A couple years after leaving corporate high-tech marketing, I began a business teaching Mandarin to young children though music, dance, stories, and play. In many ways it was the perfect job. It involved everything I loved– children, the arts, literacy, second-language acquisition, and Chinese language and culture. I travelled to Taiwan to painstakingly pick out just the right Chinese instruments, folk dance accessories, music, books, and posters for my students. I designed fun-filled lessons using stuffed animals, balloons, scarves, ribbon sticks, drums, triangles, all manner of percussion instruments, fans, balls, books, puzzles, puppets, and gym mats. My clients were adorable toddlers and pre-schoolers. If there were any discipline problems, parents stepped right in. I was the director and set my own hours. My ideas and the possibilities were endless. I was being paid for being creative!
The concept for this business came from my Stanford friend Sabrina’s sister Julie. Julie had designed a program called Music Around the World, a bilingual Mommy and Me music curriculum for children ages 1-4. When she asked me if I wanted to teach one of her Mandarin music classes, I had been taking a break from work and following my dream of taking painting, ballet, modern dance, and Chinese dance classes. My husband Steve was happy to support my exploring the arts since I had always seemed unsatisfied in my jobs. I felt that I should at least make a little money part-time, so I agreed. To my surprise, I was very good at teaching music to young children. The classes involved singing songs, teaching rhythm and intonation, and creative movement. I began supplementing the curriculum with my own books, songs, and other materials and choreographing dances; and imagined branching off on my own and designing a music and dance-based Chinese as a Second Language program that was uniquely mine. Around 2004, I founded Little Bamboo Chinese Language, Music, and Dance.
Whereas Julie’s Music Around the World classes were located in the South Bay, (Cupertino, Palo Alto, Mountain View etc.) I started my classes across the Bay in Fremont and in Milpitas, further from the center of Silicon Valley where housing was cheaper and where lived. I didn’t want to compete with Julie and I also wanted to teach closer to home.
Sign ups for my first classes were impressive. Classes were packed. But there was a big difference between the students who signed up for my Little Bamboo classes and those in my previous classes: My students were almost all Chinese. When I taught for Julie, my students were predominantly non-Asian, mostly Caucasian, adopted from China, or mixed Chinese and Caucasian. Now almost all of my students had Chinese parents who spoke Chinese at home. (I had recently moved to Milpitas from San Jose and was aware that there were more Asians in our neighborhood, but I did not think native Chinese speakers would sign up for my class. ) I was an excellent Chinese teacher for students and parents learning Chinese as a second language, but my curriculum was not geared toward heritage Chinese speakers! I became overly self-conscious that I was not a native speaker. I began preparing a script for my lessons so as to manage grammatical mistakes and was embarrassed by my American accent. My lessons that used to be free-flowing, creative and full of imagination became rigid, repetitive, and controlled Although my Chinese was probably fine for the young children, I did not have the fluency to explain and instruct a group of native Chinese parents. And since my clients were Chinese, I felt that I should provide a 100% immersion environment and rarely spoke English. Uncomfortable, robotic, and overly self-aware, I lost my hallmark joy and charisma, the qualities that made me a good teacher.
After each class as I packed up bin and after bin of carefully selected instruments, toys, flashcards and puppets, I felt phonier and phonier. I had all the best materials and a research-based curriculum, but I was not qualified to teach my own class. My perfect business was not working out.
Reflections: When I realized Little Bamboo was not working out, I was pretty disappointed. I had poured my heart into my program and had no idea what to do next. It was strike three. I was 0-3 in my finding a job that I was right not me. Luckily, I found a Chinese friend to teach my classes for me and my business was sustained for about a year before I closed shop. I did teach the class a few times at Karis Academy near my home in Irvine (my clients were about half Chinese). But being older and already a mom myself, I was no longer self-conscious and just focussed on creating fun experiences for the kids. (I stopped teaching the that time because teaching toddlers is so exhausting! )A few years ago I self- published my curriculum under the name Sing With Me in Mandarin so all is not lost. You can find it on Amazon (my daughter and son sang the songs for the CD and did the artwork.) I hope parents and teachers can find it helpful. Here is the link : Sing With Me in Mandarin.
Teaching music and Mandarin to young children had suddenly immersed me in a strange world of toddlers, cute babies, tired moms, strollers and diaper bags. Ironically, it became a world that I personally could not access. Perhaps it was best that things did not pan out because I was soon to begin a season of infertility.
Questions For Discussion: Have you ever started a business, big or small? How did it work out? When in your life has failure become a gift in disguise?