ACTON — It is 6:30, a time of morning no teenager likes to see firsthand. The sun hasn’t yet risen, and outside, along the sleepy loop of Lexington Drive, snow and sky are twilight gray.
Inside a peach-colored house, two sisters are reluctantly prying themselves from their beds. Downstairs, their father, David Zhou, is frying eggs. Their mother, Jianlin Li, is getting herself ready to drive the school carpool and head to work.
Soon, Megan, 14, and Carolyn, 15, file downstairs in their stocking feet and climb onto stools at the counter, where a single egg and toast waits for each of them. They are normally talkative — Carolyn is the captain of her school’s Lincoln-Douglas debate team — but at the moment they are quiet, still emerging from the fog of sleep. They would have had to wake even earlier but the carpool, by design, allows them 20 extra minutes in bed.
These mundane details of a Thursday morning are particles of a life built to give Megan and Carolyn the best chance at the best possible education, their parents say.
David and Jianlin, who were born in China, bought this house in 1998 partly because of the local schools. Acton-Boxborough Regional High produces some of the state’s highest SAT scores each year.
Many Chinese families like theirs have also been lured to this town steeped in Revolutionary history, giving Acton one of the most dramatic increases in Chinese residents — topping 151 percent — in Massachusetts between 2000 and 2010, according to the US Census Bureau figures. With 2,041 Chinese Americans, Acton has the state’s ninth largest Chinese population, and residents with ties to Asian ethnic groups make up nearly 19 percent of its population.
Although Lexington and Newton have traditionally been popular with Asian families, house prices are much lower in Acton. Last year, the median price of a single-family home in Acton was $480,000, according to an industry tracking company, the Warren Group — $300,000 less than in Newton, $244,000 less than Lexington. And since many of the newcomers, like Zhou and Li, work for the region’s high-tech companies, Acton offers a reasonable commute.
Last century, Chinese immigrants who settled in New England were often single men, sometimes women, who flocked to the cities. The path to the American dream lay in finding jobs, getting married, having kids, and — maybe in a generation or two — moving to the suburbs.
Now, many Chinese émigrés head straight for the suburbs.
As the Chinese families have been changed by their new hometown, so, too, has Acton been changed by them. The Acton Memorial Library, named to recall those who served in the Civil War, has one of the largest collections of Chinese language materials — 2,855 pieces, including books and video compact discs — among the state’s public libraries. At the town’s first Chinese culture day in 2010, at NARA Park, organizers expected 500 guests. And then 3,000 showed up.
In 2011, the town combined two celebrations, Acton’s 275th anniversary and Chinese New Year. The festivities included both a musket volley by the Acton Minutemen, who march the 7 miles to the Old North Bridge each Patriots Day, and performances of dragon and ribbon dances by Chinese residents.
A few feet from where the Zhou (pronounced like “Jo”) sisters are eating breakfast, a shelf is piled with textbooks that their mother bought on eBay to supplement their school lessons. This summer, the whole family will swim together twice a week in the high school pool.
Both sisters will get a preview of next year’s courses in summer camp, taking some classes that start as early as 7:45 a.m. Carolyn will spend two weeks at debate camp on the UCLA campus, as she did last year.
“A big part of it is that I simply like being challenged and learning a lot more,” says Carolyn, who will take six honors classes next year. Still, she adds, “It’s very stressful most of the time.”
If there is a Chinese village within Acton, it is the Acton Chinese Language School. Every Sunday afternoon, the nonprofit operation rents out much of the R.J. Grey Junior High and the school district’s Parker Damon building across the street. Dozens of classrooms fill up with nearly 800 students who learn Mandarin, traditional Chinese brush painting, fan dancing, and sports.
The Chinese families moving to Acton, with carpool schedules and minivans and houses in new subdivisions, may seem fully immersed in the ways of America. But they still want to steep their children in the heritage of their home country: the culture, the music, and especially the language.Continued...