Why I Sometimes Advise People to Give Up Chinese

*A/N: This piece is part of an on-going series. You can find the rest under the So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese tag or in the Main Menu.

A few days ago, I heard through the grapevine that a friend of mine, AAMilano, was considering sending her children to zhuyin classes. And because I love her, I told her not to.

I know. I am a big proponent of Chinese and zhuyin for literacy – what was I doing? Had I gone temporarily insane? (And had I betrayed my other friend who was arranging the class and now needed to find more students in order to make it worth it for the teacher?)

No.

Here’s the thing. I know my friend. And I know her purported goals and desires regarding Chinese fluency. And I knew, without a doubt, pursuing zhuyin classes for her kids was going to be a waste of her time, energy, and resources.

In fact, AAMilano is the primary reason I started my So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese Series. (You all really should thank her. Or blame her. One or the other.)

Anyhow, here’s why I told her to forget about the class.

AAMilano and her husband both work full time. She has three smart, capable little girls who, for the first few years of their lives, were completely fluent in Chinese. But like most children, once they started preschool and grade school, Chinese lost ground.

Her oldest daughter still retains some of her Chinese through going to Chinese school a few years ago and some efforts on my friend’s part to stem the loss, but her youngest two daughters have pretty much lost all of their Chinese.

She has, over the years, worried and stressed about finding Chinese tutors to help her daughters with reading and writing Chinese as well as trying to find ways to stem the loss of their Chinese, but all of the stop gaps she attempted were trying to plug a hole she didn’t even particularly want to fill.

How do I know this? Because I have talked to AAMilano numerous times over the years about what she actually wants.

And here’s what she actually wants for her kids: She wants them to eat well, get enough sleep, and to play outside after school. Incidentally, she already feels as if they aren’t doing that well. And after those basic needs are met, she would like them to learn to swim and to have one physical activity and then, perhaps one more activity.

Nowhere is Chinese fluency, let alone reading and writing, on that list.

Nowhere.

So, if AAMilano doesn’t care if her kids can read or write in Chinese, nor do her kids have the comprehension to make use of the zhuyin, what’s the point?

She would be detracting from the things she actually wants while focusing on things she doesn’t.

And why? Out of some misplaced guilt about what she should be doing? (To be fair, she is surrounded by many of us crazy, gung-ho Mandarin immersion moms.)

So I told AAMilano to not sign up for the zhuyin class. And in fact, to consider dropping the whole Chinese fluency thing in general. And then, to STOP FEELING GUILTY.

It’s not a bad example to her kids or a failure as a Chinese/Taiwanese mother. In fact, it’s a good example for her kids because if they ever ask, she can say that she had them quit Chinese because she realized that she has limited time, energy, and resources (like we all do in life) and that to be consistent with what she truly wants for her family, it was better for her to focus on the things that did matter to her.

Being authentic and learning to discern what we truly want and desire out of a sea of good options and opportunities and learning how to get rid of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is an integral life lesson. Better to learn it sooner rather than later.

And that if she really still felt bad about the Chinese speaking and understanding part, then to use her money to either find a tutor or a mother’s helper who would come twice a week for about two hours and play, tell stories, and do life with her kids in Chinese. And then maybe, she can find a Chinese swimming/art/activity teacher to round out the rest.

That way, they are doing what she values (playing, swimming, and physical activities) while she has freed up time for herself to either cook (meets the eating healthy part of her goals) or run errands or heck – NAP (sleeping well achievement unlocked!).

Of course, increasing her own Chinese speaking to the kids as well as increasing their Chinese media consumption would help her, but again, if she really doesn’t want to do that and expend the effort, to just let Chinese fluency go.

There are more important things in life (especially in her personal belief system), so why go through so much effort for something she doesn’t really want?

For regular readers of Mandarin Mama, this might come as a surprise to you that I would ever tell people to stop or give up Chinese (or even aspects of their Chinese journey like reading/writing).

After all, aren’t I the crazy one who homeschools her children in Chinese and makes sure 90% of their schools and extracurriculars are done in Chinese?

Aren’t I kinda being a hypocrite or worse – a saboteur?

Here’s the thing: telling people to give up Chinese (or parts of it) is my version of mercy and kindness. And not for the reason you might be thinking.

