The Case for Zhuyin (Bopomofo)

**This piece was originally part of a series of posts. You can find the updated version, along with exclusive new chapters, in the ebook, (affiliate link) So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese

Before I go any further, I want to point out what this post is NOT. This is not a post pitting pinyin against zhuyin.

I am not interested in some dogmatic discussion about how zhuyin or pinyin is superior to the other. That is boring and stupid because it assumes that there can only be one thing that helps kids and adults learn Chinese. Life isn’t The Voice or American Idol. It is quite possible to have multiple good things simultaneously existing without resorting to which is “best.” Best for what, anyway?

What I actually want to do with this post is to make the case for why, if you want your kids to learn Chinese, in addition to having them learn pinyin, to also learn zhuyin. 

Also, this post pre-supposes you want your child to be literate in Chinese (be it Traditional or Simplified). And by literate, I mean actual literacy – not just recognize a few words here and there like 大小上下. For our purposes, by literate I mean that your child should be able to read a newspaper with ease and recognize about 2,000-4,000 characters (at approximately Chinese 3rd or 4th grade level and Taiwanese 6th grade level). That is what both Mainland China as well as Taiwan consider “literate” and able to function in their societies. (I, personally, do not qualify as literate in this case. I am, on my best best best day, at about 800-1,000 characters.)

Incidentally, I could write a post focusing on a lower standard of literacy, but really, what would be the point? How would that even be remotely useful? (Sorry, this is totally a pet peeve of mine when people complain about my posts having standards that are too high. I digress.)

Anyhow, I actually think it is impractical not to know pinyin since it uses the romantic alphabet with which most English speakers are familiar. Also, it is especially useful for typing in Chinese since we are already used to typing using the American keyboard. I am much faster typing Chinese via my pinyin keyboard versus my zhuyin or handwriting keyboard.

For adults and children who already know how to read English, they don’t have to learn a new “alphabet” and can almost immediately begin to try “reading” Chinese (albeit without comprehension) as long as there is pinyin next to Chinese characters. There is definitely a huge benefit to that!

Of course, this does prove problematic when it comes to proper pronunciation because if you already know how to read English (or any other language that uses the romantic alphabet), you are already used to another way of pronouncing those phonics. It is hard to get rid of that initial learning. Personally, I think the only reason I can pronounce things correctly with pinyin is because I already knew zhuyin.

But first, before I continue, for those who have zero knowledge: What the heck are pinyin and zhuyin anyway? Lucky for you, I link to stuff on Wikipedia with abandon!

Pinyin – A standardized form of phonetics for transcribing Mandarin pronunciation of Chinese characters into the romantic alphabet. Used in Mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore. Introduced in the 1950s. Replaced the old Wade-Giles Romanization.

Zhuyin (Bopomofo) – A standardized form of phonetic notation/symbols for transcribing Mandarin pronunciation of Chinese characters. Introduced in the 1910s in China and Taiwan although pinyin replaced zhuyin in China whereas Taiwan still considers Zhuyin its official form of phonetic notation.

The history of zhuyin is fascinating (and all the symbols are derived from “regularized” forms of ancient Chinese characters) and I highly recommend you read the Wikipedia article.

Okay, you might be thinking. That’s great that there is another phonetic notation out there to help kids read Chinese, but why would they need to learn an entirely different phonetic system if they already know pinyin? Isn’t that just redundant and adding an extra layer of unnecessary difficulty for your kids?

That’s a totally legitimate question and before I get to it, I want to point out a few things first.

One of the best ways to learn how to read and comprehend what you’re reading is to actually read. And to read a lot. (I know. It seems so obvious and unnecessary to point out, but nevertheless, I did.) So, for most children, their English reading (as well as Chinese reading) improves and gets better the more often and varied materials they read. It is especially helpful when kids find subjects and stories they love because then reading is fun, engaging, and interesting.

For English readers, this is not really a problem because once children learn phonics, they can pretty much read anything as long as they can blend the sounds. The limiting factor for children reading in English (whether native speaker or not) is then a matter of comprehension.

However, Chinese is NOT a phonetic language. Written Chinese is logosyllabic (ie: each syllable is represented by a character) and there are upwards of 20,000-40,000 unique characters – of which you require about 2,000-4,000 to be considered functionally literate. A word can be either a single character (eg: 大 /big) or a combination of characters (eg: 眼睛/eye).

Here’s the sad truth: If your child understands more Chinese than they can read, the limiting factor for them reading Chinese books is character recognition. 

Furthermore, if your child is not a native speaker and doesn’t have much additional language support, they will be severely limited by both comprehension as well as character recognition.

Chinese literacy will be difficult. I cannot overstate that fact.

Consider also, the fact that millions of American Born Chinese (as well as Brought Over By Airplane) people can speak and understand Chinese and yet, even for them, they can perhaps barely read a menu. (And only because food is an incredible motivating factor.)

Here are some more sobering facts for you:

Chinese Character/Word Recognition by Grade Level, Taiwan

Grade LevelReading (characters / words)Writing (characters / words)
1400 / 600300 / 400
2800 / 1200600 / 800
31200 / 1800900 / 1200
41600 / 24001200 / 1600
52000 / 30001500 / 2400
62400 / 36001800 / 3000
Chart excerpted from GuavaRama's excellent post on Chinese Characters by Grade Level.

 

Chinese Character/Word Recognition by Grade Level, China

Grade LevelReading (characters / words)Writing (characters / words)
1-21600800
3-425002000
5-630002500
7-935003000
Chart uses data from Stackexchange's forum that references the original source at Baidu.

 

Chinese Character/Word Recognition by Grade Level, Mandarin Immersion in US

Grade LevelReading (characters / words)Writing (characters / words)
150-10050-100
2130-250130-250
3230-400230-400
4330-550330-550
5430-700430-700
Chart uses data pulled from the few Mandarin Immersion schools that posted Character guides for each grade level. Also included some other data from anecdotal sources. Jinshan Mandarin Education Council, Woodstock School, MIP

 

Unfortunately, if your child already knows how to read English, it is highly improbable that their Chinese recognition is advanced enough for them to read at the same level (in subject matter, depth, and difficulty) as they can already read in English. (Incidentally, because they already understand and have applied the concepts of phonics and blending, they should pick up zhuyin really easily.)

