Tagged Language and Languages

Connecting My Children to Their Heritage in Mandarin

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Connecting My Children to Their Heritage in Mandarin

Although my parents’ English is serviceable, it is only in Mandarin that they’re at ease, that they can inhabit their own skins.

Credit…Lucy Jones

  • Feb. 12, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

On Sunday afternoons, my grandfather would sit by my elbow while I gripped his prized calligraphy brush, tracing inky lines on tissue-thin paper. “Many Chinese consider calligraphy a high form of art,” my grandfather reminded me whenever my attention flagged or arm drooped.

I’d sigh in response — this weekly ritual just felt like more school.

Growing up as a child of first-generation Chinese immigrants, I was used to straddling two worlds — that of my parents and the country they emigrated from, and America, where the pressure to assimilate buffeted us constantly. The message was clear in the media and popular culture of the 1980s: It was better to speak English, exclusively and without an accent; to replace thermoses of dumplings with hamburgers. My father’s college classmate, also a Chinese immigrant, proudly boasted that his kids knew no Mandarin, a claim confirmed when his son butchered the pronunciation of his own name while my parents looked on with unconcealed horror.

My parents, instead, dug in their heels against this powerful wave that threatened to wash out the distinctive features of their past. I spoke no English until I started preschool, but in Mandarin — according to my grandmother — I was a sparkling conversationalist, a Dorothy Parker of the toddler set. The school administrators wrung their hands, worried that I’d fall behind, but my father shrugged, figuring (correctly) that I’d learn English quickly enough.

But as I grew older, Chinese lost ground, inch by incremental inch. And while I happily accepted the bills tucked in crimson envelopes that adults bestow on children for Lunar New Year and consumed my weight in mooncakes during the Moon Festival in autumn, I didn’t feel connected to the culture.

Before my children were born, I had already decided that I would teach them Mandarin, but I hadn’t spoken it with any consistency since I left home for college. At the time, mine was more a nebulous wish, a feeling that they ought to be able to speak the language of their grandparents, the first language their mother encountered.

It was awkward at first. I was a new mother, home alone for the first three months with my daughter — a wriggling, needy, nonverbal lump. Speaking to her in any language, much less a language in which I had not strung more than a few words together in over 15 years, seemed daunting.

Parenting books advised narrating your actions as a gentle entry into communication with your baby. Gamely, I started excavating long-buried words: “ball,” “eat,” “sleep,” “play.” Most words, however, lingered on the periphery, frustratingly out of reach.

As this exercise continued, the gaps in my Mandarin became more and more obvious. After a nap one morning, when my daughter was especially alert, wide eyes tracking my movements, I started a game with her. I gently tugged on her nose, pointed to her stomach, grabbed a foot — naming each body part after her answering giggle. When I got to her arm, the game stalled. What was the word for “arm?” I panicked. Had I already reached the boundaries of my knowledge?

Since those sleepless days, much of my Mandarin has come back to me — the long dormant part of my brain awakening and reforging connections to my earliest memories, when the lilt and rhythm of Mandarin dominated my conscious thoughts.

These days, the ready availability of Chinese language media, from books to television shows to music, is a much-needed boon to parents like me — second-generation immigrants, often with a tenuous grip on the language, who nevertheless want to pass it on to their children.

The first time I stepped into the local library in my Bay Area hometown, I was amazed to find a well-stocked Chinese section in the children’s wing. I emerged with an armful of books, their fanciful pages filled with half-remembered refrains, echoes from my childhood. Like the mischievous Monkey King, Sun Wu Kong, whose spirited high jinks seized my daughter’s imagination, or the tale of Chang E, the lady who lives on the moon, which prompted late night examinations of the moon’s pocked surface.

Learning Mandarin is more popular than ever. As a kid, my Saturday class was populated by students like me, with parents who spoke Mandarin exclusively at home. But the demographics of Mandarin learners today run the gamut from heritage speakers to those without a familial connection but with other motivations to learn (an affinity for the culture, an appreciation of Asia’s growing importance in the world’s economy).

In 2015, the Obama administration set up an initiative to increase fivefold the number of students learning Mandarin in five years. Today, more than 300 Mandarin immersion schools operate all over the United States. The language and customs I had hidden and compartmentalized, considering them “weird” as a child, have entered the mainstream.

But it’s an uphill slog. According to the Foreign Service Institute, Mandarin, a Category Four language, takes four times as many hours to master as languages like Spanish or Italian. And, as I can personally attest to, maintaining fluency is a lifelong commitment.

Still, when I see my youngest converse with his grandfather in rapid-fire Mandarin or when my daughter insists on fish for Lunar New Year (“fish” and “abundance” are homonyms in Mandarin — it’s somewhat of a sport among the Chinese to play with these happy coincidences), the time spent poring over books and taking them to activities feels well-spent. Although my parents’ English is serviceable, it is only in Mandarin that they’re at ease, that they can inhabit their own skins.

In Mandarin, I can almost see the people they were before they uprooted their lives in search of better opportunities in a foreign land. I think about how frightening it must have been, what an act of bravery it was, to raise their children in a language whose rhythms and meanings will always remain cryptic to them, to know that those children will forever be wai guo ren — “foreigners.”

