A Chinaman's Chance (19 page)

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
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Father Tongue


There is a “vocabulary gap” between poor children and other children that opens up at an early age and is both a consequence and a cause of inequality. By age three, according to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, kids from low-income families have only half the vocabulary of their higher-income counterparts. Advantage and disadvantage compound, across generations. This is especially so if the low-income child or her family doesn't speak English as a first language.

There is a different but comparable vocabulary gap for children in households where two languages are spoken but one is utterly dominant. Those early differences in uptake of the languages also quickly compound. The dominant language becomes more dominant in the child's verbal life, and the secondary atrophies. This is a third-generation gap.


The first real word my daughter, Olivia, spoke was “tongue.” She pronounced it “dahng” with a flat
and her tongue way back in her mouth. She was six months old. It vibrates in my memory like the gong of a bell. I recall how surprised and bemused her mother, Carroll, and I were at this improbable, oddly apt first word.

In fairly short order, Olivia became a little sense-making machine, picking up words at a rapid clip. By the time she was twenty months old, she could say hundreds of words. They're all listed neatly in a journal that her nanny, Melissa, kept. They're all English words. I tried from the start to speak Chinese to Olivia, but it usually happened like this: we'd be playing on the floor, and I'd be naming and saying things in the exaggerated, elongated phrasings of “parentese,” as child psychologist Alison Gopnik calls it—“What's thiiiiis? Yes it
a cat!”—when suddenly I'd remember to say something in Chinese. So I'd point to something else, like her feet or her tummy, and name it in Chinese. When she got slightly older, I'd ask a question like,
Ni de duzi zai nali?
(“Where's your tummy?”). She would point to her little tummy. So she understood. But I didn't ask her to repeat after me. I realize now that what little Chinese I was teaching her, I was teaching in the way of English speakers: noun-heavy, verb-light, classifying objects rather than illuminating interrelationships.


There are words and figures of speech in any language that native speakers never think to excavate. In English, when someone is “whipsawed,” we simply think of that person being caught between two difficult situations. We don't envision the operation of a narrow crosscut saw. In Chinese, I grew up hearing
as a single concept: “immediately” or “urgently.” It didn't occur to me till years later that it means “up on the horse.” Same with
, which in my integrated Chinese-English conceptual brain simply meant “get mad” but in fact is “generate steam.”

Nor did I ever realize that
“chaotic”—was a construction ingeniously conceived to represent chaos, in which the words for chaos (
) and misfortune (
) were interrupted, for no good reason, by the words for seven (
) and eight (
). There's a similar expression from British English, “to be at sixes and sevens,” with the same meaning of disarray. But whereas that idiom derives from dice and games of hazard, the Chinese version comes from a broader semantic tradition, as Perry Link describes, in which numbers are frequently inserted into phrases to give them color and four syllables, and thus more emphasis. So
is more dire a form of chaos than simply
—“crystal clear,” or “one clear two neat”—is more emphatic than simply
These things, so fascinating to me now, were not things I used to notice. To break down what you had taken for granted is not something most people do until forced.


Numbers were, of course, some of the first words Olivia learned to say in Chinese. She was probably able to count to ten—
yi, er, san, si, wu, liu, qi, ba, jiu, shi—
by the time she had several hundred English words. These were probably also among the first characters she learned to write. During her early years, when Carroll and I both became so busy in our work, frenetic in our ambitions, silent about our stresses, I too came to say those words again, slowly and to myself, and to visualize the ideographs as a way of recentering. Ten deep breaths, eyes closed. All I let into my mind during each inhalation and exhalation was the image of a single character.


Once they marry, Chinese Americans tend to stay married—with a divorce rate less than half that of the general population (4.4 percent vs. 10 percent).

Portrait of Chinese Americans,
University of Maryland, 2008


Sometimes, though not as often anymore, friends I haven't seen in years will ask after my daughter. “How's Ming?” they'll say. “She's great,” I'll reply, “but she's not Ming anymore. She's Olivia again.”

