In the last couple of weeks I’ve come across a couple of articles about the expansion of Chinese-language programs across the country, in particular Chinese immersion schools,  where the curriculum is taught in both English and Chinese. These programs are spreading exponentially, and will continue to do so, with the rise of China as the world’s second-largest economy. China’s government is also lending its hand to the cause, sending teachers abroad to spread the language and even paying a portion of their salaries. The new Chinese classes have been enthusiastically embraced, even at a time when schools are cutting their programs in German and French because of a lack of funding and decreased interest. In the coming years, an increasing number of students could be choosing Chinese over Spanish in the United States, and internationally, it could be just as necessary to be proficient in that language as English.

I’m always hesitant to let people know of my proficiency in Chinese, since I’m not sure how to describe it. Fluent? I’d say hardly, since there’s no way I could attend a university or do business there. Some people might, since I can at least get by. I’ve pretty much got the basics down, since I can pretty much understand everything that’s covered in CD language courses. But I’ve still got a long way to go before I can say I’ve mastered the language and can live and function confidently in China or Taiwan.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve avoided traveling to China for years in part because of my lack of fluency. Sure, I traveled through Croatia and Poland without a background in Slavic languages, and bummed around Italy surviving off a scant Italian vocabulary with some English and Spanish thrown in. And I suppose at least 90% of foreign tourists in China can get by not speaking a lick of Mandarin. But while the majority of foreigners can be forgiven for their linguistic shortcomings,  in China, I would be a dreaded “ABC,” an American-born Chinese who failed to maintain her language and culture while living abroad. And that fact wouldn’t go over well with a lot of old-school Chinese in the United States, either.

For years, I felt I had no choice but to hang my head in shame. After all, Cantonese had been my first language, and starting in kindergarten, my parents drove across the Bay Bridge every Saturday to take me to Chinese school in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Then in 5th grade, when my friend’s mom asked if I would be interested in joining her Mandarin class, my mom signed me up, and I stuck with it until the end of high school. And I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, not Wyoming.

So all that exposure to the language should have given me a solid background in Chinese, so that I could read a newspaper, right? Uh, I think I’d have an easier time reading Don Quixote – en espanol. Over the years I’ve come to realize that I’m far from the only ABC who struggles with the language, especially the written aspect of it. It wasn’t a conscious effort on our parts to neglect our ancestral tongue. Inevitably, growing up in an English-speaking country, and being exposed to the language only at home, while attending Chinese classes for only a few hours once a week, we wouldn’t be able to match the linguistic capabilities of our counterparts in the motherland. Even among cousins and Chinese-American friends (some of whom didn’t speak our own dialects) we weren’t inclined to speak Chinese.

It took me a while to realize that our linguistic incompetence wasn’t just about laziness or an outright rejection, but more than anything, it was the way we were being taught. We spent our class sessions copying characters and memorizing stories about Confucius, the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, or going to the gas station, word for word, and then regurgitated them in both written and spoken form.  But we had no idea what any of it meant. It would be like learning to read and write English by memorizing passages about Shakespeare or George Washington. And what’s more: there is no written language for Cantonese. There is just one single written system for all Chinese dialects, the one used for Mandarin. And these dialects are as close to Mandarin as English is to French. So now imagine that there is no written language for English, and instead we Anglophones must learn to read and write French to be literate, so that “once upon a time” would read as “il etait une fois.” But no one ever bothered to tell you that, much less explain the meaning of each word.

All I ever knew to do was to memorize and regurgitate, week after week, year after year. I couldn’t make sense of the passages I was searing into my memory, formulate a grammatically coherent sentence of my own, or read the Monkey King stories the way I absorbed the escapades of the Berenstain Bears and the Sweet Valley Twins. If you ask adult Chinese-Americans about their childhood Chinese school experiences, the sentiment is likely to be overwhelmingly negative, because they faced exactly what I did.

