Baby Doe: Why Can’t We Stop Child Homelessness?

Baby Doe: Why Can’t We Stop Child Homelessness?

Last October, I attended an Interfaith Memorial Service for the homeless at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in East Los Angeles. The service remembered the 472 homeless people who died on the streets in Los Angeles County in 2016. Seven of the deceased were under three years old.

At the service I thought of a girl who called herself Latoya, who I met eight years ago while covering an adolescent drug dealing story. She moved into a teenage drug dealer’s tent under an overpass in downtown San Diego after running away from her foster family. One year later she gave birth to a baby girl. She was fifteen; her boyfriend was eighteen. Social workers took away their baby because apparently, the parents were too young, on drugs, and homeless.

When I met Latoya, I was fresh out of journalism school and she was long out of school. She was seeking help from a volunteer attorney with a non-profit organization helping homeless children.

“She wanted to go back to school, get a real job,” the lawyer told me. “And eventually get her daughter back.”

That surprised me. I had assumed that drug-using, homeless, teen parents were irresponsible and careless people. The reality is that they love and care their children just like any other parent.

When the adolescent drug dealing story was done, I wanted to follow up with Latoya’s story, but my assignment editor decided to cut it because “following a homeless teen mom is way too resource consuming, we cannot afford it.”

In the end I wrote a short article about Latoya and her efforts. The piece was included in my first book “Wēi Zúyǐ Dào”, published in 2011. The book sold 80,000 copies in five years, but Latoya’s story remains incomplete. I lost contact with her, but in eight years I have never forgotten her. In fact, over the years I have met many Latoyas and their children.

One of the Latoyas was 25-year-old Venessa Ibarra, who last June set her SUV on fire, threw in her three-year-old daughter Natalie, and then got in herself. They both died.

The death of a homeless child gets very little attention, and the authorities have many difficulties determining their identities. These children are called “baby doe” and their stories are rarely told.

In the cases where these stories do get attention, the media tends to sensationalize them, playing up the deaths of the poor children, especially babies. A negative connotation that has arisen from these over-sensationalized stories is that less advantaged women are not to be trusted with babies. This has a backlash for homeless mothers who also need help.

I tried to follow up with Ibarra’s story, but it was difficult. The authorities said that she had experienced “issues and a little bit of a drug problem.” But many questions remained unanswered. There weren’t even records to show whether she had received medical attention, or whether any efforts had been made to prevent the tragedy.

I can’t stop thinking about Latoya, Ibarra, and other mothers who live out of cars, in tents, under bridges and on the streets with their babies. How well could they be coping while living on the streets? Homelessness affects every facet of a child’s life, inhibiting his or her physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and behavioral development. And without proper maternal care, the pregnancies of homeless women can be at risk from many preventable obstacles. As a journalist, I don’t just want to present the statistics stacked up against homeless mothers and their children, I want to listen to them. Yet they are so hard to reach, with most of them fleeing from the media and social workers. That is one of the reasons why this country’s child welfare program is unable to help homeless children. In addition, most programs serving the poor are underfunded.

Los Angeles has seen another sharp rise in homelessness and outdoor tents over the last year, as local officials struggle to identify funding for billion-dollar plans they approved last year to combat homelessness.

Last November, Los Angeles County voters approved Measure HHH, a proposal to create 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing and affordable housing for the city’s homeless population. The measure has not yet translated into visible effects, and homelessness remains an ongoing public health issue.

Two days after the Interfaith Memorial Service, the remains of the 472 deceased, including the children, were cremated and interred in a common grave with only one plaque marking the year of interment. Baby does didn’t get a name. Their story remains untold. It is Autumn again and the church is preparing for another service. More baby does will soon join those buried.

This is an original post for World Moms Network by To-Wen Tseng. Photo credit: Mu-huan Chiang

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

USA: Today Is World Polio Day 2017

USA: Today Is World Polio Day 2017

Last year I spoke at the United Nations Foundation Shot@Life Summit to a room of almost 200 advocates for global vaccines from all over the country. I had a story to tell, as many of us do, though you might not know it. The story of how Polio touched the lives of so many goes back a couple of generations for most Americans, people forget how terrifying it was, was but if you speak with anyone who grew up before the Polio vaccine became available and mention the word Polio you can watch their eyes grow wide at the memory of the fear that gripped this nation. Try it. Ask your grandmother or grandfather, and I bet they have a story for you about how it touched their lives. This is the story I told:

“Every story begins and ends with a woman, a mother, a grandmother, a girl, a child, . Every story is a birth”….- Ishmael Beah Author of Long Way Gone & Radiance of Tomorrow & UNICEF Advocate

As a storyteller, and a mother to my four children that quote by Ishmael Beah really touches me. Because before I was a mother, I was of course a daughter. And the story of why I am here speaking to you today begins with her. my mother was born in 1922 , she was 45 when I was born, and a polio survivor. She stood all of 5’2” at a tilt, since Polio had left her with one leg slightly shorter than the other.

