I see the different mayors, different changes. But compared to other cities, I don’t see a large improvement economically speaking. I feel with the educational opportunity, it also [can] create economic opportunities for the community. So, there are things we have. Taipei is very advanced in computers. Now with Mayor Bibb, he’s also talking about Smart City. I hope that the two cities can connect together, then we can work together with more opportunities — not just real estate, but also for more business opportunities. We are here in Asia Plaza. But we need more and bigger ones. You go to Houston, everything is huge — and not just one plaza, but multiple plazas. That creates an opportunity for everybody to get to know each other, to come to visit, to dine, to eat, to do everything together. So, I feel somehow that kind of “sister city relationship” can reunite us for more economic growth support or educational opportunities. That’s truly what I hope.