Schools: Stop undervaluing Mandarin Chinese bilingualism

It’s recruiting season. Schools are filling their rosters for the fall semester and padding their summer programs with as many students as possible.

For our soon-to-be three-year-old, it’s time to make School rounds and find him the perfect preschool. We’ve been scheduling and visiting schools all Spring.

As I have experience in the education industry, and I’ve even done my homework on recent trends in education, I go prepared. I tell the administrators about how our primary concern is the development of social skills and other basics like alphabets, numbers, counting and I suppose even reading and writing.

To be honest, kids have it tough these days and I’d be happy if our son could just play with kids, make friends, play some soccer, and recognize the rest of the numbers and letters.

But hold up, I don’t want him to just recognize numbers in English. I want him to recognize numbers in English AND Mandarin Chinese. This is not an unreasonable expectation given he’s already bilingual and plenty of kindergartens, elementary schools, and private high schools have adopted bilingual Mandarin programs in the US.

“…[One] of the hottest trends in public schooling is what’s often called dual-language or two-way immersion programs” – <a href=”http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/11/29/497943749/6-potential-brain-benefits-of-bilingual-education” target=”_blank”>NPR, “6 Potential Brain Benefits of Bilingual Education”</a>

So why is it whenever I ask, “I noticed you don’t have any Asian teachers, so you have anyone who speaks Mandarin? My son is bilingual.” The response I get is often a reassuring, “Oh, your son will pick up English very quickly once he starts with us. We’ve had kids who only speak their native language learn English in just a week.”

Do you see what they did there?

Not only did they assume bilingualism means English incompetence, but they assumed that I’m not a native English speaker (because I look Asian?) Therefore my son is not a native English speaker. Why? Because he’s bilingual in Mandarin Chinese.

I wonder if Spanish bilinguals have this problem.

“Through his studies, Cornish said students from communities where Spanish is valued possess a positive self-image of themselves as Spanish speakers and the Spanish communities they come from. Conversely, the opposite is true in school districts ignoring bilingual education and Hispanic heritage.” – Huffington Post, <a href=”http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/4049170″
target=”_blank”>Bilingual Education Holds Cognitive, Social And Health Benefits”</a>

A misunderstanding
Just to clarify, no, I’m not worried about my son’s language abilities. He already speaks more complex languages than you do–and he’s not even three yet.

I’m concerned that your school is monolingual and thereby not challenging the children enough. I’m concerned that my bilingual child can only learn one language at your school, and will need to learn the rest of the languages we speak at home in other schools.

I’m concerned of the effects of my child being in school all day without a single teacher who looks like him (or his peers!)

I’m concerned that you will treat him differently because he is not monolingual, because he’ll pepper his speech with Mandarin, occasionally use the wrong language, or only know the words in one language but not the other. I’m concerned you’ll judge him as “less than” because of his bilingualism.

Just like you’re treating me differently at the school tour–and I was born here.

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How an Opportunist Undermined the Asian American Struggle with #ChineseLivesMatter

Zhishi Zhang opportunist

Remember the Asian man who was dragged out of the United Airlines plane because he refused to “volunteer” for a later flight? The reason why everyone hates United Airlines now? Yes, him. Dr. David Dao.

David Dao news headline

Well, the same day the incident happened (April 11, 2017), someone filed a #ChineseLivesMatter petition with the United States government! The grammatically incorrect, spelling-mistake laden petition requests a federal investigation of the United Airlines injustice, claiming the incident had occurred due to racial discrimination. The petition went viral on social media and received over 100,000 signatures in the first twenty four hours (meeting the minimum quota) and now has over 210,000 signatures in total. Good job, right?

Here’s the thing though, David Dao is not Chinese or Chinese-American. He’s Vietnamese American (immigrated from Vietnam).

#ChineseLivesMatter petition

So why did the author, Z.Z create an erroneous petition that stomps on the original hashtag #BlackLivesMatter (protesting the deaths of black Americans), cried wolf to the Chinese (social media) public, and require the federal government to investigate under false pretenses?

Well, it was a mistake.

Joe Wong tweet

“Because I’m Chinese”

Early news reports had quoted a fellow passenger stating he had heard Dao attribute his selection to racial profiling.

Comedian Joe Wong was one of the first people to publicly chime in on the anti-Asian sentiment:

“A lot of Asian Americans, when they face injustices, they’re very reluctant to ask, is this because I’m Asian, just because they feel embarrassed or they feel that they don’t want to own this identity,”

David Dao definitely didn’t have any qualms about standing his ground, but what effect did this incident have on China?

