This post was sponsored by Sagebooks. All opinions are mine and mine alone.
Everyone has disappeared.
Ok, perhaps not everyone. But sometimes, it really feels that way.
Where are all the parents teaching their tweens Chinese?
When I first started this bilingual journey with my oldest child almost a decade ago, there were scores of us. Maybe even tons.
All of us, hopeful with our babies and toddlers in tow.
Driving far out of our way to anything Mandarin or Chinese language related. Paying premiums on the already inflated prices of toddler music classes but in Chinese! Scouring the web for any English or US based sites that sold Chinese nursery songs, books, and DVDs and just hoping that what we purchased wouldn’t be terrible.
Oh, and the bragging. The endless humble bragging.
Intellectually, I knew that most of our children wouldn’t remain fluent in Chinese. I knew from personal experience as an ABC/T that every kid is fluent in Chinese until they hit school age.
The first drop off hits at 3-4 years old when parents first put their kids in preschool. The second drop off hits at Kindergarten and 1st grade when children start school full time. The next drop offs are at 3rd and 5th grades because by then, even if their Chinese held out until they reached their tweens, eventually, their daily Chinese vocabulary taps out.
It hits so suddenly and yet so accurately in retrospect. Like watching mass extinction events happen in real time.
If you’re lucky, your kids will limp along in weekly Chinese schools, afterschool programs, and yearly culture camps. Their Chinese not totally lost, but definitely stagnating at an early elementary level and perhaps stuck there until AP Exams or college looms on the horizon to kickstart motivation.
Even then, the Chinese only improves enough to score well or test out of college language requirements.
And though I remembered very clearly from my own childhood growing up speaking Chinese first but then having English takeover, I prepared for the worst but was still taken aback by the swiftness with which the English language annihilated our mother tongue from the children of my friends.
I’m sure this is a common enough occurrence in any field as you specialize and become higher in levels.
Certainly that is the case for my kids’ kungfu classes. The beginner classes are stuffed to the brim and as you go higher up, the ranks are slowly thinned out until the top classes are tiny.
It’s only logical as children grow, their interests differentiate, and academic activities take precedence. After all, we as parents and children only have so much time.
We cannot do it all.
If even I, someone who is surrounded by fellow bilingual homeschoolers who conveniently provided peers for my own children, find it lonely on this long Chinese haul, how is everyone else coping?
I feel as if I’m writing some epic love story gone wrong and unrequited.
But isn’t it?
All that lost time and effort. All that will and love and desire; thwarted.
I think of my own experience growing up in America as a second generation Taiwanese American. I think my parents did a decent job in instilling pride in our language and culture and I had a hefty dose of arrogance and competence so my Chinese is actually decent for someone who was born and raised here.
And yet, it still is not enough.
After twelve years of weekly Chinese school, I am still functionally illiterate. And even though I think I comprehend Chinese decently, have me listen to a news broadcast or even two native speakers and my understanding quickly drops to 70-80%.
I spent all morning translating the Chinese messages BTS sent to their Chinese fans via Weibo and I was exhausted. The constant checking back and forth with Pleco, deciphering idioms, and the omnipresent doubt that someone who was really Chinese would take a look at all my hours’ work (yes, plural) and laugh at its inaccuracy.
I despair at ever getting better. My brain just refuses to Chinese anymore unless it’s BTS motivated.
I recently decided that I was going to learn Korean to support my BTS and KDrama habits.
I have actually been contemplating it for some time but kept stopping out of shame. Shame that here I am, 40 years old and still illiterate in my own people’s language and I have the audacity to learn another language?
The sheer absurdity. (Not to mention mediocrity.)
Was I betraying my own people by giving up on my own Chinese literacy and cultural fluency to become a Koreaboo (a non-Korean overly obsessed with all things Korean)?
What am I getting at here with all my wordy meanderings?
Just that teaching my children Chinese really is a love story in my world.
I love languages in general but mine most of all. And all my will is expended on keeping Chinese relevant, interesting, and prominent in the lives of my multi-ethnic children.
My multi-ethnic children who will always be caught in between not being American, white, Japanese, or Chinese enough.
At the very least, I can provide them one mother tongue, right?
And even so.
Even with all my resources, time, and energy bent towards them becoming fully bilingual and biliterate, even then, I know not to be too smug. Too secure.
They are still so young yet and no matter the thousands of characters they know already, it is so easily lost. Just ask all the kids who immigrated at an elementary school age and see how many retained their literacy and language.
America is cruel to those who do not assimilate and assimilate quickly.
I think I have depressed myself with this post. What is it that I’m trying to say?
Ultimately, it’s this:
If your children are fluent in Chinese but have yet to start school full time, be proud but not too smug or judgmental. Though you may think surely your children won’t go down that path, no one knows the future.
Language loss is swift, unyielding, and catches us unaware.
If your children used to be fluent in Chinese and no longer are – or perhaps never were – give yourself grace. You are not a failure or a terrible person of the Chinese diaspora. Your children can and will have fulfilling, joyful, and beautiful lives.
They are still Chinese enough. And so are you.
Be well, friends.