Global Conversations with: Carol Wong, Director, Chinatown Learning Center

Kait Lavinder, for GPA -- Chinatown Learning Center was founded 20 years ago by Carol S. Wong, M.Ed. Wong and the first teacher hired to work at the center, Mrs. Chan, have been teaching preschoolers and school age children Chinese and English since February 1993. Wong’s official title is Director of Chinatown Learning Center. I attended the preschoolers’ end of the year celebration where the children performed songs and received their certificates. After the ceremony, Wong and I sat down to talk about the center and Philadelphia’s immigrant community.

Why did you decide to start Chinatown Learning Center?

The center is a bilingual preschool and after-school program that I started because I saw a gap in language and education. Whether immigrants or not, many children whose first language is not English have a difficult time communicating. This disconnect causes very bright young kids to fall behind in America’s education system. Without a high quality preschool to attend, many of these children are ill prepared for kindergarten; and in the early 1990s, there was not a full-time bilingual program in Philadelphia’s Chinatown.

My first class in 1993 only had 10 students. Now, we have 60 preschoolers who just “graduated” and many more kindergarten through 6th graders who attend the after-school program. I’m lucky because kids usually enroll in Chinatown Learning Center when they are 3 years old, and then I have them until they are 12 years old. Some of the former students come back in high school to volunteer and/or work here during college


Did you experience the language barrier when you were young?

Yes. Even though I was born in the United States, I could not speak any English when I first went to school. Many of the students in our preschool cannot speak English, either, because their parents only speak Chinese. My mother was born in Canton, China, which is now known as Guangzhou. My father was the first Asian baby to be born in Pennsylvania’s Lycoming County, where I was raised. I was fortunate to grow up in a small American town yet still retain my culture. This knowledge of the best of both cultures is what I want for all international children living in America. In fact, I want this experience for all children. Not every preschooler we teach at Chinatown Learning Center is Chinese. We have a diverse student body who have enrolled their kids because they want them to expand their knowledge of the world.

What can Philadelphia do to increase cultural awareness?

Overall, I think Philadelphia does a decent job of promoting awareness of other cultures. I applaud the city because it always seems like there are more and more international programs being developed - like Global Philadelphia Association, for example. The city should encourage the heads of different cultural groups to get together and share ideas. It doesn’t matter if you are the leader of an Asian, African, or Middle Eastern group. We all want to help our communities become familiar with the American culture and have other ethnic groups appreciate their own customs and culture.

I also think American society as a whole does not appreciate high quality early childhood education. Many think it’s just babysitting- it’s definitely not. We need more high quality educational programs that introduce children to other cultures and traditions around the globe. Sometimes prejudices and misconceptions about other ethnic groups trickle down to kids from adults, who don’t understand or appreciate others. If educators could work on helping students understand societies different from their own, our world will be a much better place.


Is Philly an international-friendly city?

The services we have in Philly are wonderful. There are tons of organizations that promote international exposure and that provide help for people immigrating to America. The question is how do we get the knowledge of those services and programs to the people who need them? That is where the problem lies. We need to do a better job of reaching out to churches, communities, and schools to let people know all that Philly has to offer. Community leaders need to work together to spread the word about Philly’s great resources. That is why I volunteer on several boards of various organizations in the city - so I am familiar with what Philly has to offer and so I can let others know about it. It would be great for Philadelphia to work on the sharing all of its international resources in a broader effort.

Do you have a favorite restaurant in the city?

Because I’ve taught a lot of the children whose parents are restaurant owners in Chinatown, I try to spread my business around. But for Dim Sum, I go to Ocean Harbor. I like Vietnam Restaurant, David’s Mai Lai Wah, and Lee How Fook. Tango is a nice new karaoke and noodle bar on Arch Street. I know the people who own Yakitori Boy, another fun karaoke and sushi place. Banquets are often held at Joy Tsin Lau and Ocean City Restaurants for special events.

What is the benefit to international families and businesses of relocating to Philadelphia, rather than cities like New York or Washington? 

Collaboration. Philadelphia is much smaller than New York; this means that in Philly if you say “Asian community” most all of the community leaders know and support each other. In large cities like New York or San Francisco, there may be more organizations for more groups of people, but sometimes that is not conducive to forming tight-knit communities. In Philly’s smaller community, the organizations really get to know the people they work with and are often working together, especially for a cause.

D.C. is not huge, but because it’s D.C. there is already a heightened level of international awareness. I speculate that maybe it is more of a standard in D.C. for various ethnic groups to get together on their own; whereas in Philly, some people collaborate for survival and support. So I think one of the biggest positives of Philly is the intimacy of its international community and the collaboration between various groups and organizations.

Do you think in 10 years, Philly will have succeeded at spreading the knowledge of its global resources and consequently be a more international city?

I do, because it seems that programs that encourage diversity, like Global Philadelphia Association, are increasing in number and reach in the city.

This interview with Carol Wong has been edited and condensed from its original version. Edited by Kait Lavinder for GPA.