LAKE WYLIE — A rodeo man, a Chinese teacher and a congressman walk into a preschool. They’re greeted uniformly – “ni hao!”
No, it isn’t the start of a bad joke or worse movie script. It’s Friday at the River Hills Community Church preschool, where dozens of students are learning a language some feel will be critical to their success. “Ni hao” means “hello” in Chinese.
“They’re going to be great ambassadors for us for many years to come,” said Carrie Tucker, who, along with husband Richard, helped establish a Chinese curriculum at the preschool. “[Speaking] Chinese is the future for our country and for our young people.”
The Tuckers live in River Hills but travel throughout China for rodeo and other business events. They’ve also partnered in recent years with Furman University to provide scholarships through its Asian Studies Department. Their goal is to have Chinese taught in public schools by the time at least some of the preschoolers in the new program begin first grade.
“This is a small way to get started,” Carrie Tucker said. “If we don’t equip our children to be competitive, we all lose.”
The idea behind Chinese instruction is that industrialization there will increase opportunities for Americans versed in the language and culture. Chinese children are required to learn English, and the Tuckers hope efforts such as the one at the church preschool will help local children keep pace.
U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-Indian Land, chatted with students and staff at the ribbon-cutting event Friday. Competition in a global workforce is at or near the point of requiring proficiency in at least one foreign language already, he said. Otherwise, would-be workers put themselves at a “tremendous disadvantage.”
“The opportunities that will open to these children because of this program are immeasurable,” he said.
Educational opportunities are at stake, too.
Annually, the Tuckers look for students willing to study in China for scholarships, and they aren’t the only ones.
“They’re begging people who know Chinese to come, to further their education,” Richard Tucker said of schools there.
Ke Wang instructs about 40 children once a week, and the program could expand to daily lessons. The 4-year-olds will learn colors, shapes and numbers, along with cultural lessons. Students already have some basic greetings down in the first couple of weeks.
Wang does get some interesting feedback, such as the first time she told one student that the class would be learning Chinese.
“I don’t like Chinese,” Wang recalled the student saying. “I like pizza better.”
Church music director Kevin Gray, also music leader for the preschool, plans to teach Chinese music when possible. Music can be the “universal language,” he said, and students can learn of instruments and scale structures used in China.
“I haven’t learned to sing in Chinese yet,” Gray said.
Students are taking basic steps, and leaders say the key is to promote opportunities as they grow, such as Chinese in public schools throughout the county and state. The church hopes that its preschool program could be an example for others looking to implement something similar.
“This is where it starts,” Richard Tucker said.