Chinese rallied together and spread the news on Weibo and Wechat, spreading word of Zhang’s petition, demanding netizens to boycott United Airlines, and hate on the company. Which they did. The Shanghaiist shows Chinese netizens cutting up their United mileage cards, and other media outlets show them burning their United flight tickets.

Cut up united mileage card

In another The Shanghaiist article, Chinese netizen comments are translated for us:

“This was not random, but racial discrimination. All Asian brothers should boycott this fucking company.”

“They chose an Asian because they thought he would be meek and not stand up for his rights. We should show United how wrong they are!”

Here, the theory is that a Chinese (or Asian) passenger would be more likely to acquiesce and agree to voluntarily leave the flight. Whether this is based on the submissive nature stereotypical of Asians, or Asian pragmatism and preference for money (passengers were compensated four hundred dollars, meals, and a hotel stay) is debatable.


The Sacramento Bee
reported Asians had taken a stand after being targeted in crime, mostly because of their habit of carrying cash and not reporting the crimes:

“At least 300 to 400 Chinese immigrants in Sacramento have been victimized over the past few months, but many are reluctant to call police because of language and cultural issues…”

This is inline with last year’s NYPD hate crime forum, where Asian Americans stated:

“Asian Americans feel like it’s the other way around [that] a different standard is applied to the Asian community, where we have to almost work twice as hard to prove it’s a hate crime.”

The Teenage Political Activist
The eighteen-year-old Chinese student, Zhishi Zhang, felt outrage and created the petition for the benefit of his people. Or so he claims.

It’s hard to critique an eighteen year old for his rash political activism, especially in today’s climate when every teenager’s dress code violation is deemed a worthy cause to “stand up for”, but Zhang isn’t some Chinese international student studying in the US, voicing his surprise and outrage against perceived racism against his “people”. No, Zhang is a Chinese student living and studying in the U.K.

So it’s no wonder that Zhang has trouble listing any other instance of racial or ethnic discrimination in America. No really, his answer was:

“…so many Chinese people signed it which means that they must share the feeling which is probably a result of experiencing stereotype or racism,”

Zhang assumes that his petition was popular among Chinese because they could relate to being discriminated in America. What does Zhang think discrimination looks like in States?

“When the U.S. got Chinese immigrants to work in gold mines and on the First Transcontinental Railroad, they were not exactly enslaved, but were still treated as subhuman. Some died of exhaustion due to horrendous working conditions and explosions. Then there were the internment camps for Japanese prisoners during the Second World War. There are many cases when Asians have been killed or violently attacked, and the community has been left feeling they have not received justice.”

Zhang then proceeds to reference a campaign against the “model minority myth” in a recent SixthTone interview, which is not relevant to his cause. That Zhang couldn’t list a single recent example of racism, such as the attacks on Chinese international students near University of California or reveals Zhang’s ignorance of the Asian American plight.

By calling the Chinese railroad worker or miner’s experience “subhuman” (thus comparing the Chinese immigrant experience to African American slavery experience), Zhang discounts important events that could support his argument, such as Los Angeles’ Chinese Massacre of 1971, one of the largest lynchings in US history.

Zhishi Zhang in a proud moment

Ambition over Activism
Zhishi Zhang can claim to have merely jumped the gun in rehashing #BlackLivesMatter to #ChineseLivesMatter, but he cannot stop gloating about his accomplishments.

Why of course not! He’s only eighteen, and in the four years he’s lived in the UK he’s already managed to complete three government internships (“House of Commons work placements”), appear on TV questioning former Prime Minister David Cameron, pen two government petitions, and engage in interviews with BBC and multiple other major media outlets.

Wait, did you say another petition? Zhang received “quite a lot of media attention”, even landing a BBC interview, with his U.K. Petition on the underrepresentation of female philosophers in the national school curriculum.

Whoa, ambitious aren’t we? Who’s to say Zhang didn’t just see the news, recognized an opportunity for the spotlight, and jumped on it before even having time to proofread his petition:

“Some friends pointed out that the petition had quite a few grammar and spelling mistakes, and also that the hashtag in it could trigger different interpretations and misapprehensions. I didn’t overthink it, and in my indignation just submitted it as soon as I had finished writing. I couldn’t make any edits after it was published. I saw something unfair and thought I should do something about it.”

It sounds like Zhang created the petition to add another achievement to his resume, and a few more interviews for his college application. He even said:


“I want to raise the profile of this incident.”

