Why I Am So Insistent On Mandarin Immersion

As many of you know, I’m very gung-ho on raising my children bilingual in Mandarin and English. The English part is relatively easy since it’s the majority language of the Bay Area. (Although sometimes, you’d be rightly surprised!) Plus, it’s the language Hapa Papa speaks to the children, the language Hapa Papa and I speak to each other, and the language of the bulk of TV and media. English surrounds us.

As for Mandarin, for now, it is the main language in which I, my mother, and the kids’ teachers speak to my children. I have a ton of Mandarin DVDs, CDs, apps, and various books and media for my kids to consume as well. Both their preschools are in Mandarin, (one teaching traditional with zhuyin and the other teaching simplified).

I used to worry about the kids learning simplified Chinese characters because truthfully, I hate simplified Chinese. I feel it butchers and guts the rich history and meaning of the Chinese written language – a ploy by the Communist government to rip their citizens from any connection to the heart of being Chinese.

I know, it sounds so 1984 – but consider this: the traditional character for love is 愛. The simplified character is 爱. To the illiterate eye, it might not look any different at all, but for those of us who are literate (or in this case, semi-literate), the simplified character has literally ripped the heart out of love. For you see, the character for heart is 心 and it is no longer in the simplified word.

How can you have love with no heart?

At any rate, I am Taiwanese so of course, I am a bit biased. And now that Cookie Monster and Gamera have been in both schools for at least a year with no ill effects to their ability to recognize both traditional and simplified characters, I’ve decided that our children’s minds are incredibly agile and able to understand that the same character can have different physical representations. After all, aren’t most letters in the English alphabet like that anyway (albeit on a much simpler scale). There are upper case, lower case, different fonts, cursive, etc. Tons of ways to render the same letter totally different. And yet, no one bemoans that it is too difficult for our children to learn to read English!

I realize that was quite a tangent for something that most people couldn’t care less about, but to many of us Taiwanese Americans, it’s a pretty big fucking deal.

Either way, it’s good for my kids to learn to read Chinese – simplified or traditional. I just want them to be literate!

In fact, one of the main reasons I’m pushing so hard for homeschooling is Mandarin language retention. Through personal, anecdotal, and empirical data, once kids start regular school in English, you can pretty much count on their Mandarin to take a nosedive. It’s a sad but universally acknowledged truth. And the only way to combat that Mandarin attrition, is through a LOT of concerted effort.

Now, I know that officially, I have to homeschool my kids in English – but still. Their exposure to Chinese will be far more at home than at school. And also, at home, I can teach Chinese as well. This way, I don’t have to send my kids to additional Chinese schools either on Friday nights or Saturday mornings. Once all my kids are done with preschool, I can go back to Taiwan at any time and spend months there, too. (The only limiting factor would be time away from Hapa Papa.)

So, why do I want my kids to be not only fluent but also literate in Mandarin? I can give you a bunch of reasons such as the value of being bilingual/multilingual, communicating with my family in Taiwan, retaining cultural heritage, etc. But truthfully, one of the dominant reasons is because I know they will be judged and I want to remove one barrier in life to people questioning my children’s identities.

Growing up as an ABC (American Born Chinese), I often felt like a foreigner and like I didn’t fit in. Of course, I was smart and fluent in English and could converse with my peers, but that didn’t stop me from noticing that none of the “pretty” or “popular” girls looked like me. None of them ate what I ate. None of the media I consumed had people who looked like me. None of the fashion magazines gave advice on how to do makeup for Asian eyes or dress for our skin tones and figures (or lack thereof!).

I was invisible.

Then, on the few occasions I went back to Taiwan, I felt stupid because though I could speak the language, I couldn’t speak Taiwanese, and I couldn’t read or write at peer level. My family would always find it amazing that I could even speak Chinese at all. But then, occasionally tease us for cultural or pronunciation errors. I didn’t dress right, move right, or even communicate right and even awash in a sea of people who allegedly looked like me, I was picked out to be an ABC even before I opened my mouth.

I was dismissed.

Now, keep in mind that my spoken Chinese is actually very good – and people are often surprised that I am an ABC. However, as soon as I try to read something, it is evident that I am. (Although, with technology, my literacy has greatly improved to that of maybe a 2nd grader. Okokok… maybe a 1st grader.)

Since my kids are multi-ethnic, I can only imagine this “foreign feeling” to be even more heightened. To feel as if they are not really Taiwanese and not really white. (Forget anyone thinking they’re also Japanese. That pretty much never comes up.)

Of course, to my eyes, I think my kids look Chinese, but I do realize that my eyes are lying. Plus, since I’m used to seeing so many multi-ethnic kids, I think my sample size is a bit skewed. One thing for sure, whenever we head back to Taiwan, EVERYONE can tell my kids are mixed. And immediately, the assumptions and presumptions come flying.

