Chineseness

Why Jackson will not be brainwashed by Saturday morning advertising

I hosted the moms group at my house this morning. Rather than bore you with my neuroses (my house! it is filthy! and furnished by the Late Nineties College Dorm Life Catalog!), my insecurities (will they eat my zucchini bread? can I wear shorts with legs that are 20 pounds overweight (each) and last shaved in July?), my victories (they said my house was "beautifully decorated"!) and my extreme shallowness (the "beautifully decorated" sentence was the best part of my day thus far) I've decided to take a different tack, a tack not often seen on this website. The tack of Actually Talking About Something Worthwhile. Today's topic is: Should my kid learn Chinese?

GAH.

The obvious answer is: Duh. Of course he should learn Chinese. Haven't you seen the cover story on the July/August's Atlantic Monthly? (I've been reading it out loud to Jackson. There are only so many times you can read Brown Bear Brown Bear, people.)

The second obvious answer is: Everyone should have a second language. (Says the girl who spent her formative years in Italy and, when pressed to "speak Italian!", busts out with a poorly pronounced "Dov'e il vino?")

But...

Okay, so there are a few other biracial babies in the moms group. One of those babies happens to have a white mom and a Chinese dad like Jackson. Today that baby's mom asked me if I'd heard of a local language immersion school for kids (newborn to five years). She is planning to take the Mandarin class with her baby- the dad already speaks. I said, "Uh... maybe?" She said that her daughter would probably go to Chinese school as well when she's a little older. Was I planning to send Jack to Chinese school? I said, "Uhhh... maybe?" (I've asked Phillip to describe Chinese school in one sentence for you uninitiated few: "It's a place where you spend your Saturday mornings learning Chinese instead of watching cartoons.")

Leaving aside the craziness (my personal opinion!) that is attending a pricey language immersion school with your three-month-old, learning Chinese is a serious consideration and one to which I've given a lot of thought. More thought, incidentally, than my Chinese-American husband has given and definitely more than my Chinese-American mother-in-law thinks is necessary. When Jack was a few weeks old I was talking to my mother-in-law about how to retain some sort of... Chinese-ness... for Jackson. She told me not to worry about it. It would take care of itself. Her biggest concern about her own kids was making sure they "fit in", that they were American. We'd take Jackson to eat Chinese food in Canada and that would be good enough.

I am not so sure.

Phillip speaks a bit Mandarin and no Cantonese (his parents speak both, although Cantonese is used at family gatherings) and that's his biggest issue with growing up Chinese-American. His aunts and uncles and cousins all spoke Cantonese- even his older brother taught himself from Chinese TV- and he never knew what was going on at family dinners. He went to Chinese school, but he didn't learn enough. It really bugs him.

So say we sent Jack to language immersion or Chinese school because we don't want him to feel left out the way Phillip does. But he'd be learning a language his parents do not speak and therefore he wouldn't be speaking it anywhere except during classes or with his grandparents (who speak English as well). Does this mean Phillip and I should go to these classes too? We probably should, for our own edification, but real life doesn't leave a lot of room for language school and even less for opportunities to speak the language in context.

But maybe I am just being negative. I don't know. To be embarrassingly honest, I'd only be learning Chinese for Jack's sake, and I probably wouldn't try very hard. Have you seen those Chinese characters? There are a frillion of them! I could barely hack my way through first year Italian in college, and that's after having lived in the actual country.

(Yes, I know this makes me super lame. But I'm being realistic here. I am about as good at languages as I am with math, which is about 100 times worse than Barbie.)

It's not just language, though. It's the whole idea of Jackson being half Chinese and figuring out how to honor that. He has a lilywhite mother, a second-generation Chinese-American father and fairly Westernized first-generation grandparents. He will get his fill of as-authentic-as-possible Chinese food, but what else? I honestly don't know. I've been thinking about it since I married Phillip and I still don't have any good answers.

Jackson will have a library full of books on Chinese current events and experiences of foreigners in China. (Peter Hessler's River Town- go read it.) He will have lots of half Asian half white friends (at least if his parents and theirs have anything to do with the friendship-making!) He will live in a city with a high population of Asian people, a high population of Asian restaurants, an Asian art museum, Asian celebrations in the International District. He will know his Chinese-American and Chinese-Canadian relatives. He will have parents who love to travel (despite their irrational fear of airplanes) and who hope to accompany his grandfather on a trip to Hong Kong some day soon. His father will make him the Asian comfort foods his mother never eats. He will know he has the same Chinese name as Jet Li (according to his grandparents. "Zhang Yi Jie", Jie being the Jet Li part, but of course I can't type the tones.) And, as you know, he's all prepped to have the mad rad Asian nerd computer skillz. (Oh yeah. And he already has his own Mii on the Wii.)

Other than that?

I want to do the "right thing" whatever that may be. But also? I'm afraid of going overboard. Like... "Sucks to have your special Chinese-ness diluted by your mother's The Man-ness!" I don't want to bombard Jackson with Chinese school and Chinese books and Chinese everything because I have issues. (Which I don't. Unless I think about it too much and have watched too much cable news that day.)

So right now? He has a board book about dim sum. And grandparents who play the Chinese version of patty cake with him. That's about it. I think we're good for now.