Every now and then, your child asks you a question which wrenches your heart. They don’t mean to, of course; the question just does.
I can tell you exactly when Akemi asked me one such question. She was climbing out of the car, four years old, and asked, “Mommy, what is my Chinese name again?”
We had arrived that September Saturday morning at the San Gabriel Valley Chinese Cultural Association Chinese School in West Covina, delivering Akemi to her first day of Mandarin class. Bing and I had researched and considered this all very carefully. For utility in global communication, we voted for Mandarin over Cantonese or Japanese. Besides, we weren’t living near his Cantonese-speaking family to take advantage of any heritage learning, and we also ruled out Japanese because Japanese schools in our area are for native Japanese-speaking young people whose parents want them to keep up their reading and writing skills. Bing attended Chinese school growing up, learning Mandarin, and even switched to Palo Alto High so he could continue Mandarin studies there. His Mandarin was pretty serviceable; he chatted amiably with taxi drivers in Beijing and bargained with vendors throughout our 1992 China trip for souvenirs. He was on deck to help with the homework.
On the basis of three hours once a week, we didn’t expect that she’d learn all that much. We realized that, growing up apart from his extended, close family, she wouldn’t otherwise get much exposure to Chinese culture, or at least the Chinese-American version of the culture. Bing decided on the SGVCCA school, even though it was much farther away than other Chinese schools, precisely because it was run by Chinese-American families similar to his, as opposed to Taiwanese transplants. When he went out there to meet the principal and check out the school, he liked what he saw, and signed her up. Our linguistic bet was that by exposing her to the tones at a young age, she’d at least get the benefit of some child language acquisition capacity. And maybe she’d get to college and want to study abroad.
But all of our resolve and rationalization about how good this would be for her quivered at that moment when we were getting out of the car and I realized we were throwing her into the great unknown. “Ming Mei,” I answered, “Leung Ming Mei.” I added, “You’ll be fine,” more for my benefit than hers.
We all hung in there, until school work and Colburn, mostly, overtook her Saturdays. After five years of Chinese school and lessons, she could tell you she liked chocolate ice cream, could sing a few songs, and recite a few poems. Here she is in one of the Chinese new year festival presentations. She learned a Chinese dance, marched with the school in a rainy Los Angeles Chinatown parade, mastered a handful of characters, and calligraphied a bamboo painting for her grandparents. Her crowning glories were writing her great-grandmother Po Po Don Fuey a thank you note for lai see, red envelope money, in recognizable characters, and reading some street signs when we were in Hong Kong. If anything else, it meant a lot to Bing’s parents that we at least made the effort. His mother said more than once that she only had one grandchild attend Chinese school, and that it was her Japanese daughter-in-law who made that happen (I guess I got the credit because I was doing the driving).
You can imagine the validation when Akemi told me she was signing up for Mandarin I at Tufts this fall semester. Her senior year, the fourth year out of five, and she finally had an inch of room in her schedule to take something “for fun.” That she would devote an elective to taking beginning Mandarin was, well, saying something. “Dad would be so happy,” I said, “Just as he and I had hoped.”
Turns out that Chinese school got her through about the first three classes. Having the tones in her ear in fact has helped, as had the practice writing characters when she was little. She made me laugh when she said she heard her teacher say a sentence that she remembered hearing in Chinese school, but that she didn’t understand then – the sentence turned out to be “Do you have any questions?” She also realizes now all those little character books that her Chinese school teachers had her color and put together actually have a pretty useful structure. I’ve saved all of her Chinese school work, and now maybe she’ll get a big kick out of seeing it with demystified eyes. She says the number of characters they are expected to learn each week has really ramped up, but it sounds like she is hanging in there. She likes languages, and is good at them.
So I feel relieved of my first-day-of-Chinese-school heartwrench that we didn’t traumatize her irreparably, and that the sacrifice and commitment to Chinese school did turn out to have some benefit. Now if she can order for us at Din Tai Fung, a favorite dumpling house – that will have made all that driving worth it.