Coming full circle on bilingualism

Coming full circle on bilingualism
Children and adults listen to the reading of “The Giant Glowing Dragon” during the Mandarin story hour at the Crowell Public Library in San Marino.
(Katie Falkenberg, Los Angeles Times)

Mandarin was my first language, but once I started school, I refused to speak it. As the only Asian kid in my class, I felt alien enough. I wasn’t about to bust out in another tongue, even in the privacy of my own home.

My parents were too laissez-faire to enforce a Chinese-only regimen, as my uncle did with my cousins. We soon switched to English instead of Chinese, forks instead of chopsticks. My mom made spaghetti for my brother and me, stir-fries and soups for my dad.


The one time I went to Saturday Chinese school, I told my parents I hated it and I wasn’t going back. That was the end of it. They never brought it up again.

Back then, the term “globalization” hadn’t been invented. Immigrants were expected to assimilate, not celebrate their own cultures. There were plenty of families like mine. In college, I met second-generation Chinese Americans from places like Missouri and Texas who couldn’t write their own names in Chinese.


Nowadays, with China on the rise, it’s considered borderline criminal for Mandarin speakers not to pass on the language. Even parents who were born here address their children in less-than-perfect Chinese in hopes that some of it will stick. Bilingual mania has taken root among the Tiger Mom set, and not just among Chinese Americans. Many families go to great lengths to make sure their kids are fluent in another language, whether it’s Korean, Spanish, French or Swedish.

No more ducking out of Saturday Chinese school, as I did. Immersion schools, where students do some of their regular course work in another language, are increasingly popular. In multicultural Southern California, speaking a foreign tongue at home is normal, not freakish as it was when I was growing up in 1980s Pittsburgh.

The new bilingual ethos is evident in wealthy, majority-Asian San Marino, where the Crowell Public Library offers a bilingual story hour on Saturday mornings.

In English, Mary Ulin read from “The Giant Glowing Dragon: A Lantern Festival Tale.” She described how the dragon split in two and bled to death, sacrificing himself to save the villagers from an angry god.


Then Mary Hsu read the same passage in Mandarin. It was the day before the Lunar New Year, and red paper lanterns bobbed on the carpet.

“How do you say ‘dragon’ in Chinese?” Hsu asked.

Long, a girl named Megan responded. Snake is she, said a boy named Colin. Their pronunciation was flawless. For the correct answer, each received a red envelope filled with candy.

Vanessa Koo, who co-founded the bilingual story hour three years ago, sees the generational difference. When her own sons were growing up in the 1990s, they resisted Mandarin and there wasn’t a critical mass of families interested in raising their kids bilingual, she said. Now, on a typical Saturday, 20 to 30 kids attend Chinese storytime. Most are of Chinese descent; some are from families with just one Asian parent.


Perhaps as a backlash against the way we were raised, many Asian Americans of my generation are anxious to preserve our roots and give our kids a leg up in the global job market. Our children will be bilingual and bicultural by design, not by accident.

I once asked my father why he didn’t try harder to teach us Chinese. “You’re American, so there was no need,” he said. In his career as an academic and a defense industry executive, he never used Chinese. He expected that we wouldn’t, either.

That was a reasonable assumption in those days. China was still a closed country. My grandparents in Taiwan hadn’t seen their relatives on the mainland for decades. When they were finally able to visit, they brought their own toilet paper because the Chinese variety was so primitive.

Now, wealthy Chinese are decked out in Prada and Gucci. And here I am, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, conducting interviews in Mandarin. When I finally became interested in the language, there were compartments in my brain already configured to Chinese grammar. I could effortlessly reproduce the four tones.

My younger brother, on the other hand, didn’t pick up any Chinese from home. The one time we fought as adults was when we were visiting family in Taiwan and I snapped at him because he couldn’t understand a basic conversation. It made me so sad. He later spent a summer at a Mandarin immersion program, then forgot most of it because he never had time to take another class or live abroad.

Now, that same brother, who is married to a Korean American, is sending his own son to Korean school. One of my friends speaks Korean to her two sons, even though her husband is Japanese American and she herself is less than completely fluent. Her older child has already started Korean Saturday school while attending a Spanish immersion kindergarten.

Another friend hired a Chinese nanny, so her 2-year-old speaks Mandarin and not much English. At the story hour, Joan May Lamond told me she moved to Pasadena so her children can attend a Mandarin immersion school. Her non-Chinese husband is supportive, even though it means a longer commute for him. Her own Chinese skills top out at about the fifth-grade level, but she uses the language as much as she can with Ava, 5, and Marco, 2, and downloads Chinese learning apps for them.

I’m a little envious of these kids, whose parents are making sure, by hook or by crook, that they know another language. They won’t have heartbreaking communication gaps with relatives across the Pacific. Still, I’m glad I got there on my own time, without weekly exhortations to “Do your Chinese homework.” In the end, I made it to the bilingual party, too.

Get our Essential California newsletter