From 我要吃小孩 (I Want to Eat a Child) by Sylviane Donnio, children's book

Zhuyin Sample 1: From 我要吃小孩 (I Want to Eat a Child) by Sylviane Donnio, children’s book

Consider Zhuyin Sample 1, an excerpt from a children’s book (click to embiggen). My almost six year old son, Cookie Monster, can read about 400-500 characters but still can’t read ALL of these characters on this page. He can read most of them – but definitely not ALL. So, even though he knows about 15% of the High Frequency Words, he still cannot read a children’s book.

If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that Cookie Monster is at about the 3rd-5th grade level in US Mandarin Immersion schools. If you think a 3rd-5th grader will find this book interesting beyond possibly five minutes (if even that), I would daresay you should reconsider.

Now, Cookie Monster is turning six in a few weeks and cannot read English (something I have chosen to do purposefully). But if he could read English, likely he would be able to read a comparable children’s story in English with great ease. And if he were used to that level of reading and comprehension, the fact that he could not read all the words in this “baby” book would be incredibly frustrating.

I have many friends whose kids, at six and a half, are already reading chapter books in English. There is NO WAY they could read chapter books in Chinese (and these are kids in 90/10 Mandarin Immersion schools).

As a result, the Chinese books they can read are too “babyish” for them and they lose interest either due to dull subject matter or because the stuff they would actually be interested in reading is too hard so they give up.

Zhuyin Sample 2: The explanation of a Tang classical poem, 靜夜思(A Quiet Night Thought) by 李白 (Li Bai)

Zhuyin offers your child a way to read the materials they want at the level they want without character recognition being a hurdle.

Because zhuyin is phonetic, it is a fantastic tool for “leveling” the reading field, as it were. As you can see from the pictures (click to embiggen), zhuyin is usually placed to the right of Chinese characters so children can read the characters they know and if they happen upon a character they don’t know, they can just look at the zhuyin to read the phonetic notation and they will be able to continue through the story with no problem. The only limit, again, being their understanding/comprehension (as it would be in English).

Zhuyin Sample 2 is an excerpt from a Chinese Tang poetry book I owned when I was a child. This particular page is explaining the meaning of the classical poem, 靜夜思(A Quiet Night Thought) by 李白 (Li Bai). Now, even though I can read perhaps at best, 800-1,000 characters, I can read every single word in this sample because of the zhuyin. Now, whether I comprehend these words is a different story, but I am not hindered from reading and learning from the text by my limited vocabulary.

Thus, a child, if they were interested in Chinese Tang poetry, could read and potentially understand this subject matter. (Truthfully, I think that if it were the same type of text explaining a Shakespearean sonnet in English, the comprehension level would likely be about the same).

Now, I don’t know too many kids interested in classical Chinese poetry – but surely, you can extrapolate and come up with some books a 3rd, 4th, or 5th grader might be interested in reading – and THOSE could be in zhuyin.

My point is that now, the primary obstacle (character recognition) to your child reading in Chinese has now been removed. English and Chinese reading are both now on a more “level” playing field. Of course, if your child is not a native speaker of Chinese, (and even if they are), most likely, because we live in an English speaking country, your child’s English comprehension will still surpass their Chinese comprehension.

But as I mentioned earlier, the more your child reads (in both quantity and variety), the more your child will understand.

Well, I can hear you thinking. Why not just get books in both pinyin and Chinese? And what about kids in China? Don’t they use pinyin and their pronunciation is just fine?

Great questions.

To the first, in China, my understanding is that only textbooks use pinyin with Chinese characters – and even then, only for young children. There is a reason children in Mainland China learn Chinese characters at a higher rate than kids in Taiwan. They need to amp up their character recognition in order to read the books at their intersecting comprehension and interest levels.

In Taiwan, zhuyin is only phased out at the 3rd-4th grade level so children can afford to learn Chinese characters at a slower rate than their Mainland Chinese counterparts. As a result, the majority of children’s literature will also have zhuyin so kids can enjoy many types of books without being limited by their lesser character recognition.

For kids in English speaking countries, there is a reason Immersion schools delay the teaching of pinyin until their students have already mastered reading in English. Otherwise, it is too easy for kids to confuse the “different” sounds each letter symbolizes in English and pinyin. When they finally do learn pinyin, their pronunciation of Chinese often suffers because it is much easier to “slip” into the English instead of the Chinese letter pronunciation.

As for why kids in China aren’t affected by pinyin pronunciations, I should think it’s obvious: they’re Chinese. They live in China. Where the official language is Mandarin Chinese. They already speak and understand Chinese (just like an American kid already speaks and understands English). I think it would be a little ridiculous to expect the Chinese people to have trouble pronouncing their own language.

When kids in China use pinyin, they are literally using it in the same manner kids in Taiwan are using zhuyin. But since they learn so many more characters at a lower grade level, there is less of a need to have books with pinyin in them. (Plus, there is a little problematic matter of formatting. Fitting Chinese characters to pinyin makes for very awkward formatting issues in books. Can you imagine how bulky a chapter book would be?)

However, since Taiwanese kids are still using zhuyin up to about 3rd or 4th grade, there are lots and lots of books (both chapter and non, fiction or non-fiction) with zhuyin. (I recall that in 5th grade, I read Little Women in Chinese first – and all due to the presence of zhuyin. So to this day, I still think of the four women’s character names in Chinese first.)

As a side benefit, because the books have more complicated characters with zhuyin, it also helps children with literacy and recognizing harder characters. They have already encountered them in their books and subject matter so when they finally learn the actual character without zhuyin, the kids have already been exposed enough so that it is relatively easier to remember.

Plus, now it doesn’t matter as much whether the characters are in Traditional or Simplified because regardless, as long as there is zhuyin, the kids can read the characters. In full disclosure, this is a bit of a false benefit since zhuyin is pretty much only used with Traditional characters since it is used primarily in Taiwan. So, it doesn’t really help kids who only know Traditional characters with Simplified.

However, it does open up a huge section of books to kids who only know Simplified (and honestly, Traditional, too) because as I mentioned, as long as they can read the zhuyin, character recognition is no longer the problem. (I wouldn’t be surprised then if kids also picked up Traditional characters, too. Another win!)

Another ancillary benefit of learning zhuyin is that since zhuyin was created from ancient forms of Chinese characters, lots of them show up as components in the actual Chinese characters (as well as look like the sound they make). This helps children recognize and remember the parts and components of more complicated characters. (My post last week discusses a little more in depth how characters are formed, as well as Traditional and Simplified characters.)

