Dead Poet Society

 

The girls and I watched “Dead Poet Society” over the weekend.  It was one of my favorite films almost thirty years ago.  “Charlotte”, who is 15 and a rising sophomore, really liked the film.  Before her bedtime, I engage her in an half hour discussion, in Chinese, on some of the themes in the movie, on parenting, passion, individuality, pursuit of happiness, etc..  I am glad we’ve got to enjoy watching this movie together.

As is written in the second clip, “Thank you, Robin, for making us laugh, for making us cry, for touching our souls.”  RIP.

 

做好榜樣 Setting a good example

This post is, for a change, about me!  We moved to Georgia last summer and I was recently invited to give a 30 minutes presentation on chronic kidney disease to the general Chinese speaking public in the area.  All in Chinese, with a few English medical terminologies allowed in between.  As a youth immigrant, I learned everything from middle school and up in English, including everything in medical school and medical residency of course.  To my Chinese-speaking friends, family, and the few Chinese-speaking patients that I have had so far, I can say a few sentences about their medical issues in Chinese with little problem.  But to give a 30 minutes talk in Chinese about a medical subject, well, that’s a completely different ball game.  Besides it being a good community service and promotion for my medical practice, I figure that it would be a good way to let my girls see how knowing Chinese well can be a good way to connect with the local Chinese speaking community, even for youth immigrants like myself.  This talk would also be a good way to force myself to improve my own Chinese.

After getting all my slides done (in Chinese mostly), it took me more than 10 hours just to practice delivering this talk in Chinese.  Like any talks, I have to add in some jokes and interesting things to liven it up a little, in Chinese of course.  I also added a couple of Chinese idioms, proverbs, and a reference to an ancient Chinese medical story.  Public speaking was never my thing and my girls helped out, providing critiques during parts of my practice.  DD#1 “Charlotte” is a natural in public speaking and wrote several PAGES of notes for me.  She even suggested more suitable Chinese words for me to use, can you believe it?!  (She can compose in Chinese better than I can.)  DD#2 “Georgia” was just laughing her heads off, jotting down more than a hundred of my “uh…uh….” in just a few minutes of my initial practice runs!  I was starting to get very annoyed at her, LOL!  Since I had a busy work week, I stayed up till 4AM the day of my talk (Sunday) to practice.  In the morning, I practice two more times and felt fairly confident by the time we left the house.

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I was a little nervous waiting for my turn as I was to deliver the latter of the two talks.  An adult immigrant China and US trained physician delivered the first talk on cancer screening and treatment.  Well, my talk went very well, I am so relieved to say.  No more “uh….uh….”, LOL.  The audience asked many questions and a number of them asked me for my business card afterward.  My wife was very proud of me that I asked her “所以,妳認我是妳的先生了?!“ (So, you would now acknowledge that I am your husband?!)   LOL.  It took me a whole hour afterward just to feel all that stress leave me.

My girls were very proud of me too!  Mission accomplished!

 

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Question on assimilation and Chinese language learning

One parent asked on my FB group: I noticed many other parents have voiced concerns about social isolation in the quest for CLE (Chinese Language Ecosystem)……..  I am curious to hear from parents or parents of kids who are happily assimilated without compromising Chinese language/culture. Is this utopia possible for us in small town USA?

My answer:  It is entirely feasible. My girls (11 & 14 now) grew up in a small city of 35,000 in rural eastern North Carolina. Though there are some new immigrant Chinese families in the restaurant and poultry industry, we travel in completely different circles as we immigrated here several decades ago and are in the medical field.  Except for ~20 months of homeschooling, my daughters attended all English small private schools (class of 9 students for dd#2 and ~ 16 for dd#1 initially then another school with each class of ~ 60 students, ~90% white). Our CLE is conducted at home and through summer sojourns in Taiwan, comprising ~2/3 of their waking hours as school is only ~ 25% of their waking hours.  Except for a few Asian/Indian/Pakistani American classmates and friends amongst their two classes, all their friends are white.  These friends are not the most popular queen bee types, just nice southern girls.

For many years, I was very frustrated that we couldn’t find any Chinese speaking playmates for them. Then, as their Chinese got better by mid-elementary school, I grew more confident and decided along the way that my DDs don’t really need Chinese speaking playmates anymore.  They have each other.  Besides their summer sojourn abroad, we watched many Chinese movies, cartoons, and TV shows, which they enjoy tremendously.  They read Chinese poems, literature, a few classic Chinese pieces, comics, and many Chinese books (many translated edition of English books).  They listen to Chinese pop songs by Jay Chou, S.H.E., and others and sang some karaoke.  Their Chinese language proficiency and cultural awareness are almost certainly much stronger than most heritage children.

