USA: Raising a Bilingual Child While Losing My Accent

USA: Raising a Bilingual Child While Losing My Accent

The author serving as a substitute teacher at a local Chinese-language school in San Diego

I’ve served as a judge at some local children’s Chinese-language speech and recitation contests on several occasions. I still remember my first time. I saw a little boy in a suit and tie, speaking with a crisp voice, saying, “Summer is my favorite season because the sunny days are cheerful and inspire me to do great things for my people.” When speaking, he raised his two fists high in the air.

Then I saw a little girl in a dress and high heels, who with a clear but shy voice said, “Winter is my favorite season because it reminds me the Chinese fairy tale ‘Snow Child,’ a story that describes the noble sentiments of Chinese people.” Then she wiped her eyes in an exaggerated way.

These children were all born in the United States, of Chinese descent. They spoke Chinese in crisp, clear voices, but the speech content was confusing. I really wanted to ask the girl what she meant by “the noble sentiments of Chinese people,” or the boy what “great things” he was going to do for his people. I got the impression that most of the scripts were written by parents.

After the young children spoke, the older kids stepped onstage. A couple of teenagers in T-shirts and shorts hesitantly walked up, muttering things like, “We should respect our teachers, because…because Chinese people believe in their teachers, well I’m American, not Chinese, but… oh well, let’s just respect our teachers” or, “We should respect our parents because…because they are too old to understand anything we say…let’s just listen to them when we are home.”

It was funny to see young people of Chinese appearance speaking with such strong American accents – so strong that I could barely understand them. Nine out of ten parents sitting in the auditorium frowned, clearly not enjoying the speech. Were they sad because their teenagers were not speaking Chinese as well as they had in elementary school? Were they worried because their children’s speech was not good enough to get them into college?

While considering how to score, I thought of my own child. He was then nine months old. I couldn’t help but wonder whether he would be able to tell the fairy tale Snow Child in fluent Mandarin Chinese. Would he become an American kid with an American accent and complain that “Mom is too old to understand anything I say”?

I frowned, like all the parents in the auditorium.

In my family, we speak Chinese at home and English at work or school. My son was a late talker, but our pediatrician comforted us, saying that although bilingual kids can be slow to speak at the beginning, they usually  catch up quickly. He encouraged us to insist on speaking Chinese at home.

We tried to create a Chinese-only environment at home with hopes that my son’s first word my son would a Chinese word. But the hope came to naught: his first word was an English word he learned at the daycare: “Daddy”. This was my first failure in raising a bilingual child. In spite of this, we continue to speak Chinese at home. Every night we read bed time stories together in Chinese. By the time he was three, my son could speak fluent Chinese, and tell “Snow Child” and many other fairy tales without help. I was very proud.

But my pride didn’t last for long. Just a couple of months ago, his preschool teacher told me that he had a hitting problem. The theory was that because my son didn’t speak English as well as other kids, his ability to stand up for himself in arguments was limited, and he turned to physical means of expressing himself.

The teacher suggested that we set an “English time” at home to help my son improve his English. I didn’t like the idea: the more I exposed him to English, the less chance he got to speak Chinese. Didn’t he speak a whole lot of English at school already?

But the hitting problem got worse. After consulting our pediatrician and therapist, I finally gave in and started a daily English storytime at home. Kids are really like sponges, and his English improved in no time. He stopped hitting his preschool classmates, but his Chinese language skills went backwards.

I started to understand why I kept seeing the same thing at Chinese speech and recitation contests: the younger the children are, the better their Chinese language skills are. I started to understand that my hope of raising a bilingual child fluent in Chinese might once again come to naught.

I worked as a staff writer at a local Chinese-language newspaper when I was young. Many times, I interviewed outstanding second or third generation Chinese-Americans. When I asked them for a Chinese name for publishing purpose, they often said, “I don’t remember my Chinese name.”

A Chinese-American anti-death penalty activist once “drew” down her Chinese name for me after an interview. I couldn’t read the symbols she had drawn. I tried to guess and wrote down two characters next to her drawing. She read my writing and happily announced, “Yes, that’s my name!”