My children are dismissed as not really Chinese. (No one says it, but I can feel it. Being a minority helps a person attune to what the majority is thinking.) People are surprised that they can speak and read Chinese. (In a way that is unintentionally insulting. Like, “Oh, good for you! You can walk and talk and not wet yourself!”)

My children are a novelty.

So yes, being bilingual is a great thing in and of itself. But one of the primary reasons I am so adamant is because I see their fluency as armor. As a way to say, “Fuck you” in whichever language they want to any who would dare underestimate them.

They will NOT be ignored. They will NOT be invisible.

Judge them at your peril.

Hating On Mark Zuckerberg’s Chinese

Last week, I posted an Atlantic article on Facebook about how Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, was getting a lot of flak for speaking Chinese like a seven year old with marbles in his mouth. I prefaced the post with the following:

You know what this article makes me think of? White male privilege. Awww. Poor white guy who tried so hard to learn one of the most difficult languages in the world and people aren’t adequately encouraging him and giving him praise. Never mind that millions of US immigrants are far more fluent in English than Zuckerberg is in Chinese and yet still they get crap for their accents and told to go back to their country or to learn to speak English. (But only if their accent isn’t European. Then it’s lovely and aristocratic sounding.)

Yeah, good job, Zuckerberg for doing an interview in Chinese. But let’s not be too impressed when one white guy does something millions of immigrants do every day in the US without thanks or encouragement.

Shortly after my post, my brother, AD, IM’d me, “Btw your post about Mark and his Chinese makes your friends and you look like bitter ass bitches. Why even insult him when you should be promoting everyone to try a new language?”

We proceeded to have a discussion in which my brother brought up some good points:

1) That I could’ve posted the article and used it as a positive jumping off point but instead, because Zuckerberg is rich, running a billion dollar company, white, male, and privileged, I gave him shit about it.

2) That despite being rich, white, and privileged, Zuckerberg also worked hard to learn Chinese and build his wealth.

3) That I come off looking really petty.

Now, before I go on, a word of warning. I love my brother. Fiercely. And though I sometimes disagree with him, (and you may, too), this does not give anyone license to malign or talk shit about my brother in the comments. In fact, this may be a good time in general for a quick refresher on my commenting policies. Feel free to debate ideas and thoughts but not the character of the people making them. Let’s be grown ups, yeah? (I realize that 99% of my readers do not need this warning and the 1% this applies to, it won’t make a difference. However, one can only hope.)

Alright, back to the discussion at hand. (One-sided as it is since it’s my blog and I have all the time and space with which to blather on and on about it.)

Am I just being petty?

Short answer: Yes. Emphatically, yes.

Do I care? No. Not one fucking bit.

I will be the first to admit that I am a petty, overly critical, horrible human being. I judge – and I judge a lot, all the time, and mostly, I am judging you as we speak.

It’s completely true. (Sorrynotsorry.)

To be clear: I am impressed with Zuckerberg’s Chinese. His facility with the language is really good and in many respects, far better than mine. I may have the tones better but his business vocabulary is far superior.

Could I have posted something more positive and glowy about the beauty of people learning new languages (especially Chinese since I’m very pro learning Chinese – for EVERYBODY, not just my kids)?

Absolutely! But I didn’t because that isn’t the point I wanted to make.

My point was how utterly ridiculous the ARTICLE was in highlighting how Zuckerberg is being “bullied” by all these mean people, not Zuckerberg himself. Zuckerberg worked hard to be a billionaire and to learn Chinese. Just because he benefits from intersecting privileges doesn’t negate his achievements.

Also, it is possible to be pissed about those privileges – and it is indeed a white privilege – without hating the actual achievement or the actual person.

What DOES piss me off is how we as an American society ooh and aah over some white folks’ learning a foreign language (no matter how mangled or elementary) while we give no credit to foreigners speaking English at the same (or better) level.

I get so irritated when some white kids are enrolled in Chinese school and everyone oohs and ahhs over how they can say “xie xie” (Thank you) or whatever. Like, “Yay! White kids speaking Chinese! So amazing!” And sure, it is. But you know what? No one is all “Yaaaaay” to immigrants or kids in other countries learning English. Or like, “Ooh! So amazing!”

Instead, it’s, “Oh, they can’t speak it right. I can’t understand them. They’re mangling English. If they can’t speak the language, they should just leave. Get out.”

I realize that sentiments such as mine can be construed as elitist and isolationist – as if I am suddenly the Chinese equivalent of France.