At the same time, over the past few years, I strongly encourage them to develop and maintain friendships with their white classmates. Their best girlfriends are all white and they are a lovely bunch. They have play dates, sleepovers, birthday parties, and pool parties on occasion. DD#1 had several white guy friends in middle school also. My DDs enjoy watching some popular American TV shows and listen to English pop music also.  All their extracurricular activities are taught by white instructors (that’s pretty much all we have here really…).  DD#1 played middle school  JV tennis with all white teammates. Here in our small relatively rural southern city, I feel that they are able to be somewhat of a “chameleon”.

So, yeah, it is absolutely possible in small town USA to be happily assimilated without compromising Chinese language/culture.  In fact, it is probably easier to assimilate in small town USA, as cultural cliques can readily develop in large metro cities with larger Asian population.  This rural city didn’t stop them from developing relatively strong Chinese language/cultural proficiency and our CLE didn’t stop them from assimilation.  The two are parallel ecosystems, “happily coexisting”.

I hope this helps.

朗讀 Read aloud

I think many kids (and parents) under-appreciate one very important way to learn Chinese: read aloud.

For our purposes, there are two types of Chinese reading: pleasure reading and focused reading.  They are for different purposes.

  1.  Pleasure reading.  This is learning through large quantity of reading exposure, part of CLE and more of first language type of learning, at least in my mind.  The readers don’t have to know everything when doing pleasure reading.  Don’t smother their interest for pleasure reading by demanding that they read these aloud.  I believe dd#2 started reading comics in Chinese when she recognized half of the characters in the comics at 7 years of age.
  2. Focused reading.  Focused reading is for “intentional and intensive studying” and the amount of materials covered is much less.  This mainly consists of passages in their Chinese textbooks.  One gets maximal benefit when one takes the time to learn to read these ALOUD to fluency.  Unless there is time constraint, I ask my DD to read textbook passages aloud to fluency first, in blocks over a few days, before doing any kind of writing assignment for the day.  Kids just want to get their writing assignment done and be finished with it, missing out on one important (if not the most important) part of learning: reading proficiency.  You would be surprised how many students can’t read their Chinese textbook passages competently.  It takes a lot of practice to do it right.  Since most children are learning more as second language learners, it is absolutely essential that they are doing high quality learning with the limited content presented.  Improving reading fluency through read-aloud greatly improves their general speaking proficiency also and is the most EFFICIENT way to do so.   Also, make sure that the child read ALOUD SLOWLY, with the right prosody.  That is CRITICALLY important.  The child’s Chinese proficiency will pick up by leaps and bounds if they take the time and effort to read aloud Chinese textbook and short reading passages to fluency.  You don’t even need supplemental materials!!  Reading aloud to fluency requires repetitive exposure to the same characters and sentence structures, such that the proficiency level for the same characters, expressions, and sentence structure go up IMMEDIATELY.  Do that for all the Chinese materials from school all the time and their Chinese proficiency will shoot up in no time.  I guarantee it!

This link provides some examples of dd#2 reading aloud over the years.

Reading metrics

Here are some reading metrics based on our experiences that may help you decide the relative pace of Chinese and English instruction for your children.

Comics stage: DD#1 started reading comics at ~ 8-8.5 years of age and DD# 2 started reading comics at 7.

Character only short novels or novels: DD#1 started reading 沈石溪’s animal stories at ten and half (10.5) and was able to advance to reading 金庸 by ~ 12.7 (select novels whose plot she knows already through watching TV, via initial Scaffolding Reading Experience or SRE). DD#2 was able to read Narnia in Chinese at ~ 9.8 years of age and now (~ 11.3) can read Harry Potter book#1 in Chinese (i.e. books that he read in English already) without SRE.  Since DD#2’s Chinese has always been about a year to a year and half ahead of DD#1 in terms of reading, I have now slowed down DD#2’s Chinese to focus more on English since I know that she should be able to read 金庸 by 13.

I hope these metrics help you choose the relative pace of instruction for both Chinese and English.

