A school is not its building, nor its sports fields, nor its facilities.
No, a school is much more than that. It is a community made up of individuals from different cultures and backgrounds, sharing their experiences as they venture through teaching and learning together. All in all, a school is its culture; and its culture comes from its students, teachers and staff.
While some may think a school’s only pride should be in its material wealth or the number of distinctions it gets at the end of the academic year, we pride ourselves on the community we have created; a community where everyone is welcome and where we celebrate our differences instead of trying to hide them. Facilities and achievement are noble things to strive for, but a community culture is what makes a school great. At the Pretoria Chinese School our three philosophical pillars are discipline, respect and humility, and our aim is to make sure our community and culture not only reflect these values, but to weave them into the strands of our daily lives.
What culture means to us
The word ‘culture’ has many meanings attached to it. On the one hand, culture can be defined in ethnic terms. In this regard, the Pretoria Chinese School certainly encompasses the idea of diversity. Among our students and staff we boast over 40 different cultures. Heritage Day is a sight to behold as we display the traditional dress of all our cultures.
Many of our students wear outfits that have been passed down through generations and some even make their own traditional outfits. We teach our students not only to respect other cultures, but also to celebrate them. In this way, we create a community of diverse people, all willing to humble themselves so as to respect and celebrate their fellow humans. This, in turn, leads to another aspect of culture, which is a school’s culture. This encompasses a school’s values and beliefs and the manner in which a school operates.
At the Pretoria Chinese School we strive to create a culture wherein all students and staff feel included, no matter who they are. Students and staff of all races, genders, religions, sexual orientations and abilities can feel comfortable in their own skin throughout the learning experience.
Celebrating everything Chinese
A unique aspect of our school is that, while celebrating our different cultures, we can all come together to learn about and celebrate the Chinese culture and language.
All students have Mandarin lessons scheduled into their school day and even have the opportunity to take Mandarin as a matric subject from Grade 10 to 12.
Students study the language as they would English or Afrikaans: learning sentence structures, reading, writing, speaking, and even analysing Chinese poetry. But more than this, students learn about the culture – the food, music, clothing, greetings and social behaviour.
Students also have the opportunity to take part in co-curricular activities, such Chinese drumming, Chinese yoyo, Chinese dancing, Chinese pop (also known as C-Pop) dancing and singing, and Chinese culture club. Our students and staff are immersed in the world of Chinese culture as we celebrate traditional Chinese holidays, eat traditional Chinese food and hear the language all around us.
The idea of learning an entirely new language is often daunting for learners, especially those new to the school, but our Chinese teachers are exceptionally good at teaching the language and making sure all students can keep up with the pace and standard. Many of our senior Mandarin students have commented on how nervous they were to take the subject, indicating that it was rocky at the beginning of the journey. But looking back now and seeing how far they’ve come and how much they’ve accomplished, they feel proud of themselves and are happy with their decision to take the subject.
High school students also have the amazing opportunity to take part in the Chinese Bridge Competition, which is an international Mandarin competition that takes place each year. A regional round is hosted in each participating country, and the regional winners are sponsored to represent their school and country in China for the grand competition final.
Most recently, in 2019, our very own Refilwe Mashiane was one of the first place winners in South Africa, and was able to go to China as a spectator of the final. Over the years, the Pretoria Chinese School has performed very well at this competition and has sent several representatives to China. This opportunity is valuable for students as they have the chance of winning scholarships and bursaries to Chinese universities. Some of our alumni are still in China or Taiwan, furthering their tertiary education.
Our school also offers Mandarin classes for adults. These take place on Saturdays and are open to the public. Some school parents attend these classes so that they can learn the language along with their children. This is a fantastic opportunity for parents to bond throughout the learning experience. We love to see the Chinese language and culture extend to the greater community.
Co-curriculars and festivals
Our Chinese co-curriculars are always a huge attraction for all of our students and receive by far the largest attendance relative to other activities. A popular co-curricular among the boys is the Chinese yoyo. This is not the same as the Western yoyo, as many may imagine, but instead could serve as a full-body workout. The yoyo is a shape made of two half cups or discs attached with an axle in the middle. It is spun using a string connected to two sticks. Our students learn to do the most incredible tricks with the yoyo, and they are truly a spectacular sight to behold.
