It’s A Small World After All
The story of my first for-profit social venture – Small World.
In 2006, our family was having dinner in Lily’s House Chinese Restaurant in Lafayette with Mia in a high chair, not yet 2 years old. We had brought her home from China at 13 months when she abruptly made the shift from hearing nothing but Mandarin each day to hearing nothing but English. Imagine that for a moment!
Except for an occasional enthusiastic tantrum, she was such a happy, adaptable baby, running around smiling in her squeaky shoes, not once crying ‘help’ when knocked down by her older brother or when a toy was rudely snatched away. She was speaking some English and we were so fortunate that two of the families who adopted along with us from the same region of China lived right here in Lafayette — guaranteed lifelong friends from her same corner of the world.
So that night, as the owner, Lily, kept stopping by to check on us, she spoke to Mia in Mandarin. And after a few of these interactions, Lily said very brightly “She understands me!” and proceeded to explain that she had said things in Mandarin that Mia responded to with motions or expressions.
So Lily’s friendliness and observance led to the revelation that our daughter understood Mandarin but likely wouldn’t in a matter of months if we didn’t do something to preserve that treasure.
After a fruitless search for a convenient Chinese program that would accept really young kids, I resorted to finding a teacher and created Small World, a Mandarin language and Chinese culture program for East Bay children aged 1 – 10 years old. We launched its website with this letter about our story and Small World’s mission:
The program began as a preschool, two mornings a week, in a friend’s cottage with two wonderful, seasoned Chinese teachers, sisters Phoebe Chen and Amy Kao. It grew to include a 3rd teacher and to offer more days of preschool and shorter classes for babies and older kids, in four locations.
As the programs grew, so did our donations to special needs orphans in China and so did my own kids’ knowledge of and appreciation for Mandarin. We served dozens of families, some from families with Chinese heritage, some with adopted Chinese children like Mia, and some with no connection to China whatsoever.
My blue-eyed, biological, older son started trying to keep up with his sister’s knowledge of Mandarin and decided he wanted to join a class as well.
After six years, our kids were old enough to attend other established local programs, and running a program as large as Small World was difficult alongside Sides & Associates and a family. So I forwarded the Small World families to the other programs, Small World’s teachers started offering a morning program for younger kids, I helped the other teacher secure a job elsewhere, and we closed the doors.
A world of thanks to Lily for opening my eyes that night to the narrow window we had for keeping Mia’s knowledge of Mandarin alive and for inspiring us to enrich our kids’ worlds — with another language, understanding of the incredible Chinese culture, and connections with a diverse group of kids. We’re still regulars at Lily’s, both with the other two local Hubei Province adoptive families and without, and will be forever grateful for her amazing gift!