Po-ling NG’s “Kindergarten” – Report on the Open Senior Center in New York’s Chinatown

Po-ling NG’s “Kindergarten” – Report on the Open Senior Center in New York’s Chinatown

(Image Credits: China Current)

The elderly in New York’s Chinatown all know of the Open Senior Center on 168 Grand Street. The Open Senior Center is located on Grand Street at the bottom of a tall residential building and has been hailed as one of the most beautiful and modern centres of their kind. The centre organises all kinds of exciting activities for the elderly and often receives the visits of politicians; thus appearing in the New York Chinese-speaking media. A consultant from the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) called it the “Senior Kindergarten”.

Po-ling NG’s “children”

When reporting on the Open Senior Center, we have to talk about its Director, Po-ling NG. She immigrated to the United States fifty years ago and she is well integrated in American society, but it is among the Chinese community in New York that she has made a place for herself. Her experiences, tinged with flavour of the American Dream, are known by everyone. In 1996, at forty years old, Po-ling NG was elected Chairman of the School District Committee with a high number of votes. She was responsible for the allocation of funds and implementation of policies in public schools as well as a range of other school-related issues. According to Po-ling NG herself, the Chairman of the School District Committee is like a “communication bridge” between parents and the public education sector. Now, with her background in politics, she has become a “communication bridge” between the Chinatown elderly and New York politicians. During the many elections that took place in New York in 2013 (the Democratic primary elections, the Council elections, the Public Welfare Officer elections) the Open Senior Center became the place to visit for all candidates concerned with Chinatown’s district; Po-ling NG naturally became the candidates’ first choice for “live interpreting”.

“This is my first job. I have been working here for over forty years; I started when I was twenty, I am over 60 years old now.” When she talks about the centre, where she has been working for almost forty years, a smile blossoms on Po-ling NG’s face. This sixty year old lady has been working at the Open Senior Center ever since its creation. She accompanied the centre through its growth, from the time it only had a few dozen members and a surface of one hundred meter-squares to the current 6000 members. “This place is just like another of my children.” She says smiling.

The Open Senior Center was established in 1972 by the New York Chinese Planning Council (CPC). It is different from nursing homes in Mainland China in that it is a non-profit activity centre for the elderly. The Open Senior Center aims at providing services for the Chinatown seniors (in the United States, people over 65 are considered seniors by the government). It is also known for providing high-quality consulting on welfare applications and nursing services as well as a variety of artistic activities for the elderly. Its main funding comes from the New York City Department for the Aging, fundraisings organised by elected officials, and a few private donations.

Ms Li, who often comes to the activities at the Center, told China Current that she immigrated to the United States with her husband and her children. Now her children have moved away and she can only make arrangements for her own life. So the Open Senior Center has become “another home” for her. She also stresses that after they arrived in the United States her children’s  values were no longer the same as they were in China; they no longer value family and filial affection. She has to keep an open attitude about it, and had to learn to be independent and to adapt to American culture. “Otherwise, all you can do is sit somewhere every day, complaining, and waiting to die.”

In fact, what Ms Li says is quite reasonable. In recent years many reports have shown that because of the cultural differences between China and the U.S. many older Chinese immigrants cannot adapt to life abroad, and this creates all kinds of problems. Dr. Lu Youhua, Professor at the School of Social work at New York University pointed out that traditional Chinese filial piety has accused great changes in the U.S. Seniors who lived half of their life in China often find that their children who moved to the United States in their early years have become “neither Chinese nor Western”; their grandchildren are already fully American; “children ask their parents to change in order to adapt to the American society”. She believes that Chinese filial piety is about giving, whereas American culture is about demands; this is where a contradiction appears. Therefore she suggests that in order to spend their remaining years comfortably, Chinese elders might as well abandon the habit of “living together with their children”, make use of the good social welfare in America, and learn to live independently.

A short while ago, the American newspaper Sing Tao Daily reported that as a result of their family members living far away, because they are sick but don’t want to become a burden to their families, and because of depression created by language and culture barriers, a high rate of suicides has emerged among the many elderly Chinese-Americans living in San Francisco. 15 out of 100 elderly Chinese people have suicidal thoughts, a higher rate than among other ethnic groups. This has become the most noteworthy community when it comes to the issue of suicide among the elderly throughout the United States, but it has yet to receive appropriate attention. Most people describe the situation of Chinese elderly in the United States as “the Five Prerogatives”: they cannot understand English like the deaf; they cannot read English like the blind; they cannot speak English like the mute; they cannot drive a car like the disabled; they cannot answer the telephone and their hands keep shaking. Some of them can only live their life within their community as they cannot communicate in English; they might even have lost contact with the outside world and end up alone. Under these circumstances, many senior centres have emerged. In New York, there are almost 600 organisations of service for the elderly similar to the Open Senior Center. They don’t only provide free meals for seniors over sixty; they also act as social places and provide spiritual sustenance for the Chinese elderly so that they are no longer isolated from society.