Eventually I would come to tower over her at 5’9″, and now that I am a mother myself I muse at how odd it must have been to have ended up with a daughter so much taller. While I was still a daughter, and before I became a mother, I was a traveler. I still think about the mothers who approached me as a westerner in my early twenties and held out their babies to me asking for medicine or a cure. If those babies survived they would be in their mid-twenties now, and surely not all did survive. Knowing what I know now I wish I could go back in time with a bag of medical supplies and give them whatever they needed, because the pleading looks in those mother’s eyes haunt me to this day.

I never was a mother and a daughter at the same time. My mother passed away four months before my own first child was born. Though she had told me stories about having Polio as a child it never really resonated with me in the way it did once I became a mother myself. How terrified my grandmother must have been of losing her. And to be honest I hadn’t really reflected on those mothers I met as a backpacker in my 20’s until I became a mother myself, and then I remembered that helpless feeling I was left with when I did not know what to do to help them. When I joined shot@life as a champion in 2013 I was so grateful to finally have the opportunity to DO SOMETHING. To honor my mother’s legacy as a Polio Survivor, and to help the mothers that I know are out there in developing countries desperate for proper healthcare, for lifesaving vaccines for their children that every mother should have access to.

IMG_6308

As excited as I was to join Shot@Life I have to confess that had I known that I was going to be visiting my government representatives on capitol hill that first year I attended the summit, I may never have joined. I had never done anything like that before. Yet, the next thing I knew I was hoofing it around capitol hill (in the wrong shoes…I might add…) advocating for Shot@life with my congressmen and Senators. I brought the messaging back to my community and realized how much work is still to be done just in terms of  awareness alone. There is so much misinformation and lack of awareness out there on vaccines.

In this country we take it for granted that our babies will not die from a simple case of diarrhea, but mothers in countries where they lack access to vaccines have lost, or know someone who has lost a baby to a vaccine preventable disease.

Every 20 seconds a baby dies from a vaccine preventable disease, mothers will walk for days to get vaccines when they can for their children. I realized there is a huge need to get the message out to the public.

So what can YOU do to make sure every child gets a fair Shot@life no matter where they are born?

  1. Become a United Nations Foundation Shot@Life Champion, as a Champion here are a few ways to reach out to make an impact in your community that can ripple around the globe:
  2. Contact or visit your local representatives and tell them that you care about their support of global health and global vaccines, and ask them to support these programs as well.
  3.  Hold a party to get the word out, if you don’t want to do it in your home there are so many companies that offer fun alternatives. In my community stores like Alex & Ani,  Pinkberry, and Flatbread Pizza will help you have a party on site to fundraise for your event.
  4. Speak to local clubs, a local new neighbors club, Rotary or General Federation of Women’s Clubs
  5. Hold an event at your child’s school or set up a booth during an international fair, take the opportunity to work the importance of vaccines into the broader issue of global awareness.
  6. Use social media as a messaging tool for good by following and sharing information through Shot@Life social channels, Write op-eds, letters to the editor, blog posts, or articles for your local paper or magazine.

For World Pneumonia Day in November of 2015 I was paired up with Pediatrician Dr Mkope from Tanzania and at the National Press Club in Washington, DC we did over 20 radio and TV interviews! It was a great feeling knowing that the message of the importance of vaccines, with real life proof of efficacy from Dr. Mkope, was being broadcast so far and wide. At shot@life we say “a virus is just a plane ride away”, and in a perfect example of this ever shrinking world, it turned out that Dr. Mkope is the pediatrician of the one friend I know in Tanzania.

Polio is still known to exist in only three countries in the world, the World Health Organization predicts that, with vaccines, it will be eradicated soon.

Every story is a birth, for my mother who survived Polio, for the mothers I met in central Africa with the pleading eyes, for my children and my children’s children, what I have learned as a Shot@Life Champion is that we have the opportunity to shape this narrative on global health, together lets write this story to end with no child dying unnecessarily from a vaccine preventable disease.