It has nothing to do with whether or not I think their children are talented or gifted or intellectual or smart enough. In fact, Chinese fluency has very little to do with talents/gifts/intellect/smarts.

The only qualities that matter in terms of successfully having your children learn Chinese are intention and follow through

I mean, I know it’s tempting to attribute success to some unique and special quality of our children or circumstances, but it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, the individual qualities and temperments of your kids definitely help or detract, but by and large, it really doesn’t matter.

Like all goals you want to achieve, whether weight loss, running a marathon, writing a book, getting out of debt, saving for college, getting a promotion – WHATEVER – it really just comes down to doing the work.

Of course, innate talent, ability, intelligence (in whatever chosen field), luck, and external circumstances can make the work easier or harder, but ultimately, you do the work.

You identify your goal, identify the steps to achieve your goal, and then, DO THE STEPS.

Nothing is simpler (or harder).

The REAL reason I sometimes tell friends to give up either all or just aspects of Chinese for their kids, is because I’m in favor of living a life you actually want instead of the life you think you should want.

Let me repeat that.

Live the life you actually want instead of the life you think you should want.

I wasted over three decades (that’s like 80% of my LIFE, people) doing things I thought I should such as having a certain type of major, a type of career, a type of parenting – and I was MISERABLE.

I am not going to waste any more years of my life.

And I certainly don’t want my friends to waste even a single second on things that they truly don’t care about but feel guilted into doing because that’s what you should do as a Chinese/Taiwanese parent.

Because guess what?

Just because you or your kids are entirely or partially ethnically Chinese/Taiwanese doesn’t mean they have to speak Chinese. And anyone who insists otherwise and says your kids are then no longer authentically Chinese/Taiwanese or challenges your or your children’s identities can go suck on an exhaust pipe.

Anyone who expects your children to be fluent in Chinese because of their racial makeup is racist as fuck.

Especially folks who are not ethnically Chinese bragging about how their children are so much better at the language than heritage children and isn’t that such a shame and how awesome they are for being so open-minded and determined or whatever.

Congratulations, your kid can speak Chinese. Good job. Here’s a cookie.

Now go be smug somewhere else.

Anyway…

My entire point is that, whether you are Chinese/Taiwanese or not, that unless you REALLY REALLY REALLY want your kids to be fluent/literate and are willing to put in the work (and OMG, it’s a LOT of work), why?

Why are you doing this to yourself and your children? Why are you arguing and fighting over Chinese school/homework/characters/speaking? Why are you spending all this time and energy and money on tutoring or classes or activities? What’s the point?

So, take the time to think about what you REALLY want for your children given your limited time, money, desire, and ability.

And then be ruthless in cutting out the things you don’t want – even if it includes Chinese fluency and/or literacy.

Yeah, I said it.

Including Chinese fluency and/or literacy.

Life is too short, friends.

Life is too short and full of so many awesome and amazing options that Chinese fluency/literacy is a tiny drop in a vast ocean of opportunities that will help your child have a good, beautiful life.

You are not a failure if after taking stock of your life and the life you want, you find that Chinese fluency/literacy/writing do NOT fit. Or if you take a look at what it takes to be truly fluent and literate, you decide, no. You do NOT want to expend the time, energy, and money on this endeavor.

It’s okay to say, “Not now.” Or even an outright “No.”

There is no medal for having your kids suffer and reluctantly become fluent.

There is no long-suffering award for sticking through with something that makes you and your children miserable and harms your relationship with them.

There is no penalty for NOT caring or wanting or having Chinese fluency/literacy.

No one is going to take away your Chinese/Taiwanese American card or your hipster card or your awesome card. (And if someone even attempts to, you can tell them Mandarin Mama told them to go gargle acid.)

All I want is for you to live the life as close to your deepest desires as possible.

If that includes Chinese fluency and literacy, wonderful! I wish you the best of luck, support, and fulfillment on this journey. And if it doesn’t? I am happy for you, too.

May you live the life you want in the manner you so choose – Chinese fluency or no.

Chinese Reading Challenge

Chinese Reading ChallengeIt’s a universally accepted fact that the best way to increase literacy is to have your kids read, read often, and read widely. So, if you want your kids to learn Chinese and also have them literate, that holds equally true for Chinese literacy. It is especially true if the books are non-translated, “indigenous” books.

