If Your Kids Know Chinese, Please Don’t Make the Rest of Us Feel Like Crap

Author’s Note: Yes, yes. I know I’m the super gungho Chinese lady. I mean, it’s in my blog name. But I am aware that not everyone is like me – and that is ok. Today’s Guest Post is by Tracey Gee, of Balance is Boring. I’ve known Tracey since my first year at UCLA and love her writing and style. She writes about food, design, parenting, leadership, and so much more!


We’ve been living in our current house for about 3 years which is like 10 minutes in my neighborhood because lots of folks have been here for decades. We’re still the new kids on the block. But we’ve really enjoyed meeting our neighbors who are genuinely kind and amazing people and have become friends with several families which I love.

So, I was really excited to finally meet the fellow mom that just moved in a few houses down. I had seen them working on the house and moving trucks going back and forth but we hadn’t had a chance to meet yet.

As we chatted, I realized our kids are about the same age and even at the same school. “Yay, another new friend!” I thought. That is, until she quizzed me on my Chinese language abilities, told me that I “should” be teaching my kids Chinese, and that her kids are really good at it within the span of our 7-minute conversation.

I honestly have so much respect for parents who teach their kids another language. My sister recently enrolled her kids in Chinese school and they love it. It works really well for their family.

It’s not like I wouldn’t love for my kids to be able to speak Chinese but it just hasn’t been something we’ve prioritized. Part of it is due to the fact that my husband and I are both limited in our abilities. I grew up speaking Mandarin and I still do with my folks. I can order in a restaurant. But I’m probably as fluent as a second grader. (That might be generous.) My husband is Cantonese and is at about the same level with that. We can’t really talk to each other so we speak to other in English at home.

Because of our limited abilities, our conversations with our kids quickly outpaced our Chinese skills. As a 4-year old, my eldest was asking me questions like – Do ants sleep? What happens if all the water on the earth dries up? How do they make glue? How do they make Jell-O? What sound does a panda make? And so on…

I found myself unable to really respond to him in Chinese or to have the level of conversation that I wanted to have. So, it felt more natural to speak in English. We still talked about different words in Chinese but by and large our conversations were in English.

Ultimately, this was probably the biggest barrier to really teaching them Chinese. Once I realized that, we tried a couple of Chinese school options and lessons but they didn’t feel like the best use of time, money, and energy for us. Both my motivation and theirs quickly dwindled to keep doing those things.

Sometimes when you talk to some people, it feels like there is a moral imperative to learn Chinese like “if you don’t speak the language are you even Chinese at all?” And I think there is the assumption that fluency in the language makes one “more Chinese.”

But to that I would say that there are a lot of ways to be connected to your heritage. With our kids, we talk about what it means that we are Chinese American. We discuss Chinese cultural values and what’s special about it. Their chopsticks technique is on point. They eat on-the-bone chicken clean leaving no meat, skin, or cartilage in a way that would make my Nai Nai proud. My 6-year old’s favorite food in the whole world is pig ears. My 10-year old eats entire orders of xiao long bao by himself. They definitely have the love of Chinese food down. We celebrate Lunar New Year.

And maybe most important to me is that we continually help them learn the stories of our family and their grandparents. So though they can’t speak the language, I feel like they have a healthy and hopefully growing sense of culture and legacy.

We have chosen not to spend the time and money on teaching our kids Chinese. Instead, our family priorities have been:

  • School
  • Family meals
  • Reading
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Friends
  • Faith
  • Free time – last but not least, we also value giving them time to be self-directed and to not be in anything structured so they can play and just be. I love watching them get lost in an imaginary world of their own creation.

I find that when we spend time in these ways, we feel like our family is thriving.

Instead of the conversation we had, I wish that my neighbor had asked me more questions or demonstrated more curiosity. I wouldn’t have been offended if she’d asked me if I had ever considered having my kids learn Chinese.

I wish that she had asked if that was something I wanted rather than assuming that everyone, of course, should. I wish that she hadn’t taken her kids’ language learning as a blanket badge of superiority but rather understood that there are great (and not so great) things about everyone.

I wish that she had demonstrated some understanding that what works great for one family may not work for another. And that’s perfectly okay.

In the end, we all have to decide what works best for our family. And I know that mentally. But, I still second guess myself at times and feel like a crappy parent for failing to teach them.

So, after I had that conversation with my neighbor I texted my husband, “Met new neighbor. Shamed me for our kids not speaking Chinese. Guess we’re not gonna be friends.”

You know, I guess it boils down to the fact that I already feel bad about it so if you want me make me feel bad too, it’s not going to work out. No hard feelings but I just don’t think we’re going to hang out. Too bad because I host a mean playdate.  

5 thoughts on “If Your Kids Know Chinese, Please Don’t Make the Rest of Us Feel Like Crap

  1. Oh man, I am mildly despairing over teaching our any Mandarin at all. Like you, my speaking ability is early elementary school at this point, and white hubby doesn’t speak any at all besides some off-color phrases he learned from the Internet (sigh). Our son is only 19-months-old and I feel like my vocabulary and grammar is already inadequate! I would almost love to find some sort of Mommy & Me lessons or resources because my Mandarin is sooooo rusty. You are doing a great job no matter what language your kids speak!

    • Thanks Jenn!! You’re so sweet. Don’t despair! I think if you really desire to have your kids learn, it is TOTALLY possible! You could take a trip to China, research immersion programs, lessons, Chinese videos, Chinese school and OF COURSE Mandarin Mama has got tons of resources for you!! It’s just that with our values we didn’t make it a priority so it didn’t happen but I don’t think I wanted it enough. It’s all about choices.

  2. I’ve experienced this scenario myself, where others have shamed me for not having proficient Chinese language skills. Not only that, but one person called me a “farmer” because the Chinese I know is the Taishanese dialect. I dread the day when someone will act that way about my future children, because I’ll model something very unfriendly in front of my kids!

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