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.

How Did My Mother Do It?

I know I’m not unique in this feeling but can I just say that I often feel like a failure as a mother. I realize this is perhaps our generation’s invention and that we clearly have too much free time or guilt on our hands because in the grand scheme of things, who cares as long as our kids are happy, healthy, and alive?

But I honestly feel constantly torn because how I’m raising my kids seems markedly different from the way I was raised. For sure, a lot for the better (see lack of abusive father), but a lot not necessarily so. I realize most of us parents (but particularly mothers) feel like we’re failing because we compare ourselves so much to one another. So much so that this crushing sense of failure is completely fabricated in our own minds. Plus, most of it is perspective and seeing only part of someone’s life.

For instance, some people actually think I’m a Tiger Mom when in reality, I am far from it. I mean, by the time I was Cookie Monster’s age, I could already read, write, do addition, subtraction, knew my times tables, had played piano for a year, and could ride a bike. Cookie Monster can do none of those things. (Although, I suppose he can read and write over a hundred Chinese characters so that’s something. And now that I think on it, he can do very basic addition.)

I mean, compared to my own mother, I am a million miles behind already.

Also, I really don’t know how we eat.

I don’t go out to eat often with the kids so I must be feeding them something, but what exactly, I’m not sure. I buy a lot of fruit and snacks from Costco but not produce because although I hate the idea of frozen vegetables, I hate throwing away money even more. And when I buy produce, I really should save myself the extra step and throw my money into the trash can directly.

I feel conflicted because when I was growing up, my mother worked full time and yet still managed to come home and cook a Chinese meal of rice, soup, and at least 4-5 other dishes. I’m lucky if I can make pasta and dump ready-made sauce on everything.

It’s not even that I can’t cook. I can. I actually cook rather well. It’s just that I’m SO LAZY. And why cook when my kids will just refuse it anyway?

But I feel bad because food is such a huge part of culture and my kids aren’t getting much Chinese/Taiwanese culture this way (except when we go back to Taiwan – hmmm… clearly, another trip should be in the works, right??). Are my kids’ fond memories of food really going to be quesodillas and nuggets? This makes me want to cry.

But I really am SO lazy. So I make quick and easy and 80% guaranteed chance of eating type foods. And I make a lot of hearty soups. Not my mom’s – or white people’s – but some random hodgepodge. It tastes reasonably good, I guess. (But apparently, I make it too often because Cookie Monster really hates repeating meals. Little punk.)

Sigh.

My stomach is SO SAD.

I know I wrote last time about how it was a royal PITA getting Cookie Monster’s kindergarten registration stuff ready. How did my mom stay on top of this crap BEFORE the internet? I barely got it together and everything was online!

Did I mention that my mother worked full time? Sure, we had a nanny briefly, or a child care provider, but from when I was 9-10 years old, we were home alone. We were very independent and I could make rice, cook basic foods, and we watched hours of TV (with no ill effects), didn’t see much of our mom (who was for all intents and purposes, a single mom supporting us on her own without any monetary support from my dad while he was wasting our family’s money and fucking his way through Taiwan, but I digress) but I never felt deprived.

Somehow, she managed a career, our education, piano lessons, Chinese school, church, food, art lessons, horseback riding lessons, tennis, speed reading classes, and who knows what else, PLUS the daily task of keeping a household. ALL BEFORE CELL PHONES AND THE INTERNET!! AND THE INTERNET ON CELL PHONES!!

FFS, I’m a SAHM and other than preschool, my kids have no lessons. I can barely clean my house and feed my kids. WTF IS WRONG WITH ME?

AND HOW THE FUCK DID SHE DO IT?

My mom was a motherfucking Rock Star.

Admitting You Have Privilege Doesn’t Make You a Bad Person

Nowadays, the worst thing to be called is “racist.” After which, there is “sexist,” “classist,” etc. You get the idea. There is a huge misconception about what it means when minority groups of people (be it of color, class, religion, gender identity, etc.) say the majority people have privilege. Folks seem to think that if they are in whatever majority group that is being called to task, that they are being attacked somehow. That the minorities have their panties all in a bunch and are accusing the majority of having everything be perfect and rainbows and unicorns.

Well folks, let me help you out. It is not about you.

Is that too harsh? It isn’t meant to be. But it is true.

When minorities are talking about privilege, we are not making a judgment about you and how you are a bad person for being part of the majority. We are talking about our experiences as minorities. So guess what? You probably don’t have those same experiences in that same context. And just because you have never personally experienced what we are talking about, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. To us. Or other folks like us. Or a LOT of other folks like us.

Look, a person of privilege can’t help being in that position anymore than a person with less privilege (and we all have some mix of privilege and non-privilege depending on our environment and surroundings and daily living). We don’t choose what race we are born, to what class, to what parents. We are all conceived (without any say), forcibly birthed, and just thrown into a situation at an inconvenient time. We figure out how to be a person given our environment, our families of origin (or lack thereof), and our perceived reality.

So let me reiterate. It is not about you.

(Part of me is even annoyed that I have to take into account the majority group’s feelings. I mean, cue the world’s smallest violins, right? But again, I have to remind myself that I am often in the majority group and when I am confronted with my own privilege and complicity, I want grace and understanding and forgiveness. So, I try to be that way to folks who are genuinely distressed and wanting to learn. If folks are just being obstinate asshats, however, I just try my best to be polite and stick to facts versus giving into my gut instinct of bludgeoning people with sarcasm and contempt. Because hey, nothing persuades like contempt.)