When the article was published the next day, I got a phone call in the newsroom from an old lady speaking Chinese with a sweet Beijing accent. She identified herself as the mother of the anti-death penalty activist, and said that I had gotten her daughter’s name wrong. I apologized, and she said, “That’s okay, I understand. My daughter must have made the mistake herself. She never remembered her Chinese name. But I just want to let you know.” Then she was silent. “Hello! Hello?” I said, not sure if I should hang up. Then she started to talk again, asking me where I was from, if I was married, and if I had children.

At that time I was married but there were no children yet. The old lady aid earnestly, “Take my advice. When you have your own kids, always speak Chinese to them.”

“Sure, sure,” I said, just saying that to make her happy.

Through the years I’ve seen many second generation Chinese-Americans struggling to learn Chinese.

Since having my own child, I often think of the old lady and her daughter who couldn’t remember her own Chinese name. The thought is almost painful.

It is not just the America-born children who are struggling. The away-from-home adults are also struggling. I am a professional writer who was born to Chinese parents and raised in Taiwan, but who has spent her entire adulthood in the States. I struggled to improve my English during my first years in the United States. Now I write English more then Chinese. I can clearly see that I no longer speak Chinese as well as I used to. When I was in my twenties, I was eager to get rid of my Chinese accent. Now I’m desperate to maintain my Chinese language skill.

My son will soon be four, old enough to go to the Chinese language school. I decided to let him start this fall. He doesn’t like the idea of going to school on weekends, and asks, “Why do I have to learn Chinese?”

I didn’t know how to explain the concept of culture to a toddler. I just told him, “So you can read ‘Journey to the West’.” The other night I read him the chapter “Monkey Subdues White-Skeleton Demon” from the classic novel. He wanted to know if the Monkey eventually returned to his teacher Xuanzang. I wouldn’t tell him. I told him that he will read it one day by himself.

I still hope to raise a bilingual child who speaks fluent English and at least understandable Chinese. I don’t expect him to love the Chinese language right away. Language is always first a tool and then an art. I hope my son will first learn how to use the tool, and then, maybe one day, he’ll truly fall in love with the art.

Are you raising a bilingual child? How do you manage the cultural balance between more than one language?

This is an original post for World Moms Network by T0-Wen Tseng. Photo credit: David Sprouse.

To-Wen Tseng

Former TV reporter turned freelance journalist, children's book writer in wee hours, nursing mom by passion. To-wen blogs at I'd rather be breastfeeding. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
TwitterFacebookLinkedInGoogle PlusYouTube

World Voice: Education is the Best Inheritance

World Voice: Education is the Best Inheritance

“Survival of the fittest” is how Patrick Makokoro jokingly described his childhood with a smile, only he wasn’t exactly joking.

Patrick Mokokoro

Patrick Mokokoro

A handsome father with a friendly and earnest demeanor, Patrick is an early childhood education activist in Zimbabwe. He came to my community in St. Louis, MO last week on a U.S. media tour to talk about the importance of U.S. support for the Global Partnership for Education. He knows firsthand how it feels to be denied an education. He grew up in poverty as the 8th child in a family of 16 kids. His Darwinian comment about survival describes the competition he felt when he had to scuffle with his siblings for a share out of a big bowl of cornmeal. Despite barely being able to afford school fees, his parents – a gardener and a housekeeper – valued education highly. In fact, the phrase “Education is the key to success” was drummed into Patrick, early on as his parents struggled to give their kids the best opportunities they could.

He took the lesson to heart and was the first child in his family to pass his basic examinations at 16 years old, making him eligible for high school. Full of pride, he felt sure that his father would be proud to see him continue, but unfortunately, his father had to tell him, “I’m sorry, I can’t afford to pay your fees because you have many siblings. If you continue, I won’t be able to pay for your brothers and sisters to go to school.” It was a crushing disappointment. His bitterness broke the relationship with his father for a time and he left home to find his own way.

An opportunity to work with vulnerable children in an orphanage gave him an eye-opening experience that changed the course of his life. As upset as he was about his situation, he was surrounded by children – happy and playing – who had no parents at all and needed far more than he did. He rolled up his sleeves and guided the children to play sports and plant a garden to help with their nutritional needs. He dedicated his life to serving orphans and finding sustainable solutions to support kids like them.

