On being Chinese American...

We're trying to raise Isaac bilingual. When my family first immigrated to the US in 1984, my parents made the decision of speaking only Chinese at home. They valued us keeping our language, knowing that our ability to speak would keep open the access to family and culture.

Bryan is beyond supportive. He speaks Mandarin to Isaac 80%+ of the time. When Isaac learns a word he doesn't already know, he becomes determined to learn that phrase. He knows that one day Isaac may surpass him and he wants to do all he can to keep up. Just another reason why I feel like I won the lottery with the man I married.

When I'm alone with Isaac, it's the best time to speak 100% Chinese. No need to translate for Bryan, no need to keep up communication with Grandma.

I've been doing something weird though. I knew I was doing it but I didn't stop to think about why I was doing it.

When we're at the park or library, and it's just the two of us, I will speak in complete Mandarin. However if someone we don't know comes to the play structure, I will consciously throw out a phrase of perfect English.

If I don't I'm worried people will think of me as an immigrant. And in this country few immigrants feel welcomed. I worry that if people think I can't speak perfect English, they will not want to know me. I could be cut off from mommy groups and play dates. Maybe Isaac will be disadvantaged. Maybe my opinions won't matter. Is it an irrational fear? Yes and no. Is it reality? Yes and no.

It's just something I do, and I haven't been able to make myself stop. I want to and I don't. I don't want others to tell me what they think I should do either. Just know that it's part of the immigrant experience. There's an ongoing pressure, sometimes overt but mostly subtle, to prove whether or not you belong in this country.

For now I'll probably keep doing it, especially given the fact that we live in Davis. This way we get to be that "cool" family that is doing the bilingual thing.


insaknitty said...

I used to do that too! but now that I've let Isabel's Chinese has been quickly disintegrating and I've gotten too lazy to speak it to her, I find myself doing the opposite when we go to Chinese stores, deliberately speaking Chinese. is that weird?

Wendy said...

i totally do it too! the thing is i'll do it also when we're with good friends who don't speak any mandarin. i think part of it is that i don't want others to feel excluded or something.

while we're on the topic - i have a question. when you read english books to isaac, do you translate or just read it straight up? i've noticed lately that oscar loses interest in a book with more verbiage when i'm reading in english. but if i translate he'll re-focus. i feel kind of torn about what to do when i read to him now.

Peggy E. said...

@insaknitty Hey, whatever helps you get the Chinese out. :) Since going to Asia this summer we're watching Bob the Builder and Pixar in Mandarin.

@ Wendy I translate it in my head and only read it in Chinese. I think they get a lot of the English language learning in school and being in an English context.

About the exclusion part. Yeah, I think that's why I choose to do English or translate when Grandma is around. I think for the park situation, it's a feeling like I don't have a choice or I can't help myself. With Grandma I made an actual decision.

soybeanlover said...

I do the same thing too. Usually I'm using English because C1 only speaks to me in English, but as a rule we try to use Japanese outside the house. If I've been speaking English I'll switch to Japanese so I don't seem like a jerk whose not willing to learn the local language and so they know I'm not saying bad things. Yes, I shouldn't worry about what other people think, but what people think really does change the way they treat you.