I know that Cookie Monster and Gamera, as well as Guava Rama’s son, Astroboy, all point out the different zhuyin, smaller characters, and radicals they see as components in a word. These visual cues definitely help the children remember what a character looks like, sounds like, and means. (My guess is that this may prove more useful with Traditional characters since many Simplified characters might have elided these components.)

For example (for clarity, I’m only including the components that look like zhuyin):

– An ㄠ and ㄏ in 麼
– 3 ㄑin 輕
– An ㄦ in 兒
– A ㄙ in 台

Now, obviously, kids can find other visual cues without knowing zhuyin – so by no means is it conferring a benefit the kids wouldn’t otherwise have. However, it is just an extra tool (actually, an extra 37 tools) the kids can use to help with recognizing Chinese characters – and as we have already established, Chinese is a difficult language to read and our kids need all the help they can get.

So, in summary, here are the main reasons why I think you should consider teaching your kids zhuyin in addition to pinyin:

1) Removes the considerable barrier of character recognition from reading age/interest appropriate materials. This leaves only the problem of Chinese comprehension which can easily be ameliorated by more reading practice (as well as listening and conversation which usually are well ahead of reading comprehension in English as well).

2) Opens up a vast selection of age/interest appropriate materials from Taiwan because character recognition is no longer an issue. This way, even if your child has only learned Simplified characters thus far, if they know zhuyin, they can also read (and perhaps learn) Traditional.

3) Improves pronunciation and tones because the symbols more accurately reflect those sounds. (Again, I realize that though the symbols may convert to roman letters, we as native English speakers, have a harder time “switching” pronunciation and can either slip or get lazy. Whatever the reason, the temptation to “read” the pinyin with English pronunciations is high.)

4) Increases character recognition of more complex characters due to exposure.

5) Adds an additional visual cue for children to help remember more complex and compounded characters.

6) If your child can already read English and understands the concept of blending and phonics, they will learn zhuyin quickly and easily. If they cannot already read English, this will introduce these concepts and make learning to read English easier.

7) Adds more tools in your children’s Chinese Toolkit in the sense that zhuyin is an alternate way to type on keyboards, look up words in dictionaries (sometimes, I just cannot figure out the pinyin of a word for the life of me and I just end up resorting to zhuyin and I find it in second), and substitute for unknown characters when writing (although I suppose technically, they can do that with pinyin, too).

8) Adds a “sound” cue for children. (h/t Guava Rama)

– ㄦ(er) in 兒 (er):  sounds like the zhuyin
– ㄅ(be) in 包 (bao): starts with the ㄅ zhuyin sound

Alright folks. As always, I am incapable of writing anything in brief. Thanks for sticking it through.

I sincerely hope you consider adding zhuyin to your children’s Chinese Toolkit. Most Mandarin Immersion elementary schools expect their kids to graduate at 5th grade with about 600-800 characters. That is only 20-27% of the High Frequency Words your children will need in order to be actually literate.

If that is fine with you, wonderful!

I am at approximately that level and except for when I’m in Taiwan or China, that has rarely ever prevented me from living a full and wonderful life in the US. (And even when I have been in Taiwan or China, the pain was relatively minor. Mostly my ego and being illiterate in a country where I look like the people there and the shame I feel – well, that’s a temporary and small thing.)

However, if you would like to increase your child’s Chinese literacy to be functional in Chinese/Taiwanese society, zhuyin will help you reach that goal with greater facility.

Thanks so much for reading! Have a great weekend.

Other resources:

1) Zhuyin Table – a complete listing of all Zhuyin/Bopomofo syllables used in Standard Chinese

2) A great Zhuyin/Pinyin conversion chart from Little Dynasty. (I don’t know how printable it is, but it’s the prettiest table I found.)

3) Miss Panda also has a great printable Zhuyin/Pinyin Conversion Table.

So You Want Your Kid To Learn Chinese

*This piece was originally the first in a series of posts. You can find the updated version, along with exclusive new chapters, in the ebook, (affiliate link) So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese

After spending the last five years obsessing over my kids’ Chinese acquisition and surrounding myself 95% of the time with fellow Mandarin mamas, I have observed several types of parents and approaches with varying levels of success. So, after having almost the exact same conversation with many different friends who are trying to teach their kids Chinese, I thought, perhaps I could write a post (or a series of posts) about the subject.

Keep in mind, of course, that I’m coming from my own experience and that your mileage may vary. (Also, my advice isn’t exclusive to Chinese acquisition and can apply to any type of language, but since my focus is Mandarin, that’s what I’ll use.)

Before I begin, you should know a little bit about our family situation (most of this is in my About Me section, but hey, I’m a giver). I am a second generation Taiwanese/Chinese American. Born and raised in California, my first language was Mandarin and I didn’t learn English until I started Kindergarten. My parents forced us to speak Chinese at home and though they could speak Taiwanese as well, never taught it to my brother and I (to my disappointment). I went to a Chinese church, twelve years of Chinese Saturday school, and retained enough to somehow half-assedlly pass out of a year’s worth of college Chinese at UCLA. I am unclear as to how much I can actually read (I am certainly much better when it comes to menus!), but I can’t read a newspaper but am improving. I can read anything if it has pinyin (which I only learned recently) or zhuyin (which I don’t remember not knowing). I consider myself fluent as long as the conversation isn’t overly technical (eg: business, medicine, technology, etc.).

Hapa Papa is half German and half Japanese American and only speaks English.

In our home, I speak Chinese to the kids 95% of the time, Hapa Papa speaks English (although he knows a few Chinese words which he does use), and he and I speak English to each other. My mother is also very involved in our lives and speaks Chinese 95% of the time to my children.

My older two children (5.5 and 3.5) go to two different Chinese preschools for half a day. Three times a week, they go to a play-based preschool where they learn Traditional characters and zhuyin. Twice a week, they go to a very strict, typical Chinese type preschool with homework, memorization, etc. and learn Simplified characters. Cookie Monster (5.5) can read about 250 characters and knows all his zhuyin but can’t “spell” them yet. Gamera (3.5) can read about 200 characters and knows zhuyin but can’t spell them either.

