A VOICE FROM THE GN CHINESE ASSOCIATION
I once had a conversation with a young non-Chinese mother in the playground. After I told her that I am originally from China, she asked me if it was the norm for Chinese grandparents to come to the States to look after their grandchildren. She had a few Chinese coworkers whose parents and in-laws took turns living with them every six months. I thought about her question for a minute and acknowledged that it was probably true to some extent. She then exclaimed, “Isn’t that amazing?!” Her eyes sparkled with envy, which stirred up mixed feelings in me.
I wish I could have replied to her with a lighthearted “yes,” but there was no simple answer. As a first-generation immigrant, sometimes the only help we can enlist is our aging parents from overseas. It is challenging to live with one’s own parents or in-laws as an adult, Chinese or not. It is exacerbating helping them, most of whom do not speak English at all, assimilate into American life while we are struggling with assimilation on our own. During my mom’s stay with me, her complaint of the “dull” and “inconvenient” life here in the States has been a staple topic at our kitchen table. I finally breathed a sigh of relief one day when she started talking about her classes and friends at the Great Neck Social Center with excitement.
Located at 80 Grace Ave., the Great Neck Social Center is still called the “Senior Center” by many. It’s open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and has six classrooms, which provide a wide range of adult education classes, games and group activities for anyone over age 60 living in Great Neck, Manhasset or North New Hyde Park.
Currently, one of its most popular programs among the Chinese seniors in Great Neck is an introductory English class that started in November 2015. The class is taught by Shuliang Lei or “Teacher Lei,” as he’s affectionately called by his students. Teacher Lei is a retired engineer who has been in the country for more than 20 years. The Chinese seniors told me that the special appeal of Teacher Lei’s class lies in his careful selection of materials that fit their needs. That the class is taught in Chinese is helpful, too. At the beginning of each class, Teacher Lei discusses current issues to educate his students about American culture. The class is becoming so popular that many seniors arrive 30 minutes early to secure a seat in the classroom.
By now, more than one third of the students in Teacher Lei’s class have been replaced by newcomers, because many of the Chinese seniors cannot stay in the States for more than six months due to their visa restriction. But, the center provides a venue where the seniors meet, exchange information and maintain friendships.
It is here that the Chinese seniors plan and organize a Lunar New Year celebration every year. On Feb. 26, close to 100 people, many of whom are non-Chinese, attended the third annual Lunar New Year celebration at the center with 17 performances, including Chinese opera, Russian songs, fast swing dance, the Wu-Tang Tai Chi Sword Show and more. The event was free to everyone who visits the center, though the Chinese seniors each chipped in $6 for food and preparation. They also brought pots of homemade traditional Chinese dishes, among which was a most popular dessert, Yuanxiao, a sesame-filled sweet rice dumpling. Meimei Wu, a retired teacher originally from Shanghai, was one of the key organizers. She believes that through activities like these, the Chinese seniors are able to offer something back to the Great Neck community and embrace the community at large.
The celebration was such an astounding success that I began to understand why my mom has found so much joy coming to the Social Center every week. However, I was a little taken aback to learn that this important organization in our community is currently underfunded and understaffed. Ann Tarcher, the center’s executive director, revealed that one of her main job responsibilities is to raise $150,000 every year to patch the budget’s shortfall. This additional funding is mostly raised through donations, usually by the seniors themselves.
At the beginning of the Lunar New Year celebration, Joan M. Antonoff presented a donation check to the center. A longtime donor and frequent visitor to the center, Antonoff is proud to have one classroom in the center named after her. And her reason for giving “so much money” to the center is her fear that the center might “go under” someday.
Tarcher has kept her staff numbers at minimum with only three office workers, two cooks, two bus drivers and one custodian. Except for the office staff who works full time, the rest of the workers are only part time. Their work can sometimes be stressful with roughly 1,000 people going through the center every week. But, after working at the center for 11 years, Tarcher still loves her job. She finds her work fulfilling because she gets to meet interesting people and helps make them happy.
When I asked Tarcher what one wish she would ask for, she answered, “Every part of our community will partner with each other.” And if I could have one wish myself? I hope that Great Neck Social Center is that starting point.
To share news with Mimi, email her at Mimi.Hu.GNRecord@gmail.com.