For U.S. teen in China, it pays to speak the lingo

Times Staff Writer

Kyle Rothstein stands out in a sea of Chinese faces not because he is an American teenager with curly red hair and clear blue eyes, but because he speaks Chinese. Fluent Chinese.

The visual and verbal double take is the handiwork of his father, Jay Rothstein, a prescient American businessman who put Kyle in a bilingual English-Mandarin school in San Francisco when he was 5. The elder Rothstein had read that if you don’t learn to speak a foreign language by that age, you never really get it.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” said Rothstein, who at the time was traveling to China on business several times a year. “There were times when he was crying every day, asking, ‘I am not Chinese -- why do I have to learn Chinese?’ ”

But the benefits soon became obvious. By the time he was 12, Kyle had met two American presidents, hobnobbed with countless Chinese dignitaries and appeared on four Chinese TV shows. Now 17, Kyle is living in China’s most cosmopolitan city, finishing school and starring in a soon-to-be-released feature film, “Milk and Fashion,” about an American kid growing up in China. His father is the producer.

“I rebelled at first, but now I am grateful that my dad pushed me,” Kyle, a reedy teenager with Shirley Temple locks and a relatively reserved temperament more befitting an honor student than a budding actor, said as he sat in the cafeteria of his Shanghai high school. “Everything about me has changed because of the Chinese language. It’s opened up so many doors that other people don’t have.”


Rothstein, a single dad who acknowledges that he has raised his son much like a stereotypical stage mom, says it was all part of his plan to give the boy the best possible preparation for the future.

“I wanted to give him a good life, to do distinguished things,” said Rothstein, who gained custody of his son after he and his wife divorced when Kyle was 6; she visits about twice a year. “Now college admissions officers are interested in him and saying, ‘He has such an exotic resume -- we want him.’ They want international kids. It’s a global world.”

More Americans than ever are waking up to the possibility that Chinese is the language of the future. With China’s fast rise as an economic powerhouse, the language, once considered obscure and difficult to learn, is being embraced by parents looking to give their children a leg up in the global economy.

In 2000, about 5,000 American elementary and secondary schoolchildren studied Chinese. Today, the number is as much as 10 times that, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. The College Board offered Advanced Placement exams in Mandarin Chinese for the first time last year, and more than 3,000 high school students took the test.

When Kyle enrolled in San Francisco’s Chinese American International School, the oldest Chinese bilingual elementary school in the country, there were few others like him.

Rothstein, not a Chinese speaker himself, was unable to offer many after-school opportunities for his son to practice his conversation skills, so he found a way to turn strangers into teachers.

“We would go to tourist sites like Fisherman’s Wharf or Golden Gate Bridge and have a race to look for visiting Chinese delegations,” Rothstein said, referring to group tours from China. “When we found them, I would walk up to them and say, ‘Hey, I found this kid on the street. He only speaks Chinese. Can you talk to him? Find out what he likes to eat? Can you take him back to China?’ ”

The reaction was usually the same: “What? How? Wow!” Then everybody would have a good laugh as the visitors marveled at the little redheaded American boy speaking their mother tongue.

Word spread, and soon Kyle became a kind of unofficial cultural ambassador and a must-see personality.

When the first President Bush visited San Francisco’s Chinatown, organizers made sure he met Kyle. “ ‘So this is the kid everybody’s talking about,’ ” Rothstein recalled the elder Bush saying. In 1998, the Rothsteins joined the delegation accompanying President Clinton on his trip to China.

Kyle and his father, a consultant who helped U.S. businesses set up shop in China and then switched mostly to the movie business, moved to Shanghai in 2003.

Chinese isn’t the only thing that makes Kyle different. As a child, he took ballet and ballroom dancing classes. He has performed with the San Francisco Ballet Company and recently appeared in “The White Countess,” starring Ralph Fiennes.

“Going to ballet instead of playing soccer, that’s a bit of a bummer,” Kyle said, who was eyeing the field where his friends played a game while he was showing a reporter around his school recently.

Most of his friends are expats because he finds that cultural differences make it difficult to get very close to his Chinese friends. For one thing, they study a great deal and don’t have as much time to hang out. And Kyle says he knows so much more about Chinese pop culture than they do about America.

“I know [pop star] Jay Chou and [boy band] F4; they know basic stars like 50 Cent, but they don’t know who the Foo Fighters are,” Kyle said. “If I say Mike Myers, they don’t know who that is. But if I say Austin Powers, that funny British guy in the movie, they might know the face.”

To his teachers in China, Kyle is not only an anomaly but also a role model, and not just for foreigners.

“He’s the first typical American high school student we put into the normal Chinese class,” said Sally Zhang, the vice principal of Jin Cai High School. “The Chinese students feel amazed. Most Chinese parents think learning English is very important. Now they see even foreign students can speak such good Chinese. So they know we should pay more attention to the Chinese language.”

Although the popularity of Chinese is growing among nonnative speakers, the number learning it pales in comparison with the number studying English, now being learned by an estimated 200 million Chinese. To these Chinese, English is a tougher nut to crack. That’s why they appreciate making friends with foreigners such as Kyle and hope there will be more of them in the future.

“We tried to speak English to him, but our English is so bad,” said Shi Jun, 17, one of Kyle’s pals. “Then we realized his Chinese was so good. We could communicate so much better.”