This fall, I am homeschooling Kindergarten Cookie Monster and plan to do the majority of that homeschooling in Mandarin.

Ok. That’s enough background for the moment. Today’s post is mostly informational and seeks to have you think about what you, as a parent, ultimately want in your child’s Chinese education. I am not going to discuss the pros/cons of pinyin vs. zhuyin, Traditional vs. Simplified, Mandarin vs. Cantonese/Taiwanese/Toisan/Fujian, etc.

Also, before I continue, let’s hammer down some terms that I will be using in these posts (these are just my personal identifiers – nothing official):

1) Heritage family/parent: Assumes Chinese/Taiwanese descent

2) Non-heritage family/parent: Anyone else (yes, even other Asians because crazy enough, other Asians perhaps have their own Asian languages! We are not the same!)

3) Native speaker: Someone who learned the language as a child (most likely because they grew up in a Chinese speaking country) and can speak/understand fluently; also includes folks who grew up in non-Chinese speaking countries but are fluent; most likely ethnically Chinese/Taiwanese, but not necessarily so.

4) Non-native speaker: Someone who learned the language either through classes, immersion school, moving to a Chinese speaking country, etc. but not necessarily in their family; can be any ethnicity – even of Chinese/Taiwanese descent (because hey, just because someone is ethnically Chinese/Taiwanese doesn’t mean they learn the language upon birth).

5) Non-speaker: Someone who doesn’t speak/understand Chinese; can be any ethnicity – even of Chinese/Taiwanese descent (because hey, I just wrote about this).

Whew! That is quite a long prologue (and some of it might have even been necessary). In fact, I think it really would be better to think of this entire post as an introduction to a series – that way, you won’t be quite as disappointed if it’s not as meaty as you had hoped. Thank you for making it thus far.

First, before you even go through the arduous (and expensive!) journey of Chinese Immersion for your children, you need to decide for yourself what your ultimate goal is.

I find that many people tend to have high expectations of full Chinese fluency but when real life hits, Chinese learning falls to the wayside and folks feel a lot of unnecessary guilt. So, like all major undertakings, it is helpful to be clear on what you want and then make a plan of action. Then, do everything you can to follow through on the plan, re-evaluating when you hit snags. (Gracious, I sound like a generic business/weight-loss coach.)

Also, there is no shame in adjusting your goals to a lower, less “fluent” option. This is not a contest. There is no quiz at the end. And even if you do everything “right,” your kid still might not be fluent in Chinese to the degree that you prefer. And that’s ok! Because truthfully, learning to speak Chinese is not the only thing in the world, nor even close to the most important thing in the world. It’s just a nice bonus.

So, what is your ultimate goal?

1) Understand only

2) Understand and speak (and to what degree of fluency, authenticity of tones, etc.)

3) Understand, speak, read (and again, to what degree)

4) Understand, speak, read, write (to what degree)

Depending on your end goal, you may or may not have to work as hard. After all, if all you want is your kids to understand Chinese only, then that’s a lot less investment of time and energy than having them be literate in Chinese!

Once you know what you want, the whole prospect of Chinese acquisition becomes less overwhelming and easier to maintain and pursue. (And by “easy,” I don’t really mean, “easy.” Chinese acquisition and retention is some hard ass work. I just mean “easy” in the sense of a clarity of purpose and resource allocation.)

So, on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being native level and 1 being a dilettante who knows a few phrases and can perhaps order food and ask for the restroom, my hope for my own children is thus:

1) Listening/Understanding: Fluent (4-5) except for specialized words in business, science, medicine, etc. But I would even hope for some of that!

2) Speaking: Fluent (4-5) except for specialized words in business, science, medicine, etc.

3) Literacy: Functional (3-4); ideally, they can read a newspaper, follow basic directions, navigate in Chinese, and can function in society

4) Writing: Basic functionality (2-3); with technology, I am assuming my children will rarely be called upon to hand write characters. As long as they can type or text the words and function in society, I will be pleased.

Next week, I will expound on some hard truths about learning Chinese that you may not want to hear. But as my mother always tells me, only the people who truly love you will tell you the things you don’t want to hear like “You’re fat” or “Your haircut is terrible” or “You have a pimple on your nose.”

In future posts, I will also address more of the nitty gritty details such as how to get your kids to the level you want; available resources; zhuyin; how to make Chinese fun; hard truths about learning Chinese, etc. (I swear, the more I write this post, the more I feel as if I’m writing a sales letter or an infomercial.)

I know this has been a super long post (some of it boring), but hopefully, it is helpful and edifying in your pursuit of your kids’ learning and retaining Chinese. I would love to hear more about you and your experiences in the comments. What are your goals/hopes, what are you doing to achieve them, and how has it been going? Is it what you thought it would be? Harder? Easier? Let me know in the comments.

Who Made Me Gatekeeper?

It has occurred to me that based on my previous posts, it can seem that I have some sort of chip on my shoulder when it comes to Mandarin Immersion. (Perhaps “chip” seems inadequate. “Boulder,” maybe?) And perhaps, at times, I do. But like I mentioned in my previous post, just because my delivery isn’t to your liking doesn’t mean what I’m saying is not also accurate.

At any rate, I’d like to clear some things up and answer some (self-selected) questions folks may have. To change things up a bit, I’ve decided to do the post Q&A style today. If only because that requires less transitional writing. (Hey, what can I say? I want to be informative, but also, I’m really lazy.)

So, without further ado, a highly curated and self-induced Q&A.

Q: Why are you so mad all the time anyway? Just what is your problem with Mandarin Immersion and people who are not Chinese/Asian (non-heritage speakers) who want to do Mandarin Immersion?

Since I’ve already written several posts on this topic, I’ll refer you to those:

1) How An Article Confirmed My Worst Fears About Mandarin Immersion

tl;dr: Even on the topic of Mandarin Immersion wherein the majority of students are of Asian or Chinese descent, the focus is on the white experience. STOP OBLITERATING ASIANS FROM THEIR OWN STORY!

2) Hating On Mark Zuckerberg’s Chinese

tl;dr: Why is a rich white guy learning and having mediocre Chinese so impressive when millions of immigrants are FLUENT in English (albeit with an accent) but insulted and maligned and told, “You’re in America, speak American!” (And usually with laughably bad English.)

