© Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, Feb 25 2013
On Valentine's Day this year (which I forgot), I had a strangely racialized experience. My husband and I used to halfheartedly celebrate the holiday when we were a younger, newer couple. But over the years we've come to feel it doesn't hold much significance for us. So we often forget it. And truthfully, neither of us is offended. I suppose that's what can happen when you've been together over a decade. Anyways. I walked into an acupuncture appointment that morning. My provider is Chinese, from China. She tries to help me practice my Mandarin. She asked me a question in Mandarin which I didn't understand, then translated to English, "What are you doing later today?" The question was unusual because she never asks me about my plans for the day. I was confused and told her so. She elaborated further. In Mandarin. Again I didn't understand. Again she translated. Something along the lines of, "What are you doing for Valentine's Day?" I was like, "O! Uh...nothing. What about you?" She laughed. Told me (in mixed Mandarin/English again) she was working but she'd texted everybody "Happy Valentine's Day." I was definitely disoriented by our short conversation. Complete moment of bicultural weirdness. Here I am, the half-Taiwanese American, being schooled in my own culture by a Chinese immigrant. I should say, she was totally well-intentioned. There was no animosity at all. She just assumed I remembered the day's significance. She seemed confused that I was confused. And the language barrier didn't help. Very bizarre.
And I sort of chalked it up to that. Just a short, brief, bizarre conversation in passing. Until later that day. When my son came home from Chinese preschool with a huge box full of valentines, candy and a heart cookie he'd made in class. His other English-speaking (liberal) preschool, as far as I know, didn't celebrate the holiday in any largely noticeable way. At that point I couldn't help but pay attention. I suppose I laughed a little to myself. Sighed. Shook my head in - I don't know, bemused resignation? For weeks I debated whether this experience was even blogworthy. But at last I decided to write it up because it kept coming back to mind. On the one hand, it was very sweet watching my son excitedly show his "treat box"; the valentines given by friends. It brought back memories of doing the same during my own childhood. And what kid doesn't like getting candy? On the other hand, I didn't send him to Chinese preschool to learn about his American heritage (which he is inundated with every day of his life, every time he steps out the door - for better or worse). I sent him there to learn about his Chinese heritage but the school sometimes seem hellbent on being American. My son has told me about learning numbers. But when asked if his teacher counted in Chinese - he said no. He also recounted singing "Twinkle, Twinkle" in English. Which annoyed me to no end.
I was very specific about looking for a Chinese immersion environment for my little guy. I am familiar with the research and know that I don't need to worry about his English language skills. He will gain those naturally at home and in society at large. I also know that if he is to gain any sort of proficiency in another language, he needs full immersion. Despite these facts however, several Chinese preschools I contacted felt it extremely important to advertise the bilingual nature of their classrooms. They seemed to think I would be concerned about his English abilities. When I let them know I was disappointed about too much use of English, they quickly justified its use by claiming the non-native speaking kids sometimes get confused and need a little help. One Chinese preschool I considered late last year has a full hour of English language instruction in the morning by a specially hired English teacher. They claimed it was because they didn't want the children to "fall behind." We're talking about 3 to 5 year olds here, by the way. Typically American children don't even begin focusing on reading and writing until kindergarten. There is much research now that supports the importance of play as central in early learning curriculum, discouraging too much emphasis on early literacy as developmentally inappropriate.
And so I find myself led back to reflecting on assimilation yet again. A theme that has been a constant in my life (being the daughter of a Taiwanese immigrant). In this case I think about the way it stubbornly persists through the generations, beginning with the youngest members of our society; diluting and disrupting the transmission of other cultural heritages that have so much poignancy and meaning for our youth and their families. I sense much regret on the part of older immigrants that their children and grandchildren have less and less knowledge of their mother and fatherlands. Yet at the same time, so many immigrants continue to adopt mainstream culture at the expense of their own. Though we have asked my mother-in-law repeatedly to speak to our son in Japanese. She frequently defaults to English. Thinking maybe she felt self-conscious speaking Japanese around us, we offered to drop our son off at her home once a week. She wasn't interested and said the good news was we still had "plenty of time." As the multiracial mother of a multiracial child living in America, I sometimes rely heavily on immigrants to teach me and my family something about the heritage we've lost through this assimilation. Yet its power persists in the form of a vicious feedback loop where even today incoming immigrants sometimes can't offer the full richness of their native cultures to successive generations of monoracial and multiracial Asian Americans because they are so worried about being "American" enough themselves.