The Damage done
Where Zhang claims to have started the petition to defend Chinese rights, which is what effectively followed in the violent social media storm that ensued as Chinese began boycotting the airline in a show of purchasing power, he revealed his lofty aspirations in an interview with Mic:

“I wish to make this into a New, Positive social movement which benefits everyone and encourage greater social integration. […] I also [want] to show that Chinese people also know how to protect our rights by democratic means such as petitions [and] getting involved in politics.”

Contract Zhang’s rosy message with what Joe Wong had written on his Weibo:

“Many Chinese who have faced discrimination are unwilling to speak out because of their pride. Because of this attitude, neither mainstream Western media nor the public pays much attention to discrimination against Asians.”

The difference? Joe Wong has a honest that clearly identifies the weakness of Chinese culture that necessitates a call to action: share your experiences! For not only does Western media not know of America’s discrimination against Chinese, but the motherland doesn’t know of it either.

The flip side to encouraging Chinese Americans, Chinese, and Asians in general to “find their voice” in politics and media is the weakening of America’s over-glorified image in the East. As Wong warns of the implications of this scandal:

“A lot of Chinese people [in China] never saw videos of police shooting black people, even from the back. They didn’t see those videos. But they saw this one. And now they were like, ‘What? This is what America is like.’ Their idea of America is just shattered to some extent.”

So doesn’t this mean Zhang has enlightened the Chinese on America’s racial tensions? Isn’t this a good thing for republicans and everyone but the tourism industry?

No, it isn’t. Zhang blew a whistle prematurely and alarmed his fellow countrymen for little reason. Yes, United Airlines mistreated a human being and were horrid at cleaning up their mess, and yes, Asians could boycott United Airlines for selecting an Asian man on a fight with, let’s face it, very few Asian men. But, does this scandal warrant a #ChineseLivesMatter hashtag? Absolutely not.

Zhang cried wolf with his petition, making a joke out of a serious federal investigative platform. He has undermined ethnic profiling of Chinese Americans, especially enmity caused by China’s rise. He’s discarded new tensions that have arisen with the new presidency.

Finally, he has discredited the media in the eyes of Chinese netizens, who are now upset with Dr. Dao’s rumored one hundred and forty million dollar settlement. Can’t blame them when their anger and efforts for a man who isn’t even of Chinese heritage ends up settling the case within two months.

Zhishi Zhang opportunist

To Zhishi Zhang, the overzealous, over ambitious Chinese international student who likely comes from a background of wealth and entitlement: Did you know that news reports of hate crimes against Chinese are numerous in the U.K.? A recent article on Politico described the Asian American, specifically Chinese American way the best:

“A lot of these people don’t realize that there are a lot of crimes committed against Asians,” says Karlin Chan, formerly of the Chinese Action Network. “You have to take care of your own house before you can go outside.”

There’s another saying that fits: mind your own business.

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A response to the claim that Americans don’t know the meaning of ABC (American-born Chinese)

Amanda Roberts published an article titled “Chinese Americans vs. American-born Chinese” in theNanfang.com where she begins with the claim:

If you’ve never been to China, you probably haven’t heard the term “American-Born Chinese.” It is a uniquely Chinese phrase used to identify people who live in China of Chinese ethnicity but were born abroad, often truncated as ABC (or BBC for British-born Chinese or CBC for Canadian-born Chinese, and so on).

Okay, Amanda Roberts…We clearly haven’t lived in the same parts of America.

Let’s start by what I agree with: yes, American-born Chinese are labeled ABC, Canadian-born Chinese CBC, etc. The semantics of Chinese American and American-born Chinese (hereafter, ABC) do indeed have different connotations. However. I cannot agree that in America, “it doesn’t matter what your race is or where you are from“. If anything, I would argue the opposite.

American-born Chinese vs. Fobs

The term ABC is used in the States by first generation Chinese-Americans and ABCs alike. It is not a “uniquely Chinese phrase“, as demonstrated by related phrases used by other ethnic subgroups, such as American-born Koreans (ABK), American-born Vietnamese (ABV).

What is the purpose of this term in America? Well, it is used to identify “native Americans” versus “naturalized Americans” (also known as immigrants). The ABC community would call them fobs, which stands for “fresh off the boat”. There’s a book and a whole TV series about this Chinese-American fob phenomenon, by the way (hint: it’s titled “Fresh off the Boat”).

Fresh off the boat tv show

Because of othering

If you’re part of the dominant culture (or you’re just white), let me break it down to a simple explanation:

In any society, there is a phenomenon called “othering“, which is when we create divides between us and “them”. “They” can be people of color, immigrants, the disabled, little people, fat people…and the list goes on! Anyone different than you and the community you identify with can be your “other”.