Pains in our bilingual and biliterate journey

The biggest pain for us in our Chinese-English bilingual and biliterate journey over the last 14 years are:

  1.  It takes a LOT of resources and time to create and maintain CLE (Chinese Language Ecosystem) throughout the years, in order to maintain their interest.  I have to watch a lot of Chinese videos with them as a result.  I was consumed with figuring out how to get more Chinese in for about 12 years.
  2.  Similarly, it takes a LOT to provide Chinese instruction in sufficient pace to enable them to read comics or interesting books independently by ~ 7-9 years old.
  3. It is extremely difficult to find local peers, whom you are comfortable with, for them to interact with in Chinese.  The most difficult age group is probably in the 8-13 years of age, when locally raised kids lose more and more of their Chinese proficiency.  By 8 years old, I would say 99% of heritage kids won’t or can’t carry a conversation in Chinese with another kid.  In high school, one can find teen immigrant Chinese speaking peers if one wants and needs to.
  4. The logistics and cost of sojourn abroad and acquiring a Chinese book collection at home!
  5. Devoting so much time to Chinese requires less time devoted to other extracurricular activity and requires the parents to take the long view (20-30 years).
  6. They need to devote additional time for regular American cultural exposure and appreciation for friendship and peer interaction purposes, particularly around middle school years.
  7. To ensure that dd#1’s Chinese is proficient enough for her to speak Chinese with dd#2, I didn’t work on her English much early on and she was more proficient in Chinese by age 8-9.  We had to spend a few years in upper elementary and middle school to “close the gap” in English.  That was a nerve-racking period, despite knowing that her English would catch up over time, based on the experience of youth immigrants.
  8. With their education and Chinese language focused upbringing, they appreciate a much broader range of culture but often in less depth than functionally monolingual kids.  So, it can make it even harder to make friends with peers (particularly non-Asian ones) of different backgrounds who may have very different concern and appreciation, particularly as they enter middle and high school.  They have to look a little harder to find friends.
  9. Based on the experience of those of my generation who were raised here, I knew from the start that this would be a difficult journey.  I couldn’t find anyone back in the early 2000s who “succeeded” to guide me, before the days of widespread internet use and creation of social media.  Well, I was wrong.  It turned out to be much more difficult than I had imagined.

Maintaining interest

Over the years, my daughters (10 & 13) had watched a number of kungfu TV shows, which certainly help pique their interest in the Chinese language.  Recently, the benefit of those TV shows seem to have run its course and I figure it is time to watch some modern drama that explore cultural issues and employ languages  (as in language usage) more relevant to their daily lives.

I therefore recently introduced them to Love Cuisine, a Taiwanese romantic comedy TV show with two culinary school teachers as the main romantic interests and teenage student romances as the side show.  There are 22 episodes, each about 80 minutes long.

Well, the show is a hit!  My dds love it from the very first episode!  They would scream with excitement or cringe at times watching it.  After watching just a couple of episodes, they were already talking to me and each other about the funny parts.  Riding in the car during our winter break family trip, I find them talking about the show for extended periods of time, all in Chinese of course.  The dialogue from the show, particularly the more dramatic ones, has visibly made a positive impact on my dds’ colloquial proficiency.  They are able to hold conversation in Chinese longer before having to code-switch to English, particularly when they talk about English based experiences.  One of the reasons is that my dds now have one more interesting shared experience to talk about, that are entirely in Chinese.  Another reason is that the setting of the show is a school with teenage students, young love, and your standard romance plot, which my dds (particularly my 13 year old) have increasing exposure to through multimedia and interaction with other middle schoolers (not personally, in terms of dating, of course, LOL).  It certainly helps that they are familiar with the general and peer group social interactions and overall surrounding in Taiwan through their sojourns and several short stints in elementary school there.

The point I hope to make is that, as the children grow up, it would be ideal that they have adequate language proficiency and cultural knowledge/appreciation to be able to take advantage of native multimedia programs that suit their shifting interests, which will further enhance their understanding, appreciation, and proficiency.  Being able to share these experiences in a social context help maintain the CLE (Chinese Language Ecosystem), even into their teens.  The CLE can continue to run parallel to the ELE, as long as the social context continue to provide a net positive experience.  (I can see that it may be much more difficult for siblings who are more than a few years apart in age or of different gender with very different interests.  Parents may have to help establish other social groups.)

Lastly, given that I explain to my dds the reason and method of my Chinese language pedagogy, my 13 year old dd understands that few peers share similar Chinese-English bicultural and bilingual experience, unless they are youth (1.25 to 1.75 generation) immigrants.  Furthermore, thinking ahead (and this part maybe controversial), she understands that a future non-Chinese speaking spouse for her will likely mean that either she will have to take substantial amount of time away from her career to raise her children in similar way, or that she likely won’t be able to replicate similar experience for her children, which of course, means that her children will likely have substantially lower Chinese proficiency growing up.  Certainly, having two Chinese speaking parents by itself in the US means little in terms of their children’s Chinese proficiency, but that’s an entirely different issue.