Last week, I posted an Atlantic article on Facebook about how Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, was getting a lot of flak for speaking Chinese like a seven year old with marbles in his mouth. I prefaced the post with the following:
You know what this article makes me think of? White male privilege. Awww. Poor white guy who tried so hard to learn one of the most difficult languages in the world and people aren’t adequately encouraging him and giving him praise. Never mind that millions of US immigrants are far more fluent in English than Zuckerberg is in Chinese and yet still they get crap for their accents and told to go back to their country or to learn to speak English. (But only if their accent isn’t European. Then it’s lovely and aristocratic sounding.)
Yeah, good job, Zuckerberg for doing an interview in Chinese. But let’s not be too impressed when one white guy does something millions of immigrants do every day in the US without thanks or encouragement.
Shortly after my post, my brother, AD, IM’d me, “Btw your post about Mark and his Chinese makes your friends and you look like bitter ass bitches. Why even insult him when you should be promoting everyone to try a new language?”
We proceeded to have a discussion in which my brother brought up some good points:
1) That I could’ve posted the article and used it as a positive jumping off point but instead, because Zuckerberg is rich, running a billion dollar company, white, male, and privileged, I gave him shit about it.
2) That despite being rich, white, and privileged, Zuckerberg also worked hard to learn Chinese and build his wealth.
3) That I come off looking really petty.
Now, before I go on, a word of warning. I love my brother. Fiercely. And though I sometimes disagree with him, (and you may, too), this does not give anyone license to malign or talk shit about my brother in the comments. In fact, this may be a good time in general for a quick refresher on my commenting policies. Feel free to debate ideas and thoughts but not the character of the people making them. Let’s be grown ups, yeah? (I realize that 99% of my readers do not need this warning and the 1% this applies to, it won’t make a difference. However, one can only hope.)
Alright, back to the discussion at hand. (One-sided as it is since it’s my blog and I have all the time and space with which to blather on and on about it.)
Am I just being petty?
Short answer: Yes. Emphatically, yes.
Do I care? No. Not one fucking bit.
I will be the first to admit that I am a petty, overly critical, horrible human being. I judge – and I judge a lot, all the time, and mostly, I am judging you as we speak.
It’s completely true. (Sorrynotsorry.)
To be clear: I am impressed with Zuckerberg’s Chinese. His facility with the language is really good and in many respects, far better than mine. I may have the tones better but his business vocabulary is far superior.
Could I have posted something more positive and glowy about the beauty of people learning new languages (especially Chinese since I’m very pro learning Chinese – for EVERYBODY, not just my kids)?
Absolutely! But I didn’t because that isn’t the point I wanted to make.
My point was how utterly ridiculous the ARTICLE was in highlighting how Zuckerberg is being “bullied” by all these mean people, not Zuckerberg himself. Zuckerberg worked hard to be a billionaire and to learn Chinese. Just because he benefits from intersecting privileges doesn’t negate his achievements.
Also, it is possible to be pissed about those privileges – and it is indeed a white privilege – without hating the actual achievement or the actual person.
What DOES piss me off is how we as an American society ooh and aah over some white folks’ learning a foreign language (no matter how mangled or elementary) while we give no credit to foreigners speaking English at the same (or better) level.
I get so irritated when some white kids are enrolled in Chinese school and everyone oohs and ahhs over how they can say “xie xie” (Thank you) or whatever. Like, “Yay! White kids speaking Chinese! So amazing!” And sure, it is. But you know what? No one is all “Yaaaaay” to immigrants or kids in other countries learning English. Or like, “Ooh! So amazing!”
Instead, it’s, “Oh, they can’t speak it right. I can’t understand them. They’re mangling English. If they can’t speak the language, they should just leave. Get out.”
I realize that sentiments such as mine can be construed as elitist and isolationist – as if I am suddenly the Chinese equivalent of France.
Again, (and I can’t emphasize this enough for my non-Chinese friends who have their kids learning Chinese) I am so happy when I hear about kids of any race learning Chinese. I am happy because when there is enough critical mass, this only makes teaching my kids Mandarin easier, both now and in the future. I am happy because beyond the practicality of learning Chinese, I love the language and my people and having more and more people realize how awesome it is instead of being something shameful is a beautiful and wonderful thing.
However, given all my excitement for my non-Chinese friends and their kids learning Chinese (and there are many!), please understand that this subject also touches upon a lot of issues fraught with historic racism, privilege, cultural appropriation, and pain. Please use this amazing opportunity of learning another language and culture as a chance to unpack some of your own privilege (and we all have privilege, whether we think we do or not) and instead of becoming indignant at some of the reactions you may encounter, to stop and consider why.
Alright. Be well, friends. And be kind!
Hi, my children are bilingual and even though their ‘other’ language is a European one (Dutch) I just wanted to say there are so many people amazed by the fact they are bilingual. I get a lot of ‘Oohs and Aaahs’! Fyi we live in the UK, not US, think that could be a difference?
Hi Marceline, thanks for reading and responding. I’m not sure if being in the UK makes a difference since I am not as knowledgeable about Europe. I was under the impression that Europeans were very multi-lingual. Is that not the case? (Also super cool that your kids can also speak Dutch.)