To “other” is associated with pride in your own group, dislike for another group, and social hierarchy.  Basically, you can only other people you believe are lower in the social hierarchy.

Stereotypically, Asian-Americans are othered by Caucasian Americans as an ethnic minority group. Asian-Americans will other Hispanic Americans, African Americans, Pacific Islanders, Indians (India is part of Asia), and even Southeast Asians.

Within the “AZN Pride” Asian American community, there are further divides between the different ethnic groups (Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Philippine). There are even sub-divisions within the Chinese American group, such as Taiwan-ABC and Hong Kong-ABC (consider that the first Chinese Americans were from Guangzhou).

Then, there is othering within the country+ethnic group where second-third-fourth generation Chinese Americans will differentiate themselves from new immigrants,  fobs.

Fobs at the bottom of the pyramid

Fobs are stereotypically thought of as having non-native English abilities, to only speak their own language at home (not English), and to prefer the culture of their home country, such as the foods, music, movies, games, or even tv series. Fobs can graduate from their fob status by shedding their fobbish habits and preferences and adopting American culture, but it is unlikely that they will ever reach ABC status. Instead, ex-fobs might be called “half ABCs” if they immigrated in their teens or “near ABCs” if they immigrated at a younger age.

In summary, ABCs take pride that they were born and raised in the States and feel that they are thereby more American than fobs.

An excerpt from the graphic novel American born Chinese

Back to the semantics

Whle it is true that in the term “American-born Chinese”, American-born is the adjective describing Chinese (noun), and in Chinese American, “Chinese” is the adjective describing American (noun), I don’t agree that the nouns are emphasized. I believe the hyphenations used by multiple ethnic groups proves that racial othering is commonplace in America, and the label, ABC vs. FOB, is a product of said othering culture. Think about it: if we Americans truly didn’t care about race, we wouldn’t need any hyphenations!

China, on the other hand, is a country with little racial diversity and a dominant Han Chinese culture, so they don’t have anything to hyphenate.  If anything, ethnic minorities downplay their heritage to fit into the dominant culture.

Roberts is correct in stating that Chinese, due to their heavy emphasis on ancestry, believe essentially that once born Chinese, always Chinese. China has even created terms like “overseas Chinese” and a corresponding visa category to welcome “returnees” back at any time.  The US is an immigrant nation, so of course they wouldn’t have a similar outlook. However, it can still be argued that Americans emphasize their heritage and ancestry (ethnicity and race) just as much as the Chinese, albeit in each respective subculture.

 

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It’s not the N-word–Stop glaring at my son!

When NEIGE doesn’t mean NIGGA or *****

Nei-ge!” My son often yells in the store, at the restaurant, and even while waiting in line for something important.

Nei-ge! nei-ge! Neiiiiii-geeeee!!!” Everyone at the store has turned to stare at us at least once by now.

My husband’s angry. He’s self-conscious.

“Stop saying nei-ge!”

My son decides to ignore his dad. Baba is obviously in a bad mood.

“Mama! Nei-ge!” He points to something on the floor.

Nai-ge?” I ask in response. I have no idea what he’s yelling about.

Nei-ge!

Nai-ge?

Nei-ge!

People are giving us quizzical looks.

Nai-ge?

Nei-geeee!!” Exasperated by my apparent dullness, my son crouches down low and points at the metallic purple star-shaped decoration.

“Ahh! It’s a star! You found a star!”

So what is he saying?
…Did you guess what “nei-ge” means yet?

In Mandarin Chinese, “nei ge” means “that” or in this case, “that one”, to which I would ask my son “which one?”

Misplaced Anger
My son is only two and a half, but he gets dirty looks, even glares, whenever we go out in the States. He doesn’t know why people are treating him poorly, he doesn’t know why his father gets frustrated and won’t let him say the new word he learned a few months ago, or why he should refrain from speaking his second language in public at all.

An example of the plushie he saw

Once we were at TJ Maxx, reading a picture book near the cashiers. The picture book had animals in it. My son pointed at every single animal and said their name to me. Some animals he doesn’t know the name of, or he can’t say their name, so he says “nei-ge!” (That one!) By doing so, he elicits the name from me and learns.

On this particular trip, we were waiting for his daddy to pay for our purchases, so we remained in place while others passed us by.

Even I could feel daggers on my back when he pointed to a gorilla in the book and yelled, “Nei-ge!”

Not only does he not often see gorillas, but he was especially excited because there was a gorilla plushie on the shelf right above us.

