Despite working as a management consultant, Karen Cheuk always felt passionate about inspiring the next generation.
'My Dad has been a Chinese and music teacher for more than 40 years,' she told us. 'His dedication to teaching had a huge impact on me.'
Born and raised in Hong Kong until she was 18 years old, Karen first came to the UK when she was awarded a scholarship to study at Cambridge. It was there that she met her husband. As he was originally from Shanghai, the couple endured a long-distance relationship for 7 years after graduation, before finally getting married and settling in London for good. Their daughter, Fiona, was born in 2012.
'When we wanted to enrol Fiona into baby Chinese classes, none of the classes we went to struck the right balance between fun and learning, and most of them only catered for Chinese-speaking families.'
Karen quickly found herself excited about running Chinese classes where both parents and children could 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.'
Little Bunnies was born and in two years it has grown from one class in a local library to nearly 20 classes across London. We asked Karen to tell us more about life behind-the-scenes...
'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 Little Bunnies in parallel). As my day job is relatively flexible, I can leave the office at around 4pm to pick up Fiona from school. 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.'
Once Fiona is in bed, Karen's day continues as she works on Little Bunnies for a couple of hours - replying to parents' enquiries, talking to teachers and planning class materials.
'In our 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 their classroom-based lessons, Little Bunnies received a lot of requests from families not based in South-East London, so they began to offer private group classes at parents’ homes.
'Family friends can share the cost and combine Chinese learning with fun playdates! It has been very popular – at the moment we have about 10 groups in different parts of London (e.g. Richmond, Wimbledon, Marble Arch) and the number keeps growing. Recently, we have also started to provide regular Chinese classes in nurseries to benefit more families.'
Karen is full of advice for those hoping to raise bilingual/multilingual kids.
'The key is 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 in creating the right environment.'
'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.'
Juggling motherhood with the day-to-day running of Little Bunnies and a demanding management consulting job is definitely a challenge, but Karen believes a good work/life balance is achieved when the various different elements that she values are brought together to form 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 ultimately 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!'
Karen also feels strongly about the importance of ‘me-time’, something she learnt the hard way.
'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!'
'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 Fiona. It reminds me of who I am other than being a working mom!'
Despite the many challenges, Karen relishes her role as Fiona's mother.
'I never knew that I could love a person so much, and this profound love gives me courage. I used to think that to be successful, I had to follow a pre-defined route, even if 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.'
If she could go back in time and give her pregnant self one piece of advice, Karen would warn against trying to be a perfect mum.
'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!'
Embracing our imperfections as parents sounds like a brilliant idea!
You can find out more about Little Bunnies here.
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