Patrick supported himself through the rest of high school and college while working with other non-profits addressing the plight of Zimbabwe’s children. Time and experience taught him that local resources were often not adequate to respond to shortages in food supplies, medical care, psychological support, and school fees. So, he started his own organization called the Nhaka Foundation to address these needs together. “Nhaka” means inheritance.

“Education is the key to success,” says Patrick echoing his father. “So, if we are to leave any inheritance for children and orphans, it should be an education.”

Nhaka Foundation

Nhaka Foundation

This year, the Nhaka Foundation is celebrating its 10th anniversary of giving children a healthy foundation and early learning opportunities. Patrick is now an international advocate, traveling as far as the U.S. to share how critical it is for us to continue to support country-led programs investing in children.

 Patrick at a meeting with RESULTS St Louis Activists and writers from St. Louis media. Photo credit to RESULTS St. Louis


Patrick at a meeting with RESULTS St Louis Activists and writers from St. Louis media. Photo credit to RESULTS St. Louis

It’s important that he does come here to tell his story. After all, the U.S is a donor to the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), which provides grants to the Nhaka Foundation! Our money is pooled with other countries and distributed by the GPE after rigorous scrutiny. It assures money is not lost to corruption or poor planning. It ensures that we can invest in the highest quality programs that will help the most vulnerable children.

Global Partnership for Education

Global Partnership for Education

The coincidence that I met Patrick a week before the primary school graduation of my youngest child was not lost on me. While we celebrate the shining futures of our little ones, most of the parents in our school have no idea what is happening in Zimbabwe, nor the transformative work the GPE does with our tax dollars. Yet, all Americans should know that it is through our action or our inaction, that we impact the fates of millions of children worldwide. When we speak out and demand that our government support the GPE, we change the course of millions of lives from despair to opportunity. When we remain silent, we risk the bright hope of Patrick’s orphans and so many like them.

If you live in a donor country, speak out to your government about the importance of global education and urge them to pledge generously to the GPE for its 2017 replenishment campaign this year. As a World Mom, I want to stand with Patrick and pass on this inheritance of education to every child.

As a World Mom, I want to stand with Patrick and pass on this inheritance of education to every child.

Photo Credits to the Author, RESULTS, Global Partnership for Education

Cindy Levin

Cynthia Changyit Levin took her first advocacy action in 2001 with a hunger event at her church. Years later, after resigning from her position as an automotive engineer to raise her newborn daughter, she searched for a way she could better the world from home while caring for infants. She returned to advocacy and is now a dedicated volunteer activist with RESULTS, Shot@Life, ONE, and Bread for the World. Levin involves her young children in her advocacy activities, including face-to-face lobby meetings with members of Congress, letter-writing, and classroom advocacy projects. She shares what she has learned about advocacy through her Anti-Poverty Mom blog and training other activists with RESULTS. Her op-eds and letters-to-the-editor have appeared in Chicago area newspapers as well as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Washington Post, the New York Times and the international Financial Times. Levin has served on the Board of Directors for RESULTS/RESULTS Educational Fund and on staff with RESULTS Educational Fund as a fundraising coach for grassroots volunteers.

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Twitter

USA: How The Travel Ban Affected My Family

USA: How The Travel Ban Affected My Family

I was in Taipei with family for Chinese New Year when President Donald Trump first announced the travel ban on citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

For days, concerned relatives and friends asked if the ban would affect us.

In one way, it doesn’t affect us—we are naturalized U.S. citizens.

But in many ways, it does affect us.

My 3-year-old son’s preschool teacher is a Muslim from Iran. We love her and truly worried that we would lose a great teacher over that ban. For days my husband and I tried to come up with a good explanation for our child, but we couldn’t.

At dinner table when the child was not listening, my mother-in-law said, “You don’t have to tell him anything. He’s gone through several teachers before, he’ll be fine. He probably won’t even notice that she is gone.”

My father-in-law said, “If he does notice and ask questions, simply tell him that the teacher left. He will forget about it soon anyway.”