Again, (and I can’t emphasize this enough for my non-Chinese friends who have their kids learning Chinese) I am so happy when I hear about kids of any race learning Chinese. I am happy because when there is enough critical mass, this only makes teaching my kids Mandarin easier, both now and in the future. I am happy because beyond the practicality of learning Chinese, I love the language and my people and having more and more people realize how awesome it is instead of being something shameful is a beautiful and wonderful thing.

However, given all my excitement for my non-Chinese friends and their kids learning Chinese (and there are many!), please understand that this subject also touches upon a lot of issues fraught with historic racism, privilege, cultural appropriation, and pain. Please use this amazing opportunity of learning another language and culture as a chance to unpack some of your own privilege (and we all have privilege, whether we think we do or not) and instead of becoming indignant at some of the reactions you may encounter, to stop and consider why.

Alright. Be well, friends. And be kind!

 

One Week Left!

I can’t believe we only have one week left! It seems too soon! Maybe the next time we do this, we’ll stay the whole summer. Only eight more eating days left!

1) Hapa Papa flies in late tonight! Whoohooo! We haven’t seen each other for about four weeks. The kids are excited. Lately, Gamera has been saying “我的爸爸說可以。” (“My Papa says it’s okay.”) to everything I or her teachers say “No” to. Pretty convenient if you ask me.

Even though Fleur and I have gotten into a rhythm and it may take some getting used to, I will be glad to have Hapa Papa
around. An extra set of hands is an extra set of hands. Oh, right. And we love and miss him, too.

2) The kids have gotten so good about walking to and from the bus stop. It makes me very pleased! Of course as soon as Hapa Papa is here, I bet Gamera will mysteriously forget how to walk and will be forced to be carried to and from the bus stop.

3) Cookie Monster and Gamera were taking turns being the teacher before bed. It was so cute. And a nice glimpse into their world and what they do at school. They were playing together in Chinese! And Gamera was playing by herself later in Chinese, too! Unheard of!

4) Speaking of language, Cookie Monster has picked up the Taiwanese way of speaking. He now adds “啊 (Ah)” to the end of every sentence as well as “超級(super)” to every description. So cute.

5) I forgot that the older kids have English lessons every morning and the other day, Cookie Monster started reciting in stilted, robotic, English, “Good morning, Miss Michelle! Thank you for reading us a story.” I nearly died laughing. Obviously, he still speaks English just fine and fluently. But boy does that kid mimic the teachers! I have to get it on tape.

6) Cookie Monster loves pineapple. He just shoves it in his mouth. This pleases me!! He also eats eggs and a few more foods. Whoooo!!

There is a pineapple and watermelon truck by the subway station and the guy there cuts them up fresh. 🙂 So we try to pick some up on the way back from our outings. Anything for my kiddo!

7) Glow Worm can now get to a standing position by himself! No holding onto anything! He’s walking so much better now, too. Not that he gets much opportunity since he is always strapped into the ergo.

8) Also, Baby Boy loves to eat. He really is adorable. (Photo credit: Fleur)

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9) Cookie Monster and Bebe are fighting and loving like sibs. Every morning they fight on the way to school to push elevator buttons. Poor Bebe arranged a good compromise but Cookie Monster still hit the buttons because he got there first. So yesterday, Bebe threw a massive tantrum and Fleur had to drag her to the bus stop.

Today Fleur left first to avoid this mad rush but then Cookie Monster threw a tantrum because he wanted to go with Bebe. He hates being left behind. He threw his backpack and for the second day in a row, his water bottle burst open and spilled all over his stuff. I ripped him a new one I was so pissed. The whole complex and block probably heard.

Poor little man. All the way to school he was uncharacteristically subdued. He kept saying, “I’m sorry, Mama.” I also apologized for screaming at him.

10) Gamera went upstairs with the teacher today without crying! Told me to stay downstairs. Yay!

11) I recently realized that I very much enjoy taking new buses. Fleur laughed and called me a bus collector. I like it because it makes me feel as if I’m a local and savvy. Plus, I see more of the city.

12) Saw some more of the local fauna yesterday afternoon. What the hell, Taiwan? (Photo credit: Fleur; iPhone mine)

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13) Yesterday, we ate three different shaved ices. One leftover from the night before. One at Smoothie House. And one at a random shaved ice place Fleur passed by on her nightly forays into the neighborhood after taking out the garbage. It’s our way of making sure we stay hydrated. (Photo credit: Fleur) Here’s a pic of a new shaved ice we got at Smoothie House.

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14) I keep forgetting to look for quality mah jong sets. I want the kind that is slightly translucent, fat, and looks like almond jello. Mmmmm.

Ok. Off to cram more food in my mouth. Have a great weekend!