Jordan Van Voast, an American living in Seattle, shelled the dried bean pods harvested from his garden and placed the seeds one by one into a bowl, counting in Chinese, "yi er san," meaning "1, 2, 3." A 3-year-old boy repeated after him.
Jordan is teaching the boy Chinese, and wants the child to practice counting while developing the manual dexterity that is required to handle the seeds.
Together with his wife Upel, who is from Taiwan, Jordan is offering personalized day care service with Chinese language immersion to American families.
Over the past five years, an increasing number of requests for Chinese-speaking nannies in the US has been seen by Katie Provinziano, the CEO of California-based nanny agency Westside Nannies.
She told the Global Times their staff reported 20 percent more requests for Chinese-speaking nannies than in the previous year.
The increasing demand for Chinese-speaking nannies in the US, especially for those who are in the business world, shows elite families' appreciation of the value of Chinese fluency.
Li Haidong, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University, said although there will be more US citizens understanding China better and more deeply, the trend does not necessarily herald improved ties between the two countries.
Chinese fever has already thrived in the US for a dozen years, and it has now become a trend for US children, especially who are born in elite families, to be exposed to the language at an early age.
Located in Beverly Hills, California, Provinziano's company is one of the most prominent agencies in the country and serves a high-end group of clients from celebrities to CEOs, lawyers, doctors and stay-at-home mothers who need an extra set of hands.
These people are looking to offer their children with every advantage in life and "fluency in Mandarin [also called Putonghua in China] is top on the list," Provinziano said, noting that some wealthy US families believe mastering Chinese would provide their children with opportunities down the road and help them build successful international careers.
Experienced and qualified nannies who speak Chinese can earn $50,000 to $100,000 yearly in the region, according to Provinziano.
Language is not the only qualification a nanny will need to get a job from the agency. To work for these families, a nanny must have a minimum of three years of recent professional child-care experience, two of which must be working in a private home with excellent references. Eligibility to work in the US as well as a valid driver's license are also required at Westside Nannies.
Provinziano said that in the face of the growing demand for Chinese-speaking nannies, there is a huge shortage of them at the moment. "We believe demand will only continue to grow…. At this point, we're having to turn clients down as we can't find enough Mandarin-speaking nannies to meet the demand," she noted.
In addition to agencies which help families to look for nannies, some Chinese speakers also provide private personalized day care with Chinese language immersion, such as Jordan and Upel.
More schools in the US have also started offering Chinese language lessons. The New York-based 20-year-old language school ABC Languages has approximately 150 students learning Chinese, and has witnessed families looking to give their children earlier access to the language, to give them a real option to eventually become proficient or fluent in the language.
Children of US celebrities are always cited as models of learning Chinese, including investor Jim Rogers' daughter, Happy Rogers, who amazed Chinese netizens with her surprising fluency and authentic accent.
The grandchildren of US President Donald Trump, Arabella Kushner and her little brother Joseph Kushner were taught by a Chinese nanny when they were small children.
The video of their performance of traditional Chinese song "Jasmine Flower" to visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Mar-a-Lago resort in 2017 went viral on Chinese social media and was welcomed by many netizens in China.
Arabella's mother Ivanka Trump told South China Morning Post that she had an incredible nanny who was teaching her daughter Chinese.
It's not just celebrities. More ordinary US parents are seeking a Chinese-speaking nanny.
Adam Powell, who lives in Boston, told the Global Times that he started looking for a Chinese-speaking nanny in Boston right after his daughter was born in August 2018.
He said with knowledge of Chinese, his daughter will likely to be able to grasp three of the most common languages, since they speak English in everyday life and Spanish can be taught at schools.
Moreover, learning Chinese is yet another way to prepare children for global life.
"Being able to speak Chinese has unlocked cultural treasures which would not likely be easily accessible to people only able to speak English," he said.
Fear of Chinese
In contrast to the growing passion of Chinese learning in US families, some lawmakers are alert about China's Confucius Institute, claiming that it is trying to disseminate political propaganda to American students.
The University of North Florida (UNF) announced on August 16 that it will cut ties with the Confucius Institute next February, the third US college to make such move, amid the increasing scrutiny from US lawmakers.
The Confucius Institute in UNF, which was established in 2014 and provides Chinese language and cultural programs, said in a statement, "After reviewing the classes, activities and events sponsored over the past four years and comparing them with the mission and goals of the university, it was determined that they weren't aligned."
Although the statement did not elaborate on the reason, the media company Inside Higher Education reported that a Florida Republican, Senator Marco Rubio, had sent UNF and other Florida colleges a letter earlier, urging them to close their Confucius Institutes.
Rubio said that the institutes use teaching Chinese language and culture as a tool to expand China's political influence.
Tan Qiuqu, a teaching assistant of Chinese-language courses at Ohio University, told the Global Times that she has heard people saying that China's Confucius Institute is a cultural export to, or even cultural aggression against the US.
"But personally, I think cultures around the world are interrelated. Learning Chinese or not is a personal choice. The predominance of English is evident. Now that people in the US want to study Chinese, the Confucius Institute can provide those people with classes. I think it's extreme to call it cultural aggression," she said.
Another teaching assistant, Fiona Zhou, at Soka University of America, California, understands the added scrutiny from the US.
She said right-wing forces were taught from text books that their country is the greatest nation in the world. "If American culture loses its predominance, it would upend their world view."
Future China-US relations
The contrast of US politicians' vigilance toward China with elite families' Chinese language craze may make US diplomatic policy toward China more complicated, experts said.
Li of the China Foreign Affairs University said current US political elites love to view US diplomatic policy toward China from a political and security aspect. For this reason, they may hinder the cultural and educational exchanges between the two countries.
However, he noted those elites' decisions are very interesting. Although political elites may have a cognitive bias against China, they all know that China will become a world center of wealth and opportunities in the near future.
"We can see their true thoughts through their children's education," Li said, emphasizing Americans' great focus on learning Chinese.
In response to questions on whether there will be changes to the China-US ties if more US citizens started to understand China, and to learn its main language and culture, Li said that there will be more uncertainties.
He said although future US politicians may have a deeper understanding of China and its language and culture, the change of some individuals does not necessarily lead to the change of institutions, since the US political culture is hard to change.
"If the US learns more about you, it will have a stronger desire to change you. The disputes between the two countries may get intense in the future," Li said.
Reflecting on the operation of Confucius Institutes in the US, Liu Weidong, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times the institute has not met its expectations and a more flexible and freer way should be used to promote Chinese culture.
Liu said that currently, the Confucius Institute only gives US students contact with language teachers employed by the Chinese institutes, which may limit their viewpoints and ideas about China. They cannot have free-wheeling discussion about the true value of China's history, social development, and even the ugly facts of life in China.
Some people link language teaching programs with establishing a Communist Party of China branch in universities in the US, viewing these moves as expanding political influence, according to Liu.
Proposing a more confident, frank and open attitude toward running the institute abroad, Liu said every aspect of China could be shown to others with confidence, such as inviting media, scholars or students to live with Chinese families, which would definitely leave a good impression on them.