Bayside resident Sophie J. Shayer may have left all her family in China when she came to Australia with her husband Craig in 2008, but not her Chinese culture.
Sophie and Craig work in education roles, and are raising their daughters Mia and Emma within Chinese and western cultures. In Australia Sophie learned the value of a mothers group from a referral from Bayside Council’s new mothers’ clinic.
“I thought this was a really good idea, because I learned a lot from the other mothers, and it eased a lot of my anxieties as a first-time mother,” Sophie says. “I thought we should have something like the group in Chinese (language) as well, so the Chinese mothers could get together and share their experiences, because of the difference between Chinese and western ways of raising children.”
She found western education easier, and more enjoyable than schooling in China. She wants her daughters to enjoy their learning too, while also having the benefit of speaking Mandarin with other Chinese children. “I feel it is really important for my daughters to speak Mandarin, so they will be able to speak with all my family in China,” she says. When Sophie could not find any special Chinese groups online, she approached Bayside Council and a group of three mothers began, and later dropped to two one of their members returned to Singapore.
Later she over-heard two women from the council’s maternity clinic talking of the need for a Chinese playgroup. Even though Chinese women were referred to the western mothers group, because of language and cultural barriers, they could still feel isolated and may not have even attended. Friendly, outgoing and bilingual, Sophie had the solution. She was allocated space in a kindergarten building next to the Highett Neighbourhood Community House, and later moved her small group to a more suitable venue at Black Rock, where the mothers and their young children flourished for three or four years. “We accumulated a lot of mums, they had a larger room with a lot of toys,” Sophie says.
‘The cost of renting the room was shared among the mothers, but an additional charge introduced for insurance prompted the group’s move to the Highett Neighbourhood Community House. They have created a warm and welcoming atmosphere, sharing their morning tea, singing Chinese rhymes, reading stories for the older children, and more simple stories, like ‘My First Word’ for the younger ones.
Class numbers rise and fall. They are more popular in summer time. The classes run each Thursday from 10.30 to 11.45am. “Sometimes when the mums have a chat, the time just goes on,” Sophie says with a smile. “Some people may think the playgroup is for the kids, but it is not only for the kids, a lot is actually for the parents. We can socialise, so mothers don’t feel alone at home, looking after their children,” Sophie says. “I have met so many nice people from this playgroup since I started.”
Weekend events are organised for mothers in the workforce unable to attend during the week. Parents and their children celebrate Chinese New Year together and Christmas. Craig Shayer, who comes from England and met his wife in China, plays Santa. He is an international language program coordinator for vocational educator Melbourne Polytechnic.
Sophie has explained a specific learning course is required to learn Mandarin when parents ask if she can teach their children the language at the playgroup. Consequently, she has started one such class, Mandarin Seed. “You cannot learn for one or two years, it is for the long term. I am still learning English, it is a lifetime thing,” she says. Twenty students are attending Mandarin Seed. Half have Chinese heritage; the other half have western backgrounds and Sophie Shayer continues bridging the two cultures.
Written by Sophie J Shayer