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Learning the Old-Fashioned Way : Classes: Thousands of youngsters spend half-days on Saturdays learning the customs in countries that their families have left behind.

<i> Szymanski is a Los Angeles free-lance writer</i>

Ten-year-old Albert Kuo would rather spend Saturday mornings watching cartoons or flying his kite with friends from Serrania Avenue Elementary School in Woodland Hills. Instead, he is drawing Chinese characters, speaking Mandarin and perfecting a mean game of Ping-Pong at the Chinese School held at James Monroe High School in Sepulveda, where he is known as Kuo Chun-Yu.

He is one of thousands of youngsters in the San Fernando Valley who take part in half-day Saturday classes that teach the customs in countries that their families have left behind.

On any given Saturday, students might be preparing for the Chinese dragon boat festival, celebrating the Korean New Year of Sulnal, making meals for a Jewish Seder or folding paper for Japanese origami. These nonprofit classes meet on public school campuses and focus on language, history, dance and the art of ethnic communities.

Programs are as diverse as the Valley populace. Social clubs and ethnic churches offer information about classes for children who are African, Armenian, Dutch, Filipino, French, Greek, Hebrew, Iranian, Irish, Nicaraguan, Palestinian, Russian, Salvadoran, Thai, Vietnamese and many others. Classes cost $5 to $10 each day.

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“This keeps some kind of cultural identity so our heritage is not lost,” said Sue W. Fan, principal for the 240 children who attend the Chinese School sponsored by the San Fernando Valley Chinese Cultural Assn. in Northridge. “It gives a better self-image to know their origin.”

Young children often rebel against a sixth day of school, which requires a good share of homework. Even Fan’s two children complain about Chinese School. She reminds them that in China or Taiwan they would be required to go to a sixth day of school.

“It makes my mom happy, but I’d like to be out with my friends playing video games,” said Fan’s son, Kevin, 9.

So teachers try to make the cultural classes fun with crafts, contests, performances and sports. Some students get credit for high school language classes by coming to Saturday schools.

“I used to think ‘what a dud’ when I first came here, but now it’s typically weird because I want to learn more,” said Luice Hwang, 16, who grew up as a Valley girl but who, unlike most of her classmates at Van Nuys High School, can speak and write Chinese. “I know one of the most difficult languages in the world. I can’t wait to go to Taiwan someday.”

The classes also help Hwang understand her parents’ strict moral upbringing. “Like when they give me a curfew or say that I can’t have a boyfriend until I’m 78,” she joked.

“This makes good communication with parents because so many times parents don’t speak so good English,” said In-Sook Cho, principal of the Korean Institute of Southern California, which has 160 students at Parkman Junior High School each Saturday in Woodland Hills. “We have two handicaps with our children--different generation and different culture--and these classes help make an understanding from both sides.”

Cho’s school offers specialties such as tae kwon do, abacus and Korean traditional dance. Girls in the dance classes wear long dresses--called han-bok-- in pink, yellow, green and blue silk with gold lace.

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After practicing the fan dance with two pink feathered fans and the silk dress her grandmother made in Korea, Jeannie Kim, 11, explained how the dance uses traditional Korean steps.

“The music doesn’t have much of a beat,” Kim said about the steady droning of Korean music. “I’d much rather be listening to Bobby Brown, the New Kids on the Block or Milli Vanilli.”

Teachers’ salaries barely cover gas money at the Korean School, Cho said, but the educators command respect that teachers in public schools might not get.

“Respect and good attitude make a good student,” said Cho, who added that students in Korea are told not to step on a teacher’s shadow.

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Parkman Junior High School Principal Andrew Anderson welcomes schools such as the Korean Institute to his campus. His school enrollment is only 14% Asian, but he knows that many academic awards at the end of the year will go to that community because of its intense ethnic training.

“They have no more ability than any other student, they just enjoy learning,” Anderson said. “Sometimes they grumble about spending four hours Saturday morning in school, but it is good to preserve traditions. And, it is good for the whole community because we all learn from them.”

Students rarely learn about their culture in school, said Principal Gabriel Injejikian, whose Ferrahian High School in Encino is one of five Armenian schools between Canoga Park and Glendale that offer after-school language classes. “Armenian is just not taught very much in public school,” he said.

Learning a different language--even if read backward or up and down--helps children learn more languages if they want to do so, said Nili Ziv of Valley Beth Shalom, a Hebrew school in Encino.

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“These are Americans who want to transmit to their children their history and it makes the children more open and tolerant of other cultures,” Ziv said.

The San Fernando Valley Japanese Language Institute in Pacoima, probably the Valley’s oldest part-time ethnic school, has been operating 65 years. Most of the 120 children who attend the classes at the Japanese American Community Center have parents who were born in Japan, institute President Nobuko Jonokuchi said.

“We teach reigi , polite discipline, and try to encourage students to concentrate on math and science,” Jonokuchi said. “Children who know Japanese can ask their parents for help in their public school homework, too.”

The Saturday schools offer immediate practical applications, such as a recent computer class demonstrating software using Chinese characters, Chinese Cultural Assn. President Steve Yang said. His school also teaches kung fu and flute, and reminds families of traditions such as dabbing rice wine to the forehead of children to ward off bad luck and eating a tamale-like dish with rice wrapped in bamboo leaves.

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But most of the time, the classes have simpler applications.

“These schools are nice because now my children can write to their grandparents,” Yang said.


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