Today, the immediate availability of Chinese-language media, from books to TV shows to music, is a much-needed blessing for parents like me – second-generation immigrants who often struggle with the language but still want to pass it on to theirs Children.
When I first walked into the local library in my hometown in the Bay Area, I was amazed to find a well-stocked Chinese section in the children’s wing. I emerged with an arm full of books whose imaginative pages were filled with half-remembered choruses reminiscent of my childhood. Like the mischievous Monkey King Sun Wu Kong, whose spirited high jinks caught my daughter’s imagination, or the story of Chang E, the woman who lives on the moon, who initiated investigations of the moon’s surface late at night.
Learning Mandarin is more popular than ever. As a child, my Saturday class was occupied by students like me whose parents only spoke Mandarin at home. The demographics of today’s Mandarin learners, however, range from speakers of cultural heritage to those with no family connection but with different learning motives (affinity for culture, appreciation of the growing importance of Asia for the global economy).
In 2015, the Obama administration launched an initiative to quintuple the number of students studying Mandarin in five years. Today there are more than 300 Mandarin immersion schools in the United States. The language and customs that I had hidden and subdivided and which I considered “strange” as a kid have entered the mainstream.
But things are going uphill. According to the Foreign Service Institute, learning Mandarin, a Category 4 language, takes four times as many hours as learning languages such as Spanish or Italian. And as I can personally confirm, maintaining language proficiency is a lifelong commitment.
Still, when I see my youngest chatting with his grandfather in Rapid Fire Mandarin or when my daughter insists on fish for the Lunar New Year (“fish” and “abundance” are homonyms in Mandarin – it’s a kind of sport among the Chinese With these lucky coincidences, the time spent rummaging through books and bringing them to activities feels well spent. While my parents’ English is usable, they can only be comfortable in Mandarin and their own Inhabit skin.
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 scary it must have been, what an act of bravery it was to raise your children in a language whose rhythm and meaning will always remain cryptic to them, to know that those children will wai forever will be good – “Foreigners. ”