For over a year, when Olivia was seven turning eight, she chose to go by her Chinese name, Ming. From infancy, her strength of will had been apparent. But I was surprised nonetheless when one day she informed her second-grade teacher matter-of-factly that she would henceforth answer only to Ming. She crossed out “Olivia” from her nameplate at school. She'd already learned to write “Liu Ming” in Chinese (劉明), and now she signed all her homework “Ming” and added the ideographs. She let all her friends know to call her by her new name. She let her mother know, and her grandparents. At first they all hesitated; eventually they all obeyed.

The people asking after Ming now are usually smiling, because they remember how serious Olivia was about it all; there was something amusing and impressive about this little person's act of self-determination. And I am usually smiling as well, because I remember so fondly that time of my life.

That is perhaps surprising. Olivia became Ming as spring became summer in 2006. It was the start of my second full year of single fatherhood, months after my divorce had gone final, less than two years after my wife had told me on Halloween night, in our seventh going on eighth year of marriage, that our marriage had ended.

It was a period of stillness and lingering smoke after a great fire. Even with shoots arising amid the ashes—I had recently begun a new relationship—I was often sad. My time with Olivia was a respite, but I didn't want her to sense that too much. I was protective of her and, in her indirect way, she of me. We set out earnestly to create new routines at home. During long summer mornings of imaginary play she initiated games in which we enacted cinematic scenes of threat and loss and rescue.

Parenting alone in divorce is an experience of compression. My daughter was now with me half of each week and every other weekend. There were some responsibilities that were thus cut neatly in two: I made breakfast and packed lunches, got her to and from school or camp, but just on the days Olivia was with me. There were other responsibilities, meanwhile, that in an ideal world would have suffused every day of the week and that now had to be managed in half the time. Responsibilities like teaching my daughter how to be Chinese.

Olivia's mother, Carroll, is, as I noted once when I was rhapsodizing about the hybrid possibilities of our union, Scotch-Irish-Jewish. And our child is indeed a hybrid beauty. But ensuring that Olivia was exposed and connected to her Chinese heritage was my job alone. I signed her up for Chinese classes; I got a daily desk calendar to teach 365 Chinese characters; I spoke more Chinese around the house, weaving words and phrases into everyday chitchat; we found an animated PBS series called
, about a family of cats in ancient China, that she loved; Nai Nai came to visit more frequently, and we went to visit her in DC and eat her home cooking; I myself began to expand my own repertoire of stir fry.

Olivia began to identify with me in small new ways. “I'm Chinese too!” she would proudly declare as we walked through Chinatown in search of dinner. She opened and started using the calligraphy ink and brush set that she'd gotten as a gift two years earlier. She observed that our hands looked alike. The two of us went on cozy camping expeditions (to our backyard). We made up jokes and traditions around the house that still stand. I know little about what her life was like with Carroll then—Ming was not just discreet but compartmentalized. What I do know is that when she was with me, it was as blissful as sadness could possibly be.

One high point of that time was a trip that Ming, Nai Nai, and I took together to China and Taiwan in the spring of 2007. My mom and I had been there multiple times, but this was the first time for my daughter. She soaked up everything, from the decaying grandeur of the Forbidden City to the lilting accent of our tour guide to the Beijing dumpling shop at night to the densely packed riverside hills of Guilin. On her eighth birthday we were to see the Great Wall. I looked out the hotel window when I awoke; it was raining and foggy. I was about to brace Ming for disappointment when she jumped up and said, “Daddy! Guess what? We're going to get to go to the Great Wall
in the rain
” A Seattle girl. Later, when she got to meet her then-ninety-seven-year-old great-grandmother—her Tai Nai Nai—so that four generations were in a single room, Ming understood how rare and wondrous this was.