3) Will All This Mandarin Immersion Be For Naught?

tl;dr: My internal conflict re: the Mandarin Immersion bandwagon. On the one hand, I’m pleased at the increase in resources and classes. On the other, I’m still really annoyed by my language being relegated to a trend.

Q: Why can’t you be happier for more Mandarin Immersion opportunities?

As I have repeatedly mentioned, I am happy there are more opportunities for Mandarin Immersion. Anytime more people can be introduced to another language (in this case, Chinese) is a good thing. The more folks there are who express interest, the more resources and opportunities there are for me to take advantage of for my children. So, in purely Machiavellian terms, it is in my own self-interest to promote Mandarin Immersion.

However, it is possible to be both happy about more Mandarin Immersion opportunities and point out shit that makes me angry about the current situation.

Truly, even though there are parts of me that scoff at all the unrealistic expectations folks have for Mandarin Immersion, what’s it to me? Who cares if people are doing it for the “wrong” reason? Or don’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell for their kids to actually become and retain fluency? How does it harm me? And how is it any of my business?

The only time it does matter to me is when there is actual harm to me and my kids. (And by harm, I consider racism, entitlement, etc. all forms of harm.)

Again, my main concerns relate to the following:

1) When non-heritage parents and students think that just because they know some (or are learning) Chinese that they are now somehow Chinese and can understand and speak for the Chinese/Asian American experience.

2) When non-heritage parents and students dismiss the legitimate concerns and experiences of Chinese/Asian American parents and students.

3) When heritage parents and students dismiss the legitimate concerns and experiences of non-heritage parents and students.

4) When the white experience and viewpoint is of primary importance and spotlighted to the exclusion or tokenism of other experiences. (Ie: business as usual.)

5) The entitlement and utter cluelessness non-heritage (okokok, I mean white) parents exhibit when they complain about their kids being excluded or not popular or otherwise experiencing what every single minority person in America experiences to some degree on a daily basis. Then they cry “reverse racism!”

Q: Why are you so divisive? 

As for division, I am not advocating for exclusivity or some sort of litmus test. But rather, truthfulness in a community. There is no peace when the offenses and hurts of part of the community are papered over and over again for the sake of “unity.”

That isn’t real unity, opportunity, or peace. That is a lie.

ETA: Just had a thought. Why is it when I, as a Chinese American person, don’t like the idea of white people jumping on the Mandarin Immersion bandwagon, I am considered an elitist? But when white people do it about their golf courses, or financial institutions, or neighborhoods, they’re just “keeping tradition”?

Q: It seems like you’re wanting a litmus test or some type of delineation to see who should be allowed to participate in Mandarin Immersion. As if there were a “right” way to do it.

As appealing as a litmus test initially sounds, ultimately, I find it a dangerous slippery slope.

After all, who is to say who should “qualify” and be a “good” Mandarin Immersion candidate? Should it only be native speakers and their children because the parents want to pass on their cultural heritage and legacy? Should it also include heritage parents who CANNOT speak the language because they feel regret at their lack of fluency and because they also want to pass on their cultural heritage? Should it include only white and non-heritage allies? Should it include only white and non-heritage families who show the appropriate amount of dedication and commitment to learning a whole different language and culture? For that matter, should it include only native families who show the appropriate amount of dedication and commitment?

And even if we could “decide” who the “right” people are to allow in the Mandarin Immersion classes, who should do the deciding? And why them? And the danger of having such a calcified code of rules and qualifications is that all of them are so subjective. A person runs the risk of failing their own litmus test!

You know what that’s called? DOGMA.

I am uninterested in dogma.

I think the only litmus test is that the participants be human and someone in their family signed them up and enrolled them in Mandarin Immersion. Everything else is gravy.

Q: Who made you The Mandarin Immersion Gatekeeper?

No one. Aren’t you paying attention?

I am not The Mandarin Immersion Gatekeeper. Nor do I wish to be. After all, who wants to be the one who’s telling others that the “Seat’s Taken?”

I’ll freely admit. I used to wish there was a gatekeeper of sorts. You know, to keep the rabble out. But over time, I realized that that type of thinking was incredibly arrogant and divisive and ultimately, not helpful to the conversation. Plus, if I loved Mandarin Immersion, then really, I want as many people to take part in it as possible.

Personally, I think all schools should have some type of language immersion – be it Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, Russian – whatever. Having more languages and cultures can only be a good thing. Keys to better understanding our allies and enemies and what have you.

Some instrumental posts that have changed my mind from being super “conservative” as it were about Mandarin Immersion, have actually come from the geek/SFF world. Many long time gamers or purveyors of Geek Culture (yes, capitalized) got all upset by the mass marketization of the things they love. And SF author, John Scalzi, wrote several posts that helped me a lot.

Now, I realize that the analogy is imperfect because I wouldn’t say geeks are or ever were an oppressed minority with major justice issues needing address. But the parallels are there. (Although there IS a need to address injustice and minority representation WITHIN the forms of comics/games/books. But that is an altogether different post.)

Anyhow, the main articles that really resonated with me are:

Who Gets To Be a Geek? Anyone Who Wants to Be – John Scalzi

A Creator’s Note to “Gatekeepers” – John Scalzi

When Someone Says They Love A Thing That You Love, Don’t Challenge Them; Embrace Them, And Love That Thing Together – Wil Wheaton

Q: You talk a lot about what you don’t want from fellow participants in Mandarin Immersion. What are things you would want? Or think that people “should” do?

Sigh. Again with the “shoulds.” I know. It’s human nature to want to draw a line in the sand and separate the sheep from the goats.

I don’t want people to live in fear of a bunch of “shoulds.” I don’t want non-heritage families to be kow-towing to heritage families. (But wouldn’t that be a nice reversal? NONONONONONO. Let’s not even go down that path.)

Rather, I consider some of these on my Wish List. A bunch of, “Wouldn’t it be nice if people acted in this manner?”

Here then are some of my “It Would Be Nices”:

– For non-heritage parents to listen, truly listen (without being the Tone Police), to the experiences, pain, and opinions of Chinese and Asian American parents. Language does not exist in a vacuum.

– For non-heritage parents to think before they speak. Especially thoughtless comments like, “What is ‘Asian,’ anyway?” or “Will they make any friends that speak English?”

– For both sets of parents to remember that not all Chinese Americans can already speak or read Chinese.

– For heritage and native speakers to not seem/be so smug.