My in-laws were wrong. Kids are not as ignorant and forgetting as we thought.

We came back to the States on the same day protesters against President Trump’s travel ban gathered at Los Angeles International Airport. When we were in the customs line, an immigrant officer asked the woman in front of us, “Does what happening in America these days worry you?”

“Yes, it really worries me,” the woman answered. She wore a Hijab.

My son overheard them and asked me, “Mama, what’s she worrying about?”

We stepped out of Tom Bradley International Terminal, and he saw the protestors.

“Mama, what are these people doing?”

We had to start the difficult conversation early. “Look, baby. Our new President just made a new rule that stops people from some Muslim countries from coming to our country. But there are people who think the rule is wrong, so they are here to tell everybody that what they think. And the woman with Hijab at the custom is probably a Muslim, so the rule worries her.”

I tried to use small words. I wasn’t sure if he understood. He thought about it, and then asked, “Do we know any Muslim?”

“Well, Ms. Parvaneh is from a Muslim country.”

He stared at me. And then all in a sudden, he started to cry. Not crying, but wailing.

While we were driving home, my son fell asleep in the car. He woke up two hours later, and never asked any questions about the ban again.

Luckily, the government suspended enforcement of the ban after a couple of days.

When I picked my son up from preschool on the day of his return there, I asked him how school had been.

“Great,” he said. “I’m very happy because Ms. Parvaneh was still there.”

I was surprised. I thought (or I hoped) that he had already forgotten about that ban thing.

But apparently he hadn’t. He asked me if the President was still trying to “kick Ms. Parvaneh out.”

“Well, he may try again. But don’t worry. The ban is not fair. People will speak up and help out.”

“Who will? Will you, Mama?”

“……”

“Mama, will you speak up and help Ms. Parvaneh?”

“I will, baby.”

This week, Trump is preparing to release a second executive order halting travel from citizens of the seven nations. And I’m taking time to write this post, because I promised my son that I would speak up. It is wrong to attack immigrant families with Executive Orders. Immigrants or the children of immigrants started 40% of all Fortune 500 companies. They own and run many small and medium businesses, and they are a critical part of our national labor force and community – including my son’s preschool teacher.

Trump has said that citizens of the seven countries pose a high risk of terrorism. But the 9th Circuit made it clear that the Trump administration “pointed to no evidence that any alien from any of the countries named in the order has perpetrated a terrorist attack in the United States.” This ban is simply not reasonable. As an American, I refuse to lose a critical part of my country – or lose a great teacher – over an unreasonable ban.

What are your thoughts on the travel ban? Would you, or anyone you know, be directly affected?

This is an original post to World Moms Network by To-Wen Tseng of the United States. Photo credit: Florencia Rojas.

To-Wen Tseng

Former TV reporter turned freelance journalist, children's book writer in wee hours, nursing mom by passion. To-wen blogs at I'd rather be breastfeeding. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
TwitterFacebookLinkedInGoogle PlusYouTube

JAPAN: The Preschool Mom

JAPAN: The Preschool Mom

I see you on your black skirt suit, with the waist that doesn’t quite fit the same anymore and the blouse that doesn’t quite work when one is out with a toddler. It’s been awhile since you wore it. Your heels are just slightly dusty, and you are unconsciously rubbing your feet together in a way that betrays you are no longer used to wearing them.

I have been where you are, at the preschool interview (most preschools in Japan seem to require this,) with an uncooperative two-year-old. No one else’s kid seems to have a permanent cow-lick or is crying like mine is, you think. I can tell, because I have thought that, too.

Preschool Class

Preschool Class

But now I am on the teaching staff, on the other side of the table, so to speak, and I can tell you that we have seen multiple cowlicks today, and that the kids who don’t cry at the interview are no less likely to cry on the first day of school.

I wish I could give you a hug and tell you to relax. Of course we can’t love your child as much as you do, but we will come close! And since we send the kids home at two o’clock, all of those aggravating things that drive you bonkers will not be such a problem here.

I also want to tell you that it is okay to consider your own needs when choosing a preschool for your child. If you can’t handle making a bento every morning, by all means find a place that serves lunch. If you can’t deal with homework, then go for someplace that is play based. There are years and years of homework ahead of you both!

