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.

The Lie of Being Strong

These past few weeks or so, several of my friends have been hit with really hard news and family situations. Reading their status updates on Facebook is heartbreaking and at best, I can post an encouraging prayer or comment. (Not that my friends are actually looking to us to write the perfect comment that would solve all their pain and suffering. If only it could be so easy.)

Of course, being the nosy person that I am, I also read other people’s comments and encouragements. Inevitably, person after person wrote for my friends to “Be Strong” or “You’re Strong” or some variant of “God doesn’t give you things you can’t handle.” The first few just piqued my annoyance. But comment after comment in the same vein started to piss me off.

Why? Because they’re lies. Insidious, invidious lies.

Obviously, people aren’t writing these types of comments to be assholes or unhelpful. They mean them to be encouraging – and perhaps the comments are even taken as encouragement. This is not a diss on the kind and well-meaning people. This is a tirade against the lie.

My friends, if you are suffering, you don’t have to be strong. You don’t have to be a rock or have everything handled or under control. You don’t have to be anything you are not currently.

If you are overwhelmed, be overwhelmed. If you are weak, be weak. If you are spent, be spent. If you are grieving, grieve. If you are furious, be furious. If you are afraid, be afraid.

You have complete freedom to be whatever you are at this very moment. And if in fifteen minutes, how you feel changes – then you have complete freedom to be that as well.

Forgive me if that seems obvious. This is a particular area in which I get riled up about.

You see, it makes me incredibly angry when people who are suffering are told that they can handle things because God wouldn’t give them anything they couldn’t take. (A side note: This post is not to argue the existence or absence of God or address the topic of theodicy. You don’t have to agree with my worldview in order to understand my logical framework within my worldview.)

The idea that God only gives us things we can handle is complete and utter horseshit.

God promises us many things in the Bible; not once does He promise that He only gives us things we can handle.

Things happen to us (whether or not God allows it to happen or actively makes it happen to us is actually beside the point) and many times, we are completely unprepared and ill-equipped. When these things happen to us, they can either push us closer to or further away from God. And when well-meaning Christians tell us that we are strong or we can handle it, they are actually pushing us further and further away from God.

Why? Because if we are feeling weak but then are told that we’re supposed to be able to handle the pain it only adds to our burden. We feel pressure then to act as if everything is okay or be immediately healed when the truth is far from it. We put up a façade and hide from even God because we must be dropping the ball or are spiritually inert if we can’t get our act together.

It’s simply not true.

I get it. After all, 99.9% of the time, the only way out is through. And often, the way to do that is through gritted teeth, digging deep, and putting one foot in front of the other.

But persevering and being needy are not mutually exclusive.

You see, I believe in a good, merciful, and redemptive God. A God who repeatedly offers comfort for the weak. And when people tell us to “be strong,” we miss out on that comfort because we are too busy pretending to not need it. And before we can run to God, we first have to admit we are in need.

Now, I realize that this post is woefully simplistic and barely scratches the surface on the problem of pain and sound reasoning. That’s okay. I’m not really interested in that. Besides, there are far more in depth essays, books, etc. out there by far more talented people. I just want to be a reminder.

God can handle anything we throw at Him. He is neither surprised or flummoxed. God is more than enough for us in our pain. His grace is sufficient.