– For non-heritage speakers to remember that it’s not all about them.

– While we’re at it, it would be nice for heritage speakers to remember that, too.

– For each group to remember that there are unique challenges each type of parent faces and to be a safe space.

Ultimately, the community of Mandarin Immersion families needs a healthy mix of heritage and non-heritage families. If the community is limited only to heritage families, there is no way Mandarin Immersion will reach the critical mass it needs in order to get more resources and money. If the community is limited only to non-heritage families, there is a great loss of cultural context.

Truly, it is possible to recognize that there can be different needs for different families – and to address those different needs. Let’s be respectful to the unique challenges each type of parent faces and be a safe space. Ultimately, we want to raise happy, healthy, and hopefully bilingual children.

Feel free to add more questions in the comments! As per usual, all trolling will be ignored and/or disappeared.

How An Article Confirmed My Worst Fears About Mandarin Immersion

Author’s Note: As per usual when I have a controversial post, I direct you to my Comment Policies. I encourage discussion but trolling, flaming, and general bad behavior will be vigorously disappeared. Also, comments that attempt to Tone Police will not be tolerated. If you don’t know what that is, figure it out. I don’t shit on your kitchen floor; don’t shit on mine.

Yesterday, an article about Mandarin Immersion schools in San Francisco made the rounds all over my Facebook feed. Pretty much every time I’ve seen it posted is in the context of self-congratulation and affirmation.

Well, friends. It’s time to Get Real.

For folks who find the article too long or too dry, here’s the tl;dr version: Chinese immersion schools are on the rise and super popular in the Bay Area. White parents worry their kids will make friends with Chinese kids who only speak Chinese. (Because OF COURSE Chinese kids can’t speak English.) White parents are sad their kids are excluded from the Chinese and multi-ethnic kids so they withdraw their children because they have The Sads. Oh, and didn’t you know? We aren’t even Asian anymore. Or Chinese. White people are. You know, because their kids can “talk” to the waiter in a Chinese restaurant.

Takesdeepbreath.

I haven’t yet decided if my post today will be scathing and sarcastic or even keeled and level-headed. (Trust me, thus far, I’ve been holding back.) On the one hand, I feel like we tiptoe too much around white people in case we offend their “delicate” sensibilities. On the other hand, I also know that it is hard to listen and learn when you’re being publicly ripped a new one.

I am, as it were, conflicted.

At any rate, upon reading the article, my immediate reaction was a swift and biting fury. And in true fact, I am still livid. But as I mull over this article more, I realize, more than my anger and offended sensibilities, is a deep underlying sadness.

Here we have an article on Mandarin Immersion that could be so encouraging in terms of garnering interest, collaboration, resources, and so many other possible things, and instead, we have an article that is at best, facile, but mostly, plainly offensive. But it is useless to bemoan what an article could have been. Rather, let us focus on what it is.

For an article that describes the immersion school demographic as mostly Asian or mixed-Asian descent (at De Vila, 63% identify as Asian, 18% white; at Chinese American International School, 38% Asian, 19% white; at Alice Fong Yu, 66% Asian, 5% white;), it manages to obliterate Asian people from the picture. Literally. Even the fucking CARTOON is of a white, blond family.

Oh, sure. They quote a few Chinese Americans who married white guys and aren’t fluent in Chinese. And full disclosure, my husband is half white, and most of my best Asian friends’ husbands are white. I really don’t care who people are married to or what language they speak. I don’t disparage Chinese Americans for not being able to speak Chinese. As an American Born Chinese (ABC), I know too well how difficult it is to maintain a language with which there are few people to converse and seemingly irrelevant to my life in America.

But overwhelmingly, the article treats Chinese as a commodity. A tool to be acquired separate from its people and culture. Chinese is for white people – something which they are entitled to because reasons. Just one more thing with which to be competitive in this hyper-competitive world.

The Chinese and Asian students and parents are mentioned only in the following contexts: demographics; a passing comment by a white couple that their kid only made friends with Chinese speaking kids; wanting kids to be able to learn their heritage; and excluding white kids.

Even in situations where Asians are the majority-minority, the focus is on the white children and the white experience. We cannot even star in our own fucking story.

The article mentions that some kids think they are Chinese because they can “speak” the language. How cute, the article implies. Look at how tolerant and accepting we are!

NO.

It is not adorable or a sign of “colorblindness” (please don’t get me started on that term) for some white kid to think he or she is Chinese. Because no matter what, that kid is still a white boy or girl who will grow up to be a white man or woman. And no matter how fluent or culturally aware this kid becomes, they will still be white. With all the privileges and cultural currency whiteness evokes.

He will not be Chinese because he will not be overlooked as a meek or effeminate male who just needs to be a little more assertive to get that promotion.

She will not be Chinese because though she will encounter sexism, she will not be seen only as a submissive sex object to fulfill every white man’s fantasy. Or a victim. A prostitute. A dragon lady.

He will not be Chinese because he will not have the size of his penis mocked or be told by his iPhone to open his eyes when he smiles.

She will not be Chinese because all her hard work and success in math, science, or medicine will be dismissed because she’s Asian and they’re all good at math. It’s in their DNA.

He will not be Chinese because any poorly pronounced Chinese words he speaks will be fawned over and praised and gushed about and make the international news cycle where a Chinese man who is actually fluent in English but has an accent is written off as a waiter or the dry cleaner or the delivery man with a “Ching Chong Chinaman” song.

She will not be Chinese because even though she was born here, no one will be amazed at how well she speaks English. Or randomly spout Chinese words at her like “Gung hay fat choy” or “Wo ai ni” or some other cheesy pick up line and then get offended if she isn’t suitably impressed. Or ask her where she’s from. No, where she’s really from. No, where her parents are from. No, before that.

He will not be Chinese because he will walk into any room or any country and expect to be catered to because he is American but really because he is a white male and the world bends over backwards to make sure the poor, sensitive white man is not insulted or has his feelings hurt.

She will not be Chinese because even though she is with her own children, no one will come up to her and ask her how much she charges to be a nanny or au pair.

I am deeply offended when the article quotes an author of a Mandarin Immersion book (a book which I purchased because I thought it would be helpful to me in my homeschooling) saying, “What is ‘Asian’ anymore, anyway?”

What’s Asian? What’s Asian? I’ll tell you what it’s NOT.