For the Moon Festival performance at my youngest child’s preschool last fall, he recited Li Bai’s “Quiet Night Thoughts”— perhaps China’s most celebrated poem by its most famous poet. For generations of Chinese children, it’s the first piece of literature they memorize — trotted out for all occasions, but most often for the Moon Festival because of its four poignant lines, which describe how the glow of the full moon reminds the poet of his distant home.

Decades ago, my Chinese teacher explained to me how the steadfast moon connects all those who seek its light, no matter how far apart they are. So, too, does language, mediating culture and history and memory, connect future generations to past ones. Buried in Mandarin’s rounded vowels and tones, in the whimsical idioms that pepper our speech, in the Tang era poems every child knows, are irrevocable pieces of me, of my family.

Before my bed the bright moon’s glow

Seems like frost on the ground

Raising my head, I gaze at the moon

Lowering my head, I think of home

My son’s voice rang out with confidence and his chubby arms swept up to indicate the moon above. Joy and wonder alighted on my father’s face as he listened to the familiar verses tumble out of his grandson — verses that had been spoken by my father as a little boy in Taiwan, by my grandparents when they were students in China, and by countless boys and girls before that.


Connie Chang is a writer and mother of three in Silicon Valley.

The Seven Words I Cannot Say (Around My Children)

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Credit iStock

“Don’t be stife with the bacon.”

I said this to my teenage son while he was picking perfectly cooked strips of pig fat out of a grease-filled pan and laying them on a paper towel to drain. I already knew he was planning to allot me only one slice, adding the rest to his heaping plate of eggs.

He turned from the stove, eyes hard, and I was sure we were going to have the Bacon Fight. But instead he said, “Please don’t ever say that word again.”

There are seven words I am not permitted to utter in front of my kids: Stife, Clutch, Fire, Dope, Swag, Fo’ Shizzle and Chill.

Actually, “Chill” is borderline. Meaning, there are some occasions I can use that word and my sons don’t affect a look as if I’d started dancing in the kitchen in front of their friends. I’m not a bad dancer, and I can easily pull off half those words – but according to my sons, who are 16 and 21, I may do either only in private or with my own friends.

A quick trip to Urban Dictionary provides several meanings for “Stife.” My younger son and his friends employ its third definition: “Used to mean stingy in the very negative sense.” I’ve done my due diligence, and in my view, that’s my initiation fee. But to my boys, I’m barging up the ladder to the tree house, blatantly ignoring the sign that says Keep Out.

When my older son and his friends are together, listening to them talk is like trying to decipher the clicking of the Bantu. It’s all delivered so fast – recognizable words cavorting with the unfamiliar – and there’s not even a moment to ground myself in context clues. I think of it as a unique dialect, perhaps specific to our town – possibly even to our high school. I take in conversations as if they were pieces of music, having no real idea if they’re complaining about finals or making plans to gather somewhere on a Saturday night. But their dialogue feels alive, and I love it.

I like words and I always have. I spent years of my boring youth browsing Merriam-Webster the way some foodies might thumb through Yotam Ottolenghi’s books: not for any real purpose – just to absorb what’s there and what one might do with it. My parents liked words too, and when you grow up in a home rich with vocabulary, it feels good and right to be curious and expand your personal lexicon.

“Explain to me how to use ‘swag.’Give it to me in three sentences. I want to understand,” I’d say to my sons.

Response: “Go away.”

I want talking to be fun, and for me that means discovering new ways to say old things. When I hear my boys talk, it feels as if I’m witnessing the evolution of language in real time. It probably feels to them as it did to me at age 13, when my mother walked into my bedroom and suggested I get some “groovy” wallpaper and window shades that were what she pronounced as “psycha-DILL-ic.”

Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of “You’re Wearing THAT?,” bears this out. “Every group has its own language — terms, expressions, usages that come to characterize the group and give them a sense of belonging when they all use it. When outsiders try to use the language, it’s like they’re trying to break into the group or pretend to be members when they’re not,” Ms. Tannen said.

Sometimes the signals my kids send me are mixed, and that doesn’t help. I’m not allowed to call my beloved new boots “dope,” but if I refer to “weed” as “pot,” they correct me, making sure I’m using the more current vernacular.

Obviously, some of my verboten words are fine to use in a middle-aged context. I am free to say “clutch” if I happen to be in a manual transmission automobile, or talk about “fire” if I’m standing at the grill. But both those words mean something different when my sons use them – namely: great, awesome, fabulous. How tired am I of using the word “great” to signify my enthusiasm about something? What’s the big deal if I find a poppin’ new word to break up the monotony?

But to them it is a big deal.

“Kids at that age are particularly eager to establish their identities separate from their parents, which is why they start identifying with friends instead in the first place,” Ms. Tannen said.

I hold out my plate and meet my son’s eyes. “More bacon, please,” I say, as if he hadn’t just kicked me out of the clubhouse (again). We both know this isn’t really about bacon. It’s about connecting. And he knows he’s being stingy, but he doles out another slice –and it is fresh, in every sense of the word.


Jessica Wolf is a freelance writer and editor.


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