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.
“It’s not like they just want to blend in and become generic Americans,” said Shauna Lo, assistant director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
The Acton Chinese Language School, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last month, has 38 classrooms of students learning Mandarin, from kindergartners to high school students. Jennie Yue instructs her kindergartners to stand in a circle. She claps her hands. “I want to hear your voices,” she says, and leads them in a simple song.
Across the street in a basement room in the Parker Damon building, little English is spoken. Here older Chinese men and women gather. Some live in the United States, and some are visiting their families but will return to China. Four men sit around a table and play mah-jongg. Others play cards, and some dance across the floor.
About 70 percent of the students at the Chinese school come from Acton. But not everyone is Chinese. Dick Calandrella and his wife began studying Mandarin just after the school opened, when a few Chinese families moved into their Acton neighborhood. Some of their new neighbors, especially the older ones, could not speak English — so the Calandrellas, who are retired, decided to study Chinese.
“We only wanted to learn conversation,” he said. “We do have a very basic knowledge.”
They learned to say they speak “yi dian” — a little.
CNN Money has named Acton one of its “Best Places to Live” twice in the past four years — No. 16 in both 2009 and 2011 — and mentioned both the town’s diversity and the Chinese school.
Education is so important to Asian families moving here that when Frank Chen opened his real estate company 10 years ago, he named it Good Schools Realty. His first office was in Lexington; his second, two years later, was in Acton. Chen and some of his staff speak Mandarin.
Stephen Mills, superintendent of the Acton schools and the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, calls the relationship between Chinese families and the schools “a happy marriage” — both groups want excellent schools.
“I would absolutely say that the Asian community, they are a big part of the reason that we have those scores,” Mills said. “There’s no question about that.”
One night last week, as Jianlin cooked chicken and shrimp and spicy tofu at home, Carolyn and Megan talked about the stereotypes of Asians at the junior and senior high schools, including that Asians are extra smart, and overachievers.
They don’t believe it’s true, agreeing only that some Asians work very hard. But as second-generation immigrants, Carolyn and Megan admit they have high standards for themselves. If they get a grade lower than what they want, even if it is still respectable, they call it an “Asian fail.”
“We think that a B+ would be an ‘Asian fail,’ ” Carolyn says. “That’s just our view of what is failing. We wouldn’t mean that literally.”
Carolyn knows that when her parents were growing up in China, college was much more elusive than it is for most Americans.
“That’s why we stress education a lot,” she says. “That’s why we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. It’s not only our parents. I feel like a lot of people think that there’s kind of this Asian tiger mom, a tiger mom trying to push her children to learn a lot.”
“You said Mom is a tiger mom?” Jianlin calls over from the stove, sounding distressed.
“No!” Carolyn says. “I’m saying, in general, that there is a stereotype that all these Asian parents are tiger moms, that they try to push their kids to have perfect grades. And I wouldn’t say that’s true for all Asians.”
Jianlin, too, recoils at the image of the Asian mother who pressures her children to succeed at all costs. But she concedes that she does have lofty expectations for her children. One day when Jianlin got home from work, Megan had finished her homework and was watching television. Jianlin thought she should be using her time more productively.
“I said, ‘Megan, you should do some extra things,’ ” Jianlin recalls.
“She said, ‘No, this is America. This is not China. Why do I need to do extra homework?’ ”
School isn’t too stressful yet for Megan, who is in eighth grade. She was one of a few students who placed out of eighth grade math and takes freshman geometry at the high school. Still, she suspects American students might be falling behind.
“Sometimes my mom gets Chinese packet books for us to practice,” she says. “The book she gives us is sixth grade in China, and I had trouble solving some of the problems.”
For Carolyn, homework is light this week because sophomores are taking the MCAS. But other deadlines are looming: a history paper on a Supreme Court case due next week, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” state finals in debate over the weekend.
She is taking five honors classes this year. She also spends many hours on debate and speech, sings in an a cappella group, referees soccer in spring and fall, volunteers as a teaching assistant at the Chinese school’s debate club, and studies drawing.
Carolyn’s passion for debate — she has won some trophies this year — has led her to consider training as a lawyer. But Jianlin worries that it might be a difficult career for the daughter of Chinese immigrants.
“I think that profession, you need more connections,” Jianlin says, “or some family influence. . . I’m not sure as second-generation immigrants, Asian.”
Jianlin would like her daughter to find a job that allows her to contribute something useful to society, that gives her flexibility for a family, in a field that is stable. She and David have seen their career fields wax and wane.
David and Jianlin met when they were graduate students at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and married while Jianlin was getting her doctorate at UMass Amherst. Now they are both American citizens. They speak Chinese to each other but their daughters prefer English.
“They speak Chinese to us,” Carolyn says. “We respond in English — Chinglish. We understand it pretty well, I would say.”
The sisters studied Mandarin at the Chinese school for years, but eventually rebelled. (“The only bonus is Chinese New Year,” Megan says. “You get the $2 in a little bag.”)
Jianlin tells them about a family she knows where the mother pretended she spoke no English, so the children learned to speak Chinese fluently.
“But now their Chinese is perfect?” Carolyn asks, a bit wistfully.
As they eat dinner, Jianlin remembers back to when she was in college in China, looking through a guide to American grad schools, applying, almost blindly, to physics programs. Her family was unable to afford even the application fees.
“At that time, the living standard is quite different between US and China,” she says. “So it’s a good thing if you can get a chance to come to the US.”
Underneath the table, Carolyn takes her mother’s hand.