Reading (in any language, but we are focusing on Chinese here) helps your children internalize Chinese grammar without resorting to dull worksheets or drills, gives them cultural references, and helps them see how idioms apply in every day conversation. If the books are non-translated books (ie: not originally English books translated into Chinese), it has the added benefit of being written specifically for the Chinese/Taiwanese child. Definitely a bonus in terms of language fluidity, rhyming, and playful words being used.

This is even more helpful when your child reads aloud since it also captures the rhythm and musicality of Chinese. Reading aloud helps your kids get used to the flow of speaking Chinese and increase the likelihood of them speaking Chinese with fluidity in every day conversation. Reading the same texts repeatedly will also build confidence and decrease stumbling.

All of these aspects will help your child as they learn Chinese – even if it’s just the speaking part you want to emphasize. (The literacy would just be a bonus.)

Anyhow, even knowing all this stuff about reading and literacy, I still find it hard to read to my children. Mostly because I find it so boring. (I know, I know. I’m a terrible parent. Especially since poor, neglected Glow Worm clearly never gets read to because when someone finally does pay attention to him long enough to read to him, he goes apeshit about books. Like, beyond excited.)

But now that Cookie Monster knows 800-1000 characters and Gamera is probably around 500-600 characters and they are getting better at zhuyin, it’s now easier for me to make them read to me. (I’m totally ballparking their character knowledge here because I am so lazy that the thought of actually quizzing them and having them go through that many character flashcards makes me stabby and want to die.)

However, since I tend to be a little lax lately about their Chinese reading recently, I was so pleased to hear that Cookie Monster finally wants something BIG. He wants to get Minecraft on the PC (thus far, he’s been playing on the xbox) and I guess the PC version has more mods that he sees and covets on YouTube. So, he’s been begging us to get him a computer and the game.

Cookie Monster is six. I know this is just a preview of what is to come. sigh

When I told Cookie Monster I heard he wanted to get a computer to play Minecraft, he was so excited. SO EXCITED. I could tell because he was jumping up and down (and for some reason, shirtless), barely containing his glee, saying, “YEAH YEAH YEAH!”

“Wait a minute, Cookie Monster.” I said. “I haven’t said I would get it for you yet. I need you to do something first before I get it for you.”

“Ok! Ok! I’ll do it! Tell me what it is!”

“Before I buy Minecraft for you, and before you can play it, you will need to earn it,” I explained, totally proud of myself in this awesome, teachable parenting moment.

“What does that mean? What does ‘earn it’ mean? I want to earn it! I don’t understand what you’re saying! Help me!”

There went my proud feelings.

Clearly, we are doing a bang up job as parents.

Also, it was so sad and hilarious I really wish I had the foresight to video the whole thing.

Since I’m never one to waste a chance to weaponize my children’s loves and desires, I am taking advantage of Cookie Monster finally expressing a real BIG desire for something and using it to ramp up him reading Chinese books. He has to read a certain number of Chinese books before I will buy the game for him and then, he will have to read a certain number of chapters/books in order to actually play the game.

And, because I’m loathe to do anything in life without turning it into a blog post for my own benefit, I’m making it a communal thing.

Today’s post officially kicks off the Read 100 Chinese Books Challenge (閱讀100本書).

For the tl;dr crowd, the Read 100 Chinese Books Challenge is a non-competitive way for us parents to support each other and our children on their way to Chinese literacy. Basically, we “pledge” to have our kids read 100 Chinese books of any length or level. We can post updates, check in and encourage each other, recommend books, have bribes prizes, etc.

Oh, and I’m serious about the non-competitive part.

There are no forms, no worksheets, no book reports you have to fill out. (I provide them for you because some folks really like them, but I personally think nothing ruins the joy of reading like pointless busywork.)

There is no verification service.

No grand prize for reading more than 100 books.

In fact, the prize for reading 100 books is, to quote my snarky friend, Not Another DB MBA, “Another 100 books!”

If this is of interest to you, join us on our 閱讀100本書/Read 100 Chinese Books Facebook Group. We’d love to have you. You MUST PM the admin your reason for joining the group. No PM? No admission.

In case a hundred books seems like a lot (and I won’t lie, it is) and you’re not sure you can find one hundred English books, let alone one hundred Chinese books, GuavaRama has a fantastic series of posts all on Chinese books including what kinds of books to buy (categorized at different levels), where to buy them, how to choose books, and where to find them in libraries. Seriously, it’s some quality information. Use it.