When my parents decided to put me in Mandarin classes, it seemed like a smart choice, since it was, after all, the official language of the People’s Republic, and at the rate China was moving, it would become just as crucial for me to be able to speak Mandarin as Spanish. But my classmates were all native speakers, and my class was not for beginners. Everyone else could complain to our teacher and tell her what they had or hadn’t learned, and I could barely muster out a “hello” or count to three. I lagged at least 10 paces behind the rest of the class, trying to catch on in a new language that everyone else already spoke fluently. And we were expected to write essays, which I’d never done in all my years at my Chinatown Chinese classes. I could barely even write a sentence, or dissect the ones I was reciting out loud in class. I had years of catching up to do, but at age 11, I wasn’t willing to work hard at it, when none of my friends had to.

Some of my cousins would have the option of taking Mandarin as their language requirement in high school, but at my school, our only choices were Spanish and French. The former had been part of my school curriculum since the third grade, so I opted to continue it in high school. Conjugating verbs and memorizing vocabulary may have been tedious, but it helped me make sense of the language in a way that I never could with Chinese. It seemed to come to me naturally, and I made sure to maintain A’s for all four years to boost my chances of getting into a prestigious college. I couldn’t get out of my Mandarin classes, although I did manage to weasel my way out during my pressure-cooker junior year and first semester of senior year, when I would be occupied with my APs, SATs and college applications. Between Spanish and Chinese, the one I chose to neglect was Chinese, because my prospective colleges wouldn’t be aware of my progress in a non-curricular class, and thus could care less that I could only read at the level of a first-grader.

In college, I decided to pick up Japanese during my first year, and I’ll admit that knowing some Chinese helped with learning kanji. Then after coming back from Europe after my third year, I started taking French through UCSD’s extension program. I followed up my college graduation by heading to Europe to improve my Spanish and French, where I realized that language learning depends largely on: 1. the desire to learn the language and the effort you put into it and 2. the difficulty of learning it and how close it is to your mother tongue. I never had a desire to master Chinese, especially since the vast majority of my peers didn’t have to, and it was one of the most difficult languages to learn. Spanish and French gave me much less grief because they didn’t require me to tackle a new writing system and their grammars were similar to English. And with all due respect to polyglot Europeans, they stuck with languages that are for the most part closely related to their own, rarely studying even moderately difficult languages like Russian, let alone Arabic or Chinese.

Still, I’ve carried an enormous amount of guilt for having blown off my Chinese language studies. I can’t help but think about all that my parents invested to ensure that I didn’t turn out the way I did. Relatives are often shocked to discover that I can’t read or speak it fluently, despite all my years of instruction in both Cantonese and Mandarin. The idea that I put more effort into learning two other foreign languages doesn’t help matters much either.

Do I wish I’d gone to Hong Kong or China or Taiwan to work on my Cantonese and/or Mandarin instead of to Spain and France? No. I wouldn’t trade my experiences in Europe or my proficiency in Spanish and French for anything. And I’m OK with my level of spoken Cantonese and Mandarin, even if it’s just enough to get by. There are gaps in all of my languages, so I’m not sure that I could say my Spanish is better than my Cantonese. I suppose that after spending a bit more time in Asia, my Cantonese and Mandarin will start to improve.

I realize now that there’s no shame in failing to master written Chinese, at least if you’re an ABC like myself. No one could have realistically learned through the teaching methods used at my first Chinese school, and the only appropriate way for me to learn Mandarin would have been to take a class geared towards beginners, so that I would have had a proper introduction to the language. I’m not sure if Chinese schools have changed much since my day, but the fact that there are immersion schools popping up is a sign that parents and teachers are starting to recognize that the best way to pick up a language is by immersing the students in it. Memorization and regurgitation is definitely not the way to go. I wish I could have attended one of those immersion schools, but there’s no point dwelling on something that never was.

A few years ago, I purchased the Integrated Chinese textbook series that my sister used when she took Mandarin in college. After coming back from Europe, I’d become motivated to work on my Chinese again, and managed to learn a few new words. It’s going to be a while before I can read the books magazines my parents and I purchased in Hong Kong and China. In fact, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to read them with as much ease as El Pais or French Marie Claire. Above all, in order to master Chinese, you have to be good at memorization, and I know I’m not good at that. Perhaps if I was willing to devote myself exclusively to learning Chinese for a few years, it might be possible, but I’m not sure I’ve got the patience for that.

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