It’s NOT white people randomly deciding that my people’s language is suddenly useful for the future so it’s the hipster language trend of the moment.

It’s NOT some thing you can acquire from lessons or a bauble you add to your collection of progressive liberalism to show off how fucking enlightened you are.

I want to give the author, Beth Weise, the benefit of the doubt. However that doesn’t give her a pass. It doesn’t matter if she had good intentions. A person can have good intentions and be offensive. Weise’s comment is incredibly dismissive of an entire people. In fact, an entire continent of multiple peoples and cultures and lives.

Also? I’m really weary of constantly giving benefits of the doubt and passes. Where the fuck is MY benefit of the doubt or pass when I am angry about racism or sexism? Or when the Tone Police come to town when poor white folks are offended by the truth and consequences of their actions?

And then, the article ends with indignant white parents who cry because their kids aren’t popular and are excluded because the cool kids are Chinese and “mixed” kids. As a result, only a handful of non-Chinese kids are still in the programs by the eighth grade.

Look, I’m sorry your kid is miserable and not cool. I get that it is painful and sad. No one likes to be left out. But you know what else? WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF MINORITIES, YOU FUCKING ENTITLED TWATS.

Or, as my friend, Guava Rama put in a much more tactful way, “It’s nice some people can pull their kids out or graduate out of being a minority.”

Or as my friend, Irish Twins, said in a less tactful, but incredibly spot-on way:

I get that we need white allies to have more resources, get more immersion, etc. But they [white people] are so entitled. I think they feel heard. Because that is really important. Did you know that is it HARD to be a minority? Sometimes you get teased!

Congratulations on being so enlightened that you realize that the US has about 5% of the world’s population and there are other languages out there. That they [the kids] know any Chinese. Even if they don’t, they will be much more compassionate people because they have walked in the shoes of a minority and understand what it is like to not be the default answer to what is normal, pretty, cool. But oh wait, THEY CAN FUCKING LEAVE IMMERSION SCHOOL. Oops.

You know what annoys me about white people or non-heritage people who are trying to raise their kids bilingual in Chinese and English? It often feels like they are trying to make it about them. (Possibly because they are.)

Here then, is the crux of why I have spent the last few hours of my day seething and why so very many Chinese Americans are both cautiously optimistic as well as highly skeptical of Mandarin Immersion programs: Once again, we are being rendered invisible.

Can you imagine how that feels? To have your culture and your language appropriated and commodified? But then, to still have your people, your very personhood and identity denied? Or if acknowledged, as a charming footnote to someone else’s story?

Look, I am all for Mandarin Immersion. I value it so much, my blog has Mandarin in the title. I’m considering homeschooling my kids so that they will be surrounded in Mandarin as long as humanly possible. I send my children to Mandarin preschools. I go to Mandarin Mommy and Me’s and playgroups. I have spent thousands of dollars on Mandarin DVDs, CDs, books, materials, schooling. You name it and I’ve got it.

And sure, you can say that I’m all for Mandarin Immersion because I’m ethnically Taiwanese/Chinese and want my children, who are multi-racial, to “inherit” my culture. But do I want other people to have Mandarin Immersion?

YES. I really do. If only on a purely selfish level, more interest means more resources available for me.

But on top of that, I really do think Mandarin Immersion is a wonderful thing and if non-heritage families want to participate, how does that hurt me (except in the instances I have just illustrated in this post)? Like Irish Twins said, it can only be more helpful to have more folks have positive memories of Chinese language and culture vs the “Ching chang chong” crap I remember dealing with as a kid or a general suspicion of Chinese things as weird or exotic.

So, I tell myself it is a good thing. As long as folks who are doing Mandarin immersion don’t all of a sudden believe they are immune to being racist or an expert on being Chinese American, I think it is a good thing.

I hate that I even have to justify myself. I feel like I’m mollifying an overly sensitive child.

Just because you don’t like how I say it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Don’t fucking tell me how to feel, how to state facts, or how to point out bias just because you can’t handle it or are uncomfortable with where it’s going.

Your discomfort and my anger doesn’t make you a bad person. In fact, it has nothing to do with you.

This post is not about you.

This post is about the entire peoples, in particularly, those who are ethnically Chinese or Taiwanese, that the article neatly sidesteps and renders unseen.

This post is to implore and beseech writers of articles, parents of Mandarin Immersion students, and the students themselves. Be aware of how your internal biases affect your writing, your response, and your behavior. Be cognizant that there are more people than just your narrow, self-centered, white-centric view of the world. Be open, humble, and gracious enough to the opinions, experiences, and pain of the people you affect with your words and ignorance – no matter how innocuous.

It doesn’t matter if your intentions are good. If you mean well.

Unfortunately, your intentions have no bearing upon the natural consequences of your actions. And honestly, I don’t particularly care. Please don’t act like a two year old and whinge about how other people are reacting.

And finally, my language, my culture, and my people are not commodities.

I am not a trend.

I am not a competitive edge.

I am not foreign.

I am not a memento.

I am not just another angry minority.

I am a person.

I am fury.

I am wounded.

I am exhausted.

I am powerful.

And I will NOT be silenced.

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.

Will All This Mandarin Immersion Be For Naught?

As many of you can surmise even from my blog title, I’m big on Mandarin learning for my children. Even though they are multi-racial, it is super important to me for my kids to be verbally fluent in Mandarin, as well as be literate.

Mostly because I’m Taiwanese and speak fluent Mandarin despite being born and raised in America and I want to pass my family’s language down to my children. Plus, there is an entire side of my family that is still in Taiwan and I would like my children to be able to communicate with them. Lastly, even though it’s racist to assume that people who look Asian should be able to speak their particular language, I think it’s important that my kids, who look Asian-esque, should be able to speak at least one of their heritage languages fluently (and I’m not talking about English).

I am relatively confident that my kids will grow up to be fluent in Mandarin in part because I, personally, am fluent and I was born and raised in California, so I know that it can be done. And even though my literacy skills are subpar, I’m much better than I used to be and stumble along just fine with my Perapera Chrome app as well as my Pleco Chinese Dictionary app on my iPhone.

And if I, a Taiwanese kid raised in the Bay Area in the 80s, before it was au courant to be learning Mandarin, could be fluent just on a diet of weekly Saturday morning Chinese School classes for my entire K-12 education, then my kids, who are in two Mandarin preschools, will likely be homeschooled in Chinese, and surrounded by Mandarin learning resources, will be just fine. Plus, I have the will and the money and the time to force my kids back every summer into Chinese summer camps in Taiwan.