Alright, friends and fellow Chinese enthusiasts! For more info, I recommend you head over to our Facebook Group. (FYI: again, please PM the admin your reasons for joining.)

Hope to see you there.

 

Non-negotiables in Parenting

Every parent has a set of non-negotiables for their kids. Some more than others. I have very few because I am ultimately, a really lazy parent. It also helps me not to have an apoplexy every time my kids don’t do something the way I want it.

Here are my main non-negotiables (of course, I may discover more as both I and my children grow older):

1) Breakfast – They MUST eat a good breakfast (99% of the time, it is plain oatmeal with milk). The rest of the day may be shot to hell with snacks and stubborn toddlers refusing lunch and dinner and wanting only cookies, but dammit, they WILL eat a good breakfast.

2) Cleaning Up – Before my kids can pull out another toy, they have to put away what they’re currently playing with. Sometimes, the rules get lax when I’m tired or there is a playdate at my house (because can you honestly enforce that with 10 children running amok in your house?), but ultimately, I make my kids clean up their mess. Otherwise, it’s Time Out! (My Facebook friends can attest to my children’s constant Time Out statuses.) This avoids my house looking like a tornado tore through and prevents foot injuries from Legos and small dinosaurs.

3) Learning and using Mandarin – I try to speak to my children 90% of the time in Mandarin Chinese. It’s easy right now since their vocabulary needs are right in line with my abilities. But I do admit, I never knew I had to look up so many trucks and animals in Chinese (thank goodness for the iPhone app!).

I know it will just get more and more difficult to enforce when the kids get older and their vocabularies and interests expand. This is why I go out of my way to enroll my kids in Mandarin Mommy and Me classes, Mandarin preschool, (all provided by the awesome Po-Wen of Fun Learning Mandarin), Mandarin Language Playdates, buying Mandarin DVDs of shows, etc. I’ll likely also sign up Cookie Monster for Chinese School (12+ years of Saturdays gone – just like that!) next year when he is old enough. I am thinking of signing him up for some more Mandarin classes with other teachers as well.

If I were more hardcore, I would ban the kids from watching any shows not in Mandarin, but since I value expediency and convenience more than watching Chinese DVDs, I totally suck at this. I make the kids listen to Chinese songs and stories on CD and try to speak Mandarin and surround myself with Mandarin speakers as much as possible. But of course, we live in the real world and that will be harder and harder – especially when Cookie Monster goes off to Kindergarten in two years.

Sadly, Gamera speaks a lot more English than Mandarin, but she does understand both very well. She is also starting to speak more Mandarin so that makes me happier. Unfortunately, this is the consequence of being a second child. Cookie Monster pretty much ONLY spoke Mandarin until 18 months or so (and then I ruined it all by letting him watch copious amounts of TV and YouTube). Now, Cookie Monster and Gamera pretty much converse only in English. (Broken, Fobby English, but English nonetheless.)

When I read bedtime stories to them, I usually simultaneously translate the stories into Chinese vs. reading them in English. This does unfortunately ruin the rhythm of many children’s books, but I don’t feel bad because Hapa Papa obviously reads these stories to them in English so they’re not missing out on too much. They get both! I have a feeling this will fall by the wayside once the books advance. I’m not THAT good. hahah. Fortunately, I have a decent amount of Chinese books that my mother either saved for me, or that I have purchased – so I have that going for me.

As you can see by the length of this non-negotiable, it is SUPER important to me. I may have resented being sent to Chinese School for my entire K-12 life and missing out on so many Saturday morning cartoons and perhaps the opportunity costs of sports/arts/etc., but now that I’m in my mid-thirties, I am incredibly grateful to my crazy parents for sticking to it for so long.

And that, my friends, is the end of my non-negotiables. I think I have so few because it takes so much energy to focus really, really well and enforce them. Obviously, I have other rules, etc., but these are the things I MUST do every day. Other things can slide or fall by the wayside occasionally, but these things, I am adamant about promoting. I think that’s the only reason it’s stuck for 3.5+ years so far. After all, I am pretty flighty, and other than my goal of having four kids ~22 months apart (3 down, 1 to go!), this is the only thing I’ve ever consistently accomplished.

Ok, your turn! What are your non-negotiables? (And perhaps, why, if you are so inclined to expand in the comments.)