This article uses affiliate links and was originally part of a series of posts that became my book, So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese. Updated January 27, 2020.
A few days ago, I heard through the grapevine that a friend of mine, AAMilano, was considering sending her children to zhuyin classes. And because I love her, I told her not to.
I know. I am a big proponent of Chinese and zhuyin for literacy – what was I doing? Had I gone temporarily insane? (And had I betrayed my other friend who was arranging the class and now needed to find more students in order to make it worth it for the teacher?)
Here’s the thing. I know my friend. I know her purported goals and desires regarding Chinese fluency. I knew, without a doubt, pursuing zhuyin classes for her kids was going to be a waste of her time, energy, and resources.
In fact, AAMilano is the primary reason I started my So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese Series which eventually became my book. Even then, I told her to forget about the class.
What do you really want?
AAMilano and her husband both work full time. She has three smart, capable little girls who, for the first few years of their lives, were completely fluent in Chinese. But like most children, once they started preschool and grade school, Chinese lost ground.
Her oldest daughter still retains some of her Chinese through going to Chinese school a few years ago and some efforts on my friend’s part to stem the loss, but her youngest two daughters have pretty much lost all of their Chinese.
She has, over the years, worried and stressed about finding Chinese tutors to help her daughters with reading and writing Chinese as well as trying to find ways to stem the loss of their Chinese, but all of the stop gaps she attempted were trying to plug a hole she didn’t even particularly want to fill.
How do I know this? Because I have talked to AAMilano numerous times over the years about what she actually wants.
And here’s what she actually wants for her kids: She wants them to eat well, get enough sleep, and to play outside after school. Incidentally, she already feels as if they aren’t doing that well. And after those basic needs are met, she would like them to learn to swim and to have one physical activity and then, perhaps one more activity.
Nowhere is Chinese fluency, let alone reading and writing, on that list.
What do you actually value?
If AAMilano doesn’t care if her kids can read or write in Chinese, nor do her kids have the comprehension to make use of the zhuyin, what’s the point?
She would be detracting from the things she actually wants while focusing on things she doesn’t.
And why? Out of some misplaced guilt about what she should be doing? (To be fair, she is surrounded by many of us pro-Mandarin moms. It’s hard not to feel pressure.)
So I told AAMilano to not sign up for the zhuyin class. And in fact, to consider dropping the whole Chinese fluency thing in general. And then, to STOP FEELING GUILTY.
Are you a failure for quitting chinese?
No. Absolutely not.
It’s not a bad example to her kids or a failure as a Chinese/Taiwanese mother.
In fact, it’s a good example for her kids because if they ever ask, she can say that she had them quit Chinese because she realized that she has limited time, energy, and resources (like we all do in life) and that to be consistent with what she truly wants for her family, it was better for her to focus on the things that did matter to her.
Being authentic and learning to discern what we truly want and desire out of a sea of good options and opportunities and learning how to get rid of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is an integral life lesson. Better to learn it sooner rather than later.
If AAMilano really still felt bad about the Chinese speaking and understanding part, I told her to either find a tutor or a mother’s helper who would come twice a week for about two hours and play, tell stories, and do life with her kids in Chinese. Then maybe, she can find a Chinese swimming/art/activity teacher to round out the rest.
That way, they are doing what she values (playing, swimming, and physical activities) while she has freed up time for herself to either cook (meets the eating healthy part of her goals) or run errands or heck – NAP (sleeping well achievement unlocked!).
Of course, increasing her own Chinese speaking to the kids as well as increasing their Chinese media consumption would help her, but again, if she really doesn’t want to do that and expend the effort, to just let Chinese fluency go.
There are more important things in life (especially in her personal belief system), so why go through so much effort for something she doesn’t really want?
Why I told my friend to quit Chinese for her kids
For regular readers of Mandarin Mama, this might come as a surprise to you that I would ever tell people to stop or give up Chinese (or even aspects of their Chinese journey like reading/writing).
After all, aren’t I the crazy one who homeschools her children in Chinese and makes sure 90% of their schools and extracurriculars are done in Chinese?
Aren’t I kinda being a hypocrite or worse – a saboteur?
How to be successful at teaching kids Chinese
Here’s the thing: telling people to give up Chinese (or parts of it) is my version of mercy and kindness. And not for the reason you might be thinking.