 

A version of this post previously appeared on Documama.org

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Elizabeth Atalay

Elizabeth Atalay is a Digital Media Producer, Managing Editor at World Moms Network, and a Social Media Manager. She was a 2015 United Nations Foundation Social Good Fellow, and traveled to Ethiopia as an International Reporting Project New Media Fellow to report on newborn health in 2014. On her personal blog, Documama.org, she uses digital media as a new medium for her background as a documentarian. After having worked on Feature Films and Television series for FOX, NBC, MGM, Columbia Pictures, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, and Castle Rock Pictures, she studied documentary filmmaking and anthropology earning a Masters degree in Media Studies from The New School in New York. Since becoming a Digital Media Producer she has worked on social media campaigns for non-profits such as Save The Children, WaterAid, ONE.org, UNICEF, United Nations Foundation, Edesia, World Pulse, American Heart Association, and The Gates Foundation. Her writing has also been featured on ONE.org, Johnson & Johnson’s BabyCenter.com, EnoughProject.org, GaviAlliance.org, and Worldmomsnetwork.com. Elizabeth has traveled to 70 countries around the world, most recently to Haiti with Artisan Business Network to visit artisans in partnership with Macy’s Heart of Haiti line, which provides sustainable income to Haitian artisans. Elizabeth lives in New England with her husband and four children.

More Posts

CANADA: In Search Of Hope In The Wake Of Mass Shootings

CANADA: In Search Of Hope In The Wake Of Mass Shootings

When I first came to Canada just over seventeen years ago, I was struck by the fact that every murder in Toronto made front page news. Every single one. When I heard that 2000, the year of my arrival, had seen 81 homicides in the Greater Toronto Area, I was slightly stunned.

81 homicides in Canada’s biggest metropolitan area, and less than 600 in the whole of Canada? What, in just one year? It just didn’t seem real.

To put things into perspective, I came to Canada from South Africa, which at the time was experiencing roughly fifty reported murders every day. Only the most sensational murders, such as the violent demise of South Africa’s former first lady Marike de Klerk, made national news. The rest got a three-line mention on the inside pages of the local community newspaper.

The realization that I had become desensitized to tragedy was one of the most sobering moments of my life. I felt that in losing my ability to mourn the loss of human life, I was losing a key part of my humanity.

I fear that this kind of desensitization is happening en masse in North America, specifically in the United States. We are becoming so accustomed to hearing about mass shootings that we are no longer surprised by them. What’s worse is that we actually expect them to happen. They have become an inevitable part of life in the United States.

American children are growing up in a world in which gun violence is “normal”. Their parents are becoming increasingly resigned to the fact that since gun laws are unlikely to change in any meaningful way, this is just going to keep happening.

In the wake of the Las Vegas mass shooting that killed 59 and wounded hundreds more, I am seeing some depressingly world-weary sentiments on my social media feeds.

“If nothing changed after Sandy Hook, why would we expect it to change now?”

“The right to guns is more important to lawmakers than the right to life.”

“It’s going to happen again before long.”

And the one that really breaks my heart:

“We just have to accept it.”

It seems that Americans fall into two very general camps. There are those who are spending their time trying to convince everyone else that, in spite of overwhelming evidence and common sense, guns are not really a problem. And there are those who desperately want things to change for the better, but are losing hope that this will ever happen.

The danger is that once that resignation sets in, desensitization is likely to follow. If you don’t think anything is going to change, you start to accept the status quo, and you lose the ability to be shocked by mass shootings.

My American friends, I say this to you with love. Keep the faith. Don’t lose hope, and do whatever you can to bring about the change that is so desperately needed. Educate yourself about the gun laws in your state and lobby your government representatives to change what isn’t working. Above all, use the power of your vote at every possible opportunity.

Don’t allow yourselves to get used to tragedy. Nothing will change unless we continue to feel the shock, the outrage, the sadness. We can avoid desensitization by thinking of the lost lives, the parents who have lost children, and the children who have lost parents, brothers, sisters and friends.

Shed some tears, feel the sadness, mourn for the victims of mass shootings. And for them and their loved ones, keep fighting for change, and keep believing that change is possible.

This is an original post to World Moms Network by Kirsten Doyle of Ontario, Canada. Photo credit: Steve Snodgrass. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.