Anyhow, what was I saying? Ah, yes. A person can’t help being privileged and benefiting from those privileges. And really, why wouldn’t you want to benefit from your privilege? I certainly enjoy benefiting from mine.

(And I absolutely identify as a person of privilege. I may be a Taiwanese American woman, but I am highly educated, financially well-off, Christian, American, thin, extroverted, married, straight, and reasonably attractive. All of those have privileges attached to them in some way or another.)

What a person can help, however, is how they use their privilege.

Do I use my privilege to, at best, be an ally and help lift other people up? Or, somewhat status quo-like and keep people “in their place” or just keep the “peace”? Or, at worst, actively campaign to stamp my boot across the back of their necks and hold folks down?

The thing is, most people, myself included, don’t want to be bad people. We just want good things for ourselves and our families. As long as other people don’t interfere with my objectives, it’s cool. You know, a general sense of live and let live. We don’t want to rock the boat.

Plus, not only do we want to think we’re good people, we want to think we earned everything that we got. That we are only in our current position because of all our hard work, our suffering, and that we didn’t get anything from anybody else. That somehow, we are lesser or weak if we got any help along the way. (Which, if you can’t tell, is a load of malarkey.)

This type of thinking always reminds me of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air episode, Will Gets A Job. Will tells Uncle Phil that he wants to be a self-made man and never need anyone else’s help. Uncle Phil sets Will straight by saying he had lots of help. Many people opened doors for him and there was nothing wrong with him walking through those doors. (Clip below.)

And that’s the way with privilege. There is nothing wrong with being a privileged person. It doesn’t make you inherently a bad person or racist or sexist or whatever. Having benefited from privilege doesn’t make you weak or less hard-working or less-deserving. But that also means that those who did not benefit from privilege might not be quite as undeserving or lazy as we think they are. (It doesn’t mean they aren’t, either.)

However, when we are in a place of privilege and someone who isn’t comes along and tells us their experiences and we dismiss them or mansplain or whitesplain or whatever equivalent condescension, THAT is what pisses folks off. In fact, enrage is likely more accurate.

For example, if you’ve never had people consistently assume you are the nanny when you are taking care of your own children (because hey, sometimes your kids look white-ish), then don’t tell me it was an honest mistake and that I’m just making things up or just looking for things to get mad about.

If you’ve never had people (white dudes, especially) repeatedly come up to you saying, “Gung hay fat choy!” or “Wo ai ni!” when it is neither Chinese New Year, nor are they your family or friend or loved one, then, don’t say I’m too sensitive and should be happy people are trying to speak my language.

If you’ve never had strangers ask, “Where are you from? No, before that. No, before that. No, where are your parents from? No, before that.” Don’t fucking tell me that they just want my credit history or are trying to make conversation.

If you’ve never had people ask you if you’re the company owner’s girlfriend because otherwise, how would you be the president of the company, or you’ve never had someone assume you’re the secretary instead of the financial advisor because hey, you’re a woman, then don’t tell me I should be flattered or make some joke about hot secretaries.

So when we tell you that this is our daily experience or even our sometime experience, please, do us all a favor and SHUT UP. And LISTEN. Don’t interject how it’s just like that one time you experienced. Maybe it is. (Most likely it isn’t.) But really, that’s just being kinda douchey.

LISTEN. REALLY LISTEN.

This is why it’s so important to have friends who are different than you are. Sure, it’s nice to be in your own comfort zone with people just like you, but you know what? That discomfort you feel when you’re the only white person or only man in a room? That’s how people of color or women feel all the fucking time. Somehow, we make do.

General obliviousness can only be excused so many times before it’s tired and annoying and a crutch.

Look, I’m not immune just because I’m a woman of color. I come across my privilege and ignorance quite often. But I only come across it when I have contact with people who are different than me. And when these thoughts and realizations come up, I try to examine why I hold onto them and let them go. (Sometimes, unsuccessfully.)

For example, recently (and I mean, within the last few months), I realized, “Oh, black people can baby wear or blog or knit or use cloth diapers.” When I say it out loud, it’s embarrassing. I mean, no fucking shit, genius! Why wouldn’t black people do these things? Just because I hadn’t seen it before doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. (ETA: The irony is that I just remembered that both the woman who taught me how to knit and the owners of the two yarn stores I used to frequent were both black women. This tells you a lot about how I selectively recall memories to fit my narrative and how I see the world.)

It doesn’t make me a bad person. Ignorant. Kinda silly, but ultimately, who cares? It happened. I realized I was wrong. I moved on.

Same thing with privilege. Having it doesn’t make you a bad person. Acknowledging that FACT doesn’t make you lazy or stupid or undeserving. It just makes you human. And just maybe, it makes us think that people who are not privileged are human, too.

Author’s Note: Clearly, this is a huge topic and I don’t have the time or energy to get more into detail. If you would like more information, I highly recommend Google. It would be nice and awesome if I provided a bunch of handy links and books and sites on privilege and race and gender, etc. But hey, we’re all grown ups and know how to use the internet.