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.