Kirsten Doyle (Canada)

Kirsten Doyle was born in South Africa. After completing university, she drifted for a while and finally washed up in Canada in 2000. She is Mom to two boys who have reached the stage of eating everything in sight (but still remaining skinny). Kirsten was a computer programmer for a while before migrating into I.T. project management. Eventually she tossed in the corporate life entirely in order to be a self-employed writer and editor. When Kirsten is not wrestling with her kids or writing up a storm, she can be seen on Toronto's streets putting many miles onto her running shoes. Every year, she runs a half-marathon to benefit children with autism, inspired by her older son who lives life on the autism spectrum. Final piece of information: Kirsten is lucky enough to be married to the funniest guy in the world. Connect with her on Facebook and on Twitter @running4autism. Be sure to check out her personal blog, Running for Autism!

More Posts

USA: The Power of Hello

USA: The Power of Hello

My oldest child just started middle school, which in the United States generally means sixth through eighth grade, or the years between elementary school and high school. Middle school has a tough reputation. It’s a time of huge change in every way possible. Kids go from being in one classroom pretty much all day to moving from class to class and managing multiple teachers’ expectations. They are also surrounded by many new faces from several different elementary schools that are blending together for the first time. Students are in every different phase of personal, physical, and emotional development. It’s the wild west of adolescence.

There’s lots to absorb and get used to, and the first week for my son encompassed a little bit of all of it – the good, the bad, the ugly. At one point he said to me, “No matter what you do, middle school happens to you .”

In the process of watching and listening to my son’s experiences, it’s hard not to go back to those days in my head. Each up and down that he experiences reminds me of something from my past. He will even ask sometimes if a particular situation ever happened to me, and of course, I always have a story to share. And as we swap stories, those old feelings come roaring back to the surface.

As parents, we want to spare our children the harsh moments we experienced and exalt them into the glorious ones, but life doesn’t work that way.

One evening, I was attempting to encourage my son to try getting to know his new classmates even if it feels awkward, and I asked my husband for backup. I couldn’t help overhearing their conversation. My husband was talking about when he went to college. It was a huge school in a new city, and he didn’t know anyone. He decided to go to a freshmen welcome party at a different dorm. Looking around, he noticed a guy wearing a concert t-shirt for a band he also liked. My husband decided to go up to the guy and comment on the shirt to start a conversation. The two got to talking, and they decided to hang out. T-shirt guy took my husband to his dorm to meet some friends. One of those friends was me. We became pals, a year later we started dating, and the rest is history. We went to a huge school, lived nowhere near each other, and studied completely different things. Looking back, if my husband hadn’t created an opportunity over a t-shirt, we easily could have never met.

I like to think that this talk gave my son some perspective. It sure gave me some. As much as I don’t like seeing my kids uncomfortable or struggling, it’s so central to growing up. Learning to be comfortable in your own skin through trial and error is essential. It’s not just that middle school happens to you. Life happens to you, and it’s up to each us to face it on our own two feet.

I am glad to say middle school isn’t all bad, and my son is opening up a little more all the time. In fact, by sharing about himself, he learned that he had common ground with someone he had previously had difficulties with. I don’t believe that things will be rosy all the time or that every new face will become a friend, but at least one can always start again. It just takes walking up to someone and saying “hello.”

How do your children cope with new places and people? Has a simple “hello” ever changed your life?

This is an original post for World Moms Network by Tara B. of the United States. Photo credit: University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.

Tara B. (USA)

Tara is a native Pennsylvanian who moved to the Seattle area in 1998 (sight unseen) with her husband to start their grand life adventure together. Despite the difficult fact that their family is a plane ride away, the couple fell in love with the Pacific Northwest and have put down roots. They have 2 super charged little boys and recently moved out of the Seattle suburbs further east into the country, trading in a Starbucks on every corner for coyotes in the backyard. Tara loves the outdoors (hiking, biking, camping). And, when her family isn't out in nature, they are hunkered down at home with friends, sharing a meal, playing games, and generally having fun. She loves being a stay-at-home mom and sharing her experiences on World Moms Blog!

More Posts

USA: Parents As Seen Through The Eyes Of Children

USA: Parents As Seen Through The Eyes Of Children

My husband is a software engineer who specializes in smart phone application development. Our four-year-old son described his father’s job as “very challenging.” He said, “Dad is always fixing phones, lots of phones. His lab is loaded with phones.”

I am an independent journalist and a freelance writer. Our son described my job as “very easy.” He said, “Mom is always playing with her computer, chatting on the phone, and traveling by air.”

