I do not know if words can describe the complex relationship I have with the Chinese language, but here’s my attempt: as a heritage speaker I’ve struggled all my life with this language.
People expect a Chinese-looking person to speak Chinese. When you don’t speak or don’t speak well, you find you disappoint everyone from strangers you just met to your closest family members.
As a teenager I loved all Western cultures. I studied French. I wanted to work for the United Nations, learn 5 languages, and live in Paris. I loved English literature, culture and language. I later studied English in college and earned my teaching credential to teach secondary level English and got an ESL endorsement. Chinese was never a priority for me, even though I clearly appeared to be ethnic Chinese and was taught to speak it at home. In contrast, Chinese was and always will be my father’s passion; his father (my grandfather) was a talented calligrapher and artist and had deep love for the culture also. I wanted to be multilingual but I didn’t have a love of the Chinese culture or the language the same way I loved French and English.
I struggled many years with the annual New Year phone calls to Taiwan. Each of us four kids had a turn to wish both sets of grandparents a happy new year. We couldn’t communicate with them very well so we kept to the few phrases we knew (sort of like vain repetitions in prayer). It did affect me though; as I grew older, I cried after it was my turn; it was an embarrassment to me and painful to not have the ability to connect to loved ones. I was pretty devastated to not be able to communicate with my relatives but I was never motivated enough to improve my language skills either.
Then I struggled and struggled with the language.
I served as missionary for my church in Oakland, California for a year and a half. My assignment was to teach in English which I did just fine, but I also had to use my Chinese every single day. In some crazy twist of fate, I became an ambassador for the gospel in Chinese since out of the blue I was assigned to the visitors’ center at the Oakland Temple and there I met so many from Oakland residents to tourists (even Buddhist monks) from all over the world including many who spoke Mandarin Chinese. And while my Chinese improved, it still was nowhere near native. At least in His service, God made me enough.
As newlyweds, we attended church with a local Chinese ward (congregation) in SoCal where suddenly I began to meet a lot of friends of my parents who had all immigrated to the US from Taiwan. It was like meeting a family I never knew I had. Luckily they gave me a calling to teach Primary (English-speaking) but we still gave talks in Chinese. Public speaking in English gives me and my husband a natural high and a fun challenge; public speaking in Chinese on the other hand is anxiety-laden but we did it. Somehow.
As a young family we currently attend church in Chinese instead of with the local English speakers here in North Texas and it’s a sacrifice because we all volunteer in church teaching and leadership positions and the group is small, about 30 Chinese speaking members in a city (population of under 300,000) that is at least 5 to 10 percent Chinese depending on whether or not you trust the census. There are a lot of opportunities for growth and community outreach in this region. Yet for now, we manage with a small number of members and wear many different hats,with a variety of roles and responsibilities. My Chinese struggles tremendously especially after becoming a mother (memory loss, anyone?) but somehow we’ve managed this for 4 years and serve in leadership positions.
As I try to navigate my history with the Chinese language, I am now fully aware of how much anxiety, stress and pressure was holding me back. As a youth I was pretty unwilling to learn and essentially tuned out my parents and any other teacher-figure of Chinese. A lot of the problem for me was there were very unrealistic expectations set on us kids to master Chinese in an environment with very few Chinese speakers and yet using with very traditional methods of Chinese teaching which we were not accustomed to growing up in the US. My family and community where I grew up placed a lot of emphasis on perfection or a false sense of perfection and this was crippling to me.
I’ve reconsidered how to better teach my kids Chinese. Yes, there is still a lot of rote memorization and practice for that perfect tone required in Mandarin, but I am much more realistic about what to expect from my heritage learner-kids because I was one.
Our speaking abilities will never be the same as that of the natives, but we can patiently nurture the language. In that light, there are a few things I have intentionally decided to do:
- Live in a community where there is a natural need for speaking Chinese. I use Chinese every time I go to church, every time I talk to my neighbors and every time I go to the Asian market. My kids will see a real need for speaking Chinese just by walking out the front door.
- Homeschool my kids so that the two languages are nurtured together and can be practiced in real-world settings, rather than choose public school where even in the best “immersion” programs, the kids aren’t exposed to enough real-world use of the language because they are stuck in the classroom. Most public schools here only use English because passing test scores and “academic rigor” for attending college is important to the immigrants in this area, but we can adopt a truly bilingual environment for learning while still focusing on high academic standards.
- Expect best efforts, but not perfection (from both myself and my kids). Never give up on the process. It takes longer to develop the same type of mastery as native speakers so we need to know we are doing this bilingual education for the long run, it’s an long term investment. Consistency is key. They don’t necessarily need to all take AP Chinese as high school freshman. They can still learn or relearn Chinese in college. It is never ever too late.
I now have three children who speak Mandarin to the surprise of our relatives and church friends. How this this happen? It is nothing short of a miracle. I trust in Him who makes my offering whole, because this is starting to turn into one of those “whole-soul” offerings, a “heart, might, mind, and strength” endeavor.
In teaching my kids, I do not hide the fact that Chinese is hard and that we persevere til it gets easier. They at least know very well, sometimes their mom makes mistakes or easily forgets vocabulary words, correct tones or mixes China-Chinese and Taiwan-Chinese pronunciations, and that it’s okay. We try to make it fun with books, videos and music, and yes, it has become fun. The language I dreaded to speak on Chinese New Year and the language I have worked so hard at, is sort of fun. Most importantly, we devote our learning, all of our learning not just of Chinese, to the service of others and to God. I am pretty sure He has been telling me all along, “You are enough” even when it comes to Chinese. Because ultimately, we can serve others with our smallest and most imperfect talents and with His help still reap great success in faith, love, and personal growth.
If I could go back in time, I would tell the teenager version of me not to cry anymore. The struggle that came with being an American-born Chinese has become a deep love of the blending of these two cultures. It is probably a deep love because of the struggle. And now, it is a life-long goal to preserve my children’s heritage language.