Inspiring Mum - Karen Cheuk of Happy Mandarin
Source: Featured on Gigibrooks 2016-02-01
Would you like your little one to learn a 'language of the future'? Inspiring Mum Karen Cheuk is helping parents achieve this dream with Happy Mandarin.
Despite working as a management consultant, Karen always felt passionate about inspiring the next generation.
Tell me about your family. Can you describe a typical day with your kids?
Born and raised in Hong Kong until 18 years old, I was very fortunate to study at Cambridge on a scholarship. I met my husband there, who was from Shanghai. After graduation, we were in a long-distance relationship for 7 years (god knows how we managed that!) before getting married and settled down in London for good. Fiona was born in 2012. Our extended families are still in Hong Kong and Shanghai, so we visit them during long breaks.
Every morning Fiona wakes up around 7:30. After getting her ready, Daddy sends her to preschool on the way to work, while I head into the office (I still work part-time as a management consultant, while running Happy Mandarin in parallel). As my day job is relatively flexible, I can leave the office at around 4 to pick up Fiona from school. We do three fun activities (Fiona decides what those three activities are and writes it down, or else it can turn into 10 pretty quickly!) and have dinner. Daddy comes home at around 7:30 to shower with Fiona. Then we read two stories as a family before bedtime – it’s my favourite time of the day.
That’s the end of Fiona’s day, but not Mommy’s! After Fiona goes to bed, I will work on Happy Mandarin for a couple of hours - reply to parents enquiries, talk to teachers, plan class materials etc.
How did Happy Mandarin come about? Why are you so passionate about early Chinese education?
My Dad has been a Chinese and music teacher for more than 40 years. His dedication to teaching has a huge impact on me. Although I’ve had a busy working life as a management consultant, deep down I’m passionate about inspiring the next generation.
Happy Mandarin was started when we wanted to enroll Fiona into baby Chinese classes, yet none of the classes we went to strike the right balance between fun and learning, and most of them only cater for Chinese-speaking families. I got excited about running Chinese classes where both parents and children can learn in a fun and engaging environment. I wanted to provide children the best start to learning Chinese, a ‘language of the future’, for families from all linguistic backgrounds.
There were some skepticisms initially (mostly citing uncertain financial prospects and opportunity costs), but my husband has been very supportive. In two years, we grew from one class in our local library to nearly 20 classes across London – it was an incredible journey! There were ups and downs, but I enjoy getting to know all the parents and children, and learning so much from running a business.
What happens during one of your classes?
In Happy Mandarin classes, we use a combination of interactive songs, movements, stories, and games to bring alive a focused topic per hourly session. To help ease our children into more advanced Chinese education, we also introduce Chinese character recognition and writing from an early age. We infuse lots of elements that resonate with children, including classic stories, cartoon characters, and Chinese pop songs. The curriculum for each class is carefully designed to cater for different age and language proficiency, so our children always feels sufficiently challenged but not discouraged.
Following the success of our classroom-based lessons, we got a lot of requests from families who are not based in South-East London, so we started to offer private group classes at parents’ home as well as online lessons. Recently, we started to provide afterschool Chinese classes in primary schools to benefit more families
What tips would you give parents hoping to raise bilingual/multilingual kids?
The key is to create an environment to immerse children in a 2nd or 3rd language. A lot of my British-born Chinese friends cannot speak or write much Chinese, despite attending weekend Chinese school for more than 10 years! Finding the right class for your child is a start, and parents play a critical role to create the right environment.
From my observation, the most successful parents learn Chinese together with their children (we encourage parents to stay in the class!). After class they use our workbooks to revise the songs, key vocabs and writing. They also infuse Chinese elements into their daily life, e.g. organise Chinese playdates, watch Chinese cartoons, read stories with Chinese elements, celebrate Chinese festivals.
For multi-lingual family, I find it helpful to constantly adjust the proportion of language exposure depending on the child’s proficiency and stage of development. We are a tri-lingual family – my husband speaks Mandarin, I speak both Mandarin and Cantonese, and English is used in school. We have been speaking both Mandarin and Cantonese at home since Fiona was born, so that she is familiar with how they sound from an early age. However, at about 18 months I sensed that she was a bit confused about these two languages (as they are relatively similar) and didn’t speak much Chinese. We adjusted our strategy – for three months, we focused on speaking Mandarin with her at home until she had a confident grasp of the language. After that I started to introduce Cantonese to her again. All her three languages are doing great so far, but I’m sure at some point we will review our approach again!
How do you find juggling motherhood with the day-to-day running of your business? Any tips for achieving a good work/life balance
A good work/life balance is achieved when different elements that I value are put together into a nice puzzle. Individually these pieces might not be the best in the world, but they combine into a pleasing picture!
After having Fiona, I scaled back my management consulting job into 60%, leaving 40% to spending more time with her and running my business. I love it as I continue to get sufficient intellectual stimulation, while being a hands-on mom AND working on something I’m so passionate about.
Time is the most precious resource – how we use our time ultimate determines who we will become and reflects what we truly value. Set boundaries, focus on what really matters, and don’t fret about the small things!
Some ‘me-time’ is really refreshing. Wednesday is my usual off day. I sleep in a bit, play the piano, and then do some housework. Sometimes my husband will take time off to have a date without kid. It reminds me of who I am other than being a working mom.
What do you love most about motherhood? What has been the biggest challenge so far?
In the eyes of little babies, mommy is their whole world. What matters is that at this very moment they are with the ones who love them. I never know that I can love a person so much, and this profound love gives me courage. I used to think that to be successful, I have to follow a pre-defined route, even though it’s not where my passion lies. Motherhood taught me to live in the present, follow my heart, and take some risks if need be.
When I went back to work after a year-long maternity leave, I had a tough time finding my pace. Work can be overwhelming, and Fiona got sick quite often as she just started nursery. One day, I was so tired and stressed that I accidentally poured hot boiling water onto my hand! It took a long time to recover, and for a month I couldn’t even bathe my daughter. Fortunately, my husband has been a great parenting partner and helped me through the worst period. It was a painful reminder that I need to take good care of myself!
If you could go back in time and give your pregnant self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Don’t try to be a perfect mom. Fact is, I cannot change who I am, and it turns out that my daughter loves me just the way I am, including my numerous imperfections. For example, I’m a terrible cook. Before Fiona was born, I used to worry about her not eating anything and not putting on weight. As it turns out, she is a fantastic eater, and she loves everything I cook (well, she loves any food!). When she told me ‘Mommy this is delicious’…I couldn’t believe my ears!