So this is how my son looks at writing to deadline, phone interviews, and business trips. How cute, yet how annoying! My husband and I joked about this, and I told him, “So our son thinks your job is challenging and mine is easy. That’s not fair. I don’t want to be looked down on—not by our own child!”

For the first time I saw myself through my child’s eyes. I was both surprise and amused to realize that I actually have a fear of being looked down on by my child. Then I thought about my mother, and what she was like in my eyes when I was four years old.

Back then, I was afraid of my mother. She was a so-called “tiger mom” who spanked me often. Most of the time, I didn’t know what I had done wrong. I was constantly scolded for my “bad attitude” when I was too young to even understand what an attitude is. I vividly remember how scary my mother was when she was beating me, but I barely remember what I did to anger her.

There are a few things that I remember, though. Here is one memory. My mother used to make fried rice noodles and throw in a lot of dried shrimp. The smell of the dried shrimp totally covered the flavor of the shiitake mushrooms and the sweetness of the cabbage.

I asked my mom, “Can you not put so much dried shrimp in the fried rice noodles?”

She effectively silenced me with an angry shout: “This amount of dried shrimp is necessary in fried rice noodles! Shut your month and eat up, or I’ll beat you up.”

When we visited my uncle, his wife made fried rice noodles, but without the dried shrimp. It was delicious. I ate two bowls and happily said to my mother, “Look, Auntie made fried rice noodles with no dried shrimp! It’s good! Let’s try this, too!”

When we got home that day, my mother grabbed a tennis racquet standing by the door and started to strike me with it. She was too upset to find the rattan that she usually used. The racquet strokes fell on me like raindrops; the pain was great. I started to cry, “Why are you hitting me?”

She shouted, “Because you have a bad attitude! Stop crying or I’ll beat you even more!”

For a long time, I didn’t know why I was punished. My mother was an irritable and horrible person in my eyes. I guessed she hated me, but I wasn’t sure. I dared not ask.

Later, when I was in middle school, a friend of mine lent me her CD of Blur’s. I brought it home, totally forgetting that we didn’t even have a CD player. I put the CD on my desk.

My mother saw it and asked me, “What’s this?”

I said, “It’s a CD I borrowed from a friend. But we don’t have a CD player at home, so never mind.”

My mother asked me what a CD was. I said, “A CD is a compact disc. You don’t know that?”

She suddenly raged, grabbed a clothes hanger and hit me in the face. I cried, “Why are you doing this?”

She shouted, “Because you have a bad attitude!”

I was fourteen years old. While I was being hit by that hanger, I started to hate my mother. I thought she was being unreasonable. I thought she was just randomly beating me up because she happened to be in a bad mood, or worse, for no reason at all. I vowed that I would never become somebody like her.

Then I grew up. I left my parents a long time ago, but I’m still searching for the answer to the tough question, “Why my mother physically abuse me?” I tried to look at her from a mature woman’s eyes, and not from a child’s eyes. I finally figured out that maybe, just maybe, I knew one of the reasons behind my mother’s abuse. She spent her whole adult life as a housewife, and was kept at home for the whole time. My father’s parents did not have a harmonious marriage. My grandmother once ran away from home, and as a result, my father was insecure about relationships. He limited my mother’s social and career life. My mother hated to be isolated from the outside world, but she was helpless. She was afraid of being despised, especially by her children. And when I showed the attitude that she considered scornful—for example, by criticizing her cooking or questioning her knowledge—she beat me to maintain her dignity.

When I was a child, I first feared and then hated my mother, but I didn’t despise her until I became a teenager. Now, when I think of her sense of inferiority, my heart almost aches. But I don’t want to be sympathetic. My mother had a big ego, and it would be painful for her to know that her daughter had sympathy for her.

When my own son described my job as “very easy,” I realized that I too did not want to be underestimated by my child. So I reminded myself about my own mother. She was eventually despised by her own daughter, not because she made bad fried rice noodles, not because she didn’t know what a CD was, and not because she was an isolated housewife, but because she had abused her child. Ironically, she abused her child exactly because she didn’t want the contempt.

I realized that children are not confused. They only despise parents when the parents despise themselves.

I asked my son, “Surely Dad is great! When you grow up, do you want to be an engineer just like him?”

He said, “No. I want to be a writer just like you. So that I can play with my computer, chat on the phone, and get on airplanes all the time.”

How did you see your parents when you were growing up? How would you like your children to see you?

This is an original post for World Moms Network by To-Wen Tseng. Photo credit: Mu-huan Chiang.

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

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