It has nothing to do with whether or not I think their children are talented or gifted or intellectual or smart enough. In fact, Chinese fluency has very little to do with talents/gifts/intellect/smarts.
The only qualities that matter in terms of successfully having your children learn Chinese are intention and follow through.
I mean, I know it’s tempting to attribute success to some unique and special quality of our children or circumstances, but it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, the individual qualities and temperaments of your kids definitely help or detract, but by and large, it really doesn’t matter.
Like all goals you want to achieve, whether weight loss, running a marathon, writing a book, getting out of debt, saving for college, getting a promotion – WHATEVER – it really just comes down to doing the work.
Of course, innate talent, ability, intelligence (in whatever chosen field), luck, and external circumstances can make the work easier or harder, but ultimately, you do the work.
You identify your goal, identify the steps to achieve your goal, and then, DO THE STEPS.
Nothing is simpler (or harder).
Live the life you want
The REAL reason I sometimes tell friends to give up either all or just aspects of Chinese for their kids, is because I’m in favor of living a life you actually want instead of the life you think you should want.
Let me repeat that.
Live the life you actually want instead of the life you think you should want.
I wasted over three decades (that’s like 80% of my LIFE, people) doing things I thought I should such as having a certain type of major, a type of career, a type of parenting – and I was MISERABLE.
I am not going to waste any more years of my life.
And I certainly don’t want my friends to waste even a single second on things that they truly don’t care about but feel guilted into doing because that’s what you should do as a Chinese/Taiwanese parent.
Because guess what?
Do your kids need to speak Chinese?
Just because you or your kids are entirely or partially ethnically Chinese/Taiwanese doesn’t mean they have to speak Chinese. And anyone who insists otherwise and says your kids are then no longer authentically Chinese/Taiwanese or challenges your or your children’s identities can go suck on an exhaust pipe.
Anyone who expects your children to be fluent in Chinese because of their racial makeup is racist as fuck.
Especially folks who are not ethnically Chinese bragging about how their children are so much better at the language than heritage children and isn’t that such a shame and how awesome they are for being so open-minded and determined or whatever.
Congratulations, your kid can speak Chinese. Good job. Here’s a cookie.
Now go be smug somewhere else.
Why are your children learning Chinese?
My entire point is that, whether you are Chinese/Taiwanese or not, that unless you REALLY REALLY REALLY want your kids to be fluent/literate and are willing to put in the work (and OMG, it’s a LOT of work), why?
Why are you doing this to yourself and your children? Why are you arguing and fighting over Chinese school/homework/characters/speaking? Why are you spending all this time and energy and money on tutoring or classes or activities?
What’s the point?
What do you really want for your children?
Take the time to think about what you REALLY want for your children given your limited time, money, desire, and ability. Be ruthless in cutting out the things you don’t want – even if it includes Chinese fluency and/or literacy.
Yeah, I said it.
Including Chinese fluency and/or literacy.
Life is too short, friends.
Life is too short and full of so many awesome and amazing options that Chinese fluency/literacy is a tiny drop in a vast ocean of opportunities that will help your child have a good, beautiful life.
You are not a failure or a bad Chinese person
You are not a failure if after taking stock of your life and the life you want, you find that Chinese fluency/literacy/writing do NOT fit. Or if you take a look at what it takes to be truly fluent and literate, you decide, no. You do NOT want to expend the time, energy, and money on this endeavor.
It’s okay to say, “Not now.” Or even an outright “No.”
There is no medal for having your kids suffer and reluctantly become fluent.
There is no long-suffering award for sticking through with something that makes you and your children miserable and harms your relationship with them.
There is no penalty for NOT caring or wanting or having Chinese fluency/literacy.
No one is going to take away your Chinese/Taiwanese American card or your hipster card or your awesome card. (And if someone even attempts to, you can tell them Mandarin Mama told them to go gargle acid.)
All I want is for you to live the life as close to your deepest desires as possible.
If that includes Chinese fluency and literacy, wonderful! I wish you the best of luck, support, and fulfillment on this journey. And if it doesn’t? I am happy for you, too.
May you live the life you want in the manner you so choose – Chinese fluency or no.