On the other hand, our female students tend to enjoy Chinese traditional dancing where they learn dances such as the fan and the umbrella dance, and wear traditional Chinese clothing during stage performances. C-Pop, is also a popular co-curricular, as our students learn the modern style of dancing and singing. As we are a diverse school, our dancing teams consist of students of different races and backgrounds all brought together with their outfits and synchronous dancing.
Our Chinese culture club exposes students to the finer aspects of the Chinese culture, such as Chinese calligraphy, Chinese painting, paper cutting and Chinese board games. These activities help students bond with each other through their love and enjoyment of the Chinese language and culture.
As mentioned, we thoroughly enjoy celebrating the various Chinese festivals – one of which is the Dragon Boat Festival, or the Duānwǔ Jié, where all students and staff receive zòngzi (sticky rice dumplings). This dish consists of sticky rice and a meat or vegetable filling wrapped in a triangular shape in bamboo leaves. Staff and students alike can confirm how delicious this dish is, and everyone looks forward to receiving zòngzi.
Another festival highlight is the Mid-Autumn Festival, more commonly known as the Moon Festival, or Zhōngqiū Jié, which has a story that our more romantic students and staff enjoy. At this festival, all students and staff receive moon cakes, which, for some, are an acquired taste and, for others, another delicacy to look forward to.
These festivals always warrant their own assemblies where students and staff are regaled with traditional stories and legends. Our Chinese teachers and students are exceptional at recounting these legends and always retain the whole school’s attention with their storytelling skills.
The Chinese New Year
However, the biggest celebration of the year is Chinese New Year. As the Chinese holidays work on the lunar calendar, Chinese New Year usually falls in late January or early February, which means we have the opportunity to celebrate with the whole school. A large assembly is held during which one or two of our matric Mandarin students host the festivities as the master of ceremonies. The younger students sing traditional Chinese songs and our traditional Chinese dancers showcase their talent.
It is a day of great festivity, which is enjoyed by everyone. Each student and staff member receives a red envelope with money inside. This envelope symbolises prosperity and good luck for the new year. Students and staff must say a special phrase before receiving their envelope: ‘Gōng xǐ, gōng xǐ’, which is a way of congratulating someone for the new year and wishing them luck. This festival truly creates a sense of togetherness as we all celebrate the new year and wish the best for each other.
The Chinese Zodiac calendar is used to chart years in a 12-year cycle. Each year is represented by a different animal, namely the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. Each animal has its own characteristics and personality traits, which people born in that year may have and are likely to portray. Many are surprised at how similar they are to the animal representing them.
This year, 2021, we are celebrating the year of the ox. Other recent ox years are 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, and 2009. The ox character traits show that the people born in these years are diligent, dependable, strong and determined. Our current Grade 6s are ox children and their teachers can definitely vouch for the fact that many of them show these ox characteristics. It is fun each year to find out which grade and teachers represent the year’s animal and to see whether they have that animal’s characteristics. This exercise proves to be another moment of community building in our school.
A favourite event, most recently hosted in 2019, is the Red Panda Festival. This is a festival to celebrate the school and Chinese culture and a day in which the community can come together and have fun. Each class sets up a stall and outside vendors are also able to bring their business to the school. Our talented Chinese drummers show off their hard work and our dancers grace the stage with their performances. All those attending the festival can indulge in traditional Chinese food and beverages, as well as participate in Chinese games. It is a day thoroughly enjoyed by all and even though it’s been put on hold because of the pandemic, it is a day we are all looking forward to again.
Bursting at the seams
Our school, physically small and situated in the suburb of Wingate Park, in Pretoria, is bursting at the seams with culture, diversity, talent and a sense of community. We follow the Independent Examinations Board syllabus and requirements, but what truly sets us apart is our Chinese culture. Many of our students have been able to venture into business and career paths because of their ability to speak Mandarin. More than this, our students feel safe in their diverse spaces, and that is the most important aspect of our school. What we strive for above all is to create a community and culture based on discipline, respect, and humility.