“This is the best senior activity centre in New York.”

If you walk into the Open Senior Center on a normal day, you will often find it very lively, bustling with elder people doing all kinds of activities. Some will be singing karaoke, some will be playing Mah-jong, and some will be playing table tennis, while others will be getting a haircut, or even taking classes. According to Po-ling NG’s explanations, the Center offers English classes, aerobics, computer skills classes, dance classes, and such educational courses tailored for the elderly. They also provide Mah-jong tables, and common rooms like a table tennis room and a library, and run government welfare application workshops. Among the many services, the most compelling one is the lunch from 11am to 1pm for 50 cents. In fact, the elderly can not only eat at the Center but they can also access their delivery service. The Center organises friendly competitions every month, such as the table tennis competition, the etiquette competition or the karaoke competition. Moreover, the Center also carefully prepares awards ceremonies which not only involve singing and dancing performances and the solemn presentation of prizes to the winners, but they also invite the media to cover the story and take pictures. Every such time, the Open Senior Center becomes very lively. The prize winners are particularly excited, especially so when they have their relatives and friends with them to share their joy.

“I am delighted to have won the title but I am even more pleased to have had the opportunity to learn from all the great players here,” said Mr Mai Songjie who had just won the table-tennis competition, to China Current’s reporter. Mr Mai used to play at a nearby table-tennis senior association but after he won the competition three times in a row there, there were no new people who would participate and he often had no opponents to compete with. He thus turned to the Open Senior Center. This octogenarian champion had a particularly bright smile when he answered our questions. “There is a real abundance of talented people here!”

Owing to its great facilities and many activities, there are many elderly who, like Mr Mai, come to the Open Senior Center attracted by its fame. There are now over six thousand registered members at the Open Senior Center, and between three and four hundred people come every day. In addition to taking part in specific competitions and training courses, going to the Open Senior Center for lunch and taking part in the activities has become a part of some seniors’ daily life.

“Many elderly people have formed this habit: after they have accompanied their grandchildren to school in the morning they come here, have a seat, have lunch, do a bit of sport and then go back,” said Ms Rong, a member of the Center’s staff. According to Ms Zhu, they come from different geographical backgrounds, and every time that the Center organises a large-scale event they will invite people who can speak dialects, such as the Fuzhou, Shanghai or Macao dialects, to help with translation.

The kindergarten’s “preoccupations”

Even though she has been busy taking care of the Center every day, the years do not reflect Ms Wu’s youthfulness of spirit. Now over sixty, Ms Wu still likes to dress up and laughs like a twenty-year-old girl. For an award ceremony, Ms Wu, who was dressed in a light-coloured coat, put on a pair of pink shoes as she went on stage. The host noticed her ‘playful’ shoes and made a few related jokes. After the ceremony, the ‘shy’ Ms Wu quickly replaced them with the simple white shoes that she is used to wear, and received guests with a smile.

But the everyday smiling Ms Wu has many preoccupations. Because of the economic recession, the budget originally allocated to the Open Senior Center has been diminished every year, meanwhile the operating cost of the Center is becoming even more stretched. “We cannot reduce the funding of the most expensive activities and of the 50 cent lunch set, and the elderly’s needs are only increasing,” Ms Wu admitted. Many people have suggested for the Center to organise short trips but its tight funding has not yet allowed such activities. “I really wish that we could realise their wishes sooner. I wish both the government and the community would pay us greater attention,” Ms Wu frowns as she speaks of these issues.

Even though the Open Senior Center enjoys a great reputation within the Chinese community, from which a lot of its resources comes from, they are still facing insufficient funding. “I will keep fighting on the current foundations to make every dollar count.”

Ms Wu has been through great pains in order to secure more funds and space for the Center. Back in 2010, when Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City, came to visit the Open Senior Center, Ms Wu seized the opportunity to ask this rich philanthropist for a small contribution to the Center; the Mayor accepted right away.

In late August, during the karaoke competition award ceremony, the bold Ms Wu announced cheerfully that on October 28th, Mr Bloomberg will participate in the Center’s 41st anniversary celebrations. “We will be having roasted pork, I hope you‘ll all enjoy it!”

This coverage was originally written in Chinese, and published on Chinese Edition. 

Miley Kim, Hong Kong Correspondent, reported from New York

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