I hated Chinese school. I hated the squeezing into the family car for what seemed like an eternity to Chinatown from Hollis (home of Run DMC). I hated standing up to be judged on the mindless recitation of odes to being a “moral person” and a “proper student.” I hated the flimsy little exercise books in odd hues of green and blue and sometimes pink. I hated that my childhood was being sucked away by these books while my friends played ball with the dads or went shopping with their moms. I hated my father telling me I would thank him later!
I hated being Chinese!
So why am I subjecting my sons to the same?
- Because I don’t hate being Chinese anymore.
- Because the times have changed. (It’s easier to be Chinese in America now.)
- Because they’ll thank me later. (Don’t tell my father I just said that.)
I never finished Chinese school. Everyday I face my own illiteracy. I am first generation Chinese in America. Jook Sing in the 70’s. ABC since the 90’s. Assimilation did not start out difficult. My parents love America. But at times they were as fickle as this country they love. There was pressure for me to both be American and to remember to that I was Chinese. Two two states being distinct and often contradictory when I was a child. The definitions of these states built on the conveniences of my parents. (As they are for my sons I’m afraid.)
The difference (I hope) between my parents and me is that I have prior experience. Where my parents only dreamt of growing up in America, I actually did. I actually enjoyed the benefits they dreamed of growing up in the US and endured the pitfalls (Chink doesn’t just mean a crack in the armor). I identify myself as Chinese when it comes to bubbling in the forms but I consider myself an American in terms of attitude.
Like me, my sons are identified as Chinese but will possibly regard themselves as Americans once they are old enough to make the distinction. Unlike me, they are second generation. They are growing up in an English speaking household with a somewhat Anglicized version of Chinese culture. It is important they learn Chinese because the language connects them to a deeper family history. This connection informs and enriches their personal identities through the establishment and strengthening of roots.
When my grandmother died she took with her volumes of recipes both epicurean and medicinal. My sister and I tried to learn from her but she couldn’t get us to understand cooking without measurement and we couldn’t get her to understand cooking with it. Imagine this in Toisanese: “A dash is a dash. What do you mean how much is it?”
Leaving NYC for college taught me to appreciate what I ignored while growing up here. With Mandarin being the “language du jour,” with Asia gaining greater economic exposure internationally, and with the leaps in communication/information technology assimilation as a Chinese in America has changed. In fact (I know it’s bold), you might even say that the average American is assimilating to “Chinese American” culture.
I make a distinction between “Chinese” culture and “Chinese American” culture. I identify how my family lives as a Chinese American lifestyle – delectable crunchy, oily morning hashbrowns from McDonald’s with congee from Chinatown. Just for clarification: A Chinese lifestyle would be sans hashbrowns.
A Chinese American lifestyle also includes daily practical use of English. Mandarin is purely academic like studying Latin. However, it does not mean it does not have its place in shaping my sons’ perceptions of the world around them.
Sadly, I have no doubt that my sons will hear the word “Chink” more than once in their lives. Hopefully, they will live with it better than I did. It wasn’t until college that I came to terms with “being Chinese.” Without getting too philosophical about it, imagine a state of being as something out of your control but yet something managed by you. Put simply: You can’t control what people say about you but you can control how you cope with it.
All practical reasoning aside like more opportunities, better pay, etc., my sons endure learning Chinese because it informs their personal identities. Being comfortable in their own skin implies they will be better able to cope when the people around them try to make them ashamed of their heritage. The gains outweigh the pains in this instance.
Plus (don’t tell my father), they’ll thank me later.