When we came back from that trip, everything felt more solid. There was a new sense of safety, of place. I called her not Ming, as her schoolmates did, but Xiao Ming, Little Ming, with the correct tones, the same affectionate diminutive she would hear growing up in a Chinese household. Which, in a third-generation American way, she was.

One afternoon several weeks later, we were sitting in the kitchen nook drawing together. Ming said somewhat casually, “I think I'm not going to be Ming anymore.” I tried to play it as cool as I had at the beginning. “Oh yeah? You're ready to go back?” I asked. She continued to draw but peered up slightly to gauge my reaction and, seeing no obvious injury, shrugged. “Mm mm mmm,” she murmured, with the offense-minimizing inflection of “I don't know.”

Where does tact come from? It comes in part from awareness of pain and the potential of words to cause it. It comes too from a readiness to move beyond denial. We had lived in a little bubble together, had found in our shared Chineseness a shelter of meaning against a storm of change. Now she was ready to go forth. With a shrug that made me ache with gratitude and grief, Ming became Olivia once again. When third grade began and kids greeted her with a cheerful “Hi, Ming!” she patiently corrected them, one by one. And that was that.

We don't really talk about it anymore. Today we are all at a new, and I suppose modern, normal. Carroll and I are amicable co-parents. I met Jená, who is soon to be my wife and Olivia's stepmother and whose daughter, Zoey, nine years older, is Olivia's big stepsister. For Olivia, living in two households has become second nature. Now she's a bit embarrassed about the time—
so long ago
, against the denominator of her fifteen-plus years—when she changed her name. “Remember when you were Ming?” I'll sometimes say. “Yeaaah,” she'll answer, a little sheepishly. I want to ask why the sheepishness. I manage to resist.

Over a period of fourteen months, Olivia Liu made plain to the world that she was her own person—and my daughter. This time remains so vivid to me. It was the very definition of bittersweet: a kind of sweetness, not a kind of bitterness. I call it the Year of Ming.


According to the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages, the number of kindergarten through twelfth-grade students in the United States studying Mandarin Chinese rose nearly 200 percent between 2005 and 2008. The number of college Chinese language programs has also more than tripled since 2002. There are no statistics for how many students stay in their program for more than a year, or how many ever attain proficiency.


Those who ignore Chinese school are doomed to repeat it. In Olivia's elementary years, I took her to a Saturday class for a while and then tried out an afterschool class. I would sit in the back of a borrowed third-grade classroom, fitting myself into a little chair as the teacher tried to hold the kids' attention. What was different from the Chinese school of my youth, though, was that about a third of the kids now were not Chinese. They were living proof that more non-Chinese Americans were beginning to wonder, in the words of one program's promotional material, “Will our children be ready to meet—and compete with—the new kids on the block?”

I'm pretty sure “new kids on the block” meant the youth of rising China and not Chinese American kids. But in any event, the anxious competitiveness that's causing the nationwide surge in Chinese language learning was absent from Olivia's classes. What prevailed there was the sober, even dispirited air of kids and parents who were starting to realize just how damned hard it is to learn Mandarin.

As her age crossed double digits, Olivia began to complain that Chinese school was too “kiddy.” I had to agree. Because the class had so wide a range of students, from those who'd been hearing Chinese all their lives to those who were meeting Chinese kids for the first time, the teacher lingered on the most basic things like colors and days of the week, using exercises made for preschoolers. So I gave Olivia a choice: either continue going to the weekly class, or have a weekly tutorial at home with me. She thought about it for a moment and said, “OK, you.”

So on January 4, 2009, I dug out my college textbooks, and we began a Tuesday afternoon ritual that continues to this day. We sit in our kitchen nook for about an hour. We spend about half the time on spoken Chinese, half on written. I teach her to say words and phrases in basic conversational dialogues. When it comes time for writing, I take a sheet of
bai zhi—
white paper—and make a grid of boxes. I fill out the leftmost column with a dozen characters taken from the dialogues. She then fills out the boxes across each row, writing out nine or ten repetitions.

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
10.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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