Nei-ge! Nei-ge! Nei-ge!” he pointed to the the big black gorilla soft toy.

I saw an angry-looking African-American woman walk past us. She glared at both us, and even I told him to keep it down.

Then don’t teach it
Some have suggested we just don’t teach him this word, since he is bilingual and there is an English equivalent. There are two problems to this: one, we shouldn’t have to teach him to not say “that” when it’s just his toddler pronunciation and local racial sensitivities that make a Chinese word sound like a racial slur. Two, we didn’t actually teach him the word.

Nei-ge is also often used as a filler word, similar to “ummm” or “uhhh” in English. We use it habitually, not even noticing it until recently when we’ve tried to reduce its usage. Although we use it in conversation all the time, I haven’t noticed people glaring at us, so I think it’s just my son’s accent.

Daniel Tiger and friends

Less judgement
Unless we were Spanish speakers, I’m not sure why people would think we would teach a two-year-old to say n****. On second thought, if we were Spanish speakers, I’d be equally irritated with how sensitive Americans are in regard to race and racism.

Kids “call it what it is”. When my son watches Daniel Tiger, he points to the dark-skinned girl (Miss Elena) and describes her as “hei hei” (blackie, in Mandarin). That’s an observation. Would you rather he be color-blind? Please. Children before the age of four do not have the malice to other anyone and call them names.

Have you had a similar experience? Did you ever wonder about How “racist” Chinese kids are? How did you handle it?

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Where does the name “Suotmaa” come from?

Americans, a diverse group of people brought together by land, dreams, and a love of freedom (the constitution), are very sensitive to remarks on their race, ethnic heritage, or any question that undermines their national identity. When polite, they’ll refrain from asking you any questions, but sometimes they just have to know–you know? So they’ll covertly ask you about your name (unless you’re John Smith, in which case you’re just British) to find out your ethnicity, where you’re really from.

My name is Finnish

My Finnish dad told me that when he studied in the States, his name was always butchered. At some point, his name, Juha Suotmaa, was completely Americanized to “John Southman”. I have not had such an experience (yet), but that’s because my first name is generic enough for people to just drop my surname.

The Finnish language is not well known in the world and thus most cannot identify a Finnish word when they see it. It’s not a Constanza, Wu, Nhi, or Park. Often, people will look at my name, look at me, and guess Filipina, Malaysian, or even South American. They would never guess American, Taiwanese (Chinese), or Finnish.

Granted, our family name was not always Suotmaa. Before my grandfather had changed it, we belonged to the Suominen family tree. Although I don’t know the reasons behind the change, I do not mind our branching off, for to me our unique name signifies the rooting of a new family tree.

I could’ve been a Wang

Perhaps that’s also why I have yet to change my name after almost a decade of marriage. When we were married, I was still in college and feared all the paperwork the name change required. I worried it might postpone graduation, or that I wouldn’t receive my diploma in time. Since my husband is Chinese, he didn’t seem to mind that I kept my own name (it was barely a conversation), and every time I’ve brought it up he’s said I should just keep my unique name.

Today, I brand myself with my father’s name when just a few years ago I longed to blend in as “Jessica Wang”. Fitting in was one of the reasons I chose to study in California (when most of my friends went to England). I was tired of heads turning when I walked into a room, of random people speaking a random Asian language to me and expecting me to understand, and of having to explain my family background to every confused gaze. I thought, for sure, I wouldn’t ever have to do so among California’s diverse population.

Of course this was not entirely the case. Clearly, my childhood memories were rose-tinted. In college, I first ended up in international circles, and then befriended locals after I transferred to Los Angeles. I was a third culture child (TCK) disguised as an American born Chinese (ABC), an identity I perpetuated after we moved to Beijing in 2012.

When labels matter

In China, I learned that ABCs are a dime a dozen (just like in California), and most of them felt insecure, disrespected, and inadequate compared to the white expat “foreigners”. For many Chinese, foreigners have to look different to be foreign, and anyone of Chinese descent, regardless of upbringing, is simply an overseas Chinese person (huaqiao). Hence, my husband’s elevator pitch for me has always included: “she’s half-white. Her mother’s from Taiwan.” Years later, it finally dawned on me that my Chengdu-born husband was selling me better than I had been. He had understood what was unique about my brand, about me, better than I had.

Today, we might be back in Los Angeles, but I’m no longer pretending to be someone I’m not. I have no reason to blend in, and I don’t worry about what others might perceive me to be. When someone alludes to my heritage, I play dumb and keep them guessing. If you want to find out where I’m from, where I got my name, or who I am, just ask me. I don’t bite.

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