You don’t have to go where Daddy went, or where grandma thinks is best, or where the clique of neighborhood moms go. Look and listen, see the child that you have. Know who you are, and what your limits are. Then choose a place that best meets the needs of you both.

Of course I can tell you none of this, as you wrestle your feet out of your heels and into your indoor shoes, tugging your son along, the both of you getting increasingly frustrated. I try to give you a sympathetic smile, but you may not notice.

Best of luck to you, dear. Best of luck to you both.

What advice would you give to moms of younger children of you could?

This is an original post to World Moms Blog from our writer in Japan and mother of two, Melanie Oda.

Photo Credit: Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Melanie Oda (Japan)

If you ask Melanie Oda where she is from, she will answer "Georgia." (Unless you ask her in Japanese. Then she will say "America.") It sounds nice, and it's a one-word answer, which is what most people expect. The truth is more complex. She moved around several small towns in the south growing up. Such is life when your father is a Southern Baptist preacher of the hellfire and brimstone variety. She came to Japan in 2000 as an assistant language teacher, and has never managed to leave. She currently resides in Yokohama, on the outskirts of Tokyo (but please don't tell anyone she described it that way! Citizens of Yokohama have a lot of pride). No one is more surprised to find her here, married to a Japanese man and with two bilingual children (aged four and seven), than herself. And possibly her mother. You can read more about her misadventures in Asia on her blog, HamakkoMommy.

More Posts

CALIFORNIA, USA: Bad Mom

CALIFORNIA, USA: Bad Mom

DSC_0264

From time to time, I got questions like, “Why do you send your baby to day care when you’re staying at home all day long?” or “Why don’t you cook everyday? Don’t you have plenty of time at home?”

I just shrugged and said, “because I am a bad mom.”

You see, my little one started to go to day care when he was 3 months old. When my previous employer refused to provide breastfeeding accommodation, I quit my full time reporting job. I became a work-from-home working mom when my little one turned 6 months old…but he continued going to school. (more…)

To-Wen Tseng

Former TV reporter turned freelance journalist, children's book writer in wee hours, nursing mom by passion. To-wen blogs at I'd rather be breastfeeding. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
TwitterFacebookLinkedInGoogle PlusYouTube

CALGARY, CANADA: Tales From a Childcare Provider

CALGARY, CANADA: Tales From a Childcare Provider

childcare

I recently left my job in a poverty law office to start a daycare and pre-school. Before opening my home, I researched every aspect of the business; at least I thought I did. Since I’d been homeschooling since forever, I thought that my new venture would be an extension of what I had been doing. What you can’t find written in pages of wisdom is how to get through the day with young children – that is something you have to experience on your own. (more…)

Salma (Canada)

An Imperfect Stepford Wife is what Salma describes herself as because she simply cannot get it right. She loves decorating, travelling, parenting,learning, writing, reading and cooking, She also delights in all things mischievous, simply because it drives her hubby crazy. Salma has 2 daughters and a baby boy. The death of her first son in 2009 was very difficult, however, after the birth of her Rainbow baby in 2010 (one day after her birthday) she has made a commitment to laugh more and channel the innocence of youth through her children. She has blogged about her loss, her pregnancy with Rainbow, and Islamic life. After relocating to Alberta with her husband in 2011 she has found new challenges and rewards- like buying their first house, and finding a rewarding career. Her roots are tied to Jamaica, while her hubby is from Yemen. Their routes, however, have led them to Egypt and Canada, which is most interesting because their lives are filled with cultural and language barriers. Even though she earned a degree in Criminology, Salma's true passion is Social Work. She truly appreciates the beauty of the human race. She writes critical essays on topics such as feminism and the law, cultural relativity and the role of women in Islam and "the veil". Salma works full-time, however, she believes that unless the imagination of a child is nourished, it will go to waste. She follows the philosophy of un-schooling and always finds time to teach and explore with her children. From this stance, she pushes her children to be passionate about every aspect of life, and to strive to be life-long learners and teachers. You can read about her at Chasing Rainbow.

More Posts - Website