|My son as an infant|
by Sharon H Chang
This morning I'm headed down to Seattle Public Schools main office to attempt to enroll my 6-year-old in Chinese immersion 1st grade. I feel deflated, defeated, dejected already. This isn't the first time we've tried to get him in this school, but it might be the last. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't depressed. In fact I'm near tears writing this post and don't know if I can even get through it.
My son is Japanese/Taiwanese/white and has been learning Mandarin in immersion programs since he was a toddler. He speaks, sings and writes Mandarin Chinese. He makes jokes and does math in Chinese. He asks his non-Chinese-speaking father for things in Chinese and teases when my husband doesn't understand. He shows his friends his Chinese homework proudly on play dates and shouts out loud when he sees Mandarin characters on TV, in movies, or out in public. When he started public kindergarten, one of the very first books he checked out from the school library he picked specifically because it had Mandarin characters in it.
"We grew up feeling/being shamed for not speaking our Asian family heritage languages while feeling/being ashamed when we saw others sneer at us or our Asian family for those same languages."
I can't even begin to tell you what a triumph of racial resilience this is for our family; how much our hearts glow when we see our son's blossoming language pride, and not shame. Why? (pause) Do I really need to tell you? Think how many times you've heard Asian languages and accents mocked, parodied, belittled, and scorned. My husband and I - our souls ache, cry and bleed for our own heritage language loss. We're both the mixed race children of Asian immigrant parents. Neither of us speak the native tongues of our mother and father proficiently because our immigrant parents struggled to transfer their languages in a white/English-dominant culture where multilingualism for people of color is considered a cultural deficit FAR more than it ever is an asset. You're in America, you should speak damn English.
We grew up feeling/being shamed for not speaking our Asian family heritage languages while feeling/being ashamed when we saw others sneer at us or our Asian family for those same languages. I think I can safely say most Asian Americans hold some story like this riddled with discrimination and assimilative pain (either from their life or the life of someone they know closely). So my husband and I have worked our asses off supporting our son on a different journey. It's not easy. It's hard as shit. This is our resistance: parenting as a revolutionary act, reclaiming lost language pushed out of our families by a racially hostile society.
But then we started public school.
Dearborn Park International Elementary School is ten minutes (or less) from our house. When my son was about to begin kindergarten Dearborn became, for the first time, an international school which offeres 50 percent immersion learning in Spanish or Chinese as part of the regular school day. We were ECSTATIC. Thoughtful, loving friends and neighbors assured us we'd have no problems getting in. It's a new program. It's so close to your house. There was no waitlist last year, they didn't have enough kids. Plus your son already speaks Chinese!
I remember the day I filled out the public school enrollment form like it happened an hour ago. I got to that part where they ask you what languages your kid speaks. My son speaks Chinese but he's not fluent. English is without a doubt his "dominant" and first language. I said to my husband, "Should I mark that he speaks Chinese and English?" My husband's like, "I don't know." I debated and debated and debated and finally decided - yes. Damnit. My son speaks Chinese. We're proud and if I say so maybe it'll help us get into this school. Maybe - just maybe - my son could speak one of his Asian heritage languages for the rest of his life. Maybe when we went to visit Taiwan or China one day we wouldn't have to feel like strangers in our own land. Maybe he'd get to hold his head high as a young man and say this is part of who I am. I got to keep it. I got to be me. I am me.
Now I'm crying. Cause this next part is like an ice pick to my heart.
We did not get into Dearborn Elementary. In fact we were placed almost as far down a very long waitlist as was possible; just a few spots from the end. Clearly my son speaking Mandarin already was not an enrollment consideration for a CHINESE IMMERSION PROGRAM. I was confused. I called in to ask what hope there was and the woman on the other end bluntly told me basically there was no hope. We were heartbroken. But, we reasoned, things happen. We were overconfident. We'll just try again next year and try to keep our son's Chinese up in the mean time.
But this is what actually happened in the mean time. Before the school year began I started getting multiple irritated calls from the district that my son needed to come down and get his English proficiency tested. The calls came in English at first. Then they started coming in Chinese. Then we started getting mailers in Chinese. I returned the call and said, "Listen to my voice. I'm a native English speaker. English is my son's first language and there's no need to test his proficiency." But the school district demanded I bring him in. At the same time they would not schedule appointments for this language testing and told me I'd have to walk in and wait to be seen. The wait might be short but it might not. I refused to bring him in.
"My son isn't just any 6-year-old is he? He's Asian American and the grandchild of Asian immigrant grandparents."
So. When kindergarten started they pulled him from his classroom without telling us and tested him at school. We found this out later from our kindergarten teacher at his first parent-teacher conference after notices were sent home that he was not meeting English language milestones and I asked what was going on. His kindergarten teacher smiled it off and rolled her eyes. "Any 6-year-old would test this way because they're all still learning to speak English," she assured us. But my son isn't just any 6-year-old is he? He's Asian American and the grandchild of Asian immigrant grandparents. The Seattle School district classified my son as an English Language Learner (ELL) and automatically enrolled him in ELL support. When I went to our school building's main office to contest this classification, our family support worker took one look at me and laughed, "Oh. Let me get a form for you to fill out."
Oh, okay. Just a mistake. We'll get this cleared up in no time. I took one look at the form and it hit me all at once. "Wait a second," I turned to the family worker, "This is just parent refusal of ELL services. It doesn't remove my son's classification as an ELL learner?" "No," the family worker explained simply, casually, without concern, "He won't get ELL services but we'll keep testing him till he proves he doesn't need them. Then the ELL classification will be removed." And my mind went blank as I fought back what was surging up through me. I filled out the rest of the form silently. I left. I went home and wept.
Today I'll go down to those district main offices again and try one more time. I'm tired. No. I'm exhausted. I remember the very first blog post I ever wrote years ago right here was about my son, language and forever foreignness. Years ago. Generations ago. My memory is still weeping - but my body is starting to give in. I could theorize, give you stats, get all abstract, use fancy words. But I don't feel like it. This is simply a story. Our story. It's the story of our family's immigrant history and language. It's a story of loss that we hoped we could rewrite. And today it's a pretty sad story.
Maybe tomorrow it will be better.