Here’s the thing. My dirty secret.

Part of me is starting to get annoyed by all the white people jumping on the Mandarin Immersion bandwagon.

Yeah, I said it.

It’s that same feeling I get when I see white acupuncturists, or white yoga instructors, or white Chinese medicine doctors, or white martial arts sifus, or white rappers, or white whatever.

I feel supremely conflicted.

On the one hand, I’m grateful for the increased interest in Mandarin immersion because hey, the more people who are interested in teaching their kids Mandarin, the more resources and materials that are available to me! And I am, if nothing else, incredibly opportunistic.

On the other hand, I get annoyed because I feel that here is yet another part of my people and heritage that white people are co-opting for their own. Here’s another thing that white people are stealing from others. Here’s one more thing that is no longer mine.

And seriously. How likely are all these non-heritage kids going to retain their Mandarin anyway? It’s hard enough for kids of heritage and mixed-heritage to keep up their Chinese, a huge part of me is pretty skeptical that these non-heritage kids are going to succeed – at least not without a TON of effort both initially and sustained. (And yet, part of me truly hopes this is possible because hey, if these non-Chinese kids can do it, my kids certainly can!)

Look. I know this sounds incredibly petty. Likely, because it is petty. (Rather like my rant about Mark Zuckerberg learning to speak Chinese.) But I can’t help the way I feel.

There is a lot of historical baggage regarding white privilege and cultural appropriation – especially with Chinese folks. (Also, side note: if these topics are foreign to you, please do not pester me with your questions. Not because I don’t want you to learn about these topics. Believe me. I do. But I’m not your teacher and Google exists for a reason. Use it.) As a result, it is hard for me to sort out all my feelings about this stuff.

It’s complicated.

I won’t lie. My sometimes ambivalent to slightly negative reaction to other people learning Mandarin is not entirely righteous indignation.

Part of it is that there is something nice to feeling as if you’re in an exclusive club. (You know, one in which at least a billion people in the world are a part of, but let’s not let facts get in the way of my silliness.) I’m sure it’s residual Chinese pride or something to that effect. (Hey, we’re called the Middle Country for a reason – because we think we’re the center of the world.)

The other part is just, for lack of a better word, sin. (More specifically, racism.)

I know this is a nasty part of me that wants to think myself superior to everyone else because I and my kids can speak Chinese. (Again, a skill that isn’t even unique.) And dammit if I don’t want to keep that superiority all to myself. I think of the disciples who complained to Jesus when they witnessed other people casting out demons in Jesus’s name and wanting Jesus to put a stop to that crap already. And Jesus smacks the disciples down and tells them to stop being such jackasses. (Ok, that’s perhaps not a direct quote.)

In the end, I know I cannot change the way I feel. You know, that gut reaction. But according to my therapist, that gut reaction is not who I am as a person. (When Dr. T told me that, I had a Good Will Hunting moment. I swear. TRANSFORMATIVE. I’ll post about it some other time.) How I choose to respond is.

So, even though I am somewhat fearful and skeptical and truthfully, a lot suspicious, I choose to be optimistic and open and gracious. I choose to welcome all people into the wonderful world of Mandarin immersion and pass along any advice, tips, and commiseration that I can. Because in the end, what I truly desire is to be a person who is good to all people – regardless of my own personal baggage. I want to be a person that my children can be proud of, and if that helps my kids become fluent in Mandarin, all the better.

Thanks for reading, friends. Even all my ugly parts.

Did Our Parents Freak Out, Too?

So, ever since I became a parent, it has amazed me that my parents – particularly my mother, did all the activities that they did with us. We went cherry-picking, went to Taiwan, went on tons of trips to national parks in CA and the western half of the US, had tons of lessons, etc. – and all BEFORE the internet with English as their second language. I don’t know how they did it.

I’m taking the kids to Taiwan in exactly two weeks and I’m terrified. I’m going to a place where though I am fluent enough in speaking, I am functionally illiterate (unless you think having a first grade reading vocabulary is impressive). I will have three small kids under 5 – two of whom have food allergies – mostly by myself. My mom is going with us for a week so we can visit family, and Hapa Papa will be going the last week, but for about 3-4 weeks, it’s my one adult against three. My good friend with her three kids are also going to be with us, but the ratio of adult:children will still be the same.

We are going to be outnumbered. In a foreign country. I am terrified.

I know we’ll be fine. It’s just that I’ve never done this before on this scale and it’s a bit overwhelming to think of all the stuff I have to get ready and then do. I am comforted by the fact that even though I’ll be sticking Cookie Monster and Gamera in a Taiwanese preschool all day, five days a week for four weeks, (this is WAY more school than they are doing now), kids are resilient and they’ll be fine. My friend is doing the same with her older two kids (our kids will be in the same classes), and we will each have our youngest babies with us all day to eat and play through Taipei. My mouth is already salivating in anticipation.

We rented a nice apartment through airbnb.com and I am very excited to pretend to be a grown up and fake living in Taipei for five weeks. I have to tell myself it will be fine. The things I do for Mandarin Immersion. (The kicker? After paying about $10k for the trip and related expenses such as food, lodging, and tuition, my children will be getting two hours of English instruction and European history every morning at this school. Irony, you bastard!)

I WILL BE FINE.

But whenever these types of events occur to me, I always wonder if my parents felt the same way when they confronted new or tough situations. They always seemed as if they had their shit together. (Other than the marriage bit, but even then, it was my normal so I guess I thought they knew what they were doing.)

I mean, my mom pretty much raised my brother and I as a single mom – without any help from my dad monetarily – but she had support from her family and through our church. And I suppose when you are in a crappy situation with two young children, you just have to grin and bear it and somehow get to work, provide care for your children, and get through one day at a time.

It just occurred to me that I could possibly ask my mom how she felt during this time, but that would be CRAZY. Ah well. I hope that my own kids think that I know what I’m doing and that they can’t smell fear. When they’re older with kids of their own, I can tell them that I was terrified and didn’t know what I was doing. They better tell me they had no idea.

What about you? Do you plan things for yourself or your family that you’re terrified of but still really want to do? How do you deal with it? How did it turn out? Let me know in the comments.